California commuting

October 5, 2013 at 21:15 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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california_bikeAll the leaves are brown / And the sky is grey / I went for a walk / On a winters day…

Only I didn’t; the leaves were mostly still green, the sky was blue and of course I wasn’t walking – I was riding a bike. Still, that song was still going around in my head as I pedalled around that bastion of the American Dream – Silicon Valley, California. I was there on business, and getting from the hotel to the office each day by taxi or hire car just didn’t appeal. It’s my commute to work that keeps me sane, and just because I was in another country didn’t mean I was going to give that up. So I hired a bike from a local dealer to get the five miles or so back and forward each day.

I hired a basic hybrid, which did the job admirably, although it wasn’t super comfortable – I think it was a tiny bit small. But the hire guy was super helpful, waiting for me at my hotel when I arrived (late) – so I pretty much dropped of my bags and set off finding my way to the office. I wasn’t due there until the next day, but I thought a ride would be a good way to stretch my legs after the flight and work off the jet-lag. I looked up the route on Google maps (yay for the cycling directions) and set off.

My inability to tell left from right, coupled with tiredness from the journey didn’t really stand me in good stead, as I went the wrong way at the very first intersection. Then, after finding my way back to the right road, again went wrong at the next intersection. Perhaps having to ride on the other side of the road was confusing me. Still, all this cruising up and down gave me more opportunity to experience Californian roads.

There are a lot of Californian roads. Lots and lots of them. And they are all very wide. The sheer amount of tarmac is extraordinary. What on the map are marked as minor roads have three or four lanes in each direction. I guess they need them, as everyone is driving. There are almost no pedestrians enjoying the wide, well-maintained footpaths, and very few cyclists. For sure, I was out in the burbs, not in a downtown area, but it was quite noticeable. The only time I saw people walking was when I rode through some residential complexes, where there were people walking their dogs.  Evidently this is the one activity that can’t be done in the car.north_st

In terms of cycling, it’s actually all very pleasant. Much of my route was on an off-road trail. When you do get on the roads there are bike lanes on many of them, and although they are the ‘painted on’ variety the width of the lanes means there’s plenty of room between you and the traffic. And that traffic is so well behaved. It really made me reflect on just how aggressive Australian drivers are. Drivers all gave me plenty of room, stopped well back from me at traffic lights and generally drove in much calmer way than in Sydney. Those wide, straight roads would be a invitation to a Sydney driver to floor the accelerator when the lights go green in the manner of a drag-strip driver. But the Californians just pootled along, observing the speed limits and pulling away very sedately.

Given all that, it’s astonishing that there aren’t more cyclists. The Caltrain (which runs along most of the cities in the San Francisco Bay area) even has a whole carriage dedicated to bikes, but I saw very few people riding – maybe two or three on each trip I made. When I got to the office, I asked where the bike parking was, and got a blank look, before being directed to a tiny bike rack with space for three bikes. Mine was the only bike locked up there for the whole week I was in town – and this is a large campus with over three thousand employees, on a road with a bike lane running all the way along it’s length. The weather is great, the terrain is basically flat – yet no-one rides. All very strange. Perhaps it was just the area I was in – I know San Francisco has a vibrant cycling scene, and reading about the area many of the cities proclaim they are ‘cycling friendly’. I wonder how the modal cycling share compares to Sydney?

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  1. Thanks for writing this post. I found it interesting to learn California has better infrastructure than I expected and also your point about the difference in driver attitude.

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