cycling cities: San Francisco vs. Edmonton

When  it comes to cycling, can there possibly be any comparison between 
San Francisco and Edmonton?

Having recently returned from 5 days in San Francisco, during which we went almost everywhere by bike, I can honestly say Edmonton comes off better than I expected.

Let me begin by saying that this is July. It's been a rather glorious July in Edmonton. In July, I don't even want to think about winter. But as much as I love Edmonton, I am honest enough to admit that from November to March, San Francisco has the advantage. 
So, from here on, we are talking about cycling the two cities in JULY!

Another disclaimer -- I wrote this before reading the articles about the 102 Avenue bike lanes. Needless to say, this is extremely disappointing -- and somewhat baffling. I thought the lanes seemed like a win-win. Since I don't actually live in Edmonton, I sent a message to the city councillor for the ward I ride through on my way downtown.

First, and perhaps most significant, while San Francisco's hills are the stuff of legend, Edmonton's River Valley hills are no small potatoes. 
 When we planned our vacation and talked about renting bikes, I anticipated one of two possible scenarios: (1) I would end up walking my bike up every hill, feeling a little embarrassed, but not at all astonished; or (2) I'd find to my surprise and delight that all my riding up and down the hills of Edmonton's River Valley, along with the hills on the country roads in Parkland county, had so conditioned my legs and my lungs that I'd sail up the hills of San Fran without even shifting gears.

No, I never actually thought the second was possible. 
I did dare to hope that maybe, just maybe, all my hill riding round these parts would make me fit enough to at least be able to pedal to the top of San Francisco's hills, gasping for breath, straining my calf muscles, but feeling victorious.

Well, guess what? Turns out the hills of San Francisco are not much more than the hills I ride all the time in the River Valley. The "feels like" test told me this. I didn't have any trouble riding up the hills, even in the upright position dictated to me by my rental bike. In fact, on the hill going up to the Golden Gate Bridge, I passed everyone and arrived at the top feeling great and ready to try it again. When I stopped to figure out where to go next, a local cyclist on his fancy-schmantzy bike stopped and said, "Well done! That was the fastest I've ever seen a rental bike go up that hill." I laughed and wondered what he'd think if he knew that my hill training takes place on the flat Canadian prairie! I tell this story this not to boast, but to emphasize the effectiveness of Edmonton's hills as training for a cyclist.

The same was true for every climb I encountered. None of the hills was particularly challenging.  When I got home, I used MapMyRide's elevation graphing tool and this is what I found...

A Ride in San Francisco:

A Recent River Valley Ride:

 The purple shows where there is a steep grade of 10-14%. Not a lot of difference! 
If you regularly ride Edmonton's River Valley, you're fitter than you think!

The second thing I concluded is that Edmonton's cycling infrastructure is perhaps not as bad as we like to think. 
(But don't let City Council hear that; there's always room for improvement.
I rode on a lot of bike lanes in San Fran. Most are simply painted lines on the road; many feature block after block of sharrows. Most run alongside a row of parked cars. Most are on streets with multitudinous stop signs, some strategically placed at the bottom of steep hills. 
It's true that in the downtown core, the bike lanes are amazing -- painted green, clearly marked with directional arrows, separated from traffic by a low curb wall, and complete with special bike signal lights. But on the other streets, simple white painted markings suffice. Of course, the pavement on these roads is better than Edmonton's endless potholes, but that's a whole other kettle of fish.
And Edmonton is supposed to be getting some top-notch downtown bike lanes sometime in the near future, so that will further tip the scales in our favour.
Even now in Edmonton, I can ride all the way from our rental property near Southgate to my workplace downtown on painted bike lanes/sharrows and multi-use paths, or from my normal West End parking spot to downtown using a residential street for only 2 blocks. That's not bad.  And riding around downtown is generally okay, as long as the cyclist is alert.

Yes, we should strive for improved bicycle infrastructure, but let's appreciate what we already have! When I have to go somewhere new in Edmonton, the first thing I do is find out where the bike lanes and multi-use paths are. So far I've been able to go almost everywhere using those. They are not perfect, but they are a great start.

Speaking of multi-use paths, Edmonton definitely emerges the winner in this ring. 
San Francisco does have quite a few MUPs, but they seem to be in the busiest areas -- along the bay and in the parks. This means tourists and lots of them. Also regular people. Meandering on foot and on bicycle. Stopping at random. Sometimes with dogs. As I rode, I found myself thinking longingly of Edmonton's MUPs, even if many of them do end abruptly and force cyclists onto the street. But if you aren't really going anywhere in particular, just out for a recreational ride, Edmonton's multi-use paths are superb. 
And It is frequently possible to get around -- from Callingwood to West Edmonton Mall, for example -- using only relatively quiet residential streets and quiet MUPs.

Cyclists are badder; motorists are gentler in San Fran. 
Standing at a street corner, waiting for the light to change, I watched one morning bicycle commuter after another ride right through the red light. No hesitation. At stop signs, I noticed, most cyclists don't even slow down unless there is oncoming traffic; they simply ride on through as if the stop sign doesn't exist. I have seen both behaviours exhibited by Edmonton cyclists, but only rarely. 
Twice I heard cyclists scream at drivers to prevent them from turning. True, both times the cyclist was going straight through an intersection on a green light and had the right of way, but I found this approach somewhat unnerving, albeit effective. 
On the other hand, I didn't see any cyclists, other than tourists, riding on the sidewalks.

The local scofflaws cyclists we met and talked with were all extremely friendly and helpful, even though -- or maybe because -- our bikes sported the Bike and Roll logo on the handlebar pouch, clearly proclaiming that we were visitors.

Motorists seemed to go above and beyond to be considerate of cyclists. At almost every four-way stop, drivers gestured to me to go first. I wasn't even wearing flowers in my hair.

On the streets with sharrows, drivers drove slowly and passed carefully. I don't really have any complaints about Edmonton drivers and generally find them considerate and respectful, but this attitude was even more marked in San Francisco drivers. And where, oh where, were all the F150s?

Speaking of diesel trucks, traffic seemed quieter there as well. We heard very few sirens (other than those of Obama's motorcade -- another story!) and few roaring engines on  motorcycles, trucks and cars.

 It'll be interesting to ride to work on Monday after my week of immersion in the cycling life of another city. As much as I enjoyed the change, and the chance to ride around such  a beautiful and historic city, I hope I've come back with a new appreciation of what we have right here at home.
What do you mean, I have to stop?!

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