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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Anna Sojourner: The city on two wheels

Image of Anna Sojourner on her Rivendell AtlantisA native of Richmond, California, Anna Sojourner describes herself as "a human primate who has ridden a bicycle for transportation in San Francisco for a long time." I also know her as a geologist, open-water swimmer, baseball enthusiast, former member of the board of directors of the pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco, and proud Rivendell Atlantis rider. The year 1997 was a pivotal year for bicycling in San Francisco, specifically the July and August confrontation between Critical Mass and Mayor Willie Brown. Less significantly, 1997 was also the year I started my modest bike commuting tips site. I recently asked Anna to reflect on the past decade for bicycling in San Francisco.

Bike Commute Tips: What is the biggest positive change you've observed for bicycling in San Francisco in the past 10 years?

Anna Sojourner: The biggest positive change I've seen is that motorists no longer constantly harass me. When I first started riding, I was verbally harassed and threatened nearly every time I left the house. Today I ride the exact same route I rode in 1991. In addition to having sweet bike lanes the whole way, and countdown signals, sharrows, and plenty of company, drivers seem less likely to view me as an obstacle, a crazy, or a social pariah in need of their 'helpful' suggestion to get the fuck off the road. Excuse my language, but that's precisely the style of comment I used to hear two or three times a day back then. Seriously. Do I need to explain why I loved Critical Mass at first sight?

You might wonder why I kept riding back then, given the harassment and the feeling of being in a war zone, but the bike took half as long as MUNI and I guess I just had a contrarian streak, even as a very young woman. People were telling me I had no right to take space on the road, and I just knew something was wrong with that.

When I went to the early Critical Masses, I could have cried. I found people who were much more vocal than me about the wrongs I couldn't quite name. What a relief. Today I feel like I don't need to belabor the idea that cars are a dumb transportation choice--sprawl and traffic congestion, not to mention parking, war, road rage, and gas prices--have finally made the point obvious to even the most die-hard drivers.

Things are very good for cyclists these days, in comparison, but we have a long way to go still.

Bike Commute Tips: Biking everyday to work is challenging in this culture, which is so dominated by car advertising and auto promotion. How has the cultural scene changed in San Francisco for bicyclists?

Sojourner: One major cultural change is that bicyclists are a known entity now. Some drivers still think of us in a derogatory way, but more often I meet people who have a conception that life is possible without a car, even if they're nowhere near doing it themselves. My statement "I don't have a car" is more often met with an accepting nod than a quizzical or pitying look. It's just another way of life now, and now it's one that counts.

The main cultural change in the bike world is that I no longer recognize most cyclists in SF, and I am no longer part of a small clique of City bike activists. I am now an irrelevant old-timer! There are flocks of young people riding fixies, hanging out in Dolores Park, riding together to go out for the night, riding to work, and not one of them cares who I am, knows who any of the bike activists from the 1990s are, or knows how hard we all worked to make this all possible. Isn't that great?

I even know cyclists who think the SFBC is too radical (!), which shows that biking itself has gone from fringe to mainstream, even if bike activism hasn't. I see people riding bikes now whom I'm quite certain, gauging by their cultural trappings, would have scoffed at me 15 years ago. I know women who commute to work who I'm sure would have been far too intimidated to try it five or 10 years ago.

Another cultural shift is that I get far fewer people acting like I'm their social conscience or their personal biking coach. People don't come to me for congratulations when they ride to work anymore, they just mention it in passing "oh, I've been riding to work more now" and that's the end of it. It used to be more of a feat to go anywhere on a bike, now it's more of an option among many. A group bike ride is increasingly a social outing and less of an extreme sporting event, no matter who you're with--and the type of people I'm biking with recreationally now would never have been out there 20 years ago.

Bike Commute Tips: Many female visitors to my bike commuting tips site have posed questions regarding personal safety. What suggestions do you have? What techniques do you employ to avoid a possible criminal assault?

Sojourner: I'd say that cycling was central to ridding myself of the wholly irrational and controlling fear of strangers we spoon-feed young women in this country. How ironic! We make young women so fearful to leave the house with apocryphal stories of knife-wielding rapists that their every move into public is calculated and requires protection. But in fact, when women are attacked, they tend to know their attackers well, and the attacks usually take place at home. So obviously, women should get out on their bikes.

Taking the lane reinforced the lessons of self-defense classes to take space confidently wherever I go. Hanging out in parks drinking beer after Critical Mass changed my perception of parks and public space. Knowing I can go straight to my door at the end of the evening, rather than having to park blocks from home, is a great incentive to bike when going out for the evening (but I am extra vigilant watching for drunk drivers on weekend nights).

Bike Commute Tips: What are the remaining challenges in San Francisco you would most like to see improved in the next decade? Based on your experience as a bicyclist and advocate, how optimistic are you that these challenges will be resolved?

Sojourner: It's time for San Francisco to start taking road space away from cars and giving it to transit and bicycles, and it's time for San Francisco to vigilantly enforce traffic laws. We have to stop parking on the sidewalks, driving in transit lanes, and running red lights. San Francisco drivers were so polite to pedestrians when I was a kid. Today, they're a dangerous embarrassment. We need transit-only lanes and Bus Rapid Transit on Van Ness and Geary. We need to remove car lanes to make room for bike lanes. Congestion charging and free MUNI are my dreams.

I'm optimistic about all of these things except for the enforcement.

Bike Commute Tips: As a non-automotive transportation enthusiast, how are you viewed by your friends, coworkers, associates, family? How has this perception changed in the past decade? Are people you encounter more receptive to the idea of bicycling as a transportation mode, or is it still somewhat exotic to them?

Sojourner: These days, people seem to understand right away the concept of not owning a car, and I consider their offers of rides generous and non-judgmental (and sometimes I accept, if I am without bicycle at the moment). I have met Republican police officers, senior citizens, suburb-dwellers, my parent's friends, young people, my high school buddies, people my age of all social classes and backgrounds, people from overseas, and these days no one seems to have trouble wrapping their minds around what I do and why I do it. Most often they express envy of the simple, convenient, healthy, stress-free life I live. And while anyone could live more like I do, not everyone can live completely car-free yet, for a variety of reasons.

Not everyone enjoys living in a dense city the way I do and few people can afford to buy their own homes in the City. Shopping, in particular, is more difficult in a more suburban area, and it's hard or even impossible for people to break lifetime habits. I really think a lot of the obstacles people encounter to becoming car-free are just a way of masking laziness and the good old American sense of entitlement, and I am contemptuous of this. But I keep it to myself, because if people just cut down a bit on auto use, and if only a few people make the full transition to car-free, it still has a huge positive effect on all of us--even drivers.

Image: Courtesy Anna Sojourner.
Visit: Jon Winston: Bicycling parent and podcaster in San Francisco
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site

1 comment:

Joni Taylor said...

Anna is also one of the coolest gals you can ever meet! Nice article!