Bells Are Ringing Again: A Bike Life from Holland to San Francisco by Mary Wings

Ample bike parking in Holland. PHOTO BY ELIZABETH MCLOUGHLIN
Brinnnnng! Brinnnnng!

Finally, what I have been waiting a decade for: pulling up to a stoplight with a group of other bicyclists. Taking off together in a flank, 'Bicycle Lane' stenciled beneath our tires. What I have been waiting for is a bicycle life in San Francisco.

I moved back to the States 10 years ago after spending a decade in Amsterdam. The '80s were a great time to live abroad. I never owned a car. I never saw Ronald Reagan on television. I had numerous bikes, or 'fietsen' (feet-sen). I lived in a seven-story commune with various cats, children, rabbits, and adults. Everyone rode bicycles. To work. To school. San Francisco and Amsterdam have similar population densities within roughly the same square footage, but the similarities end there.

BIKE WAR EVERYWHERE Bicycling with Dutch friends in SF, I asked them to compare the differences. Surprise. They found drivers more considerate in SF than Holland. Drivers here are often afraid of bicycles (and lawsuits), but in Holland drivers have been known to knock you off your bike with a rear view mirror or worse. Car ownership is expensive in Holland, so it's a different class of people who drive; they worry even more about their sheet metal.

A standard in Holland still lacking in SF: dedicated bike lanes. PHOTO BY ELIZABETH MCLOUGHLIN
BIKE LANES On the other hand, there are miles and miles of bike lanes in Holland. Often set off from the street altogether, you can travel the whole country on your bike. Our basement was full of bikes with extra 'reserve fiets' just in case.

WEATHER sucks in Holland. There are at least 20 words to describe the rain in Holland, but the Dutch never complain about it. In San Francisco, people are surprised when I bike in the rain! One year in the Netherlands we had no summer at all. Just rain. And no complaining please!

SAFETY insanity is a disease of Americans, my Dutch friends insist. None of us wore a helmet. It's a European thing: You're going to die anyway. They see Americans' preoccupation with helmets as another strange anxiety.

SOCIAL LIFE One of my deepest pains in returning to the U.S. in 1989 was that cars seemed to be the only way to get around. No bike lanes and uneducated drivers, macabre underpasses, and Kafkaesque freeway-feeding lanes. I gave up. This affected my financial life and my social life in disastrous ways. In Amsterdam, getting together with friends was simple: You met at the theatre or wherever and parked your bike in front of the door. When you left you'd bike to a cafe for a few drinks.

I saw that life in the U.S. car-zone was different. People had to pick other people up (requiring much organization), or meet in five different cars. Five cars finding parking places in the Mission? Car life is isolating.

HEALTH I never had a backache in Holland, and I attribute this to bike riding. Something about the movement seems to build my abs with no trips to the gym. Chronic backaches returned with car-life. Pushing in a clutch put pressure on my lower back. The sitting position made me stiff and gave me chronic pain.

BACK IN THE SADDLE One day as I waited endlessly for Muni I started noticing bicyclists whizzing past me. I then discovered the Harrison Street bike lanes (I live in North Bernal). I was back in the saddle in no time. Now I have cut my commute time in half. And my backache has been gone for some time. I'm noticing so much more about my neighborhood. I can smell the mock orange trees in bloom. The architecture (excluding live work lofts) is inspiring, and the street life is entertaining. I go out at night and park practically anywhere. It's safer; I've taken back the night for myself.

Now I'm ready to give up my car. It's just an expensive storage locker outside of my house anyway. I am happy to be enjoying this city again. Bike life means freedom. And there's no reason that this city cannot become one of the greatest biking towns in the world.