by Celeste LeCompte
On a bicycle, San Francisco’s hilly neighborhoods can be daunting, but for 8-year-old Aidan, the rides up are well worth the work for the rides down: “Faster! Faster!” he shouts, telling me about his early days riding to school on a trailer bike with his mom, Maureen Persico.
It’s a Saturday morning, and we’re sitting around the kitchen table of their Bernal Heights home, peering at the city’s bike map and tracing out their daily ride to Starr King Elementary School at the crest of Potrero Hill.
Over coffees, we nudge our fingers along the map to Cortland Ave., out to Mission and through the block where the Safeway parking lot provides access to Valencia St. This is first leg of their daily, 40-minute commute. From there, the route varies, depending on the day, but the duo wends their way across the numbered streets of the Mission and up to school in Potrero.
The most direct route would be Cesar Chavez, Maureen acknowledges, tracing the street on the map.
“Look! It’s The Hairball!” says Aidan, pointing at the snarl of interchanges and overpasses that ties Cesar Chavez to Potrero. The interchange he’s pointing out with a gap-toothed smile has long been a confusing and dangerous tangle of merges for people walking, driving and biking , but a new plan to address safety and livability along the street is aiming to improve the accessibility of the roadway for cyclists and pedestrians.
However, unlike a similar project aimed to improve Masonic Ave., the approved plan doesn’t include a fully separated bike lane. Instead, a new bike lane will be painted between the lanes of vehicle traffic and the parked cars. For Maureen and Aidan, the changes won’t be enough to bring them onto Chavez for their ride. But Maureen says she is glad to see the changes underway.
I ask Aidan what his favorite thing about the ride is, and without a moment’s hesitation, he exclaims, “DONUTS!”
For Maureen, the donut stop is just one way that they’ve turned the daily commute into a chance to spend time together and have fun. Along with their regular visits to Dynamo Donuts, the two spice up their ride with a portable set of iPod speakers and good conversation. “We listen to a lot of Dr. Demento,” Maureen adds.
The duo’s fun approach to riding extends to their bike gear as well. “I don’t understand why more people don’t decorate their helmets,” says Maureen, showing off her brightly colored helmet with a large plastic fly attached. She says it attracts smiles and attention.
But don’t let their laid-back attitude fool you. They’ve worked at making this their routine. “People see us biking up Potrero, and they think they could never do this,” Persico says. “But it’s not like we just woke up one day and did it. Start small, and build up!”
Maureen started by educating herself, first. Through the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s free Introduction to Urban Bicycling Workshop, she got comfortable riding on the streets by herself, and over time started to bring Aidan on her rides using a range of trailer bikes. Aidan took a YMCA course for kids that helped him learn to ride his bike.
Before making the commitment to bike to school, she started out riding the route herself, alone, to familiarize herself. Then, the two of them did a couple of test runs on Sundays, when the time pressure was off and vehicle traffic was less.
“We took baby steps,” she says. And they’re still building up —the two ride to school, but drive home. Aidan has a folding bike, which makes it easier for them to take the bus or share rides with other families.
Riding with kids also requires good communication, Maureen notes. “All the things we internalize, say them out loud,” she recommends. That means commenting on stop signs and traffic lights, as well as on loose gravel in the bike lane. She might also point out exhaust from a parked car, using the opportunity to teach Aidan good lane position to help him learn to share the road.
We go outside in the sunshine on bikes and the two of them peddle off down the block, side by side. Everyone’s smiling, and Aidan inches ahead of his mother slightly, pushing up his speed and showing off his missing teeth with a big grin. And that’s a big part of why they do it: It’s fun!
Join parents and thousands of kids across San Francisco for the third annual Bike to School Day Celebration, Thursday, April 7. For more information, to find out which schools are participating or to volunteer go to sfbiketoschoolday.org.