By Celeste LeCompte
There are a lot of places to go for a weekend bike ride in and around San Francisco – stunning oceanside paths, family-filled Golden Gate Park, hilly city routes. But here’s one you might have missed: San Francisco’s combined sewer/storm-water system, one of the many recreational rides organized and led by volunteers and friends of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
On Sept. 17, a group of local artists, sewer historians and organizations will lead attendees on a three-hour tour of the sewers in the Mission District. When I described this ride to some friends, I often was met with incredulous looks and questions like, “You’re going to ride your bike in the city’s poop tubes?”
In short, no. Riders will cruise along the flat streets of the Mission, leaving from Workspace Gallery (2150 Folsom St.) and making their way along paths that were riverbeds before they became roadbeds toward Cesar Chavez and Precita Street. Though the route passes by some of the neighborhood’s beautiful murals, attendees will be looking at a different part of the city – the ground. Or, rather, the storm drains, grates, sewer pipes and the new leafier infrastructure (that’s plants and trees) that collect both rainfall and sewage from the surrounding streets and homes.
Sewers in San Francisco, as in many cities, handle just about all of the water that’s released within the city’s limits – everything from rainstorms and lawn care to clothes washers, bathtubs, car washes, leaky faucets and toilets. That has been the case since the Gold Rush days, when San Francisco’s sewers were simple wooden boxes that carried waste into the nearest rivers. Today, the sewers aren’t much more sophisticated. In fact, throughout parts of the city – including the Mission’s sewers on tour this weekend – the same brick tunnels have been directing water beneath the city’s streets since the 1880s.
That’s part of the reason the tour’s happening now. The Cesar Chavez area is beginning a major renovation that’s going to reshape the neighborhood, with projects designed to upgrade the sewer infrastructure, as well as to put in new green areas along the streets, which will help reduce the overall amount of water running into the sewers. (For more information on the project, go to sfg.ly/qgurq4.) In the words of one tour leader, Greg Braswell, “There’s a hell of a lot more water (to manage) since 1880.”
The construction project also will be a big focus for tour participants: The bike ride aims to help educate regular riders on Cesar Chavez about the project. “People on bicycles are going to be affected by the tearing up of the street,” Braswell said. But, in the end, the project should help make it easier for everyone, no matter how they’re getting around, to enjoy the street.
To join the fun and get a preview of the planned development, along with a walk through local history, stop by Workspace on Saturday to check out the show “Underfoot,” which features the work of 14 Bay Area artists as they look down at what’s on and under the ground in the city. The tour starts at 3 p.m., and when it’s done, stay for the closing-night party at 7 p.m. All events are free, but donations benefit local nonprofit Walk San Francisco. For more information, go to sfg.ly/r4v0zk.
Bike About Town is presented by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a 12,000-member nonprofit dedicated to creating safer streets and more livable communities by promoting the bicycle for everyday transportation. For more biking resources, go to www.sfbike.org.