One day, when I was six years old, my sister Kate looked at me and said, “You need to learn to ride a bike.” Kate had icy green eyes and blonde hair which made her intimidating: I rarely said no to Kate. Before I could protest, we were outside in the sunny Southern California morning. She got me on the bike and proceeded to tell me how it worked. “You pedal fast, and pretty soon you just stay up,” she said. I couldn’t understand how biking could possibly work: two skinny tires turning could not possibly keep me upright, let alone upright and moving forward, surely? But Kate said it would. “Keep pedaling,” she said. “You’ll see. You’ll just start to move.”
And so it was. Kate loped beside me as I made my wobbling way down the suburban sidewalk of Croftdon Street. This is easy, I thought. But why is this easy? An hour ago, I couldn’t ride a bike. Now I can. What is the nature of reality? I wondered. How can it be that what I could not do, I am doing now? There was trying, it seemed, and my trying led to my actual doing. (Yoda is wrong about that.) “Keep biking and you’ll get better,” Kate said. I could see by the look on her face that she was pleased with my progress. I rode my bike almost every day after that.
That’s how I learned to ride a bike. I had a sister who taught me and a calm environment within which to learn. I thought everyone learned to ride a bike as a child on wide, empty suburban streets with a sister running beside them. I had a teacher.
Learning Biking Now
For many adults, this teacher doesn’t appear in childhood. Stefanie Kalem, of Oakland, is one of those people who had to wait. “My parents were splitting up when I received my first bike. My father didn't have the patience to teach me. He gave up trying to teach me how to use it after one or two tries. I grew up in suburban New York, so I just walked or took buses everywhere. No one ever questioned that I didn't ride a bike.”
The lack of a teacher is one reason why some adults have never learned to ride a bike; dangerous cityscapes are another reason. Adult learners tend to have grown up in cities, where biking can be hazardous, as Leah Shahum, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, points out. “The reason I hear most often about why people didn’t learn to bike is because they grew up in New York City,” says Shahum. “That’s the number one reason. They grew up in an unfriendly environment for biking.”
Lillian Ho, 62, grew up in Detroit, the daughter of a laundry owner. Her urban environment did not prepare her to bike. “My parents didn’t buy me a bike, or teach me how to bike. It was a neighborhood with a busy street—dangerous!” she recalls now from her home in the Mira Loma neighborhood of San Francisco. “I remember my brother coming in bloody after falling off his bike.” The physical fear of falling and of the perpendicular arrangement of bike and body are very real: it takes guts to confront buried childhood fears about the confusing and inevitable fall from the bicycle. Grace is taken from you when you fall. Sometimes you get hurt; sometimes you bleed. Why not slip behind the wheel of a large automobile, whose petroleum-powered body does the work of a hundred cyclists?
As Lillian grew up she thought about biking from time to time. She wanted to learn. “I always envied people who biked.” But she concluded it was too late to learn. “It seemed that since I was an adult, it was too late. You never see adults learning how to learn to ride a bike.” Adult learning: there’s a reason that in community colleges it merits programmatic distinction. There is something chastening about learning as an adult. To be an adult is (supposedly) to know. To have done. To have capacity. To lack what are seen as basic skills, like reading, or riding, is a confrontation. That’s what awaited Lillian on the day when her son Gabriel came home and announced that he’d signed his mom up for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Adult Learn to Ride classes.
“He said, Mom, I’m signing you up. I said yes. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” says Lillian. She took one class and that was it. “I love riding my bike now,” she says. She confronted what she didn’t know, and now she rides at least four times a week. Lillian found a teacher.
The teachers are provided by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC). At least three times a month, they patiently teach adults how to operate and ride a bike through Adult Learn to Ride, On-the- Road Street Skills, and Urban Cycling Workshops. As the city slowly transforms into a safer place to ride a bike, the classes have grown. “There’s an overwhelming interest in these classes,” says Shahum. “We’ve been doing them for seven years and the demand has grown tremendously, year after year. It’s hard to keep up with the demand.” In 2011, the staff of the SFBC conducted 75 classes in English, Spanish and Cantonese and reached about 1,200 adults.
What’s it like to learn as an adult? Learning at your own pace has been shown to be an important factor in successful cycling pedagogy; so is substantive and prolonged attention from the instructor to the student.
“That’s why we try to schedule so many classes- we want to make sure the classes aren’t too crowded, so that the student to instructor ratio stays low. That way, students get the attention they need,” says Shahum. That attention paid off for Lillian, who had a common fear for older women: falling. “I had a real fear of falling. That was something I was really focused on.” The SFBC classes calmed that fear immediately, by giving her a sense of control. “Their method of teaching is good. They really focused on how to balance immediately. As an adult, that’s important. I expected to fall—and once I actually did, but because I was prepared by the teacher, it wasn’t a shock. I knew what to do.”
Women love bikes, fear traffic
The SFBC has spent much of its thirty-year history masterminding the still-growing city-wide network of bike lanes and paths, and in so doing, making the city a safer and more popular place to ride. As Shahum notes, cycling in San Francisco jumped by 71% from 2006 to 2011 according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency 2011 Bicycle Count Report. What has also held true is the mysterious case of the missing female cyclist: only 27% of San Francisco’s cyclists are female. By comparison, 55% of cyclists in the Netherlands are female.
It’s no secret that women don’t bike as much as men. Report after report says pretty much the same thing: women are risk averse. “Once I’d moved to Oakland, it seemed to me that you had to be some kind of bike warrior to navigate the traffic. I was sure I would ride straight into traffic the first time I tried to ride,” says Stefanie Kalem. Even after taking classes, Lillian Ho still has reservations about biking down Market Street. “I don’t tend to go on the busy streets,” she says. “Certainly not downtown. I’m older. I need to know my limitations as a biker.”
Additionally, women travel for different reasons. Women often plan trips to meet the needs of others: children who need to be picked up at school or an elder parent who needs to go grocery shopping. Without the necessary interventions of bike improvements and traffic-calming measures, cycling, as opposed to driving, might prove to be too difficult for the woman ricocheting between multiple destinations on a daily basis.
The SFBC classes are designed to answer some of these issues: how to ride safely, outside the door zone, or how to ride with your children. And the preparatory instruction on the rules of the road, or the special challenges to riding in a city, seem to be effective in terms of giving women the confidence to bike: Shahum notes that a majority of class attendees are women and a majority of the women are 40 or older. “We’re very proud of the fact that 80% of the class attendees are women. More and more women are learning to ride. And that success builds on itself—because when women see more women biking, more women bike. They are seeing examples of what they could do,” Shahum says briskly. “The increase of cyclists in San Francisco has definitely had an impact.”
In this way the improved bike network is a self-fulfilling prophecy: build it and cyclists will come. And with more cyclists comes more diversity across age, race and gender. “There is a lot of talk at the national level now about encouraging women to bike,” says Shahum. In March 2013, the League of American Bicyclists is holding the second annual National Women’s Bicycling Forum in Washington, D.C.
Convincing women to embrace cycling as a primary form of transportation is critical to the long-term future of bike improvements in cities and suburbs. Routinely seeing women transporting children, carrying groceries, or even taking an elder shopping goes a long way toward normalizing cycling as an acceptable day-to-day form of transportation, and could more firmly embed cycling in the DNA of municipal transportation plans nationwide. Physically, there’s not much difference between women cycling for exercise and women cycling for exercise AND to retrieve their children from school. But the subtle difference might prove to be the tipping point for regional and national transportation funding priorities and bike planning and might well be the most convincing argument yet for miles of brand-new bike lanes, paths and traffic-calming measures.
As a result of her new-found skill, Lillian Ho enjoys rides in Golden Gate Park on her bike, a three-gear, internal hub commuter bike. She feels her health has improved. “As a preventative measure, it’s the best. I feel energized and healthier. And I don’t have the same health issues many older people have. I hope more people will learn. I feel thankful I have learned. I feel a sense of happiness every time I bike.”
Stefanie Kalem, too, feels a sense of freedom while biking through Oakland. “I ride to my office three or more days a week. It's definitely an urban environment, but it's a fascinating and varied ride—from gritty West Oakland through busy Emeryville to quaint West Berkeley. I also love being able to ride my bicycle to restaurants and bars in Oakland.”
What rider, new or old, doesn’t remember that amazing sense of liberation, of freedom during our first successful ride on a bike, powered by our own exertion, in control and moving forward? I’ll always maintain I had the best teacher, my sister Kate, who held me steady on my bike, and only let go when she knew I was safe. I’ve had many rides since she taught me to ride, but none more joyous than that first inaugural glide down Croftdon Street.
For more information on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s classes go to: sfbike.org/edu
To download the SFBC’s “Rules of the Road” brochure, go to: sfbike.org/bikelaw