Learning the hard way about the dangers cyclists face on the road

“I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life,” said Diane Serafini, a cyclist whose rigorous training regime has helped her reach not only her personal goals but silver and bronze medals from this year’s Gay Games held in Paris.

“I was going for gold,” she laughed, amused by her own spirit of competition in the Games’ Criterium, mixed timed trials, and road race categories. “That’s the fun part for me. ” However, if you’d asked her five years ago if she’d be a competitor, the chances of her answering with a definitive yes might’ve been slim.

Serafini survived being thrown off her bike by a car on the Great Highway in 2013. She spent a significant amount of time recovering her physical abilities, and basic motor functions. Her training as a cycling instructor and safety expert had prepared her well for what she knew she had to do, post-trauma.

“It was important to get back on the bike as soon as possible,” she stressed. When it comes to urban cycling, she knows that fear can be a huge obstacle for people of all ages. Education is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and she was lucky she had access to data through her work with many of the Bay Area’s cycling education and advocacy groups — The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Easy Streets Cycling, and SFMTA’s Learn to Ride program. She also had experience as a private instructor with Bicycle Solutions.

For beginners seeking to access information on how to ride in The City, to say the incline is particularly steep is an understatement.

“San Francisco is a difficult model for biking, especially for the people who grew up here,” she said. “They may not have learned as children because the streets were too busy, too hilly, or bikes just weren’t part of their culture,” she said.

Serafini, who grew up in the South Bay, learned to ride as a child; she got herself to school and around the neighborhood as was common for children of the ‘70s. Before bike lanes and helmets were ubiquitous, bikes meant freedom of movement and escape from home (though maybe I should speak for myself), in the same way public transportation works for urbanites. But with the proliferation of protected bike lanes, cycling has attracted more and more new cyclists to already difficult to navigate city streets.

Serafini would like to see SFMTA use clear and specific signage so all people, whether walking, biking, or driving, can learn the rules of right-of-way and how traffic is ideally meant to flow.

“When you know how it works, you’re more likely to respect other people’s rights.”

But just because a framework for bike traffic exists, safety doesn’t necessarily follow. “It’s impossible to put in bike lanes or protected lanes everywhere in San Francisco. Education is really important to fill in the infrastructural gap,” she said. It’s in that gap where there is no protection from one protected area to the next, where Serafini time and again sees problems not only for cyclists, but for motorists and pedestrians.

Serafini holds a degree in economics from UC Berkeley; she pursued a career in visual art and for most of her adult life has made her living doing hair (her business card says “hairdresser”).

“I’ve been doing hair since I was five,” she said. “I started by combing my brother’s hair.”

Growing up with brothers and bikes, she played tennis on the boy’s team in high school following the passage of Title IX which prohibited discrimination and exclusion on the basis of gender, though she chose not to stick with the sport.

“I couldn’t stand to see the look on their faces when they lost,” she smiled.

Retreating from a largely male-dominated cycling scene during her time at UC Davis, Serafini found it wasn’t so much camaraderie she was seeking from the sport as it was aligning herself with planetary and personal wellness, accessibility and safety, all of which motivate her toward deeper involvement in advocacy.

“Real anarchy is respecting other people, not disobeying the law,” she said.

Back before she had her accident she was hopeful as safety awareness appeared to be on the rise.

“Drivers had gotten better and more used to co-existing with in-City riders,” she said.

But that has changed. Serafini blames ride-sharing services, and some of their drivers who pick up their riders in bike lanes. She thinks a designated pick up spot would solve some of the confusion around sharing the streets.She offered a suggestion on how to handle the situation on Valencia Street where bike lanes, ride shares and high curbside traffic near bars and restaurants create danger and congestion: Create loading zones on the numbered cross streets.

“Not in the bike lane,” she stressed, but around the corner. “And if they can’t walk a few steps and figure it out, build it into the app,” she suggested.

Bike sharing enterprises pose a whole new set of issues to contend with, especially when it comes to where neighborhood cultural sensitivities and cycling collide.

“For example at 24th Street BART, proposed bike racks between the entrance to the station and the plaza take valuable space away community activity. There’s often preaching, tabling of merchandise and music there,” she said. Until community consensus is reached on the placement and inclusivity of bike shares on 24th Street, the racks have been temporarily installed at the Mission branch library.

“When bike share goes into neighborhoods, they don’t offer Learn to Ride, to my knowledge,” she said.

Serafini uses her bike for transportation to work, to train, and for pleasure, though she draws the line at transporting heavy grocery-filled bags on two-wheels.

“One Thanksgiving I rode home from Rainbow Grocery with about 60 pounds in a basket,” she said, a feat she isn’t keen to repeat because she lives on a hill. An electric bike would potentially take care of that.

“They’re great for people on hills and to take the kids to school in a tag along. It’s a way to get kids and older people people who aren’t as strong as they once were on a bike,” she said. “They’re a real boon for cycling.”

Though Serafini won’t be trading in her two wheels and leg power for a charging station anytime soon.

“I’m not doing it just to do it,” she said. “For me it’s about trying to win.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan. She is a guest columnist.

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