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Gettin' Drinks With: Margaret McCarthy of the Bike Coalition 

Wednesday, Feb 10 2016
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When Margaret McCarthy first applied to work at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, in 2012, she was afraid she might not be "bike-y enough."

"I was convinced that it wasn't going to be the right fit for me, that people were going to be like, 'So how many miles do you ride?'" she says. "Who knows? I ride in regular clothes all the time. I'm not a racer, and I'm not a super-athlete. I ride an eight-speed!"

It turned out that gear-tooth tattoos and Lycra shorts weren't mandatory office wear after all, and a little over three years later, McCarthy found herself in the position of interim executive director. It's a job she'd held for all of 15 business days when we meet for a margarita at the Latin-American Club on 22nd Street in the Mission.

It's not a long duration, but then again, SFBC is used to doing a lot in a short time. The past few years have seen profound changes to San Francisco's streetscape as the coalition — working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportion Agency and other sustainable transportation nonprofits like Walk SF — successfully pushed for new bike lanes and traffic-calming features. Vision Zero, the city's goal to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024, will owe whatever success it achieves in no small part to SFBC's advocacy and the resulting changes to San Francisco's transit infrastructure.

Do people ever throw these accomplishments back into McCarthy's face, asking when enough's enough?

Oh yes, she says. "I've encountered all these types of questions. What we know at the SFBC is that we've done a lot — the longer you've been here, the more change you've seen — but if you know what it will take to get San Francisco to meet its own load-shift goals to get more people moving sustainably, you know it's nowhere near enough."

But the city moves in a lower gear. Transit advocates recognized the separated bike lanes along the three blocks of Polk Street just north of Market as among the country's best new bike lanes, but the lane runs for only three blocks. Similar projects will break ground this year on the remainder of Polk, as well as on Masonic Avenue and Second Street But if McCarthy were elevated to dictator, what would her first project be?

"Market Street," she says. "Protected lanes both ways, all the way to The Embarcadero."

It's already the most biked street west of the Mississippi, counting over 1 million inbound trips in 2015. But, she adds, in terms of broadening access to a wider swath of the population, that project would be pointless without connectors.

"Otherwise, it's a patchwork, it appears and disappears," she says. "This is a huge barrier for entry for some people: knowing not only the route, but the quality of the route. We know, because the data is in, that the better bike lane you build, the more people bike. This is not my pun, but people like to say it's a virtuous cycle. More people have a direct experience with the lanes, and then you get more lanes, and then more people want to bike on them."

A Haight resident, McCarthy rides her chartreuse PUBLIC — "the same color Michelle Obama wore to the first inauguration" — unless it's raining too hard or she has too much to carry, in which case she rides Muni. (She doesn't use Uber or Lyft.) As a PUBLIC rider who also lives on a sizeable hill — disclosure: I've been an SFBC member for years, too — I note that they're not the lightest of objects.

"You haven't been on my mom's mountain bike," she says.

Although her family were avid recreational cyclists, it was when she was living in the Lower Haight and working at a coffee shop in the Richmond that McCarthy really got into biking. Leaving the house at 4:30 a.m. presents few transportation alternatives, and she quickly grew to love smelling the plants on quiet, foggy rides through Golden Gate Park.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing: McCarthy was struck by a car in a hit-and-run on Polk Street a few years ago. She refers to the incident as a "crash," and not an "accident." (In the parlance of Vision Zero, all traffic deaths and injuries are considered preventable — so strictly speaking, there are no accidents.)

"I was hardly injured at all, which was surprising because I was hit pretty hard, and ruined my rear wheel," she says. "Everyone in the Tenderloin was magical and tried to help me and chase the car that ran away. People went to the cafes to see if anyone had camera footage! It's a key example of why infrastructure would make a difference, because if we had a bike lane there, I don't think that would have happened."

However dangerous bad drivers may be, we've all seen asshole cyclists, too. Since the interim executive director of the Bicycle Coalition must conduct herself as an ambassador for the community at all times, is there one particular aspect of bad cyclist etiquette that gets under her skin?

McCarthy takes a sip of her margarita but doesn't quite take the bait. "SFBC is a safety-focused organization," she says. "I think it's very important to always treat everyone else on the road respectfully, with courtesy. We give out 5,000 or more Rules of the Road postcards a year, and the first thing it says on there is 'Pedestrians have the right of way.' Everyone's a pedestrian some of the time. If there's any ambiguity, why not just yield?"

About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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