Monday, June 7, 2010

Women Who Bike: Merylee Smith Bingham

Merylee Smith Bingham: commute destination in NOPA. Photo: Merylee Smith Bingham

How do you describe your bicycling style?
Law abiding, to a certain extent. Cautious in certain situations. Assertive sometimes.

As a former member of the San Francisco Bicycle Advisory Council (BAC), I got to work on some of the first bicycle education materials that the City of San Francisco published. During my tenure on the Education Subcommittee as well as when my kids were learning to bike, I was Law Abiding all the time. I had to model best practice. To do this, it's important to know the rules and regs. Today if there's traffic at a stop sign, I obey. If there's no one there but me, I use the old "Hollywood stop." But it's disastrous to act without knowing how you should behave on the road.

I'm also cautious. I was doored once. Back then, as now, my mantra was "Hang onto the handlebars." I did when I was doored. Every seam in my bike popped. The guy's door remained permanently open. I acted like the old guy in the Laugh-In skit who just fell over sidesways on his tricycle. But I had no road rash at all. Today I ALWAYS let the guy in front, whether car or bike, make their move before I make mine. I certainly don't sidle up alongside a car when there's a green light and expect he'll continue through the intersection. I make eye contact as much as possible. And I'll never never cut across traffic from a right-hand bike lane to make a left turn (which I recently saw). I'll ease myself into the lane and then make the left. I also thank folks when they give me their right of way. Even a friendly wave makes things better.

As for being aggressive, I've been bicycling for years now. Sometimes I just want to get to my destination and will ride at a good speed to do so. I've found that motorists see you better if you really move on the bike. If I enter an intersection, I'll stand up on the bike and pedal. Bobbing up and down while I pedal, I'm more visible. Body language tells a lot. Use it.

How often do you bike and what for?
I'm a commuter. I bike into NOPA from the Mission three to four days a week. I use the bike for shopping and tasks. I also use it to sightsee when I have the chance.

What can San Francisco do to encourage more women and girls to bike?
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has some great classes on biking. They also have great bike tours. Take one of these. I particularly enjoyed their Sewer Tour. We used to gather friends with kids and ride as a group to Golden Gate Park or some other kids' destination. Or we'd take them to Mission Bay to teach them how to maneuver the railroad tracks and such. What parents do with their kids makes a big difference when kids grow and start to spread their wings. Although my kids don't bike regularly now, they never felt the need to get their driver's license. I'm proud of their choice. It's such a great step forward.

It helps to find a partner to bike with when you start out, especially someone who has regularly ridden the City. If you can't find someone to bike with, walk the route, or take the route slowly. Get used to the bike, the laws, the sites, the potholes, the way traffic flows. Don't be afraid to ask if there's a quieter street to ride.

Take a class on how to maintain your bike.

My volunteer efforts with the SF BAC included attempting to get bicycle education into the school curriculum. I understand how much needs to be taught in such a limited time. The San Francisco United School District offered us a 1/2 hour safety class in 7th grade health ed. We asked them to install bike racks. They refused because of liability issues. Without a good place to park your bike, why bike? Today there's Bike to School Day. Parents are biking with their kids to school.* It's much more enlightened.

Have friendships started with biking?
I made so many great connections working with SF BAC and the Regional Bicycle Advisory Committee (REBAC). I see some of them to this day. But when I'm biking, I don't really get the opportunity to chat. It's fun to recognize the regulars who are on my route to work. I keep an eye out for them and am a little disappointed when we don't cross paths.

I surprise people when I bike by ...
Thanking them for their road courtesy with a smile and a wave.

My message to women who want to try biking:
Bike by all means! I got started because I saw a ceramics teacher biking to school from North Marin. I figured if he could do it, then I could too. I lived by a lot of railroad tracks then and during my early biking efforts I became "my own railroad" (BN note: Marylee is referring to a comedic sketch by Lord Buckley about getting stuck in the tracks). But it's easy to learn how to avoid these situations. Back then I commuted from the Mission to North Beach, and I was often mistaken for a bike messenger. There also wasn't a place to park the bike when I got to work. So I carried my old heavy clunker up the two flights of stairs each day. Cardio and weight lifting taken care of in one fell swoop. Biking keeps you healthy, happy and sane.

* The San Francisco Day School participated in Bike to School Day this year as noted in this previous BIKE NOPA post.


Women Who Bike is a collaborative effort by BIKE NOPA and Bikes And The City that features San Francisco women and their bicycles. Each Monday and Wednesday, check both sites for the experiences, stories, and ideas of women who bike the city. For previous BIKE NOPA posts in this series, check here. Post a comment and leave a message for our featured riders.


  1. What a lively voice Merylee has! I recommit to making the most of body language when I'm cycling.