If I’m being perfectly honest, I was pretty scared to try bicycling around the San Francisco Bay. Not the Bay Area, as in the greater San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose region, but the actual body of water in between those three big cities.
“How do I get on without falling?” I asked Jessica Schiller, founder and CEO of Schiller Bikes, who was taking me out on a test ride at Pier 52, a public dock in San Francisco’s Mission Bay.
“You won’t fall,” Schiller assured me as I mounted the surprisingly stable water bike contraption. The top portion of the vehicle looks much like a traditional bicycle; there are handlebars, pedals, and a seat. But instead of wheels, the bike sits atop two pontoons, making it a sort of catamaran.
To propel the water bike you have a couple of options: You can pedal the old-fashioned way or get help from an electric boost. Pedaling without any electronic assist feels like using a standing bike at the gym, with the water acting as natural resistance. If you don’t feel like putting in the work, you can choose from nine levels of electric boosts, which help propel you up to a maximum speed of about 10 miles per hour (depending on the rider’s weight).
Schiller was right. Getting on wasn’t particularly hard. The water bike felt perfectly balanced. But pedaling and steering was another matter. No matter what I did, I felt like I couldn’t navigate the bike perfectly straight. I ebbed and flowed from left to right, trying to stay a safe distance from massive obstacles without wandering too far into the open bay.
As we pedaled around the San Francisco coastline, and I concentrated all my efforts into not getting too close to crumbling piers and Navy ships, Schiller explained how she envisions repurposing and reusing the city’s waterfront. She wants to bring water bikes to multiple docking stations around San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda so just about anyone can take a spin on the open water — for cheap. The prices aren’t set in stone, but Schiller thinks rentals will start at $4 for the first 10 minutes, then an additional 99 cents for every minute thereafter. Schiller previously told The Chronicle that service could begin as across the Oakland Estuary as early as July. Plans for a San Francisco launch have not yet been finalized with city officials.
“When you look at the world’s largest and most congested cities, in the U.S., in Europe and around the world, most of them are on bodies of water. Sometimes it’s a bay, but more frequently it’s a river, canal or lake,” said Schiller.
I had a lot of questions as we started our ride, many of them starting with “What if…?” (What if there’s an earthquake, which triggers a tsunami in the bay? What if I’m blown off course and lose control? What if a whale breaches right in front of me? What if that happens, but I’m not quick enough to catch it on video?)
Clearly, I was pretty skeptical at first. But as we pedaled around McCovey Cove, past some sea lions sunning themselves in the nearby marina, and under the Bay Bridge, Schiller assuaged many of my anxieties.
First off, the company has no plans to start offering transbay rides. Among other issues, the route would cross shipping lanes, which would be dangerous for everyone involved. So for those looking to replace their Bay Bridge commute with a water bike, it’s not going to happen.
She explained how Schiller Bikes is working with the relevant authorities to set up stations where you could pick up or drop off a bike in the Dogpatch, Mission Bay, near Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District. They’re also exploring setting up shop in the East Bay, with multiple spots on Alameda and at Jack London Square in Oakland.
“From Alameda to Oakland, that’s a 60-second ride, which makes it really convenient for Alameda residents who are working in Oakland.”
Schiller painted a vision of a world where some lucky commuters could leave the days of bridge and tunnel traffic behind for a leisurely bike ride on the water.
The bikes could also be a way for people to de-stress on their lunch breaks, with a quick 15-minute ride. She said, “We started thinking about water as blue spaces, just like we have green spaces as parks.”
But the thing that really won over my inherently skeptic sensibilities was the view. It was just beautiful out there. I pulled out my phone to snap some selfies underneath the Bay Bridge, with the San Francisco skyline behind me, before remembering I am way too clumsy to be trusted with an iPhone on the open water.
I was riding high on the beautiful weather, fresh air and splashing waves until all of a sudden I heard a funny noise. My water bike sputtered, slowed to a crawl, and stopped. I was dead in the water.
Thankfully, Schiller looked back at me and responded to my call for help. She, much more deft than I at steering these contraptions, docked our bikes together and towed me back to Pier 52.
Clearly, the water bikes aren’t quite ready to launch. But Schiller says their company has been taking it slow so it gets it right. She’s been working with the San Francisco Port Authority, Recreation and Parks, the Coast Guard and the National Park Service to get everything squared away for what she hopes to be a 2020 launch.
“Generally everyone wants to see people enjoy the water, but everyone also wants it to be done safely. And that’s what we’re all about too.”
Working with that many different public agencies to get a business off the ground in the Bay Area — not to mention raising capital — certainly seems like a daunting task. But by the end of our interview, and despite the breakdown in the middle of the bay, I couldn’t help but feel the vitamin D kicking in. When we docked back at Pier 52, I undeniably felt calmer than when I had started out in the same place about an hour earlier. My skepticism had turned into optimism and, despite the challenging road ahead, I hoped I would have the opportunity to ride a water bike again.
Blissed out by the beautiful day, I didn’t have many eloquent final questions for Schiller. But she summed up how I was feeling pretty eloquently.
“I love being out in the open space, especially coming from inside a city, and to see the whole skyline is amazing. There’s fresh air, no cars, it’s a little bit of a workout — and you don’t have to wear a helmet and mess your hair up.”
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