John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Rejoice, Bay Area residents: There's now a high-tech way to plot a course around the city's ridiculously steep hills.
There's much to love about San Francisco – great food, gorgeous parks, tolerant people – and much to despise, like the infernal rents and the way nobody seems to pick up dog poop. Perhaps highest on the hate list for many locals, however, are the number of hills, awful, ridiculously steep mini-mountains that can turn a novice's legs into wiggly spaghetti.
Everybody has their own approaches to dealing with the seven major hills and 40-or-so demi-humps that protrude from the city's 7-by-7 mile plat. Some tough it out and subsequently grow calve muscles the size of cantaloupes. Others go great lengths to dodge them, doubling their travel time and looking from above like aimless, addled ants. The more extreme hill-loathers will only rent homes in flat neighborhoods or, as is the case with somebody I know, have a friend physically push them up inclines with a gentle hand on the back.
Bicyclists, who research has suggested would often go a mile out of their way instead of pedaling up a 100-foot climb, have long had a way of avoiding the more annoying hills. It's called the Wiggle, a 1-mile path from Market Street to Golden Gate Park that never gets above 6 degrees in elevation. But for pedestrians it's often a matter of intimately learning the city's curves and slopes or else carrying around crumpled, topographic maps printed out from the U.S. Geological Survey, like some kind of foreign explorer. (You could also use your eyes to judge the best route, of course, but this city has a weird way of trapping you in corrals of hills that require strenuous effort or tedious backtracking.) That's why Sam Maurer should be hailed as a local hero: The U.C. Berkeley student has created perhaps the best-yet way to navigate this lumpiest of burgs, the "Hill Mapper of San Francisco."
"Two years ago I moved to San Francisco. Whenever I take long weekend walks around the city, I wish I had a map of where the hills are," Maurer says via email. "One day while walking it occurred to me that the beauty of digital maps is that they can adapt based on your actual location – so I could make a map that showed not only how steep the streets were, but whether they'd be going uphill or downhill when you got there."
Maurer, who is chasing a Ph.D. in urban planning, fiddled around with Google Map's elevation service to build a color-coded guide to beating the hillocks. Here's a screenshot from the computer version (he's still working on a mobile app):
The yellow dude at the bottom is where you are now, and the red and blue streets indicate uphills and downhills, respectively. The more intense the color, the steeper the slope; move the human to a different spot and the map redraws itself to reflect the topographic layout relative to that location.
What becomes instantly clear with this service is that, for people who object to difficult climbs, you're screwed if you live in this city. But there is a way to minimize the pain by sticking with the non-shaded areas of precious, flat pavement. In doing so, you might grow flabby and prone to wheezing when confronted with two flights of stairs, but such is the price of never having to hump up ridges that tower to 900 feet and above.
"I'm actually a big fan of hills," Maurer says. "I live on a fairly steep hill, which helped me get used to them quickly, and sometimes I try to take the hilliest route between two points. But Hill Mapper is agnostic; I think it will be helpful for cyclists and others looking for flat routes."
The Hill Mapper is only the latest in Maurer's curious collection of maps – he's also made a visual diary of all the streets he's trodden in San Francisco and maps of Boston that locals draw from memory. But it could be his most popular creation, especially given how BART is once again threatening to go on strike.