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Faculty spotlight: Jason Henderson


Professor of Geography Jason Henderson, who studies urban transportation, talks about how he started bicycling, what sparked his interest in geography and why the field is more than just memorizing places on a map.


Jason Henderson standing behind a bicycle.

Can you provide a summary of your areas of expertise and what you do here at SF State?

My research looks at urban transportation, specifically debates about how street space should be allocated, who decides and how political power is exerted to make those decisions. I am currently interested in starting a project on bicycle politics and I'm going to be looking at the bicycle movement in Copenhagen as a start, with the goal of eventually having a multicity comparison.

Another research interest of mine is the political and social history of Muni (San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency), going back 100, 120 years. In terms of teaching, my approach is to try to emphasize San Francisco and the Bay Area. I teach a new class called Bicycle Geographies where students are asked what would it take to increase bicycling to San Francisco State University for faculty, staff and students. I also teach urban transportation, so we look at Muni and BART and pedestrians and roads and automobiles. I use San Francisco as a case study for that. I teach a land use class that looks at zoning and planning, and we use a regional plan called Plan Bay Area as a live case study. I have a graduate seminar that combines those two, and I teach a seminar in transportation and land use.


What is something that people might be surprised to know about you?

People are generally not surprised when they find out I've never owned a car, and I still don’t have a car. I do have a driver's license, that surprises people. I'm from the South. I can put on a Southern accent when I need to.


What do you do in your free time?

I love to read. Biographies and history are kind of my main passion. I love to travel and when I travel I have this problem: I go to the library and check out 20 books about where I'm going. I just love to read about places when I go there.

Since I've lived in the Bay Area, I do a lot of recreational cycling in Marin Headlands, and I also bicycle tour. This summer I rode from Portland to San Francisco along the coast, and I also did a ride from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. I love to explore cities, and especially their transportation.


Do you do any volunteer work?

I'm the chair of the transportation and planning committee in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, and so usually one evening a week I have some kind of meeting that I go to. It keeps me involved in my neighborhood.


What about geography initially interested you?

I grew up in New Orleans, and the city is flat with a tight street grid. Very easy to bicycle. I started to regularly bike to school because where I lived it took longer to take transit. In college I bicycled, but it was always just for errands or commuting. I rarely did it recreationally. Then I became very aware of global warming and other environmental issues. I was already very interested in cities, and I was very interested in transportation. I think at some point I just saw the bicycle as, it's frugal, it's fun, it's practical and it's green. So it was for environmental reasons but also as a young man I liked the independence and that it was good exercise.


What do you enjoy about living in the Bay Area?

I like to be able to get on my bicycle and go across the Golden Gate Bridge and just have this beautiful landscape. I like the walkability of San Francisco. I think that the values in the Bay Area are something that I can relate to. Progressive, socially liberal, environmental.


What do you think makes SF State unique?

This is one of the most diverse campuses in the country. I think it makes us better people. It creates a tolerance and understanding, gets people acquainted with each other. It reflects the Bay Area. A big question right now in the bicycle world is how to empower lower income and immigrant groups that bicycle but don't have bicycle lanes where they live or bicycle safety and resources. It's a big issue right now within the bicycle movement and in bicycle scholarship, so my research is kind of leading me into that.


What was your most meaningful experience during your time as a college student?

I was inspired by a few professors. I know that sounds cliché. There were classes in geography and history that I would read every word of everything we were supposed to read and then go to the library and check out five more books. I did a work-study program, so I got to do some interesting jobs. I worked in the map library. People would come to get maps and I would have to go back and get them. I also worked in coastal ecology as a field assistant. We went out in boats into the marshes of Louisiana and took water samples and pulled grass up. Just really good hands-on experience that led me to decide to go to grad school in geography.


Did you envision yourself being where you are today when you were younger? If not, what did you want to be?

I saw myself as more of a city planner. I had an idea that I wanted to do something with transportation and cities, but I just thought I would work for some agency. But I was encouraged to go to grad school by professors because I liked to write and I was very studious.


Do you have any good study tips for students in your field?

Read before class. I say that like every two or three days.


What is something about your field of study that might surprise people?

In geography we don't just memorize place names and counties and state capitals. We think about the interconnectedness of things, how our transportation system is interconnected with our environment and our society and culture. It's a synthesizing discipline.


How would you describe SF State students in three words?

Diverse. Solid. Genuine.


Faculty Spotlight focuses on some of the many faculty who make learning happen at SF State. For more on how SF State Makes Things Happen, visit http://www.sfsu.edu/~puboff/overview.html


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