Long and Winding Road to Becoming a Bike City

San Jose Council member Sam Liccardo talks about political realities of cycling in San Jose.

Sam Liccardo, San José Downtown Council member, is a huge supporter of cycling, so it was no surprise he was one of three local officials invited to visit the Netherlands and check out their cycling programs. His trip was funded by Bikes Belong through the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC).

An accomplished cyclist, triathlete, and rower, Sam walks the talk. He’s also a realist and his comments at the summary meeting at San Jose City Hall did not sugar-coat the long road ahead to improve the cycling infrastructure in San Jose.

It’s political
Sam didn’t waste time cutting to the chase. “The decisions made about the public right of way–although we defer to engineers as to how we design our roadways–ultimately are political, driven by our public values. I saw that in Holland.”

“In the U.S. we emphasize moving cars,” he said. “In order to change the street infrastructure we need dispensation from the Pope. It is a painful process trying to get variances from Caltrans to do things. We have a multi-month process just to change a bike lane color.”

He dwelled on the contentious environment in San Jose between car and bike by delving into the issue of helmets and bicycle accident rates in the Netherlands. In this cycling country motorists are keenly aware of bikes and that in itself reduces accidents. But there’s more: “In Holland, when there’s an accident between cyclist and driver, at least 50 percent of the fault is automatically applied to the driver.”

Speed bumps in San Jose?
It’s easy to see how a pro-cycling council member can become frustrated when you hear Sam talk about the issues of traffic calming. He described why a simple traffic calming measure like a speed bump in the Netherlands is commonplace, but almost impossible in San Jose. “Fire departments in San Jose don’t want them.”

He said he was told the reason for speed bumps in the Netherlands is clear-cut. Children ride bikes on their streets every day. A fire truck will go over a street once every several years. Netherlands city planners use speed bumps because they have the greatest impact on improving safety by slowing traffic. [If you want to see effective traffic calming, ride on Olive Avenue off Bascom Avenue. Street gutters do the job.]

Despite the hurdles, Sam said San Jose has come a long way in the past decade. Streets are no longer simply dedicated to moving high volumes of traffic as quickly as possible. “Holland understood all long streets are intended to accommodate people, not just cars,” Sam noted.

Another important point Sam made was that the market served defines the infrastructure. “In the U.S. there’s a huge emphasis on Spandex. People enjoy recreational cycling, but they don’t commute to work. He said that’s why the city has emphasized bike trails. The Green Vision says we’ll have 100 miles of bike trails one day.

Money, money, money
A large city in the Netherlands spends up to $10 million a year on cycling infrastructure. Sam said San Jose jumps for joy when it receives 500K. The Netherlands focuses on bike transportation to employment centers and schools.

Sam’s last point was land use and “densification.” Citing statistics for bike trip distances, he said cities need to have housing and business closer together. This is happening in North San Jose, he said, an area where we should focus precious dollars on cycling.

Ending his presentation on an optimistic note, Sam said we will see significant gains in bike commuting. Although a 35 percent figure comparable to The Netherlands is a dream, he held out hope for a San Jose built less around the car and more around cycling and public transportation. “We need to work hard on this, but it’s important to temper our expectations about how fast we can become a bike city.”

An audio excerpt (9:30) follows:

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