Bicycle summit brings together 220 policy makers to talk shop

August 12, 2016

SVBC and its sponsors hosted a bike summit in Mountain View.

SVBC and its sponsors hosted a bike summit in Mountain View.

At the sixth annual Silicon Valley Bike Summit hosted by the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) on Thursday, Aug. 11, dozens of government transportation leaders turned out, and that’s a sign of good things to come.

SVBC Executive Director Shiloh Ballard opened the meeting by acknowledging those city council members and other important government officials attending.

Before I report on the day’s activities, in the coming weeks, let’s look at where Bay Area cycling advocacy has been in the past 30 years.

In the 1980s, bicycle advocacy was in its infancy. Few public officials gave much credence to bike transportation as a viable alternative to cars. That’s one reason why the late Ellen Fletcher, three-term Palo Alto city council member, became such a celebrity among cyclists. She was an elected official who rode a bike and worked tirelessly to bring cycling to the table on equal footing with the automobile.

Back then the focus was on winning access to expressways, allowing bikes on Caltrain and building more bike lanes.

I don’t know all the details of how SVBC got started, but its original all-volunteer membership maintained a newsletter, Spinning Crank, for two decades starting around 1986. SVBC has seen slow but steady growth, now at some 2,200 paid members.

The SVBC evolved into a non-profit with a paid staff and volunteers, working on a tight budget. It’s more tied in than ever to local governments, trying to improve all aspects of bicycling. The bike summit is one of its many advocacy gatherings held throughout the year.

Bike commute stagnation
You’d think that the bicycle lobby would be a force to deal with today, judging by all the recreational cyclists on the road. However, when it comes to bike commuting, there’s stagnation (I’m seeing a recent uptick). So long as that’s the status quo, local governments, even those that want to do the right thing and provide bicycle facilities, have a hard time justifying the increased funding or taking away lanes from cars.

That’s where SVBC’s efforts are focused. After this meeting I’m beginning to see a sea change in the way bikes are accommodated on the road. It’s no longer the “effective cycling” mantra where bikes mix freely with cars. It’s more like “separate but equal” road sharing with protected bike lanes.

That leads to the never-ending debate over why more people don’t bike commute. Is it the result of our streets being too dangerous? That’s the most popular answer and I think it’s true. If we build bicycle-safe streets, will they come? Of course.

The good news for cycling is that our freeways are jammed with cars. Google employees in attendance told horror stories about the drive to the Google campus at Shoreline Boulevard and Charleston Road in Mountain View. Cars stack up on Hwy 101 daily. Clearly, commuters are looking for alternatives.

What’s encouraging from the day’s proceedings is that government is beginning to act, designing roads with bikes in mind and making accommodations even when it’s politically unpopular. Investing $1 million in a Davis, California, bicycle-safe intersection tells me that people are getting serious about making our streets safer for cyclists.

Down the road, I see bicycle commuting rising to as high as 30 percent. It will never overtake the car, especially once the autonomous vehicle comes along, but our streets will be far safer for cycling thanks to this technology and the efforts of the SVBC.

That’s all for now. Summit topics I’ll cover include: California state investments, protected bike lanes, local city projects, Vision Zero progress.

On an uplifting note, 90 attendees out of 220 rode bikes to the summit held on the Microsoft Mountain View campus.

Dave Snyder, Calbike director, addresses the bike summit.

Dave Snyder, Calbike director, addresses the bike summit.

Part 5: North San Jose commute alternatives, at a price

August 8, 2016

Route in red recommended. Gray routes are OK, but not great. Google Maps

Route in red recommended. Gray routes are OK, but not great. Google Maps

As I studied the map for alternate routes to North San Jose, I found a few options and tried them all. They required at least an extra mile of riding, or an extra 10 minutes daily. It starts to add up.

I was well aware of the Guadalupe River recreation path, which I used right away. Its big benefit is that you ride under Hwy 101 without cars. I took it quite a bit, but not always.

At the time I started riding there, the path was still unpaved. That’s not an issue in the summer, but in the winter the road could be muddy and the 101 underpass flooded, and still floods even after paving.

There’s a frontage road around the north runway at San Jose International Airport, Ewert Road. I took that from De La Cruz about a half-mile before the Hwy 101 overpass. It was fine, with little traffic. At the time the long-term parking lot was located near De La Cruz, so there was an occasional bus.

I found alternate routes, such as W. Plumeria Dr., but there is no connection between Orchard Parkway and the river path. There’s private property between them. Sadly, the city of San Jose never anticipated a need for connector paths to the water department maintenance road that lines Guadalupe River. Its original purpose was strictly for water department trucks.

I tried Lafayette Street, but while it crosses Hwy 101 with no ramps to deal with, I had to take busy Montague Expressway the rest of the way. Lafayette has a lot of traffic as well. Lafayette to Aldo to Montague was tried, but I was not crazy about Aldo. It’s an industrial area with many driveways and parked vehicles.

One time I tried taking Montague all the way home. The Hwy 101 overpass is wide, but there’s a two-lane exit ramp to Hwy 101 that ruined the route. Plus, there’s a lot of traffic on Montague moving at high speed.

I even tried Zanker Road/Brokaw Road, then around the airport on Ewert. Too much traffic on Brokaw, at times, with people in a hurry to catch a plane.

Nearly four years into the commute I found a better route, about two miles longer, but it had a lot going for it. Up next, the best route.

Crossing under Hwy 101 on the scenic Guadalupe River trail avoids traffic.

Crossing under Hwy 101 on the scenic Guadalupe River trail avoids traffic.

Mount Hamilton enjoyable with air conditioning on full

August 7, 2016

Lick Observatory, built around 1875, backside.

Lick Observatory, built around 1875, backside.

Here it is August when it should be stinking hot, but instead I enjoyed the Bay Area’s natural air conditioning, running full blast, on my ride up Mt. Hamilton.

Lick Observatory was as regal looking as ever, a lasting legacy to one of the state’s wealthiest early Californians, James Lick.

As I was climbing, I saw the daredevil longboarders, with follow car, descending at breakneck speed. And I thought cycling was dangerous. Example here:

Part 4: North San Jose commute a tough nut to crack

August 4, 2016

My shortest route commute to North San Jose required taking Trimble Road. (Google Maps)

My shortest route commute to North San Jose required taking Trimble Road (Google Maps).

When I signed up to work in North San Jose, I knew my cream puff commute was about to turn into something much less appetizing.

For starters it was a mile farther. That doesn’t sound like much, but on a bike that’s 10 minutes a day, almost an hour a week.

It’s the little things that can make the bike commute easy or hard, such as the ride direction in the morning. I went from having the sun at my back to it being in my face.

Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla — traffic — to deal with. I would be seeing a lot more of it.

Checking the map, Hwy 101 is the deal breaker. I had to cross it and the most direct route was De La Cruz Blvd./Trimble Rd. That’s one of the old, traditional cloverleaf overpasses, two narrow lanes each direction.

I quickly developed survival skills crossing 101. The double-right-turn on-ramp required particular care. I always extended my left arm to indicate I was headed straight, and stayed left.

Despite my finely honed commuting skills, it was never easy.

Even the ride onto De La Cruz Blvd. proved a challenge. I rode through downtown Santa Clara and took the Caltrain/El Camino Real flyover onto De La Cruz. If you’ve ever tried that, you’ll discover that you need to cross three lanes of De La Cruz, cars moving at 40 mph.

If traffic was coming my way (it was usually a platoon) I stopped and waited on the ramp, which has a wide shoulder.

Once over Hwy 101, at least Trimble Road has bike lanes, so I had a decent shoulder that took me to Montague Expressway.

I had to cross Montague and that proved difficult when the light wasn’t bike-sensitive. In the early morning I was often the only one crossing. I complained to the county. They fixed it.

One of the most important rules of bike commuting is to leave early. I did that and it made a huge difference. If you don’t leave by 7:15, you’ll see a lot more traffic.

I looked around for other routes. More on what I found up next.

Part 3: My years as a San Tomas Expressway commuter

August 3, 2016
Some sections of San Tomas Expressway look like this.

Some sections of San Tomas Expressway look like this.

After abandoning Pomeroy as the main route to and from work, around 2000, I decided to try San Tomas Expressway. It’s ironic that I waited so long, considering my history with the road.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I lived in Menlo Park, I got swept up in the cycling-community frenzy to see the expressways opened to biking. Santa Clara County had a blanket prohibition of bikes on expressways, except for Foothill Expressway (not sure about Oregon Expressway).

That always seemed odd, allowing cycling on one expressway and not others. In addition, it went against state law, which allows bikes to use all roads except freeways. It took a lot of advocacy and political pressure on the county and cities, but it finally happened.

At a Santa Clara City Council meeting attended by dozens of cyclist, I got up and said a few words. The way I said it was lame, but I was glad to give my support back when I had a voice as a San Francisco Chronicle columnist.

The late Mayor Eddie Souza, one of the more liberal-minded mayors in the county, seemed to be in favor, going against the wishes of the Santa Clara city traffic engineer.

In late 1991, Santa Clara County supervisors began taking measures to allow bicycles on the expressways. San Tomas was opened for cycling in 1992, maybe later, and it wasn’t long before all the county expressways were open for cycling. Today you can still see signs where “bicycles prohibited” is covered over.

I quickly discovered the advantages. During commute hours the traffic signals stayed green longer. I got to work faster than before.

As time went on, I saw more cyclists using the expressway, but when I started I rarely saw other cyclists.

After a year it was routine riding the expressway. I usually turned left on Monroe and took a side street to Kiely, which I was on long enough to cross under the Caltrain tracks. That route served me well for quite a few years, until I started working near Trimble and Montague Expressway.

During my time on San Tomas I never had a single incident with a car beyond the usual driver turning right and cutting me off. The only flats I had were from puncture vine, which grew in profusion in the pumpkin/Christmas tree lot near Monroe and San Tomas. I complained and the county responded with spraying, to such an extent that today it’s gone.

Traffic volumes have spiked on the expressways since I started riding. Traffic engineers have responded with proposals for more road widening. San Tomas will have an extended bike path, but I’d much rather see my taxes spent on trains and light rail than I would on road widening.

Up next: my four years commuting to North San Jose.

Part 2: Evolving my commute route

July 31, 2016

Lawrence Station underpass was a welcome addition, for the most part.

Lawrence Station underpass was a welcome addition, for the most part.

It takes time to find the best route to work, and experimentation. You’ll never know if a route is good unless you try it.

It took me more than a decade to settle on the ideal route to work in the area of Kifer Road and Lawrence Expressway in Santa Clara. The route has changed in part because I got tired of dealing with the Caltrain railroad tracks.

Early on I tried taking Kiely Boulevard north from Pruneridge. If ever there was a road to avoid, Kiely is it. It’s bumper to bumper traffic, lots of stop lights and downright miserable riding. I quickly gave up on that option.

I then settled on Pomeroy Avenue (bike lane), jogging left on Warburton to Nobili Avenue (light traffic) north to Monroe Street. I’d take a left onto Monroe (no stop light so it was a chore) and pick up a frontage road, French Street, next to Lawrence Expressway. Today there’s a massive apartment under construction at the Lawrence/Monroe intersection.

However, I had to walk my bike up stairs and down stairs on a Caltrain overpass. It was a big pain. Once the Lawrence Station was remodeled in the early 2000s, I could take the underpass, although bikes must be walked through the subway.

There’s a handicap ramp, but it’s also prohibited to ride bikes on it. After a while I got tired of the hassle and quit taking that route. (The Lawrence Station area will be built out with housing and retail in the coming years. I’m not sure bicycle access will improve, but city planners do seem to have bikes in mind these days.)

Another issue cropped up when going home by that same route. I cut through an office complex parking lot to get to Nobili. Eventually I couldn’t cut through the parking lot when it was closed off, so the route home no longer appealed to me. French Street is one-way going north.

I also tried out Willow, Monroe, Timberpine, Halford Avenue, Benton, but it took me out of my way and the roads are congested from high-density housing on Halford.

Next I’ll discuss San Tomas Expressway and how I rode it daily for many years.

Pomeroy route, used for about five years. Caltrain underpass was the only issue. (Google Map)

Pomeroy route, used for about five years. Caltrain underpass was the only issue. (Google Map)

Bike commuter’s credo: cars are assault rifles

July 28, 2016

As much as I dislike all the traffic these days, Central Expressway was my daily route home.

As much as I dislike all the traffic these days, Central Expressway was my daily route home.

Before I continue with my analysis of bike commuter routes, it’s important to understand the bike commuter’s credo: cars are assault rifles.

Let it dictate how you choose your best route to work. That may sound harsh, but it’s nothing against cars or assault rifles. It’s just that cars can hit you, by accident or on purpose. Either way, the results are going to be dire, just like being shot by an assault rifle.

Wearing a helmet isn’t going to save you all the time, nor is taking the right of way when you clearly have it as a car is bearing down. Never think that a car is going to do the right thing. Assume the driver will do the wrong thing, and be ready.

I’ll tell you how well that served me: In my 45 years of daily bike commuting (except for six months when my job required driving) I never had a bike-car accident. But hundreds of close-calls.

However, I’ve had more than one bike-bike accident, which says something but the meaning is open to interpretation.

Over the years, I became less interested in the shortest/fastest route to work and more interested in taking streets with light traffic. It’s all about playing the odds. Keep that thought in mind.

The more you mix with high-speed traffic, especially large trucks (heavy artillery), the greater your risk. Additionally, study after study has shown that riding next to air-polluting cars is bad for your lungs, not to mention your hearing from cars buzzing by.

Next up I’ll discuss a couple of other routes I took and why they fell to the wayside, including San Tomas Expressway.

Freedom Bridge spanning San Tomas Aquino Creek in peril

July 27, 2016

Freedom Bridge spanning San Tomas Aquino Creek is on notice for removal.

Freedom Bridge spanning San Tomas Aquino Creek is on notice for removal.

Intel employees who ride (or walk) to work on San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail were none too happy to learn that Freedom Bridge, which provides a convenient connection between campus and creek path, is slated for removal.

I don’t blame them. The wooden bridge supported by steel beams isn’t much to look at, but it eliminates the hassle of riding down to busy Mission College Boulevard and then backtracking on Juliette Lane through the main campus. It saves several minutes for northbound riders, where most people live, and avoids traffic.

Here’s what Barbara Keegan, District 2 director for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, told a concerned bridge user, and she gives the bridge history:

Barbara Keegan

Barbara Keegan

“This pedestrian bridge was originally permitted for temporary access to facilitate the construction of the Intel campus, at a time when Intel owned property on both sides of San Tomas Creek. The opposite side of the creek was never developed, and Intel is selling the property to another entity. The modifications made to the levee to accommodate the temporary construction bridge and the access points to the levee do not meet established criteria for permanent public trail connections.

“Bridges in general pose an ongoing maintenance issue for us and can exacerbate flooding. However, when there is a strong public interest being served, the District does occasionally approve bridges. For this bridge to remain, a couple things would need to happen. The bridge and access ramps do not meet established criteria for construction on a levee, so there would be a need for some modifications on Intel’s campus and the property on the west side of the creek. The bridge and access locations need to serve the greater public, which would likely mean making changes to Intel’s campus and perhaps the property on the west side of the creek, to have a dedicated pedestrian/bike path that would promote full public access. Concurrence by the city would also be necessary, as public trails are operated under agreements with local municipalities, in this case the city of Santa Clara.

“Plans for the removal of the bridge and restoration of the levee were received in late June and are being reviewed at this time. In the meanwhile, staff is reconnecting with Intel representatives to see if a solution that provides access while meeting our criteria is feasible.” [Note: Anyone can use the bridge.]

While the loss of the bridge isn’t the end of the world for cyclists and the noon-walk crowd, I’m reminded of the expression “death by a thousand cuts.”

Intel, one of the world’s most innovative electronics companies, needs to work with the city of Santa Clara and the water district to keep Freedom Bridge, or am I to believe that all this talk about fixing our traffic problems is nothing more than lip service?

Part 1: Finding the best commute route

July 25, 2016

Google Maps recommends bike routes, but they're not the best.

Google Maps recommends bike routes, but they’re not the best.

As I look back on my commute days, I realize that it’s no easy matter to find the best route to work on a bike. It takes experimentation and a careful analysis of a map, preferably one that shows bike lanes and paths.

Although you probably don’t commute the direction I’m going to describe here, it can still be useful information as I delve into the tricks and tips for bike commuting.

Consider Google Maps and its fledgling effort to provide desirable bicycle routes. Their routes are not the best, not even close.

Let’s consider my commute route of years gone by. Google Maps suggests taking Lawrence Expressway. Now that’s hardly what I call a good route. In fact, it’s downright hazardous.

Clearly, Google needs to tweak its algorithm. It should favor roads with less traffic and make those the recommended route. While the Google Maps blue route is the most direct — we all like that — taking a longer route usually means less traffic. It might even take less time.

But back to the Google routes. The blue line, their best recommendation, I have taken home from work, never to work. Lawrence Expressway is choked with cars during commute hours and traffic moves at 50-55 mph.

One of the more unnerving intersections is at El Camino Real where the cyclist has to cross two exit lanes.

Homestead Road, used to reach Lawrence, is equally hazardous, with lots of driveways. It’s a road I always avoid.

The gray route — Los Padres Blvd., Cabrillo Ave. — is much better. Los Padres had a bike lane the entire distance and less traffic. It goes through residential streets, 25 mph. Perfect for bike commuting.

However, there are two schools on this route, which is never a good thing. Parents clog the streets dropping off their children, right when you’re commuting.

The section of Lawrence you’d be riding isn’t as bad as other segments, but it’s still an issue.

Another problem with the Google Maps route is the left turn from Lawrence to Kifer Road. You’d have to cross four lanes to turn left. Good luck with that!

What they should show is a right turn onto the frontage road in front of Costco, riding under Lawrence past the Caltrain station. However, Google Maps can’t account for riding through parking lots of commercial buildings, which I always did when I took this route, so they’re stuck recommending the left turn on Kifer.

In Part 2 I’ll review some more roads I’ve taken to this work address and give their pros and cons.

Why do riders say “CAR BACK”?

July 24, 2016

Loma Mar store construction continues.

Loma Mar store construction continues.

Yesterday the Devil’s Slide Ride rolled by as I climbed Alpine Road, so it was not unexpected that I rode with some of these participants raising money for Parca, an organization supporting people with developmental disabilities.

All well and good. However, the “car back” crowd was out in force. I can’t say what causes this quirky and annoying behavior, but I wish it would stop. It’s entirely unnecessary, even in the unlikely event the person ahead has a hearing problem.

If you disagree and you say “car back” or “car up,” I’d like to hear from you. Give me your reasons for stating the obvious. Just be civil about it.

I decided I didn’t want to be a curmudgeon and make a rude comment, so I just slowed to a crawl and let the rider pass. I then picked up the pace and followed. It worked: no more incessant “car back” chirping.

Loma Mar store creeps toward completion. The exterior looks to be in place, minus the windows. Maybe it will open before year’s end.