Rengstorff area bike tour highlights need for safer streets
Mounted on their bikes, a group of residents and city officials rolled through the Rengstorff Park neighborhood on Saturday morning, stopping along the way to discus how to make the area more bike and pedestrian friendly.
Organized by Wendee Crofoot and Jarrett Mullen of Great Streets Rengstorff Park, the tour was attended by over 40 people, including school board member Steve Nelson, council members Ronit Bryant and Margaret Abe-Koga and community development director Randy Tsuda.
Marked by tragedy
After a bike safety talk at the senior center, the group was off down Escuela Avenue to its first stop at the corner of California Street, the scene of the grisly high-speed collision that killed William Ware as he stood at a bus stop at Escuela.
California Street runs through the heart of the city's densest neighborhood, lined by apartment complexes, and is home to some of the city's poorest residents, "people who tend not to drive as much or may not have access to a car," Mullen said. "Yet, look at that street. It's wide, people are driving fast. This street just screams, 'Drive quickly!'"
Mullen pointed to the bus stop on the southeast corner of the intersection. "Someone plowed through here at 80 miles per hour, ran through the red light and killed someone at that bus stop. It had so much momentum it took out three trees," he said.
The driver said he had swerved to avid a car turning left onto California Street. Since Ware's death, "the city has taken a great first step with this new stoplight which has a protected left turn," Mullen said of the Escuela intersection. "But the corner could be tighter, the roadway could be narrower" to reduce car speeds.
California Street resident Valeria Craven, who works at Castro School, recalled the problems created by the previous stoplight. "Before it was very dangerous crossing the street because of the light, it was very very dangerous. Cars turning left would not always stop for pedestrians," Craven said. "We would say, 'Drivers, hey stop, we need to cross.'"
As for California Street, "If you want to take your bike, you have to take the sidewalk," Craven said, noting that the bike lanes are too narrow to feel safe riding between parked cars and cars going over 35 miles per hour.
Speeding cars may not notice the yellow crosswalks which signify the proximity of Castro elementary school and park, just 200 feet away. "It should be very easy to walk to that school, ride your bike to that school," Mullen said. "But the street design is sending a different message."
Later in the tour, Crofoot said of California Street, "it's marked 35, let's be honest, most people drive about 40. At 40 miles per hour if you are struck by a car you have an 80 percent chance of death and a 15 percent chance of injury, you will not walk away. This street is dangerous."
Chance of death reduces dramatically at lower speeds. At 30 miles per hour there is a 40 percent chance of death, at 20 miles per hour there is only a 5 percent chance. The organizers of the tour have called for narrowing California Street from two lanes to one lane in each in each direction to reduce speeds while allowing for protected bike lanes on each side. A smoother flow of traffic would be made possible by adding a center left-turn lane. Public Works director Mike Fuller as said such a street design is adequate for current traffic counts, but may not be in the future, possibly increasing cut-through traffic on side streets.
As the tour turned down California Street, Mullen asked people to notice how it felt riding in the unprotected bike lane with cars whizzing by. "Would you let your kids ride down (California) street to school by themselves or would you be terrified?"
The tour stopped at Ortega Avenue, where Los Altos High School student Dana Meyerson told of being the victim of hit-and-run on her bike at California Street. She was able to walk away, but her bike suffered a bent rear wheel.
"I was biking along and this car just goes through (the intersection)," Meyerson said. "They see me and they hit my bike and they just drive off. Some people stopped and asked if I was OK, and I was like, 'Yeah.' I didn't bike much after it, partially because I was scared."
It was suggested by one attendee that a 911 call would be enough for the city to document the number of such incidents to illustrate a problem at an intersection. But a 911 call itself "does not generate any type of permanent report for documentation," said Lieutenant Greg Oselinksy, in an email.
"We do not take reports of non-injury or private property collision," he added. "In these cases, we refer people to our internet reporting system at www.mvpd.gov."
The tour rode down Latham Street to Escuela Avenue, where a car honked at the crowd as it crossed the busy four-way intersection controlled by a stop sign, near Castro elementary school.
"Who felt a little intimidated?" Mullen asked. "We face harassment. The message was, 'You don't belong here, why are you here, why are you in my way?'"
"It's one of the worst intersections!" shouted one of the riders in the group.
"If you are getting harassed, you aren't a bike-friendly community," Mullen said. "It forces people into cars, because they are scared. This isn't even a commute hour, this is a Saturday."
Escuela stop signs
The tour stopped to hear from John Farrell, who owns Bumble Bee Health Foods store that has been at the intersection of Escuela and Latham since 1957.
For many years, "there were no stop signs on Escuela," Farrell said. "In the '90s it got really crazy. We were hearing squealing tires every day, near misses constantly. I see bicyclists hit, pedestrians hit. We've got this bird's eye view of this intersection. I call 911 all the time if something is happening."
"Two to three time a day we hear squealing brakes. They put a stop sign in the intersection, that made a huge difference," he said.
With Castro Elementary school 200 feet away, "We have a huge amount of students come through the intersection," said Elena Pacheco. "They bike and go to Los Altos High." She echoed Farrell's comments that it used to be much worse without the stop signs.
Better in Palo Alto
The next stop, on Chiquita Avenue, Stanford graduate student Ariel Mendez discussed his commute from the area to Stanford, highlighting obstacles many cyclists in the group were familiar with, particularly San Antonio shopping center.
When he hits bike-friendly Palo Alto — with its bike boulevards on quiet residential streets closed off to through car traffic — "it's both wonderful and it's heartbreaking because you can see how nice residential, bike-friendly neighborhoods can be and we just don't have them yet in Mountain View."
Mendez said his preferred route to Stanford is Latham Street to San Antonio Shopping Center, where he cuts through the loading area behind Walmart. Normally he'd ride by Trader Joe's, but because of construction going on, he says he goes past Chili's "and then I basically ride on the sidewalk of El Camino for half a block. Then there's that one block to get over to Fayette," which leads to a bike bridge over a creek into Palo Alto. "Basically a block of heart-pumping, really-alert, gotta-pay-attention" sort of riding.
His conclusions: "You'd have to be nut-case to ride your bike on El Camino" and "You shouldn't have to be an adrenaline junkie to want to ride your bike to work."
After a jaunt down California Street to Shoreline Boulevard, the group stopped at Villa and Shoreline.
"When I lived here (near the corner) nobody stopped when making a right turn here, including the police," said Jack Miller, standing on the southeast corner of the intersection. Miller sits on the board of the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition.
Miller and resident Thida Cornes talked about all the ways the intersection is dangerous. "I will actually go around the back of the police station and come under Shoreline and out the back by Microsoft (now Google). I almost never make this intersection anymore."
Miller than led the tour behind the police station and under the Shoreline overpass to show everyone the relatively peaceful detour.
After ride down Villa Street, a highly biked two-lane street where Miller says cars have been found to average 34 miles per hour, the tour ended where it started, at the city's senior center on Escuela.
Mullen and Crofoot repeated a recommendation by council member Bryant that people attend at a joint meeting between the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the City Council's transportation advisory committee meeting on Wednesday, March 6, at 6 p.m. in the library's community room at 585 Franklin Street.
"We can have an impact on the way we get around," Mullen said.
For more on the proposals made by Great Streets Rengstorff Park, see their website at greatstreetsrp.wordpress.com.