Long road ahead to boost city's bike network
According to census data, a growing number of Mountain View residents are rolling to work on bicycles. But Mountain View's efforts to grow its network of bike routes is at a standstill.
"I've noticed in the last few years that other cities, such as Palo Alto and San Jose even, really have put a lot more effort into upgrading bike infrastructure," said Mountain View bicyclist and blogger Janet LaFleur. "Mountain View used to be in the forefront but lately it's kind of lagged."
"I don't believe the city has built any new bike lanes or improved bike lanes in five to six years," Jarrett Mullen, leader of the Rengstorff Great Streets Initiative, an effort to make the Rengstorff Park neighborhood more pedestrian and bicyclist friendly.
There are 54 miles of designated bike ways in Mountain View, but bicyclists are now eying innovations being made in other cities. Bike lanes painted bright green across their whole width can now be seen where cars and bikes cross paths on Stevens Creek near Highway 280 in Cupertino. In Palo Alto, bike boulevards on Bryant and Park streets slow traffic with new cul-de-sacs only bikes can cut through, while in San Jose 6 miles of "extra buffer bike lanes" were finished this summer, giving bicyclists room to ride around open car doors, while other bike lanes were placed between car parking spaces and the curb to protect cyclists from traffic.
"These are things that make people feel comfortable biking," said John Brazil, bike and pedestrian coordinator for the city of San Jose, and a resident of Mountain View who commutes by bike. "What surveys show is when you ask why people don't bike, you get two main reasons: 'I don't feel safe in traffic,' and 'it's not convenient.'"
Mullen wants wider bike lanes on the busiest streets, like California Street and Shoreline Boulevard. El Camino Real is also sorely lacking bike lanes, despite support for it from the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said chair Lauren Angelo. Bike lanes on El Camino Real may have helped prevent a bike collision with a car in 2009 that left a 66-year-old bicyclist in serious condition near Pettis Avenue.
The city has been awarded a bronze rating by the League of American Bicyclists. Only a few American cities have been rated platinum, including Portland, Ore., while Palo Alto has been honored with a gold rating.
Bike commuting rises
According to census data, the number of Mountain View residents commuting by bike has almost doubled since 2000, when it was just 2 percent. In the 2010 Census, the number rose to 4.1 percent.
Ten years ago, Portland had an even worse bike commuting rate than Mountain View, with 1.8 percent of residents using bikes to commute. It now proudly proclaims itself "America's bike capitol," painted in large letters on a downtown building. The city of 585,000 has the highest rate of bike commuting in the United States, with 6 percent of its residents commuting by bike. The change is largely credited to its growing bike network and prominent bike culture, which is satirized in the TV show Portlandia.
"Any place really can have the power to be a bike-friendly city, it's really a discretionary action, it's a choice," Mullen said. "I think Mountain View has a lot of potential to be really bicycle friendly. We're a compact city and we have some of the best climate in the world."
LaFleur said that culturally, Mountain View isn't much different than Palo Alto. Mountain View lacks bicycle-riding Stanford students, but that's partly made up for by Mountain View's bicycle-riding Google employees.
Portland's bike network cost $60 million, roughly equal to the cost of 1 mile of urban freeway, according to Portland Mayor Sam Adams. Using city and grant funding, Mountain View has used almost that much on its creek-side trails, which Fuller and Angelo pointed to as evidence the city was making progress for bicyclists in recent years.
"The Steven's Creek Trail is great, but it only goes to a few places," said Brazil, also a board member for the friends of the Stevens Creek Trail.
"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," Mullen said. "The trail is great but it's kind of isolated." Unless your trip is "directly on the trail, you are going to have to ride on a street."
The cost of future bicycle improvements is a challenge, and would come from construction conveyance taxes and capital reserve funds of which the city has only $4 million over the next five years for new projects, according to a May 1 report. "There's lot of competition for those funds," said public works director Mike Fuller. Mullen says other cities have a impact fee on all new development that could go towards bike and pedestrian improvements, but Mountain View does not.
The city has two new bike lanes in the works — a mile of bike lane in total — but neither are funded. One lane would run on Calderon Avenue from Villa Street to El Camino Real ($340,000), and another would run on San Antonio Road between California Street and El Camino Real and require major street lane and median modifications ($1.33 million).
What bicyclists want
Bicyclists say a bit of paint can make a difference. Angelo said she would like to see the city use "sharrows," large arrows painted on the street with a bike symbol, telling drivers that bicyclists are allowed to ride with auto traffic where there's no room for a bike lane. To illustrate the potential usefulness of Sharrows, LaFluer recalled her daily commute on a section of Middlefield Road in Palo Alto which has no bike lane. "Occasionally people wouldn't understand I had a right to be there and would honk and yell, which is kind of scary," she said.
To see what more involved solutions look like, a trip to Palo Alto's Ellen Fletcher bike boulevard is helpful. First implemented as a trial in 1982, it's considered the first bike boulevard in the country. Its major feature are cul-de-sacs added to Bryant that force cars to take more circuitous routes but allow bikes to go straight through. Initial reports showed nearly a 100 percent increase in bike use on the street, with 300 to 400 bicyclists using it during commute hours.
Mountain View city staff recommended against creating such bike boulevards in a 2004 study.
"It is likely that proposing roadway improvements that would favor bicyclists, such as cul-de-sacs, would generate significant neighborhood opposition and, for that reason, are not being recommended," the 2004 report says.
Instead, Mountain View's bike boulevards are marked with signs on poles and are shown as recommended routes on a bike map that can be downloaded from the city's website.
"What a bike boulevard is in other cities, our bike boulevards are nowhere like that," Mullen said, calling them "ridiculous."
LaFluer saw similar potential.
"I would like to see them go more aggressive with bike boulevards," she said.
The changes don't have to be as involved as cul-de-sacs, LaFleur said. It could be "a traffic island in the middle of an intersection" which "slows down cars so they can't go through really fast," she said. The Montecito Avenue bike boulevard in particular could use such measures, she said.
"I love the idea of the bike lanes on El Camino Real," Angelo said of a place where bike accidents serious enough to make headlines have occurred. He said he believes that's the consensus of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. But City Council members have opposed them as part of a plan for bus rapid transit on El Camino Real, which would reduce car lanes to two in each direction, allowing room for bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes. Council members cited car traffic concerns.
"We need to be putting pressure on our city officials and say we want more," LaFleur said. "People don't understand that a lot of car traffic is discretionary. People do it because it's convenient."
Suburbs perfect for biking
LaFleur says biking is perfect for suburban areas, where walking isn't always convenient. "If you bring a bicycle into the mix in the suburbs, walking distance becomes four times further," LaFleur said. That may also be why bikes are "unbelievable popular" on Caltrain, LaFleur noted.
"The bike friendliness of our city will probably keep jobs in Mountain View that could move up to San Francisco," LaFleur said. "If we want to keep that strength, making sure people can get to Mountain View and across town is the way to go."
Mullen and Brazil said bicycling is part of a generational shift. Young people — including the city's young tech workers — are much less interested in owning a car and taking on the $7,000 average annual expense it entails, Brazil said.
Studies show that employees who bike to work use fewer sick days, Brazil said, while bike-friendly business districts are more vibrant and better support small businesses. But little things can discourage biking, like not enough bike racks. Some of the busiest downtown buildings still lack good bike racks, including the tallest, 444 Castro Street.
Brazil pointed out the city's good fortune in being chosen as one of several cities to participate in the Valley Transportation Authority's new bike-sharing program, which will place 117 bikes at at nine automated stations around Mountain View. For a fee, bike-sharing allows people to take the train or bus to Mountain View and use a bike for the last bit of the trip.
"We're still recovering from cities building for cars over the last several decades," Brazil said. "I think Mountain View will continue to get better. It's just a question of, at what pace?"
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