Many have noticed changes in the Downtown streetscape in recent weeks: we’re eliminating traffic lanes, and replacing them with extra-wide, buffered bike lanes, as shown below:
On other streets, we’ll experiment with physical barriers –flexi-pylons on San Fernando, and parked cars on 4th Street—that will create additional separation of the cyclists from the cars.
Why should we care? A change in lane striping doesn’t send chills down the spine. Olympic curling gets more emphatic fans, and I don’t typically dedicate much of my column to curling.
Well, there’s more to all of this: these bike lanes comprise part of a larger strategy to persuade reluctant cyclists to get out there and commute to work, school, and recreation. Construction is already underway to create a bike path extending the Guadalupe trail to key tech employment centers in North San José, and we’ve recently expanded southward to Virginia Street. This fall, we’ll begin construction on a regional “bike-share” program, enabling commuters, transit users, and students to grab a bike by the mere swipe of a credit card, and deposit the bike at another stall in San Jose, or in any other participating city along the CalTrain corridor. We’ll see about twenty dozen bike stations distributed throughout the Downtown, including the San Jose State campus.
What’s all the fuss? We’ve all heard of the many benefits of promoting cycling as a means of commute. Even with a 1% increase in bike usage in San José (which would double our current number of commuting cyclists), we would see substantial reductions in particulate and greenhouse-gas emissions, auto congestion, and road wear-and-tear. We would boost transit ridership, by solving the “first mile-last mile” challenge for many who would use light rail or Cal Train, but don’t have a car at both ends of the trip. Those able to cycle would substantially improve their own health–no small feat at time when we face a looming epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Bikes can also save us money, by reducing our expenditures on transportation, which consumes as much as 30% of the incomes of the working poor.
Cycling also appears a more practical option than we might think. Fully 40% of urban trips in the U.S. require two miles or less of travel, yet we use the car for 90% of those trips. Other cities, such as Portland to San Francisco to Minneapolis, feature far worse weather and more hilly terrain, yet boast bike commuting rates that are 7-10 times higher than in San Jose. In European cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, as many as 40% of their residents commute by bike. We can do better.
Of course, I’ll be the first to concede that with or without all of these bike improvements, we’re not going to go the way of the Dutch. For many reasons, we’ll still continue to prefer four wheels to two. We’ve got kids to drop off, groceries to pick up, or the commute appears too long. Autos rule our roads for a reason: they’re convenient. If most of us will remain behind the wheel, then, why should any of these changes matter?
The short answer is that many of these improvements will benefit many people who don’t use bikes. High-speed one-way couplets—the three lane, one-way roads that slice up our Downtown–have long been the bane of any pedestrian who wants to cross a street like 10th, 11th, 3rd, or 4th, without engaging in a game of high-speed, full-contact Frogger. The velocity of traffic on those three-lane thoroughfares scares parents of students at Grant Elementary, greatly restricts the walking routes of elderly residents, and reduces the property values of homes lining those streets. Converting those speedways to slower two-way streets requires many millions of dollars—converting and installing new traffic signals, altering required sidewalk ramps, and the like–that we won’t have for many years. Yet with the simple use of paint, we’re reducing a lane on these and other roads throughout San Jose—like Hedding and Almaden– to implement what traffic engineers call a “road diet,” by narrowing the driver’s view frame and reducing lanes. This tool typically reduces driving speeds by several miles per hour, particularly in areas where the roads are largely “overbuilt” for the existing traffic capacity.
Downtown pedestrians also frequently complain about the cyclists with whom they have many near-collisions on the sidewalks. We lack the police and traffic personnel to adequately enforce an ordinance banning sidewalk cycling, and many helmet-donning kids reasonably rely on sidewalks because of their parents’ safety concerns. So, a better option lies in making cyclists feel safer out on the street, by creating wide buffers and physical barriers between bikes and cars, and by slowing the speed of auto traffic.
“All well and nice,” you might say, “but shouldn’t we spending our very scarce dollars on something more critical, like more police officers or keeping libraries open?” Yes, but in the world of government, dollars aren’t fungible; they’re often restricted for specific purposes, as dictated by state or federal law. Funding for this program overwhelmingly comes from regional grants – from the Air District, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), and the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)—specifically restricted to boost non-auto travel, or for air-quality improvements.
As a Board Member of both the VTA and MTC, I have been pushing for the launch of segregated lanes, road diets, and bike-share programs for four years. With public dollars running thin, these projects move slowly, but there will be more to come. Hopefully, they’ll nudge all of us to dust off the ten-speed in the garage.