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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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The Palo Alto Bicycle Lobby: Impeding more and safer bicycling?

Uploaded: Mar 16, 2014
I did a lot of around-town bicycling from the late 1980s through the early 2000s (foot#4) and became involved in the City's bike planning. I found myself often in strong disagreement with the collection of groups that dominate decisions on bicycle policy and projects, what I will term "The Bike Lobby". My observations are that issues of a large segment of bicyclists and potential bicyclists are not represented by these groups.

City Council is posed to approve funding for designing additional bicycle boulevards (foot#1) without addressing the problems revealed by earlier rounds. Since Council routinely lauds the plan, the projects and the process, are they oblivious to these problems or do they support the skewed results?

A common maxim of safety is that it is a combination of engineering, education and enforcement, and in that order of importance. Systems need to be engineered to take account of what people actually do, and to make it easy for them to do the right thing (user friendly). Education is the secondary measure: It can help people know how to handle unfamiliar aspects, and to reinforce and improve reactions. However, the expectation is that education will do little to counter bad inclinations. Enforcement is the last resort, suitable only for the most recalcitrant cases (it tends to be very expensive).

I am an engineer, and every engineer I know regards design as an iterative process of critiquing and refinement. But I routinely see that design process short-circuited on Palo Alto bike projects. A typical scenario is that at a hearing a concerned resident points out a design problem that encourages people (drivers or bicyclists) to do the wrong thing, to which a citizen member of the Bike Lobby responds "They just shouldn't do that", which Staff then treats as closing the matter (leaving the problem unresolved).

Another routine impediment to good design is that Staff and a large segment of the Bike Lobby are contemptuous of local knowledge of what the problems are. For example, during the meetings on the Maybell Bike Boulevard, several members of the public unsuccessfully attempted to insert information developed during an earlier study of that route. That study was funded by Caltrans and brought together professional traffic engineers (consultants) and local residents. For the Matadero Bike Boulevard, this antipathy to local knowledge resulted in the design ignoring the second biggest safety problem (as identified by residents and other bicyclists who used the route).

Another factor in bad design is that many of the decisions are informed by ideology, not analysis. For example, the anti-auto ideology of a significant segment of the Bike Lobby is so strong that being anti-auto is more important than being pro-bike. I am not talking about the entirely understandable situations where they missed a side-effect, but decisions where they had been made aware of the negative consequences.

This surfaced multiple times during the meetings on the reconfiguration of Arastradero Road. Residents expressed concern that increased congestion on Arastradero was increasing cut-through traffic on Maybell and other local streets that were already heavily used by bicyclists. The response of the Bike Lobby was first--say it--"Drivers just shouldn't do that", and later to declare such side-effects to be outside the scope of consideration. Putting bike lanes on Arastradero was so important to the Bike Lobby that they rejected even considering whether it might be safer to encourage that bike traffic to instead use Maybell, which was only one block away (to the north).
Note: Please do not re-fight those specific decisions here--it is being offered only as an example of a pattern in the process that I find troubling.

At that time, I was often driving on Arastradero and I noticed several unnecessary problems in the lane configurations. (foot#2) One was that inadequate signage for lane merges resulted in abrupt and contentious merges. This created situations where drivers attempting to avoid a collision would intrude into the bike lane, potentially colliding with a bicyclist that they might not be aware off. Another was an east-bound lane-merge shortly after the traffic light at Terman Middle School that became know as "the drag strip" because drivers would jack-rabbit out of the light (to get into safer position for the merge). This poses a serious safety risk for both pedestrians and bicyclists crossing there. Although crossing guards handle this during peak school commute hours, there is plenty of activity outside those hours (school, park, residences). You would think that once I pointed this out that the Bike Lobby would get behind fixing these problems. Wrong. All they heard was that this would make things less dangerous for drivers, and they reflexively opposed that. When I raised this at the Planning and Transportation Commission, then-Commissioner Dan Garber lectured me that being pro-auto was contrary to current City policy.

Unsurprisingly, even more extreme ideologues are well-represented at most meetings. These people essentially regard those that don't bike as morally deficient, and reject that there are cases where an individual trip or a person's situation justify not biking. For example, during the meetings on reconfiguring Arastradero Road, several seniors complained that they had dropped their Physical Therapy class because the traffic congestion had exceeded their willingness (ability?) to cope. One of them was not spry when she stood to speak and had a cane very visibly with her. Yet this didn't stop a condescendingly response that she should just bike to those PT classes (which were 3 miles away). City Staff not only fails to rein in such disrespectful behavior, but gives the impression that it agrees with such attitudes.

Although the City claims to support the principle of "Complete Streets", ones that serve the complete range of users, the conduct of meetings routinely makes a mockery of this.

As a neighborhood leader (Barron Park), I would push out to the email lists notices of City meetings on bike policy and projects, and get responses from residents. There were the expected requests for me to represent their viewpoints at the meetings, but there were a surprising number of reports of frustration with trying to get their needs as bicyclists heard, and of statements that people had stopped bicycling because the City refused to address the needs of bicyclists like them.

I experienced this first-hand when trying to convey others' concerns and my own, being dismissed disdainfully with statements such as "It's not a problem for REAL bicyclists." There seem to be only two groups of bicyclists that matter to the City: students while commuting and the elite bicyclists (aka the Spandex crowd).

Vanity is another reason that safety gets de-emphasized: City Council and a substantial portion of the Bike Lobby routinely focus on Palo Alto's national ranking for being "bike friendly" as a substitute for actually providing better and safer biking. The development of the current bike plan provided a stark example of this: The recommended route for bikes going from Lytton to the Caltrain station, Palm Drive, ... was to go to Alma, turn left, go half a block and turn left across Alma and get on University. This was unnecessarily, if not insanely, dangerous--the natural, sensible route was to use High Street to connect from Lytton to University. People pointed this out during the initial meetings and a Commissioner (Keller?) pointed it out during the review by the Planning and Transportation Commission. But simple-and-safe lacked sex appeal.

In the Staff Report on the Matadero Bike Boulevard (my street), I was struck by the different tone of presentation on different aspects. Things such as changing the street name signs to ones with a custom color background were presented as important to implement the City's bike policy (supports "wayfinding" which is important to the ranking). In contrast, safety issues were presented as addressing the concerns of residents, but without any endorsement by Staff that these were legitimate and important issues. (foot#3)

---- Footnotes ----

1. New bike boulevards planned throughout Palo Alto, PA Weekly, 2014-03-12.

2. My experience with transportation design: Over the years I had served on a series of citizen advisory panels for transportation projects and attended workshops on many more. From the professional traffic engineers I was working with, I picked up an understanding of some of the basic problems and issues. Not enough to be an expert, but enough to spot some problems, ask some questions and judge the credibility of answers.

3. "Speeding -- Residents expressed interest in traffic calming measures, ..., to help reduce vehicle speeds to benefit both bicyclists and pedestrians." Bottom of page 2 in the original Staff Report which is now Appendix A of the updated Staff Report (PDF page 8).

4. Details on my biking experience: To work in Menlo Park from Barron Park, and shopping on Cal Ave and southern El Camino. However, recently I have done little bicycling, partly because of injuries and partly because few of my trips are amenable to biking. Destinations that are too far to walk to (preferred over biking), are either too distant for biking, or involve loads that are impractical for my bike. And some trips are ruled out because the routes involve segments that I regard as not safe enough.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Jym Dyer, a resident of another community,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 8:32 am

? The only ideology afoot here is the one calling itself vehicular cycling, and Palo Alto has suffered quite enough already from interminable squabbling initiated by its adherents. While other parts of the nation and indeed the Bay Area have advanced by leaps and bounds and have inspired thousands of people to ride bikes, Silicon Valley largely clings to an obsolete mindset from the 1970s.

Posted by enforcement, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 10:17 am

The problem is reckless car drivers, not the infamous "bicycle lobby". The title of this rant starts by blaming the victim, then gets so ludicrous that I quite reading.

What the city needs to do is institute a double-fine maximum-enforcement zone around all public schools. Since bicycling to school is the primary purpose of most of these bicycle routes, they should all receive this protection. Stepped up enforcement will do more to solving the author's rants than anything else.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Under the guidelines for this blog, I should be deleting the first two comments as ad hominem attacks. However they serve a useful purpose--they demonstrate the venom that a typical resident is subject to if they try to participate in the process as anything less than a 1000% supporter of the Bike Lobby. And as a consequence, why the Bike & Pedestrian Plan failed to address the issues and concerns of those residents.

And the "logic" displayed is unfortunately common: Criticizing the Bike Lobby for failures to provide *better* safety for bicyclists is proof that you are anti-bicycle.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm

While we are at it, why not mention bike lights, high visibility vests and defensive riding. All these things make it much safer for bikes, but a great many bike riders disregard these.

As for bike lights, flashing lights are illegal and those that have lights on their heads are likely to blind anyone they attempt to make eye contact with. There is nothing good about watching out for a bike rider at night who stares at you with a head light around the helmet and the light blinds you momentarily.

Posted by EX-Palo Altan, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Doug, I witnessed on more than one occasion exactly what you describe: comments of "Well, they shouldn't do that" from city council when legitimate issues are raised. It is infuriating to tell the truth and have your comments be so blatantly disregarded by these people.

We got so sick of not being listened to that, particularly after the Arastradero restriping and the Maybell referendum, we finally gave up on Palo Alto and moved elsewhere.

Posted by Pogo, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 2:32 pm

I think Doug has some good ideas and some good points, but I don't think there is a "Bike Lobby" and it is misleading to use this term. In the blog he even refers to a collection of groups, then lumps them all into one and acts as if everyone involved in them thinks in lockstep.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Pogo: on calling it a "Lobby"
Although it is a collection of groups, those groups have substantial overlap and routinely act in concert.

You misrepresent me as having lumped them into one -- throughout the posting I repeatedly said "segment of" and "portion of".

As to their members not "thinking in lockstep", that is rarely evident in the *public* meetings where they present a unified front. If they have differences that are aired in non-public meetings, to me that is irrelevant to the public policy debate.

Posted by cccc, a resident of Greater Miranda,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 5:52 pm

your city is insanely agressive about bikes. police follow bikes instead of cars with no lights on on el camino and downtown seen it so many times. hypocrites. the chief must be an ossified piece of wood, no credibility.

Posted by Mike, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 18, 2014 at 10:25 am

On wondering if the group the author has named "The Bike Lobby" has been doing harm wrt
the number of people cycling as well as making the area less safe,
I would think the data would be out there to give some sort rough idea if this is the case.
Hopefully someone reading this is informed enough on the issue that they can post the data because I'm curious as well.

From what I've seen, the issue of bikes and organizations supporting bike issues has been around for about 20 yrs or so from what I've noticed.
We can look at the numbers of cyclist then, and now. If the organizations are impeding cyclists from cycling, we should see a steady decline of cyclists over the past 20 years. Again, I don't have the actual numbers but I don't think anyone who has observed the explosion of cyclists on the road during the past 20 years, would suggest that cycling is in decline in this area, in fact just the opposite. Just my observations though.
One could infer that the bike orgs are helping grow the number, though admittedly, there will always be groups with special needs
that might not get met, but I feel this must be a small minority. That's not to lessen the importance of considering these "special needs" cyclists, but whatever is going on now does not seem to be hurting the total number of people taking to bikes. In fact all projections I read is that their numbers are expected to only grow larger.

As to the data showing harm, it gets more tricky. You would need to look at the number of cycling related accidents as a percentage during that time period. Then look at the same comparison for current times. Comparing the percentage of bike accidents to total cyclists 20 yrs ago, compared to the percentage now could give you an estimate, but that result would clearly be up for all sorts of speculation and variables. Personally I feel like there is more awareness of bikes simply because we seem to be in a societal shift towards riding more, and with that increased awareness comes more safety, speaking for myself behind the wheel of my own car.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 18, 2014 at 11:52 am

> As to the data showing harm, it gets more tricky

It's very unlikely that this sort of data exists. There is data about bike accidents that are reported to the police, but it's very likely that there is a lot of non-reporting of bike accidents--particularly if the cyclist is at fault.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 18, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Re: Mike

This is a fundamental logical confusion. One can impede growth without creating negative growth. There are the people who would have been bicycling if their needs hadn't been neglected. Ditto for people who *stop* bicycling.

The growth I have seen (a non-scientific sample of routes and times) is that it has overwhelmingly been students, a result of an aggressive campaign by the City and the School District. But I have also seen a moderate increase in commuters.

As to impeding safety, the same applies. Given the number of examples of safety measures that have been blocked, how does one measure the accidents that happened that wouldn't have if those measures had been taken?

In rhetoric, this is an instance of a classic case of disingenuous argument. However, "show me the data" is such a common (and commendable) attitude that many people inadvertently stray into disingenuous arguments because they go for the easy data rather than the meaningful data.

Posted by Mike, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 18, 2014 at 2:07 pm

I guess the question to ask is have more people stopped biking than have started. Also, can we afford to make special considerations to all who might have issues, or would it be best served to focus on the majority of users at this time.
The growth of bike users seems to be only trending up, so maybe its OK that not every single person gets on a bike.
I certainly would fall off my chair if there were more people who stopped or won't bike than there were people who feel fine about biking with things as they are.

If we're in the business of making sure every single citizen's needs are met wrt biking policy, the expense will be astronomical, and I could only imagine the mess that would be created in adding even more and more special projects to meet the special needs groups.

That said, _in general_ I feel the majority of cyclists are being served. Lord knows we would hear about it from all of them if they were not.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 18, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Mike provides a good example of the utter arrogance of a large segment of the Bike Lobby. Anyone who is not like them is dismissed as needing "special considerations" and as being an irrelevant minority.

For example, during the hearings on the current Bike & Pedestrian Plan, I raised the point that I had heard from many residents that a major impediment to them biking was the poor condition of many of the bike lanes along their routes. Temporary cuts in the pavement to access underground utilities were of special concern because had a temporary closure (steel plate) that was poorly done and left in place for months. My comments were met with derision from the Bike Lobby: "Real bicyclists" knew how to handle such situations. When I tried to make the point that many potential bicyclists didn't feel comfortable "taking the lane" for longer stretches in moderate to heavy vehicle traffic, I was again dismissed with disparaging remarks. "Wayfinding" (custom-colored signs) was more important to the Bike Lobby than safe riding surfaces.

Notice that Mike also continues to be disingenuous in his response to what I said (portraying me as making claims I did not). Normally, I would regard this as a sign that he was a troll, but I realize that this is just standard practice for a significant segment of the Bike Lobby.

Posted by JohannavandeW, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 18, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Resident of Los Altos Hills. I drive fairly often on Arastradero so I know what you are talking about with the poor merges after stop lights which encourage too much speed on the part of motorists as they try to get into a good merge position. It was obvious to me too that this was going to be a problem for both pedestrians and cyclists. I'm mainly commenting because I support you 1000% in arguing for good engineering and planning from the get go. Cities trying to make cycling safer and appealing should get advice from a Dutch traffic engineer. They consider every aspect of safety and their bike lanes look nothing like anything I'm seeing here. They try to give the cyclist and pedestrians space that is protected from the car traffic by a curb or island and sturdy trees. Cars are less likely to enter the bike lanes during swerving action if there is a curb there. I cycle when I'm in the Netherlands, but I'm too afraid to cycle here. The engineering just isn't adequate for the safety of the cyclists. For me, it is all about engineering the safety into the design, so that motorists are engineered into easily doing the right thing for the safety of the pedestrians and cyclists.

Posted by Mike, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 8:21 am

Wow. I'm sorry you felt the need to insult me.
No hard feelings. Enjoy your blog.

Posted by resident, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 10:59 am

Let's see if the all powerful bicycle lobby can fix this mess: Web Link

Posted by Craig, a resident of another community,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 11:06 am


I used to live in the Bay Area (Stanford, Sunnyvale, Monte Sereno, Mountain View, San Francisco) but now live in West Los Angeles. I want to tell you that your post and comments resonated with me and several other members of my community. We are currently in a similar predicament as yourself, as it seems a small group with extreme views on cycling and car drivers are driving the agenda of bike related roadway changes in our community.

They claim to advocate for all cyclists but in our view, they only represent the most sophisticated of riders. For example, a leading member of the LACBC who drives bike related roadway changes in the region proudly advertises he does not own a car. Admirable, but hardly representative of the community as a whole.

It was good to read your post and understand that we are not alone in our dismay over the actions of "bike lobbys" in other regions, their lack of compromise, and influence over local politics. Many of us who bike occasionally and would like to bike but also consider the multitude of other factors which come into play regarding roadway changes. As such we want to see improvements to our roadways to facilitate more biking, but are frustrated over the actions of these lobbying groups. We are doing our best down to here to push for sensible bike related road changes which the majority of our community can utilize.

I wish more like minded, "regular people" who bike would add their voices to the conversation to balance to extreme views of the bike lobby.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Mike: "Wow. I'm sorry you felt the need to insult me."

It was Mike who chose to be disrespectful.
He mischaracterized "impede" -- to hinder/reduce progress -- as going in reverse. This is an important distinction because it is at the core of what I wrote. The first instance may well have been inadvertent, and I treated it as such. But to continue with this mischaracterization after it has been pointed out is deliberately disrespectful.

One of the basic rules of this blog is that commenters need to respond to what has been said -- misrepresenting what others have said in order to argue against them is dishonest and is not tolerated.

Posted by Mike, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 1:12 pm

I'm sorry my posts lead to misinterpretations. The intent was definitely not to offend. I was lured in by your statement of "I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines."
Well it took me a couple replies to realize what and why this blog was created, but its clear now. I hope you find peace in it. I won't irritate you further. Cheers neighbor.

Posted by gorsh, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 3:29 pm

[[removed by blogger: Troll]]

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 3:29 pm

"many of the decisions are informed by ideology, not analysis.

"Theology" would be more apt.

Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 4:04 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

I think 'Bike Lobby' is justified. These folk claim to represent Palo Alto bike riders, when in fact they only represent a slice of those who do ride in this town.
Are these the same folk who ride ON that (narrow) stretch of Arastradero from 280 to Deer Creek instead of using the dedicated Bike trail?

They don't represent ME on my $89 Roadmaster

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 4:40 pm


On further reflection, we need to understand our city's motivation for riding with the Spandex Gang: ego. Biking groups give the city awards for pleasing them, like the "Platinum Award" for the Homer Tunnel that Mayor Mossar gushed so profusely over a decade ago (although she admitted it was actually an aluminum plate.) The name of the organization that granted it has fled my memory, but it was an imposing string of words.

The point is: what awards are we the unwashed giving the city? None. Either we come up with an impressive organizational moniker and a supply of aluminum plates, or we resign ourselves to permanent outcast status.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Personally, I feel that bicyclists should be prohibited from using streets where they pose a safety risk to both the bicyclists and drivers. For instance, bicyclists should never use Alma Street. It is simply unsafe. There are parts of the road that are almost too narrow for vehicles. Just a few blocks away are designated bicycle friendly routes.

It shocks me that more and more individuals use Alma Street when it is simply dangerous and can bottleneck traffic when cars have to either slow down to bicycle speeds or, as typically happens, suddenly change lanes to avoid the bicyclist.

HOWEVER, I think that it would be prudent for Palo Alto to designate more streets as bicycle routes. The signs can be changed to make those routes safe for both riders and drivers.

Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 8:22 pm

[[Removed by blogger: ad hominem attack, and only vague accusations at that]]

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Prohibiting cyclists from selected streets is illegal under state law.

Trying to encourage bicyclists to use parallel bike routes (when available) is politically dicey. I have been through this. There is a faction of the Bike Lobby that portrays any such encouragements as little different from prohibiting cyclists from the main arterials. It doesn't matter how good those bike routes are or how close they are. For that faction, what is important is having bicyclists on those main arterials.

However, all this was before the current Chief Transportation Office (Jaime Rodriguez) so there might be some flexibility. However, I didn't see it during the hearings on the current Bike and Pedestrian Plan.

Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 8:41 pm

> Prohibiting cyclists from selected streets is illegal under state law.

This is not correct. The state can prescribe how public roads are used, whether it be speed limits, vehicle types, parking, etc.

Exhibit A: Bicycles are not allowed on Hwy 92 east of I-280. Bicycles are currently allowed on Hwy 92 west of I-280. The latter has not always been the case. About twenty years ago, bicycles were not allowed on that portion of the highway either.

Exhibit B: Bicycles are allowed on US-101 in San Francisco, at least the part where it is Van Ness Avenue. Bicycles, mopeds, etc. are not allowed on US-101 on the Peninsula freeway portions.

The state can determine if certain vehicles (e.g., large trucks over a certain weight or carrying particular cargo) can be banned from tunnels or portions of roads.

Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Exhibit C: Bicycles are still not allowed on the Bay Bridge span between SF and Treasure Island. Prior to the opening of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, cyclists were not allowed on that portion either.

If I recall correctly, there is no bicycle/pedestrian traffic allowed on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.

The state can choose how public roads are used, typically the best interest of public safety.

Any more questions, Doug?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Jay Park on state law

The question I was answering was relative to *city* streets. The examples you cite are all limited access highways, which is explicitly exempted from that state law.

And Jay, do you really mean to claim that the State government can't change State law? Because that is how I read your next to last paragraph.

Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 19, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Well who determines if a roadway is a limited access highway? The state or the city?

The state *can* change the way public roads are used. That's what I wrote.

Posted by Bunyip, a resident of Adobe-Meadows,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

The main issue is that we aren't Europe. Our McMansions and urban sprawl proclivit the functionality of pedal power. We don't have communities nestled around the local shops. We don't head down to the local grocer for dinners each night. We Drive surburbans to superstores and buy carts worth of processed food. Though noble, the dream of a biking utopia is ridiculous in america, not just bay area. Increase affordable highdensityhousing, remove height restrictions, ban large box stores - ie. establish local self sufficient communities, then encourage the bikes. I would love tobike everywhere, 30 minutes up el camino to get a healthy sandwich is just ridiculous.

The final point is a distinction between functional riding, and spandex weekend warrior riding. You want to encourage the former, and pray the latter don't kill themselves with their antics.

Posted by Craig, a resident of another community,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 4:19 pm


I agree most US cities differ drastically from European ones (and those in other, older countries as well). And that would seem to factor into bike use being higher in some international cities than here in the U.S. However, to extend that point and say biking is utterly impractical in and around cities of the Bay Area (or Los Angeles where I live) is taking it too far I think.

I feel there's ample room for coexistence of bikes and more common forms of transit (e.g. let's face it, that's cars in the U.S., fossil fuel or otherwise powered) . A 30 minute bike ride (around 5 miles) is short for some, long for others. And there's nothing wrong with having different skill levels and different opinions on which trips/errands are "bikable" and which are not.

Where I see issues is when the slice of the biking community who tends to consider that 5 mile ride short/quick starts to try and mandate that changes be made to the roads to accommodate their needs at the expense of everyone else. These folks seem keen on "road diets" which can significantly alter the dynamics of auto traffic.

These requests for special treatment are especially troubling when there are perfectly reasonable compromises (aka alternate routes) which could not only benefit the heavy bike users (e.g. commuters/sport cyclists, etc.) but those of us who want to jump on the bike for a 5 minute, half mile one way trip to go get lunch (if we happen to live within that distance to a restaurant/cafe which I am lucky enough to say I live near many) or go for a slow ride with our kids to a friends house.

In my area (and I assume in yours) the residential routes often end up being cut off at some point by major arterials. In our community, we are looking at focusing the efforts and money the bike advocate crowd wants to invest into putting lanes and other accommodations on the busy arterials, and instead focus that effort/money on putting bike/pedestrian only crossings over those blocking arterial roads to facilitate the residential side streets as viable, long distance bike routes. Not making much progress in this regard, but its an idea we are trying to pursue.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 5:19 pm

@ Douglas Moran:

Thank you for the information. Do you happen to have a link to the specific law addressing this issue? Even if prohibiting bicycles from using certain roads is illegal under state law, then the law can always be changed to reflect the need for such a law.

Certain trucks are prohibited from certain roads. Why? There is an added danger due to the understanding that certain trucks cannot safely operate on certain roads (both to the driver of those trucks AND the other drivers on the same roads).

The same is true with bicycles. Bicycles can be a major issue when they hold up traffic (especially in rush hour) or in "narrow" roads. If we can designate more roads as bicycle routes, then it would be expedient (and safer) for cyclists to use those alternate routes.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I don't have a pointer to that law.

And the situation is far more complex that you have probably considered.
Unlike limited access highways (such as Interstates), the streets you are talking about have significant destinations on them -- employers, stores, residences,... -- whose access is via those streets and thus access to them by bicycle involves at least short distance use of the street. This is a critical difference between "prohibition" and "encouraging use of alternate routes".

The philosophy of street layout is to have a hierarchy of streets -- local, local collector, residential arterial, arterial, ... -- and encourage user to move up the hierarchy as they need to go further away. One side-effect of this is that there can be clusters of streets that are difficult to get between except by the higher level streets.

One of the recurring conundrums that Palo Alto faces involves housing projects along the major streets. To encourage bicycling, you want to have bicycle access to the local streets behind the project, not just the arterial. This access is also highly desirable for pedestrians out for exercise, walking a dog, ... However, such access is also an invitation for the City to allow the developer to under-park the project, resulting in its residents parking on the local streets behind the project (and overflowing the capacity).

Posted by Bunyip, a resident of Adobe-Meadows,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Craig, thanks for a reasoned argument.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 10:49 pm

Douglas, you raise some good points. I wish the City's bike plan was based on DATA, like which routes are the most heavily used, where are the most accidents or tickets issued, etc. What are the relative safety benefits of greater enforcement of bicyclists and drivers versus new boulevards? Instead of working from the hypothetical, work from real bike traffic and safety data...

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 11:34 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE Anonymous: on DATA counts of cyclists

I have been told that actual counts of bicyclists is very difficult=expensive to produce--it involves recording video and having a human watch it and count. My speculation is that it is too hard for sensor to distinguish a bicyclist from a pedestrian, and that there are other false positives. The sensors used with traffic lights to detect when a bicyclist is present don't need to distinguish a single cyclist from a pack of them. But counting does.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 11:45 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Anonymous on DATA on safety benefits

The fine-grained safety data that you think should be collected is impractical. This is not like industrial Quality Assurance where you are running stats on a continuum of values between perfect and failure.

Near accidents are highly subjective and arbitrary and consequently are hard to quantify. Minor accidents tend to go unreported (reporting has few benefits and can have large costs). So what you are left with is measuring only major accidents -- serious injury or death. I don't know of an effective quantitative QA approach that deals with data where failures are very frequent and very high cost and everything else is treated as a (total) success.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 20, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Anonymous on comparative benefits

Stop and think how difficult the experiments would be to produce that data. You have minimize the variable and hold the conditions constant over the length of the data gathering.

One sees conflicting medical study results because of the difficulty of doing this. However, my favorite comes from the early days of nuclear physics where the Italian and American scientists got different results that were finally diagnosed as the result of the Italians having workbenches that were marble and the Americans having wooden ones. Anyone who has done serious science, or been a fan of such, has many stories in this area.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 21, 2014 at 12:18 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Re: Anonymous: On enforcement as an option

Enforcement is not a viable option for making any significant difference, primarily because one can't afford enough enforcement officers to make a difference (according to what I have been told, with the explanation being highly credible based upon what else I know).

In the mid-2000s, there was a serious consideration of adding police officers to the traffic detail. The then-Chief ran the numbers and confirmed that it would be a big money-loser for the City. Even if that officer was only at locations where s/he would effectively be writing tickets full-time, the City's share of the ticket revenue wouldn't cover the cost of that officer: salary, benefits, pension, overheads (police car, fraction of supervisor,...). If you move the officer away from the "low-hanging fruit", such as red-light running at El Camino and Page Mill, the return-on-investment goes hugely more negative.

The problem is that the State and the County take a very large share of the ticket revenue. Cities have been looking for ways to cover costs for additional enforcement (not generate profits). I heard of some cities trying to supplant State traffic laws with city ordinances because fines for violating ordinances stay largely with the city. However, I haven't heard about this recently, so I presume that that stratagem didn't work.

Posted by Sasmita, a resident of JLS Middle School,
on Mar 21, 2014 at 10:15 am

Sasmita is a registered user.

It might not be relevant to this discussion, but relevant to the discussion about bicycles - I had a brand new hybrid cycle stolen from my apartment even though it was double locked(south palo alto) a couple of weeks back & everyone said that 'bike theft is very common in palo alto' - yet deciding as to whether on not to buy another bicycle if safety of bikes cannot be at least 70% guaranteed........

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 21, 2014 at 11:59 am

> hard to count bicycles ..

Seattle has purchased an electronic bicycle counter:
Web Link

If Seattle can, why can't Palo Alto?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 21, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On Seattle's bike counter:

Notice that the counter uses magnetic loops. These are good-enough for counts for publicity purposes, but are highly inaccurate. They used to be the normal way for triggering a traffic light when a bicycle was present, but they had so many problems that they are being replaced by camera detection.

Detection depends on how well the materials in the bike respond to magnetic fields, and the speed of the bike (faster produces better detection).

Magnetic detectors also have a problem with false positives, for example cars. For a traffic light trigger, this is irrelevant, but for counting on a bike boulevard (mixed traffic) it is a disqualifier. Notice that Seattle's counter was being installed on a bike-only path. On a bike-pedestrian path, baby strollers can have a magnetic signature within the normal range for bikes.

Things are rarely as simple as they first appear.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 21, 2014 at 2:19 pm

[[Removed by blogger as disrespectful. I responded to the information he provided in the previous comment and he responded belligerently citing information contrary to and beyond that comment. Commenters who FAIL to provide adequate information shall not attack others for responding to what had been said.]]

Posted by Midtown35, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 22, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I think there is a Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee that advises the City Transportation folks. Is there a traffic advisory committee, e.g. with membership from a variety of neighborhoods?

Posted by Former PA resident, a resident of another community,
on Mar 23, 2014 at 11:33 am

Thanks for a reasoned, thought-provoking blog post. IMHO it deserves to be read throughout metropolitan California. I'm in another town now, but like Craig, am struck by the parallels in behavior, despite different local details.

I got around mostly by bike, including living and working in Palo Alto, into my 30s; it was often a struggle. As other experienced posters noted, this isn't Europe and never will be. It isn't even among newer US regions I've seen (suburbs of Dallas and Portland) that planned for bicycling as they were being established.

Policy advocacy as if accountable solely to the advocate's personal ego isn't, of course, limited to bike-lobby cliques; it's human nature, and especially conspicuous in this culture. (Thomas Sowell's 1995 book "The Vision of the Annointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy" is an interesting resource on that, collecting many high-profile examples.)

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 23, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On the Sowell book:

I had heard of it but didn't read it. I was told that its partisanship could be off-putting: The sins of the other side that the book was criticizing were ignored in the side the book was praising. This is not saying that the critiques in the book are wrong, but that the readers may become highly skeptical if they see credibility problems in other sections of the book (I tend to be that way).

If I had time at the moment to read this book I would first check the reviews on Amazon (Web Link and the like. Sowell is a prolific columnist and you can find some of his writings online if you want to get a sense of his approach.
Profiling: Sowell is a conservative & libertarian, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford.

The PA Library doesn't carry this book.

Posted by Former PA resident, a resident of another community,
on Mar 23, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I mentioned that book in passing, for illuminating two contrasting views of policy decisions: a classic view that such decisions reflect limited choices among imperfect alternatives (trading off benefits and side effects), vs. a view that policy choices are black or white, good or evil, and anyone who differs with my choice must (therefore) have selfish motives, or some other moral benightedness.

Certainly it's an opinionated and selective book, more pointed that some Sowell work like "Immigrations and Cultures" (Sowell being, of course, an economic historian, not just a column pundit). I read a lot of modern history, incidentally. But one need not endorse Sowell's politics to appreciate the cogent and thought-provoking case studies in "Vision." You might like to browse for yourself sometime, to see what I mean.

Anyway, elements of the mind-set that Sowell spotlighted surface in these transportation debates: advocates presuming to speak for all bicyclists; ignoring of important data inconsistent with a preferred vision; projecting one's circumstances onto everyone else. One south-bay writer, whose family had given up regular car use, expressed impatience that more people don't make similar, righteous choices. Overlooking that not everyone faces the same set of options to choose from.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 23, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

If someone knows of a more concise version of Sowell's observations, it would be much appreciated. I would love to have a concise, powerful essay to point people to that covers the sort of things that "Former PA resident" mentions in the final paragraph of the preceding comment.
Aside: An earlier blog entry of mine "Palo Alto's Culture War: Analytics vs Aspirationals" (Web Link touch some similar themes.

Apologies if I came across as impugning the book or trying to discourage readership. I was trying to give potential readers a leg-up on whether the book was a fit to them. I find the theme of the book very interesting, but would have concerns that most of the 324-page book would be about details of the specific examples which would be undermined if I were concerned about the author's partisan position on those specific issues (The Amazon reviews might help determine whether this is the case).

When scientist/engineers (such as myself) venture into politics and political-economics, we are often surprised by the cultural differences in what is acceptable argumentation (One of my early experience was that a promise of "no increase" was treated as equivalent to "no significant increase" which was then treated as "less than 10% increase").

For too many books in the political and economic areas that I have started reading in recent years, I found myself giving up on them because even with my outsider's knowledge, I can recognize unfair and invalid argumentation (undue partisanship for the book's thesis, or more general political partisanship).

Posted by Former PA resident, a resident of another community,
on Mar 24, 2014 at 11:18 am

Footnote on another source: "Accountable only to our own egos" comes from one of Rex Stout's "Nero Wolfe" novels. (The detectives are contemplating action with ethical implications; Wolfe cautions to the effect that we're accountable to more than just our own egos.)

In the 20 years since reading that phrase, I've often been reminded of it by instances of behavior or attitude.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 31, 2014 at 4:54 pm

The ?Bike Lobby? is PABAC: Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee.

It?s my understanding that the Planning and Transportation Commission created PABAC for the express purpose of having a body to give advice on matters relating to cycling. It reports to Jaime Rodriguez, the chief transportation official, who told me he uses the group as "a resource for the city to solicit input on ideas."

PABAC?s role is to review all issues related to bicycling in the areas of engineering, enforcement, education and encouragement.

PABAC is invited to special meetings with transportation officials, at which other residents are not present to provide balance and alternate views. While some will say that everyone is welcome at PABAC meetings, if one doesn?t know about a meeting, it?s hard to attend.

From the 2-11-13 city council meeting:

Public comment from Paul Goldstein: ?I?ve been on PABAC for over 10 years. PABAC mission is to advise staff. As you?ve seen, there was a Call for projects Nov 5. This is the 4 year window to put in competitive grant proposals. PABAC should be reviewing these, helping set priorities, seeing which projects the city wants to go for. ? It?s the Lack of participation, lack of PABAC involvement.?

Councilwoman Gail Price: ?I concur with comments made by public. Want to ensure PABAC group is engaged.?

Why is the council not ensuring that pedestrians and drivers are ?engaged?? Are cyclists the only ones who get to advise staff? How can a city meet the needs of ALL residents when only one lobbyist group (PABC) is used as a resource?

> ?Trying to encourage bicyclists to use parallel bike routes (when available) is politically dicey.?

See Web Link
? ? a city plan to move bike lanes off Market Street and onto Mission Street appears to be headed for the old political cul-de-sac - largely because the San Francisco Bike Coalition doesn\\\'t like the idea. ? The cyclists want to make sure Mid-Market is theirs."

> Homer Tunnel:

Then-Councilwoman Dena Mossar voted for it. At the time, her husband was chair of PABAC.

The tunnel was originally estimated to cost 42.3M, but ultimately cost $5.4-million and was ?more than a year behind schedule -- and it rivals the eastern span of the Bay Bridge for being over-budget, percentage-wise.? And then there was the embarrassing discovery that cyclists exit the tunnel on Homer, a one-way street in the wrong direction.
Web Link

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 31, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Here?s the city?s PABAC page: Web Link

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