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By Douglas Moran

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.

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