Serious spinners

Palo Alto is certified as bike-friendly, but what will it take for more people to ditch their cars?

It's 11 a.m. on a Monday morning, and 78-year-old Ellen Fletcher hops off her bicycle on Bryant Street near Embarcadero Road and observes the fruits of her labor: helmeted and spandex-covered cyclists zipping down the bicycle boulevard that bears her name.

"Hey Ellen!" one cyclist shouts, waving to the former Palo Alto vice mayor as he pedals past Castilleja School in a pack of riders. He recognizes her from across the street, even though she is wearing her helmet.

"My goodness, look at them all!" Fletcher says.

Those who ride past her -- proving her theory, "You build it, and they will come" -- are among the many cyclists in Palo Alto who have benefited from Fletcher's 30 years of bicycle advocacy.

With approximately 1,700 Palo Altans -- 5.6 percent of the working population -- choosing two wheels instead of four for their daily work commutes, Palo Alto has almost five times the percentage of bike commuters as that of Santa Clara County as a whole. The city's ratio is 14 times the proportion of bike commuters in the United States, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2000.

In addition to the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard on Bryant (which gained her name in 2002), the bicycle advocate pushed for incentives for city employees to commute by bike as well as for bike bridges, bike parking and accommodations for bicycles on Caltrain. They're all based on Fletcher's fundamental but not commonly shared belief that, "It is possible to do without a car most of the time."

Her efforts have contributed to Palo Alto's designation as a "Bicycle Friendly Community" by the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists, placing Palo Alto on par with cycling-crazed cities like Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore. and Madison, Wis.

The award not withstanding, however, 80.6 percent of the city's residents drive their cars.

Bicycle advocates and city officials hope to change that through adding more bike boulevards and providing educational programs.

"There's no reason why we can't do better, even given the current infrastructure we have," Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said.

But the barriers to becoming a daily bike commuter can be significant for Palo Altans who work far from their homes, chauffeur their children around town and prefer the convenience of their cars.

Fletcher only fills up her 1964 Plymouth Valiant once a year, but could other Palo Altans do the same?

Karl Littau did.

He lives on Bryant with his wife and two sons. Nearly every morning, he and his younger son, Nickolas, strap on their helmets and ride down the street to El Carmelo Elementary, where Nickolas, 8, attends school.

Then 43-year-old Littau, wearing a fluorescent yellow jacket, continues on to his job four miles away at the Palo Alto Research Center.

Once there, Littau showers, changes into clothes he keeps at his office and gets to work as a manager of a materials group.

"It takes me almost as long to drive as it does to bike it," he said, because of car traffic along his route.

Besides the negligible time difference in his commute, Littau says he has become healthier. He attests that he shed 15 pounds and has caught fewer colds since he began cycling six years ago.

What keeps daily bike commuters pedaling can be the desire to stay healthy, to help the environment, to save money or any combination of the three, devotees say.

For Apple Inc. employee Faye Saunders, 52, her initial motivation was purely financial. She stays in the saddle to save money for her Palo Alto rent.

"I really can't afford to live in Palo Alto, so that's one of the ways I do it," she said.

But Saunders' hour-long, 11-mile ride from Midtown Palo Alto to Cupertino, where she assists an Apple vice president, requires enormous dedication.

Driving would take her half the time.

During the wetter times of the year, when other cyclists seek refuge in their cars, Saunders and her Easy Racer recumbent bicycle persevere across a bridge, over to Foothill Expressway and to Fremont Avenue.

"The dark and the rain is kind of hard," she said. "Three months of the year I don't see another bicycle on the road."

Both Saunders and Littau have turned their gas-free modes of transportation into a weekend recreational activity as well, when they climb up the hills toward Skyline Boulevard and the coast.

Pat Sharp is not one of those people.

"I don't bike for fun. I don't think it's fun. It's my car," the 67-year-old substitute teacher declared of her maroon Trek bicycle.

A self-described "over the top" environmentalist who lives in downtown Palo Alto, she started recycling in 1968 "when you had to take everything to the dump," uses cloth bags at the grocery store and collects extra shower water to flush her toilet.

Cycling -- instead of driving to work and to shop for groceries at Safeway -- fits in perfectly with her waste-minimizing lifestyle.

She proudly admits to telling previous employers she did not own a car, even though she does, so she could commute by bike.

It wasn't Palo Alto's bike boulevard that convinced Stanford University professor Tom Wasow, 61, to "fall in love" with his two wheels.

It was the weather.

Since moving from Massachusetts to Barron Park 33 years ago, Wasow has found his bicycle -- which he describes as a "real old junker" -- to be the easiest way for him to get around the Stanford campus, rain or shine.

On the weekends, he takes either a mountain bike or road bike and cycles up to Skyline Boulevard with a group.

"We're all rather old to be doing this stuff. I'm one of the younger ones at 61," he joked.

But for other bike commuters, Palo Alto's wider roads and more attentive motorists eased the transition away from their cars.

While living in New Jersey before moving west, Littau said, "I didn't take my bike out of my garage."

"There are narrow roads, and the drivers don't make any allowances for bicyclists," he said.

And around Saunders' previous home in Santa Cruz, "the roads are all beat up with lots of potholes," she said.

Perhaps it's no wonder then that Palo Alto earned the designation as a "Bicycle Friendly Community" in 2003 by the bicycle advocacy and education organization, the League of American Bicyclists.

"The city is very innovative in the way it treats cyclists," Bill Nesper, program manager with the League of American Bicyclists, said.

Some of those innovations include the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard, which was the first of its kind in the nation in 1982; zoning regulations that require new developments to provide bike parking; and the $5 million investment to complete a bicycle and pedestrian tunnel at Homer Avenue under the train tracks in 2004.

The annual Bike to Work Day also contributes to Palo Alto's bike-friendly title. Last month, 1,063 cyclists participated in the event, according to Palo Alto's Commute Coordinator Kathy Durham.

This year, Palo Alto will apply to bump up its cycling status from "gold" to "platinum" in the League of American Bicyclists' program.

So far, only one city has achieved platinum: Davis, Calif., which has nearly three times as many bike commuters as Palo Alto.

"We're going to hope. Of course we'd like to be right up there with them," said Gayle Likens, Palo Alto's transportation-projects manager.

"We are going to try to make the case that we have implemented a number of things that are unique to Palo Alto," she added.

New plans in the works to make cycling safer and more convenient include a $216,000 trial bicycle boulevard on Maybell Avenue and Donald Drive. Construction will begin next month, and the boulevard would provide a safe passage between El Camino Real and Arastradero Road.

In addition, the bicycle parking and storage station at the downtown Caltrain station reopened in February and a project to improve the sprawling intersection at Stanford Avenue and El Camino for pedestrians and cyclists will start sometime next year, Likens added.

But not everyone who lives or works in Palo Alto finds cycling as convenient or essential as the 5.6 percent of dedicated two-wheel commuters.

The 80.6 percent of Palo Altans who drive to work may do it because of long distances between home and work, the need to make frequent trips, or out of convenience.

"I'm bad," confessed one city employee who asked that his name not be used. "I live here, and I work here, and I still drive."

He explained that his job required driving to various parts of Palo Alto during the day, which is easier for him to do by car.

Christine Potochny, mother of three, said that having kids is her main barrier to leaving the car at home.

"You have to pick them up and take them to the orthodontist. It's more difficult (without a car)," the south Palo Alto resident said as she headed into Whole Foods for groceries.

When she was working, she added, her commute was at least 10 miles -- farther than she would like to go by bike.

As easy as Palo Alto is to navigate on two wheels, many people think it's far easier on four.

When compared to some European countries -- the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark -- Palo Alto's 5.6 percent cyclist figure looks paltry.

"It likes to think of itself as a very bike-friendly town. I used to think that until I spent a week in the Netherlands biking around," Wasow said.

"It was like night and day. They really make accommodations for cyclists there," he added.

A whopping 28 percent of trips in urban areas are by bicycle in the Netherlands, 20 percent in Denmark, and 12 percent in Germany, compared with 1 percent in the United States, according to a 2003 article in the American Journal of Public Health by John Pucher, Ph.D., and Lewis Dijkstra, Ph.D., entitled "Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons from The Netherlands and Germany."

Nesper said Americans should not look upon those figures as unattainable for the United States.

"A lot of people use it as a crutch to say Danish cities or German cities or Dutch cities have a lot of density and their culture is more predisposed to that kind of thing, which is crazy," Nesper said.

"They had to make a choice as well in the '70s and '80s as the car was becoming more and more prevalent."

Though committed bike commuters point to Palo Alto's bicycle boulevard, proximity to recreational riding opportunities and the weather as encouraging their mode of transportation, they are intimately aware of embedded discouragements throughout the city.

No alternative is provided when bike lanes are blocked off or torn up for road construction, Wasow said.

Ironically, Charleston/Arastradero corridor traffic calming efforts -- meant to encourage biking and walking -- have caused cyclists to put themselves at risk on a portion of Charleston Road between El Camino and Alma Street, Littau added.

Now, instead of having room for a bike lane and parked cars, cars may stop for five minutes in the bike lane to drop off and pick up children at a day care, he explained.

"In the end, it's actually more dangerous than it used to be," Littau observed.

Wasow described a similarly counterintuitive example of the city's half measures to provide safe bike routes.

Passing through the Homer Tunnel to downtown, cyclists immediately run out of safe options, Wasow said.

They must either travel the wrong way down one-way Homer Avenue or turn onto Alma with no bike lane -- "which is death," he said.

"You come out on your bike, and suddenly there's no place to go," he concluded.

Alma's lack of bike lanes and the cars' fast speeds dissuade teacher Elke Horn from cycling to her job in Mountain View.

"It's not safe to go on Alma," she said.

Plus, she added, Palo Alto makes it easy for drivers.

"It's much better to cars than Berkeley," Horn said. "There's plenty of parking."

Cycling advocates remain optimistic that more residents will overcome the barriers to adopting the two-wheeled habit -- with a little encouragement.

Besides having bike boulevards, tunnels and lanes in place, Nesper, of the League of American Bicyclists, said a crucial component to bicycle friendliness is having successful ways to convince motorists to give biking a try.

With some behavior changes among residents, "we could easily double or triple our walking and biking trips," said Kishimoto, who can be spotted cycling throughout Palo Alto.

"One of the biggest psychological hurdles is to actually get yourself a bicycle," she said.

Practical-thinking Sharp thinks gasoline hitting $5 a gallon will convince many drivers to become cyclists.

"I think money is what's going to get more people," she said.

Others, however, might change their transportation mode because of the people around them.

Saunders received a nudge from her bike-advocate boyfriend.

Observing many employees around Stanford Research Park arriving by bike convinced Littau that he could do it, too.

"There's a culture behind it," he explained.

He estimated that about 16 percent of his co-workers bike to the office, and said the Palo Alto Research Center reimburses bike commuters for some of their expenses.

And once he began, he got hooked.

"It's not as insulated as that quick dash to your car in the morning and the drive in. You really are more aware of everything, the change in seasons, and there's a lot to be said for that," he said.

Fletcher turned to cycling and bicycle advocacy 30 years ago as a mother of a young son who needed a safe way to get to Fairmeadow Elementary School.

And now, she has the pleasure of observing wobbly novices, teams of hardcore cyclists and wheelchair-users travel down her namesake bike boulevard.

Before heading home on Bryant, Fletcher makes sure her helmet is fastened securely under her chin and her Velcro ankle straps are snug around the bottoms of her gray jeans.

She then extends a neon-orange, lollipop-shaped plastic reflector rod from the side of her blue Breezer bicycle.

It's called a "spacer", she says, and it's from Finland. It tells cars to keep their distance when passing by.

Fletcher is not finished advocating for more bike routes and bicycles in Palo Alto.

For one thing, she would like to see another connection over U.S. Highway 101 so cyclists can cross the freeway during the half of the year when the underpass at Adobe Creek is closed.

But most of all, "of course, we could use more bikes on the boulevard," Fletcher said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jon S
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 12, 2007 at 11:10 pm

Palo Alto High, with its high cost for parking permits, also has hundreds who bike to school every morning, and are able to reach classes faster than their peers who drive.

Paly even installed additional bike racks to accommodate the increasing numbers of bikers, and that still is not even enough!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2007 at 5:50 pm

It is interesting that the article mentions how riders on two wheels are rare in winter. I wonder if on hot summer days there is an equal drop in ridership.

Like this comment
Posted by RS
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 14, 2007 at 8:21 pm

>I wonder if on hot summer days there is an equal drop in ridership.

I don't notice it on the route I take. Winter adds two factors, rain and darkness. I dont mind getting wet, but cars dont do well in rain. I dont mind the darkness, but it does limit driver's ability to see me. Since my more dangerous roads are getting passed Moffet, I just need twilight to last until I get to the steven's creek trail. This year though, I might catch the San Jose lightrail and then the Caltrain to extend my season once I lose the sunlight.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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