With spring in full swing, lots of us are getting out on bikes. Bike shops have been very busy, running low on inventory as we start to emerge from our pandemic bunkers. Adults and kids are trying new routes to work and school, while people looking to regain their fitness are seeking out new bike loops for exercise.
This is great for our fitness, for air quality and for the climate. But as our bike population grows, it's more important than ever that we make our streets and intersections safe for bikers.
The California Office of Traffic Safety reports that in 2018 cyclists were involved in 99 accidents in Palo Alto in which someone was injured or killed. In 18 of those, the cyclist was under 15 years old. For Mountain View, a somewhat larger city, there were 53 reported accidents, including six that involved children. Menlo Park, a city about half the size of Palo Alto, had 31 cyclists involved in an accident, with five of those involving children on bikes.
The Office of Traffic Safety ranks all of our cities among the worst of comparably sized cities when it comes to accidents involving cyclists. This is in part because we have more cyclists. But it also suggests that, as our ranks of cyclists continue to grow, our numbers will get even worse unless we pay careful attention to road design. Our bike routes need to be safe routes, but today that is not always the case.
I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to commute by bike throughout my decades of working, but I occasionally thought that the most dangerous thing I did all week was bike to work. It was often dark, and I usually had to cross a busy road, whether it was U.S. Highway 101 or Foothill Expressway or El Camino Real. Although my bicycle was well lit and I had reflective outerwear, I had to watch carefully.
The other day I re-rode a route I used to take frequently along Rengstorff Avenue to 101. The bike lane on Rengstorff near Middlefield Road was filled with cars parked outside of a recent housing development. At one point, I found it almost impossible to get past a large pickup truck parked in the bike lane without veering into the traffic lane. Even when there is some space, the danger of being "doored" with little room to veer out of the way looms large.
This same setup occurs on San Antonio Road near Leghorn Street. The bike lane heading west is filled with cars outside of The Greenhouse development. Palo Alto has added "sharrows" to the outside traffic lane, indicating that lane should be shared with bikes. But I am not comfortable taking the lane in heavy and fast traffic with my little bicycle.
Both of these officially designated bike routes take riders over 101 — a sketchy journey. On Rengstorff, a bicycle lane goes past on and off ramps for 101. A standard merge sign gives no indication to cars that bicycles are present even though bicycles are common here as they head to Google's campus. The bike route isn't marked on the asphalt with especially visible paint, and it is easy for a driver to get careless, especially during low-light commute hours.
On San Antonio, there is no bike lane marked at all, just a single overgrown sidewalk that bicycles (in both directions) are expected to use. Crosswalks at the 101 on- and off-ramps again have minimal signage and no noticeable paint. I have rarely seen cars slow down or stop for these crossings.
San Antonio also has a particularly dangerous intersection at Charleston Road. Multiple lanes of traffic turn into a pedestrian/bike crossing. Cars can have difficulty seeing the crossing until they are on top of it. Signage is minimal (nothing up by the turn signal), there are no right-turn-only signals and no separate timing for those who are crossing.
This intersection is an accident waiting to happen. When I am starting into the crosswalk, it is not at all clear to me that the crosswalk is a safe place to be. Just before I wrote this, a large SUV turned right in front of me as I was heading into the crosswalk. We both had "go" signals.
Some routes that are not official bike routes are so dangerous that transportation planners should specifically caution cyclists against riding on them. Alma Street in Palo Alto is particularly problematic for biking, with no shoulders, few exits when heading south and speeding cars. Even though cycling on it is such a terrifying experience that you would probably not make the mistake of getting on it twice, every week there seems to be a new cyclist on it struggling to decide whether to hug the side of the road or take over a lane until they can manage to escape by darting across lanes of traffic. With so many visitors and new arrivals in Palo Alto, we should be helping them more to avoid the worst routes.
Palo Alto has many well-marked routes for bikes, as do our neighboring cities. There also are many safety gaps, ones that could prove injurious or even fatal. Our city governments want us to bike more, and residents and commuters are stepping up. Let's maintain and foster that momentum by making sure that our streets are safe and easy to navigate for our growing bike population.