In the Fall of 2019, after decades of advocacy from activists on both sides of the Bay, the people path on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge opened to great fanfare, as part of a four-year pilot project. Since then, over 300,000 people have crossed by bike or on foot.
But the pathway’s continued existence is not assured. There has been pressure from North Bay lawmakers and business groups to turn the path on the upper deck into another car lane. People want to know, “What is happening with the bike path?”
WHAT’S WITH THE INTERNET ADS AND LOCAL NEWS PIECES ABOUT THE BRIDGE?
The Bay Area Council, a regional business group with roles in the creation of BART and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, has taken it upon itself to advocate for a third westbound car lane on the bridge. Via a front group called the “Commonsense Transportation Coalition” they sent mailers to residents of Richmond and paid for ads on Facebook and YouTube.
Their website makes inaccurate statements about the pathway, including a misleading claim that “The third lane of the westbound deck of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was closed to cars to provide for a pedestrian and bike lane along the bridge.” Before it became home to the bike path, the “third lane” on the upper deck had been a shoulder/breakdown area since the 1970s and not a travel lane.
Their campaign launched in 2021 and initially advocated closing off bike/pedestrian access until 11 a.m. every weekday. To their credit, they have since moderated this position by suggesting that a second moveable barrier be added to the bottom deck to maintain bike access. However this proposal also has problems.
WILL A THIRD CAR LANE SOLVE CONGESTION?
Morning traffic headed from Richmond to Marin is bad, there’s no disagreement about that. The question is, “Would a third lane fix it?”. The answer is complicated.
Moving the pathway barrier to the side to make a third lane on the bridge won’t solve anything, because there are only two “receiving lanes” on I-580 near San Quentin, meaning the traffic jam would just move from the approach to the bridge to the bridge itself. A 2021 study from the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) found that I-580 would have to be widened to see congestion reduction benefits, costing $70-90 Million. But while this would shorten trips for travelers headed north on US-101, these changes would increase commute times for those headed south. To reduce congestion in both directions, an additional $250 Million dollars would be needed for a new freeway ramp.
But that would still not solve traffic problems, as decades of failed promises from freeway widenings across California and the US have proven. When we widen roads for cars, the congestion relief persists for only a short period before returning. This is because people change their behavior in response to changed conditions.
Commuters who once drove to work early to beat traffic start coming to the office later. Folks who might have passed up a job in Marin due to the long commute time decide to take it instead. Others move further away into sprawl developments enabled by the initially faster drive times. This phenomenon is called “induced travel” and it’s why the five-year, billion-dollar project to widen I-405 in Los Angeles saw traffic return worse than before within just a few years after completion.
Lastly, it is also unknown if adding more cars to the upper bridge deck, and another four-mile concrete barrier for a pathway on the lower deck, is feasible from a structural standpoint. With larger trucks and SUVs more prevalent on our roadways, and EV batteries adding additional weight, a 6-lane bridge would be under more stress than ever before. None of the recent reports evaluated the degree of strengthening to the bridge that a third lane would require, but we understand that Caltrans is studying it now.
IS THE BRIDGE PATH CAUSING POLLUTION?
This summer several local news reports repeated a concern that the pathway was causing pollution in Richmond. The Bay Area Council stated that “Traffic congestion caused by backup on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge is now the number one source of non-wildfire air pollution in the City of Richmond,” implying that adding a third westbound lane would change that.
When we asked them for their source they pointed us to this December 2022 report from PSE Healthy Energy. We reached out to the report’s authors to ask if the claim was supported by their study, and they responded that no, the study did not come to this conclusion.
Air quality is indeed a huge and longstanding issue in Richmond due to the presence of the Chevron refinery and multiple freeways. Residents of Richmond suffer higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and low birth weight than state averages due to poor air quality.
The 2022 PSE study acknowledged these harms but didn’t indicate that the solution to harmful emissions from a freeway is “more cars,” which a third lane would inevitably lead to. The report authors lay out several air quality mitigation measures including electrifying truck fleets, increasing transit service, and planting trees. Notably absent from their list of mitigations is adding a third lane on the bridge.
WHAT DOES THE DATA SHOW?
In the summer of 2022, Caltrans published an interim report on the pathway pilot (link here – warning large PDF). After the installation of the pathway, vehicle flow on the bridge decreased slightly during the peak period. Likely due to the shorter merge following the toll plaza, about 2.5 cars/minute, fewer can use the bridge.
Additionally, maximum speeds on the bridge are slightly lower than before, possibly due to the visual effect of a narrower driving space. As an unintended benefit of this, severe injury collisions are down significantly on the upper deck at a time when such severe collisions increased on the three-lane lower deck.
On the question of delay, Caltrans found that “Travel times to access the bridge from I-80 remain close to historical averages on weekdays, Saturdays, and Sundays,” and that reduced speeds on the bridge have only increased travel times “by less than one minute” compared to before the path’s installation.
This report used data through July 2022. A final report will be released in the summer of 2024 and will update these findings.
WILL THE BIKE CONNECTIONS ON THE MARIN SIDE GET BETTER?
While Richmond has done a truly remarkable job since 2019 of providing protected bikeway approaches from BART, the Richmond Greenway, and the Bay Trail, Marin has not done its part. Users are left deciding between a dangerous ride on East Sir Francis Drake past San Quentin or vying with heavy truck traffic on Andersen Drive.
These gaps in infrastructure limit the use of the bridge path. We know that most people will only choose to ride bicycles for transportation if they feel safe from motor vehicle traffic. The current conditions work only for the most brave and enthusiastic riders but fail everyone else.
Happily, there are projects in the works. A half-mile bike/walk path gap on Francisco Boulevard East is supposed to be fixed starting this year. And a plan to extend the Bay Trail past San Quentin to the intersection of East Sir Francis Drake and Andersen Drive is in the early stages.
On the Richmond side, further protected bikeway projects are also in the works to complete the final few gaps through Point Richmond, and to the Bay Trail and the Richmond Ferry landing.
IF NOT A THIRD LANE THEN WHAT?
Advocates for another lane on the bridge propose spending a huge amount of money on it, up to a third of a Billion dollars! What, we wonder, could be done with that money instead of another lane that will inevitably fill up. This could warrant its own blog post, but some ideas are:
- More frequent transit – This could include a new Richmond-North Bay ferry, and bus service on the bridge with the third lane possibly used as transit-only during peak hours
- E-bike subsidies – Expanding on the existing $500-1000 rebates currently being offered (sign up today!) to Richmond-San Rafael Bridge commuters
- E-bike share on both sides of the the bridge – Allowing multimodal transit/bike commutes
- Peak-hour tolling/congestion pricing, to smooth out demand
- Workforce housing development in the North Bay – Increasing affordability and reducing the need for more transbay commute trips altogether
Fundamentally, the commute problem is a land use problem. A generation ago, just over half of Marin’s workforce lived outside of the county. Today that share is two-thirds. Many service sector, healthcare, and school employees cannot afford to live in Marin, and instead must endure hours-long trips to work. If we truly care about the people forced to make increasingly more difficult commutes to their jobs in Marin, the best solution is offer them an affordable home closer to work.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
November 2023 is the fourth anniversary of the path opening and the official completion of the pilot period. But this doesn’t mean the path goes away! There will be a presentation to the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) on Wednesday, November 8th, to update them on the preliminary results. Following that, Caltrans will complete its full evaluation report, due in June/July 2024, which will be followed by another meeting of BATA in the fall of 2024. At that point, a decision will be made about the future of the pathway by Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).
WHY ARE WE OPTIMISTIC?
The state policy landscape has changed in the last few years. A project to add a third car lane that would increase the total amount of driving (known as ‘vehicle miles traveled,’ or VMT) is now considered to have a negative impact on the environment under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Such impacts would have to be mitigated.
This will either make a third lane project less likely to move forward, or it could ensure that bike/pedestrian access is maintained through a barrier on the lower deck.
The Marin County Bicycle Coalition, Bike East Bay, Rich City Rides, the Trails for Richmond Action Committee, the Richmond Bike/Pedestrian Committee, and many more community partners will work hard to ensure that 24/7 access on the bridge continues for people walking and biking.
Our publicly-funded bridges simply should not require a personal automobile to cross. Walking, biking, and public transit are viable and important modes of transportation and should be treated as such.
Wednesday, 11/8/2023 @ 9:30 a.m. – Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight Committee meeting
Saturday, 11/11/2023 @ 11:00 a.m. – Richmond-San Rafael Bridge Path 4th Anniversary Celebration with Rich City Rides
June/July 2024 – Caltrans releases final study of pathway pilot
Fall 2024 – Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight final update
WHAT YOU CAN DO
You can also join our Bike East Bay “Bridging the Bay” campaign list to receive updates on this and other bike bridge project news from around the East Bay, at BikeEastBay.org/BridgingTheBay.