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We Have Come a Long Way but …

Author: Bike East Bay

Date: March 1, 2015

Yes, advocacy has come a long way from the dark days of the 90’s when leaders such as Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of Transform, was told to get a real job, and traffic engineers asked why they even had to meet with us bike advocates–“what’s the point?”

Today, BART has become one of the most bike-friendly transit services in the country, bike lanes are multiplying with wide buffers and green paint, new bridges routinely get bike paths, new funding measures include money for bikes, and interns think about a career in bike advocacy. But the last two weeks were stark reminders of how far we have yet to go.

Take a trip with us through four East Bay cities where the cause of safe and inviting streets recently hit a road bump when your hard-working staff and some of our volunteers paid a visit. We wish the story could start with “Once upon a time.”

In city #1, we met with the local traffic engineer to discuss a repaving project on an important street that leads to a BART station. There is also a freeway nearby that poses challenges to people bicycling. When we suggested adding buffered bike lanes and some green paint at the freeway on ramps, the traffic engineer delicately tried to explain to us that his city doesn’t necessarily want to promote bicycling too much. “We don’t like change in our town, you understand” is what he said, forgetting that the freeway and the BART station completely changed the town from the rural village it once was, readily apparent from old photographs on the wall outside the office we were meeting in. The engineer is going to consider centering some bike sharrow stencils at the most dangerous spots, while we’ll keep pushing for better bike lanes.

On to City #2 where a bike ped project is being developed to connect a neighborhood on one side of a freeway to a BART station on the other side. Seems like a good idea to us. And you might think it’s doable given the road has eight lanes of traffic. Initial plans to redesign the road with six lanes for cars with protected bike lanes looked encouraging. In fact, a protected intersection was even suggested. Enter the traffic engineer.

The lane removal would cause the road to “fail,” the traffic engineer said, as they love to say when poo-pooing bike projects. Not only would a lane removal cause failure, but so would adding a few square feet of green paint at an intersection, where bike commuters could position themselves safely before crossing the street. “Cars need to make a right turn there,” said you-know-who. There was a supportive planner in the room and even he had to take issue with the engineer’s objection to removing an unnecessary free right turn lane. A small victory for us in what may become an entirely forgettable project if the traffic engineer gets his way. We’ll keep at it.

I know what you’re thinking–“we need more women traffic engineers.” And you’re right, we do. But come with us to cities 3 and 4. In City #3, the principal planner on an intersection ‘improvement’ project forgot to include bike lanes through the intersection and then again on the far side of the intersection, opposite of where a multi-use path terminated. We wanted to meet with her and discuss our ideas for including bike access. She explained over the phone that “all had been done to consider bike access” and the project “was consistent with the city’s complete streets policy.” We begged to differ. After lengthy discussion of the issue, she exasperatedly asked “do you people want bike access on every street?” Well, yeah, duh! We’re still trying to set up that meeting.

At City #4, things got a little better, but no thanks to the principal planner. We are pushing for new bike lanes on two streets near an educational facility, where many people walk and bike. The bike lane idea is in an adopted city plan that was over many years discussed, voted on, discussed some more, approved, filed in triplicate, re-discussed, re-approved and then re-filed again. The local bicycle committee was meeting one day and we thought it a good idea to ask for their input and support. While many committee members nodded their heads in agreement when hearing about the project, and some commented they liked the idea of bike lanes and acknowledged they are needed, the principal planner was concerned. She chimed in frequently with “I don’t know…” “we should study the idea more…” “[the local theater] will be up in arms,” and made these comments as often as she could. Finally, when she stated matter of factly that it’s not the school’s place to tell the city how to change their streets, we were compelled to remind her that the school had done just such over many years and on many nearby projects. She agreed to let it go to an email vote after the meeting.

Most planners and traffic engineers are supportive and we enjoy working with them to improve your commute, but some are stuck in car mode, and that’s all they know, even in an era of complete streets, walkable neighborhoods, and dropping levels of driving. They need training, and we plan to give them just that. Thankfully we know their city council members and how to take advantage of such relationships.

Thanks for listening ‘you people’…

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