Tuesday, December 14, 2010

re-cycling the Marin Headlands

Back in April I lamented the closing of the Marin Headlands for construction. Well, the construction was finally completed last month, and Sunday for the first time since then I rode the loop.

I've been sick for two weeks now: sniffling, hacking, and coughing has been epidemic at work, and after Thanksgiving it was my turn in line. So I've been feeling sort of crappy, riding as I'm able. Yet yesterday I motivated myself to try a loop of the challenging and beautiful Headlands. The last time I'd ridden to the Hawk Hill summit was September, when it had been unpaved, serene, and illegal. The chance to have ridden it without car traffic had been too much to resist. Now the pavement is done and yesterday, fearful of what I would observe, I set off.

Hawk Hill in September
Hawk Hill in September, during repaving.

The result: the pavement is pristine, as expected, which is nice, of course. And my fears of "improvement" were unfounded: there's been little "improvement" to degrade what had been, with the exception of tourist vehicles, a spectacular gem of a road so close to the city of San Francisco. There's a prominent traffic circle at the intersection of McCullough and Conzelman, a few pull-outs presumibly so slower moving (???) cars can allow others to pass, obviously improved guard rails, and sand bags on McCullough which seem to serve as a buffer for vehicles which drive off the road. All of this seems like the sort of infrastructure you'd expect to see on Alpine roads taken by long-distance travelers. The traffic on Conzelman, on the other hand, is virtually all tourists driving their rental-SUVs up the hill so they can admire the view and snap digital photos. And on McCullough most of the traffic is bicycles: there's not much reason for cars to drive there.

So my suspicion that this was all a pork-fest for the formerly Madame Speaker remains. As a result we all get to use those spectacular roads one less summer of our lives, and the economy is driven incrementally further into its chasm of debt. Oh, I forget, it's "stimulus". The new guard rails will generate all sorts of revenue for future generations, spurring a rebirth of American productivity.

Anyway, the loop is much nicer in this season of fall/winter than it is in the summer, anyway. The weather isn't that much different, and the tourists are much reduced. And nothing spoils a good road like cars.

Which is why the proper approach is to close it to cars. Create a pedestrian lane on the "view" side, a bidirectional bike lane on the inland side, and let people enjoy the beautiful, short hike to the summit and back. Oh, people would probably whine and complain about disabled access, and I'm sympathetic, but if disabled access requires maintaining vehicular access, then we should just convert the entire National Park trail system into paved vehicular roads. Such an investment would truly be "stimulus": simulating a little health and exercise, and substantially improving the tranquility of what should be a very wonderful place.


Mark S. said...

Dan - Thanks for your thoughts on the Headlands work. Riding the loop for the first few times I noticed how the new guard rails made things safer for cars but worse for cyclists. They effectively narrow the road on the steep descent and make the consequences of a cycling accident somewhat more severe.

On the other hand, a car overshooting one of those curves without guardrails would likely be a very severe accident so it may be that the tradeoff is worth it, but the new, narrower roadway was my strongest impression of the Hawk Hill improvements.

- Mark S.

djconnel said...

I agree a car overshooting those corners would be bad. But on the other hand, an obvious danger tends to make drivers slow, restoring the safety margin to the driver but, less relevant to the driver, improving the safety of everyone else on the road. Compare a video game to driving: in the video game, there's very low cost to error. You start over, but as a result you drive recklessly (by design). So while on the face of it such "safety" improvements seem to help, they invariably result in faster vehicular traffic, which is greater risk to pedestrians and cyclists and, for that matter, other drivers. So I suspect the safety advantages are something of a wash.