Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mountain View streets: Pedestrian and Cycling Friendly?

The New York Times recently did a wonderful story about how European cities are not only directing resources towards improving access for cyclists and pedestrians, but are actively trying to retard the flow of motor vehicle traffic in order to promote cycling, walking, and public transit (which is often rail or priority-access bus lines). The text of the article was quite positive: streets for people, not for cars (which contain people, but are typically around 95% car, only 5% human), although the title was arguably directed at a motor-centric audience... a later opinion piece referred to this as "the windshield view".

In any case, what Europe realizes is a priority on infrastructure for individual-passenger motor vehicle and infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians is to a large degree mutually exclusive. I have experienced this first hand since I began working in Mountain View, CA, from my previous job in Palo Alto just to the north.

There's a striking transition as one rides to the north along Central Expressway with its wide, bike-lane-like shoulders (not actually bike lanes but they certainly look and mostly act like bike lanes). As you head north you reach the San Antonio Road overpass next to the Caltrain station, when upon emerging from the other side: poof! The shoulder disappears and you're left to fight for roughly-paved right lane on what is now Alma with auto traffic which views the posted speed limit as a 3-sigma lower bound. This hardly seems to justify Palo Alto's self-proclaimed reputation as a hotspot of cycling friendliness. There's a recommended meandering detour for cyclists through a residential area, but it's obviously much slower than a direct road.

So point Mountain View, right?

Mountain View does have a lot of bike lanes, counting Central's shoulders. But it doesn't overcome the fundamental flaw in Mountain View's street grid. The roads are simply too wide. Four lanes, two in each direction, is narrow by Mountain View standards: there's superposed a network of "expressways" with three or in places even four lanes in each direction. Nobody wants to walk or bike on such a street, so driving is simply the way people get from point A to point B for destinations here, even if it's simply to cross the road or go a block away.

Middlefield in Mountain View

At intersections of such wide roads left turns are impossible without priority turn phases. So instead of two phases (a 50% chance to get a green light, on average) you now need six phases. When going straight, you now typically now have a 1/3 chance of making the light: you now wait at 1/6 of the intersections which otherwise you'd have been able to cruise through.

So you're not only waiting more, but each wait is longer. Intersections need to be timed sufficiently long to allow limited-mobility pedestrians to get across the street with a full green cycle. The wider the road, the longer the signal. The amount of time spent waiting at lights is directly proportional to the length of the light phases. Just because cars are expected to drive faster doesn't mean the old and infirm can.

The result: bike lanes or not, driving or cycling, you spend a whole lot more time waiting at red lights in Mountain View than in Palo Alto with its "human-sized" roads. Even on a bike it seems like you're stationary more than actually moving. Indeed riding or even driving through Mountain View on Middlefield or California, two roads which are consided bicycle-friendly, is slow going. Central northbound isn't much better. Cycling southbound on Central has the advantage of having the adjacent railway block cars from a good fraction of the intersections in that direction (you can go around the intersection rather than through it); ironically it is not listed as a recommended route on bike maps since it's an "expressway".

So what drivers do, of course, it take the freeway instead. If you can reach any of the three major highways which pass through the city, get on those. This increases travel distances, vehicle speed, pollution, and the temptation towards bigger, faster accelerating, and less fuel-efficient vehicles.

With all of this driving, people need to park wherever they go, even if it's just for coffee down the street. So if businesses want customers, and if landlords want commercial tenants, they need to surround themselves with parking lots. This makes walking even less attractive, as navigating parking areas with cars coming from every direction is discomforting or even dangerous. And parking lots add to the walking distance, and Americans typically have a very limited tolerance for walking.

So with the exception of the Castro Street oasis, a pedestrian and cycling friendly Mountain View is a lost cause. You simply cannot support high-speed high-volume car infrastructure and simultaneously provide an environment where walking and cycling is attractive. The only thing to do is follow Europe's example. Make driving less attractive and you automatically make walking and cycling more attractive. And more walkers, more cyclists, feeds the loop which encourages still more to these natural transportation modes. And walking enables public transportation, since public transit is rarely door-to-door. So there is then even less reason to drive, even more reason to practice human forms of transportation.

Matilda in Sunnyvale

The sad thing is Mountain View could be worse: it could be much worse. It could be like Sunnyvale, directly to the south. Yesterday I went for a run through along the beautiful Baylands trail. But when I emerged from the southern boundary of Moffit Field I was in Sunnyvale, near Matilda Ave. Matilda, a "local" street, makes the European autostrada look silly: 3-4 lanes in each direction, extending out to even 6 lanes with the addition of dedicated left-turn lanes. I was a hunted animal running along Matilda. There wasn't another pedestrian or even cyclist in sight. But I eventually made it, first to Maude (a road of only Mountain View proportions) and then, after criss-crossing the street due to disappearing sidewalks, back to work. Next time I run the Baylands trail, I'm turning back to return the way I came.

What a tragic, misguided waste of land and resources it all is.


fulmar2 said...

Going to have to disagree with you on this one... Mountain View paths and bike lanes are superb. There are legal ways around long waiting / trying to hit the left turn lanes. One example is simply using the cross walks. At each intersection, while you're cruising at 15mph towards a changing light, you have time to decide what the best strategy is for each intersection. For me, it's second nature. I love mountain view due to the abundance of wide, safe feeling, moderately-paced-traffic streets. Wide lanes mean more room for the cars to give you a generous berth.

Brian Peterson said...

Dan - I actually find Castro to be very dangerous to cyclists. The street parking causes people to "dive" in to spots without looking at all for a cyclist or pedestrians. Additionally, cars pull crazy uturns and such on Castro when they realize the missed a parking spot or drove past their destination. I've almost been hit several times, and I know other riders who have been hit. I try and avoid riding on Castro street for the most part.

John Romeo Alpha said...

I view it as tragically unfortunate that much of the developing world has adopted something similar to the image of North Mathilda and what it stands for--people, mainly solitary individuals, moving at nominal high speed in gas burning vehicles of their own, from place of habitation to place of employment to place of consumer economic activity to place of mass entertainment and back--as the target model for their own aspirations. A dream which is dehumanizing, unsustainable, and unlivable. A dream which a few, like China, have achieved, and are taking to new levels of their own. What have we done, is not an unfair question at this point.

djconnel said...

Fuklmar2: wider roads bring higher peak speeds (not necessarily higher averages, due to the time spent at traffic lights, and traffic since "everyone drives everywhere"). This is especially a problem at corners, which are designed for speed, and increase the chances of getting clipped. So I respect your preference, but I feel I'm more likely to get killed riding in the 'burbs than in San Francisco, and statistics support that. And Steven's Creek Trail is great, but for "up-down" Middlefield and California are very slow with the extreme light cycles.

Brian: Castro is great for pedestrians. I actually like riding it because there's people there, not just cars, and while it's slow I enjoy being around real people.

John: +1

fulmar2 said...

This is interesting - like Brian P, I feel endangered on Castro Street MV due to the narrow road, and possibility of cars opening doors. I rarely take that route - because I feel it is unsafe! I certainly agree that some "wide" roads like central expressway are less safe due to the speed of the vehicles. Nevertheless, my main point was that Mountain View is one of the nicest places in the world to ride a bike. I have ridden bikes in many, many countries, and most of these 50 states... and Mountain View, in my estimation is a cycling utopia with generous bike lanes, and safe feeling roads. I have ridden all over Europe, and yes, there are small regions of cycling bliss - but honestly, the Peninsula has a MUCH higher density of cycling friendly routes than I ever encountered in countries that Americans often tout as being cycling utopias. Do you like riding on sidewalks? OK Germany is a decent place for cycling. Do you like bike lanes that abruptly end after A FEW HUNDRED FEET... and then start up again after 1/2 mile? If so, London is OK. Sure, there are always things that can be improved, here in Mountain View. Palo Alto has the wonderful Ellen Fletcher Bicycle boulevard - just a few blocks away from Central... OR Park Avenue that is almost as nice. That's two great alternatives within a mile of each other. They aren't much slower, either, due to road blocks that prohibit cars from crossing.. and due to 2 way stop signs that often let bikes cruise through. Finally, the bike sensors really work, and are nearly immediate when you arrive, at least on these roads. Sorry if my comment seems highly contradictory... I really like your blog, so I don't mean to say anything negative towards you. But I do want to point out to Peninsula residents that they are blessed with the highest density of cycling wonder in the world. We should give thanks for this awesomeness, and of course, continue to make improvements.

djconnel said...

Thanks for that feedback! I really like alternate views.

Park and Bryant are in Palo Alto, not Mountain View, and part of my point is as you go from Palo Alto to Mt View to Sunnyvale / Santa Clara things get worse as roads get wider. Not primarily for safety reasons but due to riding time. And while Bryant is nice until it essentially terminates into a maze of residential circles, Park has a large number of stop signs which cyclists generally run... until Palo Alto's finest decide this is a scourge on the neighborhood and crack down with expensive tickets.

I've not ridden in Germany. I have ridden in UK but took the train to clear the London sprawl zone. I've ridden in Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, and Greece (as well as Viet Nam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) and in each the drivers were more respectful of cyclists than they are in the US. That's a more important factor than infrastructure. On the other hand, British and German drivers have a different reputation.

So really the big deal for me isn't that Middlefield or Central or Mary or Maude are particularly dangerous. It's the interminable traffic lights. At work the mode share of cycling is no more than 1% (and walking essentially zero) despite a large density of residences near by. In contrast in San Francisco it's much higher, and it's also higher in Palo Alto.

murphstahoe said...

Michael Matthews takes Caltrain to Mountain View, Light Rail to Middlefield, and walks from there, FWIW.

tamtom said...

I live in Mountain View and bike to work in Palo Alto 5x/wk. I also bike my child (used to be 2 children) to preschool in Palo Alto 5x/wk when school is in session - I drop her off and then continue on to work.

So my priorities are much more heavily weighted to safety than yours, and less towards speed. I can't go more than 10-12 mph with all that load anyway, and while I can accept _my_ falling off my bike (and it has happened, before children :), I would beat myself up forever if it happened to my child (or children).

I almost never take California or Middlefield to go up the spine of the Peninsula. I _much_ prefer taking Latham or Montecito.

Both are human scaled streets (1 lane in each direction), and don't have too many stop signs to break the flow.

IIRC, Latham has no stop signs from Escuela to Ortega - just one light in the middle.

Montecito is an official "bike boulevard" (yes, Mountain View has bike boulevards too) and is very pleasant to ride, at least from Shoreline to Rengstroff.

Also, one of my neighbours who is on the Mountain View Bike/Ped committee says that they are considering a new bike boulevard, and are taking input into where it should be.

So if you really care about bicyling in Mountain View, you know where you can direct your comments :)

-- Shankari

djconnel said...

Thanks for those suggestions! I've ridden on neither Latham nor Montecito. I'll look for those!