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.
Dystopia by the Bay
8 hours ago