Saturday, May 18, 2013

Solving the Maze: Mountain View "Bike Boulevard"

Yesterday I finally cleaned the Mountain View Bike Boulevard in both directions: not a single navigational fault. That's a non-trivial accomplishment: it's a maze.

Most of the "Bike Boulevard" is described in this preliminary report from 2004. Mountain View has a problem: its streets are generally newer than those of the communities further north, and that's not a good thing. They were designed in the age of the supremacy of the car: wide roads designed for high-speed, high-capacity car traffic. Both the speed and capacity are illusionary: the wide roads intersect at controlled intersections with extremely long light cycles, the long cycles mandated by a combination dedicated left-turn phases and providing pedestrians sufficient time to cross the long distance from curb-to-curb during green. They're a disaster of urban planning.

Two major routes, not counting freeways, from Palo Alto to Sunnyvale through Mountain View are Middlefield to the north and Central Expressway to the south. Middlefield is more of a commercial street with strip malls and an enormous density of traffic lights. Central Expressway is faster, with more favorable right of way and, eastbound, a relatively small number of cross-street conflicts for cyclists due to the adjacent Caltrain tracks limiting cross-street density. Neither of these streets is good for timely cycling, however. Middlefield's strip malls create a lot of mid-block conflicts, and the traffic lights create frustrating delays, so despite its bike lanes and status as a recommended cycling route Middlefield is very unattractive. Central, on the other hand, features high-speed entry and exit points from the freeway network, and it's glass-strewn shoulders are a persistance puncture hazard.

In between is a maze of meandering residential streets. These are what the "Bike Boulevard" navigate, providing access from close to the terminus Palo Alto Bike Boulevard to at least most of the way to Sunnyvale.

But I put "Bike Boulevard" in quotes, because while it's nice to have a signed route to navigate the maze of streets and occasional paths which form it, there's nothing "boulevard" about it. Palo Alto led the way with its bike boulevard back in the 1970's: led by Ellen Fletcher, Palo Alto's bike advocate mayor, Palo Alto created a fast and safe route for cyclists to get across town. Bryant Street was converted to bike boulevard status by eliminating stop signs to reduce delays and putting in place hard vehicle barriers to eliminate it as an attraction to car traffic. It was truly visionary, to be the first in a network of bike boulevards. But for whatever reason the political momentum was lost, and it remains an only-of-its kinds certainly in Palo Alto, perhaps in the entire Bay area. Indeed, in the 1990's when the Palo Alto Bike Boulevard was extended between Embarcadero and the Menlo Park border (previously cyclists were directed to Ramona to cross Embarcadero) there was some controversy because cyclists were given no priority on this new segment. It was basically just an addition of loop detector for cyclists to trigger the traffic light at Embarcadero and signs signifying the new status of the roads the rest of the way. So there was some question about what the new designation of this portion actually signified.

Mountain View continued with this approach: signage only for its "bike boulevard". Basically nothing changed from before except that the pathological navigational skill which would have been required to complete the route unsigned was now mitigated to a reduced but nontrivial challenge. The issue is the signs, while extremely useful, are inconsistently placed and in some intersections some searching is required to find them. In some places logic by omission needs to be exercised: given no sign is visible on option A, it must be option B.

So I appreciate it: it's way nicer, psychologically, than Central and way faster than Middlefield. I've been riding it between work and the Palo Alto Caltrain station, in conjunction with a portion of the Palo Alto boulevard, sometimes using Park in Palo Alto as an alternate. But it's much more like the designated bike routes in Marin, in particular route 20, which twists and turns through local streets to help cyclists avoid the roads with high speed vehicle traffic.

I created segments for the Mountain View "Bike Boulevard" on Strava, using data from my rides today. I embed them below. These segments are completely unsuited for speed tests: they're most useful for statistics. Indeed, I find that among activities posted to Strava, successful navigation of the full thing is a very rare thing: only 6 eastbound and 4 westbound despite Strava's fairly forgiving segment matching criteria.


UpTheGrade said...

The City tried to construct a Bike Boulevard in Santa Rosa in the North Bay but met stiff resistance from affected motorists.
The traffic calming features were eventually removed and the route is now not very bike friendly, nor a fast way to cross town.

Erik van Roode said...

Found your blog by chance, decided to do some exploring. I actually live on a street part of the route, I never knew what that 'bike boulevard' meant. Now I know, I did both EB and WB on a Sunday morning.

Westbound 3.3 miles with 11 stop signs and 2 traffic lights. No wonder most people opt for middlefield and central exp.