A Radical Proposal for Biking in San Rafael

A radical proposal to promote biking in downtown San Rafael.

San Rafael has written off Second and Third for too long and ignored the benefits reaped from promoting bicycling. To change it, San Rafael should take the radical step of installing a cycle track on Third, reclaiming at least that part of the city for people.  (Click here for an interactive version of the plan.)

Bicycling is a major part of life in San Anselmo and Fairfax. Though both towns have a long way to go before practical cycling is feasible on its main thoroughfares, both are home to the serious Bikers that hang out around downtown and form the heart of Marin’s bicycling culture. Though proximity to open space may play a role, both towns have done what they could to build a biking culture by installing racks, painting sharrows (Class III lanes) and bike lanes (of the Class II variety), and planning for Class I lanes on arterials. San Rafael, in contrast, has reserved its downtown roads for the car, pushing bikes and even pedestrians out of the way to make room for more Ross Valley car commuters.

This is odd for a number of reasons. San Rafael doesn’t have a major population west of downtown, so the Second/Third arterials almost exclusively serve residents outside their jurisdiction. Yet, the population they do serve are those bicycle-mad San Anselmoans and Fairfaxians. Rather than draw on the best habits of Ross Valley, the arterials draw on its worst.

To remedy this, I propose the San Rafael Bikeway, a two-way separated Class I cycle track. Modeled after Washington, DC’s 15th Street cycle track, the bikeway would be 11 feet wide: four feet for westbound cyclists, four feet for eastbound cyclists, and a three foot buffer. Including the complementary Class II bike lanes east of Grand Ave., the Bikeway would run two miles through the whole of downtown San Rafael.

Practically, the Bikeway would be a major boon to San Rafael. Not only would it take some of the pressure off the roads by putting more people on bikes – a much smaller form of transportation – but it would calm traffic along Third and make the sidewalks along Third much more pedestrian-friendly. Bike lanes of the Class I and II varieties calm traffic, meaning they bring down vehicle speeds and road noise and the protection of a bicycle lane makes the sidewalk more inviting. Calmer streets also tend to have more efficient traffic flow, so Level of Service would likely remain the same.

Perhaps most important is that calmer streets are safer streets. Arterials like Second and Third promote higher driving speeds and cause more severe injury crashes. Putting in the Bikeway and calming even Third would make downtown a far safer place than it is today.

Bicyclists also tend to shop more and spend more than drivers. As the Third Street merchants would be the ones with the best exposure, they would have more to gain from the track’s installation than Fourth Street, rebalancing the downtown.

Politically, the Bikeway would be a major pain for the city. The plan envisions that the 47 parking spaces along Third Street would "float" between the Bikeway and the street during off-peak hours, providing protection against traffic. During rush hour, the parking lane would be a traffic lane, ensuring that cars are still easily whisked back to Ross Valley as unimpeded as they are today.

Though the 47 spaces represent less than 4 percent of parking in the area – 975 spaces* are available in the Third Street garages alone – merchants and drivers typically view any parking as sacrosanct. Removing even a single space can lead to legislative gridlock, and displacing 47, even for just a few hours a day, would likely raise a righteous indignation never before seen in San Rafael.  Ross Valley drivers would probably raise a stink about losing a traffic lane during off-peak hours, though Third has more than enough capacity at two lanes in the middle of the day.

To help allay such fears, San Rafael should approach the problem methodically before even announcing the details of the project. Among the unknowns to study: how many Third Street drivers shop on Third; what’s the typical occupancy of those parking spaces; how many cyclists are expected to use the route in 5 years; how much do cyclists spend in downtown San Anselmo vs. drivers; and how many people will use the intersections per hour in 5 years, and what share of those will be riding bikes. The city must be ready to answer its critics from Day One.

There are a few practical design issues as well. The route has a huge number of curb cuts, which diminish the effectiveness of the Class I concept. The hill at Third and E streets is a relatively steep one for a casual bicyclist. The Second Street segment is incredibly complicated – if Third can be narrowed without removing a traffic lane between Ritter and Union, that would make the eastern half of the route much more simple. These problems should not stop us, though.  Fixing them is only a challenge, not an impossibility.

This is a radical plan, not because of the technical challenge, but because it would require San Rafael to be bold in a way it hasn’t been in the past, and to put people before cars in a way it has definitely not. This plan, or something like it, would reshape both the city and Ross Valley and provide an alternative infrastructure to serve Marin’s cyclists.


*I had to estimate the Third & C lot based on the number of spaces on the top deck.  I might add that I have never once seen a car up there, so we're not exactly wanting for a place to park.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Michael May 01, 2012 at 03:36 AM
Here's a real radical idea David... enforce the rules of the road on those riding bicycles.
Sierra Salin May 01, 2012 at 04:05 PM
It may be a radical idea, however, it is much less radical than the consequences of our continued overly destructive drive on buy, current realty reality. We are most of us, too obliviously habitualized to mindlessly getting into a car and turning the key, to even understand the problem, wanting only our own individual empires and private 3000# of once living environments to drive around in. We assume that the earth is huge and has limitless resources, etc, when in fact, we are consuming the environments which sustain all life at a rate which is disheartening for anyone paying attention. Better bike, pedestrian, and mass transportation infrastructure is the only sane alternative. The sooner we begin to build a livable future, the greater the possibilities of leaving something worth living in.....
John Ferguson May 02, 2012 at 06:28 PM
I'd be happy if we could install a protected lane for bikes on 2nd between West End and Miramar. That section is positively treacherous for bikes, and we need to connect the Ross Valley with Anderson Drive in a safe manner at the very least. I ride to the Larkspur ferry daily through that section and although drivers are generally very courteous when I'm on 2nd it's usually a white knuckle ride from West End to Miramar/1st street. And there's no easy way to get back, so I go home (Fairfax) through Ross. To Michael's point, most drivers see bicyclists as scofflaws, although it's rare that someone exposed on a 30 lb bicycle would challenge someone else in a 3000 lb armored vehicle. To a large degree, cyclists don't follow all the rules of the road because those rules were clearly not designed with them in mind. Just like infrastructure. Cyclists are treated like second or third class citizens, and unfortunately we sometimes behave like it..
Sierra Salin May 02, 2012 at 07:51 PM
Nicely put John.
Charles Martel May 03, 2012 at 05:56 PM
I want to thank Sierra for sharing her enlightenment with those of us living in the darkness. It must be a drag to live in a world of oblivious, slack-jawed destroyers of the environment, and I appreciate her speaking so knowingly on behalf of the inarticulate rest of us.
Sierra Salin May 03, 2012 at 09:11 PM
Thank's Charlie, give this a look. http://blog.alexanderhiggins.com/2012/05/02/ambassador-exaggeration-fate-world-depends-fukushima-reactor-4-128701/ Not that it matters much, but, I wear pants, by the way.
Alex Zwissler May 06, 2012 at 02:28 PM
I love this! Just to add a thought...if it ever get to the point of actually being studied, one interesting example of the parking space wars is Fisherman's Wharf, where merchants fought the loss of spaces to the activation of the F line. Of course, the effort turned out to be a boon for them, and they are now the leading advocates for the extension of E and F line services. The simple lesson is that the loss of parking can actually increase the number customers for at least some merchants. Also, it can add to the overall ambiance and attractiveness of a business district, something that is hard to "study" or quantify....just my two cents...thanks for putting this our there David
Sierra Salin May 06, 2012 at 04:40 PM
I grew up in San Rafael. A,B,C,D, 1st & 2nd streets were all 2 way streets, and folks (perhaps mostly kids) rode bikes everywhere. I have called San Rafael the city with no soul/the city of cars for 25 years now, as in general, one seems to be taking their life in their hand(lebars) to ride, or to walk in San Rafael, and one needs to be more careful there than most any other town. San Rafael seems to be built and designed for cars, and rapid traffic flow/commuting, and is not really designed for walking or biking. Getting from Greenfield Ave to anywhere east of where 2nd, 3rd, and 4th st come together by the gas station is not much fun. And, under it all, it is we who mindlessly hop in, turn the key, and drive everywhere, expecting that there to always be smooth pavement and unlimited resources ahead. How do we design and plan now for a working community and ecofriendly future?
Liz Yuen May 06, 2012 at 07:31 PM
How many car lanes would this leave on which streets in San Rafael?
David Edmondson May 07, 2012 at 02:32 AM
I don't think any lanes would need to be removed. The ONLY lane that would be removed is the left-hand lane on Third, but that will only be during non-commute hours when the street has more than enough capacity at two lanes. Here's the basics of my proposed roadway changes: * West End Ave - Sharrows (Class III lanes): bikes mix with traffic, no lane changes. * West End Ave to Second/Third Street Wye - Remove the median, narrow the lanes. * Second/Third Street Wye to Ritter Ave - The left-hand lane would be converted to parking during non-commute hours. During commute hours, the left-hand lane would be a through-lane, just as it is now. Lanes wouldn't need to be narrowed. * Ritter Ave - Either sharrows/Class III OR a continuation of the Class I Third Street Lane, in which case parking may be removed on one side. I'm the least sure about how to handle this area; it needs more study * Second Street to Grand Ave - No lane removals, but all lanes narrowed to 10 feet or 9.5 feet. * Grand Ave onward - Narrow lanes to accommodate the Class II/on-street bike lane.
Rico May 07, 2012 at 03:43 PM
I am all for bike lane additions anywhere. I love to ride a bicycle for exercise and to get out of the urban areas, I don't ride a bike to go shopping. That is the only thing that I disagree with in this article. To say that bicyclists do more shopping than people who use personal autos makes absolutely no sense at all. I don't think that making statements like that help the marketing campaign for improved bike lanes. The people who would use the new bike way through San Rafael would probably be 90 percent commuters. Lets face it, riding on busy streets is not healthy and can be dangerous. Most other recreational bike users would avoid riding on busy streets and use the back roads and trails. To me, it seems that most bicycle use in Marin is purely for recreational use. By the way, I have a friend who commutes by bicycle from Novato to Mill Valley. He told me that he tried using the Cal Park tunnel once for that commute, but it added 25 extra minutes to the trip going out of the way to use the tunnel. The tunnel was built for the SMART train and bicycle commuters using the ferry, but that $25 million tunnel is not much help for bicycle commuters who stay in Marin and don't use the ferry.
David Edmondson May 07, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Check through the article I linked to regarding bicycle shoppers: it links to at least four studies, and there's a literature review in the comments. In short, though bikers spend less per transaction, they stay in the neighborhood and come back more often. Terra Linda is too bike-hostile to bring bikers to Northgate, and they're not going to get sucked away by Target. The fact that six bikes can park where only one car can park helps, too. This plan isn't for recreational bikers - it's for utility bikers like commuters and those who just don't want to use a car. Riding on a busy street can be dangerous, but facilities like this make it safe for even the most casual rider. Seriously, read through the comments of the article linked; there's a whole movement out there. If you have time, there are a bunch of great videos on the subject of utility biking here: http://www.streetfilms.org/category/bicycles/
David Edmondson May 07, 2012 at 04:15 PM
If you only have time for one video, though, this is the one to watch: http://www.streetfilms.org/mba-bicycling/
David Edmondson May 07, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Do you recall the stated rationale for making the north-south streets into one-ways? They're not exactly high-traffic given the geography, so perhaps there's another reason. It's something that will probably come out in a future post.
Sierra Salin May 07, 2012 at 07:07 PM
I was a kid at the time, and I believe I heard traffic flow mentioned, My pops office was on the N.W.corner of 2nd and B st. Using the same streets and crosswalks today, which I walked, crossed, and rode around on as a kid, you now seem to be putting your life at risk. I know of numerous collisions between pedestrians, and one fatality in the area within the last few years.
Sierra Salin May 07, 2012 at 07:11 PM
You can likely find out by looking through the I.J. or city hall archives from the time, the whys, and wherefor's. Or perhaps ask some of the old business which are still around, such as Zappitini Ironworks? It was a couple whiles ago.....
Dr. Philly Cheeseteak May 07, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Charles, I smell sarcasm, but I may be wrong. You know what gets me? These spandex buttholes (no word play intended) who ride side by side so they can enjoy a nice chin wag. Ride single file folks! If you are able to hold down a conversation while exercising, then you aren't getting a good cadio workout !
Dr. Philly Cheeseteak May 07, 2012 at 08:37 PM
I ride my bike everywhere. It has training wheels, a huge basket for groceries, shoes, puppies and glasses and a gas motor for when I am too tired to climb the hills. It makes a lot of popping noises which scares some folks though.
Dr. Philly Cheeseteak May 07, 2012 at 08:43 PM
This is a good idea, I am tired of shrieking when riding my bike around this town. I have bugs stuck on my teeth after a wild ride through the streets of San Rafael. Sometimes i resort to driving my bike on the sidewalk which I know isn't cool--my bike and me are large and we scare little old ladies and small children.
Rico May 08, 2012 at 01:35 AM
A gas motor ? How 1980's. I just got a new full suspension mountain bike, and I found a 4000 watt 3 phase AC brushless hub motor. It runs at 72 volts and I will build a 15 amp hour lithium ion polymer battery pack for it. No, it will not be legal to ride on the streets of San Rafael, and will never be seen in the Cal Park tunnel, but perfect for off road use on Mt. Tam and other areas in west Marin. Ride on.
David Edmondson May 08, 2012 at 04:11 PM
Off-topic: I'm throwing a happy hour at San Rafael Joe's this Thursday at 6pm. Come by, mingle, drink good drinks. It'll be good times. Walking distance from the transit center and The Only Bike Rack, though if you must drive there are 945 spaces to choose from on Third and hundreds more on Second, Fourth, and Fifth.
Bill McGee May 09, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Ricardo - ask your friend what route he takes that is faster than the tunnel? Perhaps a helicopter? The only other alternatives are to go over the Bret Harte hill into Greenbrae, over Wolfe Grade, or the 580 frontage road to Sir Francis Drake Blvd past San Quentin. All these alternate routes are significantly longer and slower than using the tunnel. The tunnel is a huge advantage for anyone cycling Novato to Mill Valley. The tunnel lets out at Larkspur Landing and from there is an easy jump on to the path leading to the overpass to Corte Madera or Larkspur.
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