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Category Archives: Issues & Infrastructure

Caltrain, Bikes and 21st Century Choices

If you don’t know me in real life or follow me on Twitter you may not realize how much I spend at planning meetings in my city. It’s not fun, believe me. I’m there because the people who make important decisions have a hard time seeing things from non-Baby Boomer perspective. I speak up in the hope that a different point of view will be considered. Last week I was honored to be asked to write an opinion piece on Caltrain and bikes by the editor of the Mountain View Voice. Here it is, as it appeared in the May 23 print edition, now available online.

All it takes is a trip downtown at 6 p.m. on a weeknight to see the changes. Bikes overflow the racks on Castro Street and are locked to every available tree and post. Crowds of people cross Central Expressway on foot and on bikes with each signal cycle. The Caltrain platform teems with riders pushing their way onto trains that are standing room-only by the time they reach Palo Alto.

Caltrain Platform

This is not just casual observation either. Caltrain recently released the results of their passenger counts and triennial customer survey: ridership is at an all-time high with a 54% increase since 2010; ridership growth continues to strain capacity in peak periods; and all but one station saw growth. Caltrain sees this growth as a sign of continued economic recovery, as would anyone who fights workday traffic on Hwy 101 can attest.

Much of Caltrain’s growth comes from bikes. The number of people bringing bikes aboard has grown a whopping 121 percent since 2010, more than double the overall ridership growth rate. While the growth is partly due to Caltrain adding a second bike car to every train in 2011, bike-aboard ridership has continued to increase, up 19.6 percent last year. This year bike-aboard riders make up over 11 percent of all riders, making Caltrain the nation’s leader in bikes-on-transit.

Caltrain Bike car

And yet, despite a capacity of 80 bikes on most trains, people with bikes are still regularly denied boarding due to overcrowding, primarily in Peninsula cities from Millbrae to Mountain View. That’s how popular the service is.

What’s more, how people arrive and depart stations is rapidly changing. While walking to reach stations has increased modestly by 7 percent since 2010, taking transit (VTA, BART, Muni or shuttles) is flat at 4 to 7 percent. The most dramatic changes are that driving to and parking at stations has dropped by 24 percent and bicycling to the station is up 30 percent. And that’s just the last three years.

Crossing Central Expwy

So what does this mean? It means that some commonly-held assumptions that we’re too suburban to rely on walking, biking and transit, and that people won’t shift from solo driving, are wrong. People already are. In fact, 40 percent of Caltrain riders report they are car-free and that doesn’t include “car-lite” riders like me who own a car they rarely use.

Today’s transit-dependent riders are not low-income either. The average Caltrain rider makes $117,000 a year. Most riders are making a conscious choice to not drive that’s not simply driven by economics. It’s driven by a desire to escape wasting time driving in traffic.

Caltrain Beer

For Caltrain, it means recognizing that for many riders, bikes are the most convenient first and last mile solution, faster than shuttles for trips up to 3 miles when there’s congestion, and cheaper than car parking at stations, both for the rider and for Caltrain. It means ensuring that bike capacity of new electrified trains is at least 10 percent of total capacity. It means expanding bike share into office areas like North Bayshore and into popular housing areas like the Mission in San Francisco.

Bay Area Bike Share

For cities, it means not spending money on expensive parking garages that will bring more vehicles into congested areas, and instead improve walking and biking connections to existing and emerging office and housing areas like San Antonio Center and El Camino Real. It means implementing Transportation Demand Management programs (TDMs) like Stanford did, with incentives that go beyond shuttles to include benefits for people who take transit, bike, walk, carpool or drive at off-peak times. And consider charging for parking at office sites. It’s hard to compete with free.

Times have changed and people are showing they want options other than driving. How will we invest to support them?

In your city, is vehicle traffic heavier with the economic recovery? Is your city investing in bicycling, transit or widening roads to accommodate more cars? What would you like your city to do to improve transportation?

Caltrain Family Bikes

 
6 Comments

Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Issues & Infrastructure

 

Strava Heatmaps: What Do They Truly Measure?

Last week, Strava, the company that provides tools for cyclists to track their rides via GPS, was making the news for their Global Heatmap A project of Strava Labs, the Global Heatmap compiles GPS tracking data from 100 million rides and runs by their members (about 80% are rides). Routes that Strava users travel more frequently light up brightly on the Heatmap. In this map red is highest use, then bright green, then faint green.

The Heatmap for Palo Alto is what I’d expect. The most popular routes are a pair of roads with bike lanes that offer direct, fast routes, and a bike boulevard designed with few stop signs and diverters that reduce car traffic.

Palo Alto Routes Heat Map

Bike advocates, who often struggle to get ridership data, jumped on the Heatmap with glee. With this data, they could refute claims that people don’t bicycle on certain roads or streets. One example: El Camino in Mountain View shows green sections, meaning significant use, something city officials and the public are quick to deny.

I see that value, and yet I’m concerned about how Heatmap data is used, namely because it’s gathered from a select subset of cyclists. Strava doesn’t reveal demographics on who uses its service, but I’ve seen estimates in reports that it’s about 90% men. And I know that within my circle of cycling friends, Strava is more heavily used by those who are training to race or complete an endurance event. They’re mostly road riders and mountain bike racers who have raced at some point, if not currently training to race.

That mirrors Strava’s goal-oriented “prove it” marketing messages highlighted on their web site: “Prove It: Track your progress and challenge your friends” and “Prove Your Story”, “Prove Your Efforts”, “Prove To Others”, “Prove To Yourself.” These are all messages aimed at the Type A folks in the bike world.

I’m sure there are significant numbers of Strava users who never race (unless you count the Cat 6 racing on the trail), and others who track both their training rides and their casual rides. But I agree with a friend who wrote: “The data is skewed to longer rides done be people who take the effort to log their ride on Strava using a smart phone or GPS. A 4 block ride for shopping or to the library is not likely to be logged.”

A bigger problem is what he wrote in the next sentence: “Since [Strava users] are likely to be more experienced riders, they tend to know the easiest, safest, fastest routes.” I accept that Strava users are more experienced riders. But are they choosing routes that are easiest and safest? Or just popular with Strava users, who likely prefer straighter routes with fewer stops, even if that means it’s on the shoulder of a 50 mph expressway with heavy vehicle traffic. That’s hardly a representative set of riders to use for bike infrastructure decisions.

Without demographic data, it’s hard to counter or defend these assessments. But I got new insight from examining “hot spots” on the Heatmap where cyclists stop on their rides, based on a story by Cyclelicious.

Here’s the Town & County shopping center in Palo Alto near Stanford University. Car parking is painfully crowded so many visitors arrive by bike. Where do they go? According to the Heatmap, these two locations: a Peet’s Coffee Shop and a bike rack around the corner by Gott’s Roadhouse, a popular restaurant.

Strava Heat Map Hot Spots Palo Alto

What’s missing? The mass of people who park their bikes to shop at Trader Joe’s on the other side of the center. The main rack holds a dozen bikes and has frequent turnover. It’s often full or crowded so bikes spill over to a nearby rack at Calafia. This was the situation last Sunday at around 12:30 pm: 13 bikes near Trader Joe’s, five at Peets and four at the Roadhouse. Why don’t the bikes at TJs create a hot spot?

Strava Heat Map Palo Alto

Sunday at 12:30 pm isn’t a peak time for groceries, nor a slow time for a coffee shop. It’s clear that people who shop by bike at Trader Joe’s are not tracking their trips on Strava. That’s a lot of everyday bike trips to ignore.

So before you’re tempted to use Strava data to support bicycle policy or infrastructure changes, think carefully. If Strava data included trips by the average Joe, Jane, José or Jin-Wei biking across town to grocery shop instead of training data from cyclists tracking achievements, how would your recommendation change?

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Posted by on April 29, 2014 in Issues & Infrastructure

 

How to Get Women to Race Dirt (And How Not To)

The Sea Otter Classic, the largest consumer bike festival in North America, is running this weekend down the coast at Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey. In addition to the large expo hosting over 450 vendors, there will be pro and amateur racing in almost every cycling discipline, from downhill mountain biking to BMX to criterium road racing to cyclocross, plus recreational events for all ages, including Gran Fondo endurance rides.

I won’t be one of the estimated 65,000 people headed down there. It’s partly because Sea Otter’s focus is on the sport side of cycling and my interest these days is more in the practical side of cycling: city and cargo cycling. But it’s more than that. I haven’t been back to Sea Otter since I stood on the podium there in 2008, which was long before I got into city cycling. It’s that my last experience there made me feel like Sea Otter isn’t really for people like me who love bikes but don’t fit into American cycling’s hardcore dude culture.

After Work Girlfriend Rides

Back in 2008 I was mountain biking regularly with the Dirt Divas, an informal group of experienced mountain bikers and road racers with a taste of dirt. Every Monday night during daylight saving time we did recovery pace after work spins, and every few weeks or so we did longer weekend rides on more challenging trails. Just as importantly, we were an online community of 200 dirt-loving women sprinkled throughout the Bay Area, offering support and advice for each other that was just as valuable as having women nearby to ride with.

With my friends from Dirt Divas and the support of the Velo Bella and Velo Girl race teams, I had raced several smaller races. We had even challenged ourselves with a 24 hour mountain bike relay on the trails at Laguna Seca. Those races were all fun, but didn’t bring out the crowds like Sea Otter. Where else can recreational riders race the same courses, on the same weekend as the pros?

The Sea Otter excitement started on the Diva email list in March: how hard it it? who’s racing this year? In no time we had set up carpools down to Laguna Seca to pre-ride the course a few weeks before the race. The course wasn’t particularly technical, but the hilly 20 mile course had proven challenging for some beginner fields, so they shortened the women’s, juniors, women’s single-speed and Clydesdale men’s (over 200 lbs) races to a nominal 10 miles. For some reason, they didn’t say it was actually over 13 miles.

Dirt Divas

The nine of us were a mix of experienced and brand new racers. A couple were new to Dirt Divas and had never ridden in an all-female group before. With only a printout from the web site for navigation, we fared well until the climbers out front missed a key turn and got lost. Afterward, it was laughing over burritos and lots of email banter: reporting trail conditions and answering questions from women who couldn’t make the pre-ride.

So when things went wrong at the race we had each other. After a good start on the paved track (picking the right wheel to draft is key) I hit the gravel in top five. I was behind my friend Holly as we picked up speed where the course descended. As we approached a left turn, I could tell Holly was aimed straight. I yelled “go left,” she did and we both hit the singletrack ahead of the main field, then up the ridge and down the long sandy descent.

On the long grind back up, my climber friend Lesley passed me and asked if I had missed the turn. That’s when I realized Holly wasn’t only one. There were many others confused about the turn, including my friend E who’s zooming downhill in this photo. Her boyfriend took the shot right after she went off course. Not easy to tell, is it?

Missed Turn

I was still grinding away uphill when I came to the turn where we lost the climbers on the pre-ride. I was moving slow enough to read the signs carefully: “XC Race 20 miles” and “MTB Tour 10 miles.” Even though I had raced the course the year before, studied the map, pre-ridden three weeks before and have the nickname “GPS Janet,” I wasn’t confident I should turn left to stay on the 10 mi XC race course. But I did, even though I could see racers going straight ahead of me, and knew that going straight would cut the course by at least a mile.

Lesley

When I finished the race they were already posting our race’s winning time at 41 minutes, an impossible time. Holly and I reported it to race officials, waited a while until it got cold and dark, then gave up and went to dinner. The next morning they posted results: I was 2nd, Holly 3rd, and Michelle 4th. On podium we didn’t recognize the winner and we didn’t see the two or three other women that I was pretty sure were ahead of me. (I found out much later that one missed the first turn and the true winner had lost her chip somewhere on the course.)

Sea Otter Podium

Back on online I shared my story and learned that three more of my Diva friends had missed the first turn and doubled back. A Velo Bella race team friend was spectating at the junction, saw the confusion and started calling out directions to racers. She confronted the course monitor about why he wasn’t doing it. He shrugged.

So I wrote my first letter of complaint ever to the race director. I let him know the impact on us as racers, but focused on what I wanted for next year: cones, course monitors, and accurately labeling the course as a 13 mile, not 10 mile course. After a long email exchange his response was that it’s the racers responsibility to stay on course and lessons were learned on both sides. He didn’t get that if that much of the field is confused, it’s the course, not the riders. And that beginners could use a little more, not less, consideration and support.

Sea Otter 2008 crop

I will agree that lessons were learned, indeed, but probably not what the race director expected:

  • Women often enter sport through men and they learn a lot from them. But there’s something special about riding with women: it’s empowering and challenging in a different way.
  • Until women ride with or race women, they don’t know really how how they stack up. Too many women who only ride with men think they’re slow when they’re not slow at all.
  • Having a social aspect makes many women more strongly engaged and loyal to the sport. Romantic relationships end, but bikes and bike friends stay.
  • If you want more new people racing, it takes group support. We hosted our own group pre-ride for women on our Dirt Diva email list. A pre-ride from the organizers with racing tips might encourage riders to try racing.
  • Community support is important both in person and online. The fewer women that ride in an geographic area, the more important online friendships are.
  • Women (especially beginner women) don’t expect to be the focus of an event. We don’t expect to race at prime time, we don’t expect our results to be listed first. But when things go wrong and we get an attitude, it’s feels deeper than “that guy is a jerk” it becomes “they don’t care about women or beginners.”
  • When you complain, adjust your argument for the personality of the official. When I advocated from the perspective of disoriented racers I got nothing. When I complained that riders might have placed ahead of me by cutting the course I got more sympathy. I needed to switch from chick talk to dude talk.

There was a silver lining to the story. One of the silent members on our Dirt Diva list was an employee of Sea Otter. She wasn’t part of the racing side, but she contacted the right people within the organization. They gave us a discount registration code for the next year’s race. That taught me my last lesson: complaining can pay off, even when you’re blown off at first. You may have allies you don’t know about that are listening.

I was touched and grateful. I know at least one woman used the discount to race the next year. Just not me.

IMG_5425

 
11 Comments

Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Dirt Trails, Women & Bikes

 

Why We Need a National Bike to Shop Day

“I can see people biking to offices here and even to the movie theater, but I can’t see people biking to shop here. Shopping is all about driving your SUV to the store and filling it up,” said the planning commissioner at a city meeting on the redevelopment of a major shopping center. I was stunned. I had just stood up and spoken about why bicycle access there was important to me.“The center is where I buy my groceries, my clothes, my household items,” I had explained. “It’s only two miles from home, so I ride my bike.”

I was so angry at not being heard (or believed) that it took me an extra two hours to fall asleep that night. Didn’t the commissioner see the busy bike racks outside the center’s two grocery stores? Didn’t he realize that purchases from a jewelry store are small, and that when people buy mattresses they have them delivered?

Trailer at Trader Joes

For the past 20 years we’ve pushed hard to promote bike commuting through Bike to Work Day, and it’s worked to get many commuters hopping onto bikes instead of into their cars. Like me, back in 1997. I got a little route advice from an expert at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, then pedaled to work. I kept it up once a week until daylight saving time ended, then went back to driving until Bike to Work Day the next spring.

My dedication to bike commuting waxed and waned over years. My next job site didn’t have a shower so I drove. The next one had showers and was close by so I started riding again. Then I took a job 14 miles away and was back down to once a week in summer only. It wasn’t until I realized I could ride in my work clothes for short distances and combine my commute with transit that I became the daily bike commuter I am today.

But even when I didn’t commute to work I biked for my weekly errands. Most things I needed were within a few miles of home, I could wear whatever I wanted, and I could schedule trips during daylight hours. Errands were fun, as evidenced by this Facebook post five years ago: “Long day in saddle again: Farmer’s market/noodles/bookstore/bike shop/Target/Bev Mo/Trader Joe’s. Only 8 miles, but it took some creative packing.”

Errand Bike

I wasn’t the only one doing errands back then and there are even more today, especially in shopping areas with limited parking and/or slow moving traffic. The bike racks are getting fuller and no one blinks twice when you roll away with big vegetables sticking out of panniers or toilet paper indelicately strapped to a rack.

Still, shopping by bike isn’t seen as mainstream. Few bikes come equipped with racks or baskets and bike shops and bike manufacturers rarely actively promote that kind of riding. I could elaborate on this, but I already have before, and if you’ve ever shopped for the perfect bike bag or basket you probably know what I mean. And there’s no national Bike to Shop Day program like there is for Bike to Work Day.

Grocery Bikes

But I think its time has come, and I’ve been working behind the scenes to make it happen this year in Silicon Valley. I sketched out a plan, convinced the staff at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition to sponsor it, recruited some hard-working volunteers and we’re all off and rolling. In two weeks we’ve recruited 22 businesses to offer incentives to shoppers who arrive by bike for Bike to Shop Day Silicon Valley on Saturday May 17, 2014.

Oh, and we have a Bike to Shop Day web site with merchant profiles, sign-up forms and a zoomable merchant map. Plus lot of how-tos, from how to convert an old bike into a grocery getter, how to pace yourself at Costco, and what you can stuff in your road bike’s seat bag for impromptu shopping trips.

Bike to Shop Day web site

I have no idea how far Bike to Shop Day will go, but dammit I had to do something. Anger is a powerful motivator. Maybe next time city commissioners discuss plans for shopping center redevelopment, we’ll hear this instead: “There’s not much space for car parking, we’ll need more bike racks.” That’s my dream.

Do you do your daily or weekly errands by bike? What makes it easy (or makes it hard)?

Cherie

 
28 Comments

Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Around Town, Issues & Infrastructure

 

Bike Rack FAIL: Stinky Situation in Mountain View

You can tell at a quick glance how much a business values its customers that arrive by bike. When there’s a sturdy bike rack next to the main door it says, “Welcome, we love you!” When the bike rack is far from the door, falling apart or hidden away it says, “You’re not important customers.” And when the bike rack tucked in an back alley or next to smelly garbage dumpsters the message is clear, “Our valued customers don’t ride bikes.”

Dumpster Bike Rack

To that I say, “Your attitude stinks, just like your garbage.” Time for me to find a new noodle shop.

Location: Luu Noodle at San Antonio Shopping Center, Mountain View, California, USA

 
12 Comments

Posted by on March 12, 2014 in Bike Lane FAIL

 

Nothing Could Rain on Our Wine & Chocolate Parade

After four bone-dry winter months and declarations of the most severe drought in 500 years, a healthy rain storm blew in three days before the party. Before the drops even hit the ground the question came in: “Is the party still on?” “Yes,” I said, “Unless the governor declares a State of Emergency the party is on. And unless the weather service declares a Severe Weather Alert the ride is on too.” Or as Adina quipped, “Apocalypse cancels. Or in case of apocalypse the four horsemen will join our ride.”

The rain was heavy elsewhere around the bay, but in San Jose there was little more than a few sprinkles. No horsemen of the apocalypse joined our pre-party ride, unless they were in the back of the pack riding sweep.

Virginia Bike Share

Fifty women had RSVP’d for the party, but given the 60% chance of rain I only expected a dozen or so to show up at Diridon Station for the pre-ride to the party. I should have known better. After all, women who ride are built tough, whether it’s dealing with hostile traffic on their commutes or soldiering on through wind and fog on century rides. Especially when there are others along for moral support and tasty treats waiting at the end.

Bike Statue

The fortitude of women who ride doesn’t stop when they dismount. The party attracted women who seek change: better bike routes for themselves and their families, better bike parking at workplaces and shopping destinations, better support from law enforcement to keep our streets safe. That doesn’t come easy.

But when you get determined women together, great things happen. Candice and Carmen’s home runneth over with strong women in influential positions like: Sally Lieber, former California House Speaker pro tempore; Kim Walesh, Director of Economic Development for San Jose; Shiloh Ballard, Vice President of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; and Ellen Barton, the new Alternative Transportation Coordinator for San Mateo County.

At the same time there were inspired leaders of grassroots efforts like Wendee Crofoot, co-founder of Great Streets Mountain View; and Adina Levin, co-founder of Friends of Caltrain and the Drive Less Challenge. Plus a half dozen staff and board members from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, our event sponsor.

Garden Party

Who knows where a little networking over wine and chocolate will take us? I’m hoping very far, and by bike.

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9 Comments

Posted by on February 14, 2014 in Around Town, Women & Bikes

 

Bike Lane SUCCESS! A Safer Route to Middle School

Boy, am I jealous of the kids who go to JL Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto. When I was their age I was stuck on the school bus with annoying boys who called me giraffe (I was tall) or gorilla (my arms were hairy) depending on their mood. There was no safe way for me to ride my bicycle the 1.5 short miles to school.

Palo Alto recently repaved Cowper Street, a key route to JLS Middle School, and marked it with super-sized sharrows and an virtual bike lane through the intersections. The markings make it very clear that bikes own the lane and don’t need to weave in and out of cars parked along the curb.

Cowper Super Slot Sharrows

The new bike markings are just the latest in a well-organized effort to get more kids biking and walking to school in Palo Alto, turning around the sharp decline that started 30 years ago. In 2000, only 17% of JLS students biked to school. By 2010, the rate was up to 45%, roughly the same rate as in 1985.

And the success is not limited to JLS Middle School. Overall, over half of the students at Palo Alto’s three middle schools bike or walk to school. Way to go kids! And way to go City of Palo Alto!

Location: Cowper Street near East Meadow Drive in Palo Alto, California, USA

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Bike Lane FAIL

 
 
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