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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

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Issues & Infrastructure

 

Bike Commute Diaries: Stopping to Smell the Roses

Every morning on my way to work I roll past the beautiful San Jose Heritage Rose Garden. This spring I’ve been too busy with Bike to Shop Day, fighting for bikes in the El Camino corridor and launching new products at work to stop once (and I’m not done yet). Today I stopped anyway. The hybrid tea roses and the grandifloras are spent, but the floribundas are still going strong. I smelled the floribundas, then rolled on to get back to work.

20140519-100705-36425256.jpg

About the Bike Commute Diaries: Launched in May 2012 for National Bike Month, this series explores the unexpected and surprising things I’ve seen and learned while bicycling for transportation.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Commute Diaries

 

Fashion Weekend Edition: Bike to Shop Day

It’s easy to have fun hunting for bike-friendly fashions when you have bike-friendly businesses near home. All I need is a new flowery sundress, lacy red sandals and some critical accessories and I’m ready to shop ’til I drop on our first-ever Bike to Shop Day here in Silicon Valley. Let today’s bike shopping extravaganza begin!

Sundress

This is my third, yes, third dress from Boutique 4 in Mountain View. Just as comfy as my power dress.

Follow #biketoshop on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to follow the adventures on our bike shopping tour in San Jose today.

About Fashion Friday: Inspired by a 2011 Bike to Work Day challenge sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, this series highlights the broad range of “dress for the destination” bicycling fashions.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2014 in Cycle Fashions

 

Fashion Holiday Edition: Bike to Work Day

Irish-Americans have St Patrick’s Day, Mexican-Americans have Cinco de Mayo, Cajuns have Mardi Gras and bike commuters have Bike to Work Day. The theme for the festivities at the SVBC Bike Away From Work Party this year was “Dress Like Your Bike.” For a classy, vintage-inspired bike like Susie Q Public, that meant giving a nod to Jackie Kennedy in a pill box hat, Chanel-style jacket, classic pumps and kidskin gloves.

Mad Men portrait

Only a few people at the party dressed for the theme (like Winona, Dick & Jill) but who cares? We had fun.

About Fashion Friday: Inspired by a 2011 Bike to Work Day challenge sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, this series highlights the broad range of “dress for the destination” bicycling fashions.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2014 in Cycle Fashions

 

You’re Invited: Shopping Tours for Bike to Shop Day

For the past few months, I’ve put my heart and soul into Bike to Shop Day. With an amazing team of volunteers and staff at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition we’ve built a web site, recruited local businesses, printed, translated and delivered posters and written press releases promoting this one-day event.

We’re down to the home stretch now. All we need is people like you to hop on your bikes to shop, dine and do errands on Saturday, May 17. If you’re in Silicon Valley, we’d love it if you stopped in at our participating businesses or joined one of our shopping tours described below. If not, just knowing that you’re shopping by bike, wherever you are, will put a smile on my face. And that smile will be even bigger if you send me photos.

Want to try shopping by bike in a new neighborhood? Or just want to meet other bike shoppers in your area? Join one of our three Bike to Shop Day tours in two Silicon Valley cities. Each ride has its own distance, style and shopping districts visited, but all are designed to let you ride a little, shop a little, ride a little, eat a little. Stops will be oriented to allow you to visit businesses offering special Bike to Shop Day incentives.

Shopping Tour

San Jose Tour #1, Caltrain Station. Starts 10 am at the San Jose Diridon Caltrain Station and cruises 10 miles with stops in three shopping districts: shorter shopping stops in Willow Glen and Japantown, plus a longer lunch stop on the Paseo de San Antonio in downtown San Jose. Moderate to low-stress route includes off-street bike trails and bike lanes where possible, with some shared lanes on city streets. Returns to Caltrain Station for 2pm train. Tour leader: Janet Lafleur (moi!)

San Jose Tour #2, Naglee Park. Starts 10:30 am at House of Bagels in Naglee Park and cruises 5 miles with stops in two shopping districts: a shopping and coffee stop in Japantown, plus a lunch stop on the Paseo de San Antonio in downtown San Jose that meets up with San Jose Tour #1. Low-stress route includes off-street bike trails, bike lanes and quietest streets possible. Tour leader: Candice Stein.

Mountain View Kid-Friendly Tour. Starts 10 am at the Mountain View Public Library and cruises 2.5-3 miles. At the library, pump up your tires at the new bike repair station and pick up your goody bag, then cruise over to Diddams for special kid-friendly offers. Then roll downtown to finish with an ice cream stop at Ava’s Market and shopping on Castro Street. Family-oriented route chosen by and tour led by a League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructor. Tour leader: Winona Hubbard.

All rides are free and open to all ages. Please RSVP through the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition so we can plan to have enough ride leaders to keep the tour safe and pleasant for everyone.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Around Town

 

Fashion Holiday Edition: Kentucky Derby Day

There’s nothing subtle about fashions for spectators at horse races, starting from the top down with the signature Kentucky Derby hats embellished with any manner of flowers, feathers and figurines. A simple white lace dress (a strong trend this season) creates the perfect backdrop for a bold flower necklace and a flouncy wide-brimmed hat in red organza. What am I betting on? That I picked a winning combination.

Kentucky Derby Portrait

About Fashion Friday: Inspired by a 2011 Bike to Work Day challenge sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, this series highlights the broad range of “dress for the destination” bicycling fashions.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in Cycle Fashions

 

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

 
 
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