The battle for bikes in Richmond

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Cyclist David Meza, 22, was first hit by a car in March 2012. The hit and run left him badly bruised and removed skin from his face. Then, in August 2013, Meza was hit by a car again, just a few blocks from the Richmond BART station.

The police found Meza bleeding in the street, his bike crumpled by the impact. He does not remember being hit, only waking up in the ambulance. He suffered a concussion, major muscle loss, nerve damage, a badly battered face, memory loss and a week-long stay at John Muir Medical Center.

Meza says the danger lies in the mentality of drivers. “There’s a lot of people who drive without licenses and a lot of people that drive recklessly in general,” he said. “It’s dangerous even if you’re in another car.”

Fueled by these experiences, Meza continues to fight for bikes on Richmond streets by teaching one-on-one bike safety classes, often taking matters into his own hands by pleading his case with riders around him. “A lot of people don’t know the law, they just don’t know that you’re supposed to share the road. So a lot of people are aggressive when you ride,” Meza said.

Richmond is a city with conflicting perceptions on what kind of bicycle infrastructure it should adopt. Cyclists like Meza and Najari Smith of Rich City Rides want to harness Richmond’s flat roads and turn the city into a bike-friendly cityscape.

“There could be something other than urban farming and the Chevron fire that puts us on the map,” Smith said. “My vision of Richmond is having it become the cycling epicenter of all of California, if not the nation.”

But then there are the drivers who swear at cyclists, and city councilmembers who say the biker population is tiny and insist the bike “zealots” can’t have their way with city streets.

“How come I can’t park on the street anymore? How come the bus no longer pulls over to the curb?” said Richmond resident Don Gosney, voicing the concerns of his fellow motorists. Gosney said the biker agenda has been forced on residents. “Once it’s a done deal, it is a done deal.”

Richmond is in the throes of trying to placate a relatively small, but vocal group of cyclists who want their roadways to be safe for bikers. But even if they got past the opposition, the city just doesn’t have the services or the funds to implement the goals of the bicycle advocates.

Plenty of miles to bike, but nowhere to fix that flat

Betty

Bruce Beyeart, Chair of Trails for Richmond Action Committee (TRAC) says there is a great deal of recreational bicycling in Richmond “due to its necklace of attractive City, Regional Shoreline, State and National parks along the shoreline connected by the San Francisco Bay Trail.” (Map courtesy of Bruce Beyeart)

 

At present, the city of Richmond has about twelve miles of bike lanes and about nine more planned before the end of 2016.

Compare this figure, twelve, to Berkeley, which has just over fifteen miles of bike lanes, according to Berkeley’s Transportation Division. What’s more, Richmond boasts 32 miles of Bay Trail.

According to the U.S. Census, an annual average of about 200 people in Richmond commuted to work by bicycle from 2007 to 2011. Data gathered for 2012 showed that about 700 people commuted to work, suggesting a lot more people are biking, but this data carried a higher margin of error.

What the census cannot account for is the burgeoning population of bikers who fall below the radar and whose reliance on pedals is much greater. Many argue that the biker demographic in Richmond is more plentiful than what census numbers suggest.

“Undocumented residents (day laborers), the type you tend to find at Home Depot riding in search of work on an early morning, are reluctant to fill out U.S. Census forms,” Smith said.

“Lots of young people and more and more people of all ages are starting to use their bikes for work, play and running errands,” wrote Mayor Gayle McLaughlin in an email.

Bicycle advocates pose a basic question: Richmond has a growing number of bike lanes and bikers, so why is the city so far behind its neighbors in terms of basic needs like bike shops and biker awareness?

“Oversight,” is the answer Doria Robinson , co-founder of Richmond Spokes– the only bike shop in Richmond until it shut down in May– gives. “Not seeing the trees for the forest,” she added.

Robinson said that previous city engineering departments failed to understand how many Richmond residents actually ride bikes and that the city lacked organized advocacy.

The Bike “Zealouts,” the Angry Councilmembers, and the “Road Diet”

Betty

Doria Robinson,co-founder of Spokes, Richmond’s only bike shop until it closed down in May 2013 with Najari Smith of Rich City Rides. (Photo by: Sara Lafleur-Vetter)


If Smith and Robinson have anything to say in the matter, Richmond will become the region’s next cycling capital. They point to the city’s flat roads and miles of shoreline as proof that Richmond is predisposed for biking ease and enjoyment.

Smith said they are lucky to have McLaughlin’s support.

“We have near 32 miles of paved Bay Trail and the Richmond Greenway traverses the whole city,” wrote McLaughlin in an email. “Both these trails are widely used for both recreational bicycling and as transportation routes across the city.”

In November 2011 the Richmond City Council adopted the Bicycle Master Plan and Pedestrian Plan. The plan provides the groundwork for how the city would gradually accommodate cyclists, promising that any new roads would include bike lanes.

But the Master Plan also puts a selection of existing roads on what Richard Mitchell, Richmond’s director of Planning and Building Services, calls a “road diet.”  This means cutting down lanes to slow speeding traffic and making room for bikers and pedestrians.

Thus far, over $550,000 in public dollars have been spent doubling the city’s bike lanes since 2005 and the city has added over six miles of  bike lanes since it adopted the plan in 2011, including two Bicycle Boulevards, or bicycle priority streets, running along 18th Street and Costa Avenue.

Currently bike lanes are being installed on South 23rd Street between Cutting Blvd. and Ohio Ave., wrote Patrick Phelan from the Richmond Engineering Department in an email.

“The Barrett Avenue Bike Lane Project will be built within the next couple months, and we have several grant funded projects lined up as well as pending grant applications,” wrote Phelan.

Since the Master Plan was put into effect, the push for narrowing motorways and adding bike lanes has had opposing Council members Nat Bates and Corky Booze and Richmond resident Don Gosney up in arms.

“This whole concept in terms of bikes is just shoved down people’s throats without any planning and accommodation and exclusionary of the people who are mostly affected,” Bates said. “So it’s obviously irritating some people and other people think it’s just great.”

Bates pointed to a lack of riders on the road and argued it’s not economically feasible to invest in a population so minute. “For the amount of money that we’re spending to accommodate bikers’ infrequent usage of the roadways, except for the weekend… we could be spending this money on repairing streets,” Bates said.

“I’m too big, too fat, and too broken down to ride my bike very far, as much as I love ‘em, so I’m not that part of that burgeoning bike culture,” Gosney said. “But the problem I have is the lack of balance between accommodating bicycle riders and still accommodating the rest of the world that may be driving cars.”

Gosney called the community groups and advocates pushing for bicycle access “zealots for their cause,” willing to do anything to impose their agenda. He said removing car lanes to make way for bike lanes causes gridlock and ties up major roadways.

Implementing the Master Plan Under Difficult Conditions

Betty

Smith gazes at the donated bikes at Rich City Ride’s temporary location at Bridge’s Art and Storage Space. (Photo by: Sara Lafleur-Vetter)

 

It’s been two years since the City Council adopted the Bicycle General Plan, new bike lanes are being painted and plans for bike parking are in the works. Despite the progress, advocates say they still see plenty of room for improvement.

“I would like to see a bike repair shop, co-op and a bike shop where new and repaired bikes can be bought at affordable prices,” McLaughlin wrote. “I see activists like Najari Smith working on much of this and I see Najari, our Richmond Bicycle Advisory Committee, and East Bay Bicycle Coalition leading this effort.”

Rich City Rides is the organization that many are putting their bets on to put Richmond onto the map for bikers. But Smith’s organization lacks a permanent headquarters, renting out a small space in the back of Bridge’s Storage and Art Space, surviving on community donations and financial support from the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

Smith points out that the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s proposed Richmond Berkeley Campus will bring a surge of new people to Richmond, and that the city will have to rely on bike infrastructure to accommodate this new population.

“Once that opens up, they’re expecting about 10,000 new people in Richmond,” Smith said. “And there’s no plans for new motorist roadways. It’s all going to be increased bicycle infrastructure.”

The challenge for Smith and other bike advocates will be to win financial support to implement their Master Plan in a city where motorists aren’t necessarily ready to give up their lanes and more than one councilmember thinks it’s an abuse of power and a misuse of funds.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the estimated cost of the Bicycle Master Plan and Pedestrian Plan to cut down lanes and make more room for bikers and pedestrians.

 

22 Comments

  1. Tony Suggs

    How about making the city more pedestrian friendly at zero costs. How?

    Enforce the already on the books the Code against blocking the sidewalk with vehicles.

    Within 1 block in any direction of City Hall, many sidewalks are blocked by vehicles parked in driveways blocking the sidewalks.

    Pedestrians have to walk out into the street to go around them.

    How safe is that?

    In most cases, the perfectly usable garage is empty or filled with storage, rather than was it was built for, CARS!

    More bike lanes, how about taking care of what we already have on the books before adding more expenses and laws that we are already behind on enforcing.

    • F. Douglass

      Tony,

      They are all parts to a whole. More bike lanes mean more people on bikes,who would otherwise be driving cars.

      What about people who own more than one car?

      People on bikes do their part by alleviating traffic and creating less of a need for a household to need more than one car.

      • Tony Suggs

        Where is the data to support that theory? I know plenty of avid bike riders and they still have 2 or more vehicles. Very often one will have a bike rack on it to take them by car to some bike trail or park to ride.

        The only location I see lots of bike riders commuting to work is along the trail by Point Isabel. Its all the Berkeley residents that work at the Field Lab.

        I will venture to say that I doubt that any more bike lanes will do nothing to reduce the traffic on Richmond streets. The most congested 23rd and San Pablo Ave will not see any relief.

        But if the city traffic engineers can prove me wrong, I will make a big public apology on RC!

        One last thing. We already had a first accident due to the planned bike lane on Barrett Ave. The new striping evidently caused some confusion and there was a multi vehicle crash near 37th and Barrett at about 4:00PM today.

        • Adrienne

          Tony, Pt. Isabel (the dog park) is in Richmond.

          • Tony Suggs

            I am very aware of Pt Isabels’ location. I DRIVE my dogs there almost every day early in the morning.

            And I observe many bicyclist come from the south along the Bay Trail from points SOUTH of Richmond heading towards the Berkeley Lab.

  2. Seems to be a few holes in the story. David Meza is a photographer for Richmond Pulse and also with Oakland Spokes.

  3. Important story nonetheless. Thanks for your coverage of Richmond

  4. Bike Geography

    Good article, important subject.

    The only issue I have is calling the crash that injured Mr. Meza a “hit and run accident” in the caption for photo 2.

    Hit and run is not an accident. It is a crime. Regardless of the circumstances of the collision, a hit and run is not accidental. Leaving the scene of a collision is a deliberate crime.

    There should be zero tolerance for this sort of traffic violence.

    • Tony Suggs

      So now we have a “new” category of crime, “traffic violence?”

      Unless the driver INTENTIONALLY was trying to run over the cyclist, it is negligence, inattention or a violation of the vehicle code for failure to yield right of way or operating a vehicle in a safe manner.

      But it is not traffic violence.

      The failure to stop at the scene is a violation. But lets not create a new buzz word to categorize all vehicle and cyclist collisions as a new form of “violence” to create a new class of “victims.”

      We have enough of them already.

  5. When I spoke to this reporter I mentioned numerous times of the need for balance between the needs of the cyclists and the needs of those driving cars.

    We lost that balance when Barrett Avenue was turned from two lanes each direction to a single lane each direction—with no place for a bus to pull over.

    I mentioned to this reporter that an alternative would be to promote the use of streets parallel to these major arteries where cyclists could travel without having to worry as much as they might of they were in the heavy traffic of the major thoroughfare. And, at the same time, this would allow them to zoom through the stop signs like they’re so fond of because they wouldn’t have to worry about vehicular traffic.

    Does anyone really think we’re going to see a significant decrease in automobile traffic here in Richmond—especially on the major arteries of Barrett, Macdonald, Cutting and San Pablo Avenue? Where are these cars supposed to go if we won’t let them onto these major avenues?

    A few years back when I-80 was being renovated we saw a huge increase on San Pablo Avenue as an alternative to the I-80 gridlock. But then SPA became gridlocked so what did we see? We saw the parallel residential streets—like the one I live on—that also saw gridlock. What was especially bad were the number of AC Transit busses and big rig trucks that were using our narrow residential streets—and all because we forced them off of the natural routes that were built form them. I fear we’ll see the same thing once we’ve closed off Cutting, Macdonald, Barrett and SPA.

    Let’s not forget that once we’ve removed some of the lanes on SPA and given them over to the cyclists, what’s going to happen when Caltrans backs the cars up onto SPA when they turn n their metering lights at the on-ramps? [Caltrans told us that this wasn’t their problem. All they cared about was reducing the number of cars on THEIR freeways.]

    From a pragmatic point of view, how much taxpayer money should be devoted to such a small number of residents? Let’s not forget that the bike/pedestrian lane on the new Bay Bridge cost us nearly a half a billion dollars—and it only goes half way across with the likelihood that completing it to San Francisco could cost several billion dollars (due to engineering issues).

    As I try to say about a lot of issues, there needs to balance. What I’m seeing right now are the scales being tipped heavily in favor of the very small minority of Richmond residents who ride their bicycles some of the time. That’s not balance.

  6. We all know there are plenty of automobile drivers who can be reckless but in this context we can’t state this without completing the sentence and admit there are plenty of cyclists who ride recklessly, too.

    Take, for instance, the one who nearly ran me over last night outside of the City Council chambers as I was crossing the street. He had no lights on (it was 11:45 at night on a poorly lit street), he had no reflectors, he was riding on the wrong side of the street, was wearing no helmet and made no announcement that he was about to run me over. Needless to say, after I backed out of his way, he also failed to say anything like ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’.

    Earlier the same day I watched a cyclist run through the red light at Barrett near City Hall riding on the wrong side of the street.

    For every 100 safe cyclists we can all recall one cyclist behaving similarly to what I described and all cyclists are tarred with the same brush.

  7. I know that one thing that would make me feel more at ease about riding my bike instead of jumping in my car is knowing that wherever I’m headed there will be a safe place to park my bike knowing that when I come back to it that it will still be there—all of it.

    I’ve yet to find a security system—aside from the enclosed boxes at a couple of the BART stations—that can provide me with that assurance.

    Make me feel safe and you might see me on my bike.

    • Adrienne

      Don- I would love to ride with you any time and demonstrate how to safely secure a bike using two Ulocks. There is grant funding for bike lockers available right now, and it would be fantastic if you would get involved in identifying locations. There is also a clean air grant for bike racks in process at the moment,

  8. Giorgio Cosentino

    As a cycling advocate, I do have concerns about how this decision process has been handled. If we have forced cars to take alternate routes by the removal of these lanes, we have possibly made the streets more hazardous in surrounding residential communities, those same communities where children often ride their bicycles. I’d like to see all of the risk-assessment data that accompanied these decisions.

    • Adrienne

      George- More people are needed to come forward and comment on these issues as they come forward for implementation. There are mailing lists for the planning commission and city council agendas, and another mailing list from the city manager’s office about environmental issues. . Tom Butt’s e-forum also lists many events. It’s so important to be in the loop in order to hear when outreach is scheduled.

      • Giorgio Cosentino

        Thanks, Adrienne. When I was a teacher in Richmond, one of my students was killed while riding his bike in a residential neighborhood. I just want to make sure these decisions have been thoroughly thought out with everyone in mind.

      • As someone who attends every Council meeting and speaks on issues I can tell you that it’s very rare that the Council arrives at these meetings with an open mind. The Council majority embraces the “get-out-of-your-car” pedestrian friendly “let’s-go-back-to-a-time-when-things-were-simpler” model.

        I’ve had members of the Council tell me that if we force people out of their cars and require them to walk or bike to do their shopping, it will build our business base.

        Take a look at the businesses along these major arteries and tell me what businesses we’re supposed to frequent. I’m serious–take a look. Look a how many churches, funeral parlors, tax consultants, wig shops, nail salons, fast food places and residences line these arteries and then tell me which ones would benefit from more pedestrian and bike traffic.

        Someone also needs to take a close look at the demographic makeup of Richmond in these area. How many senior citizens are in these areas? How many are either very large or are disabled? That is to say, how many might we expect to jump on a bike or walk across town to do their shopping?

        I just don’t think this plan was as well thought out as it could have been.

        I attended some of those “livable corridor” charrettes that were dominated by a hostile bike crowd demanding that we eminent domain mist of the businesses along Macdonald and San Pablo Avenues to bring in more businesses that would be more cyclist and pedestrian friendly. When asked what kinds of businesses they thought might do the trick, overwhelmingly they thought we needed more coffee shops with tables on the sidewalks–the sidewalks that they demanded be expanded when the City put these avenues on a road diet.

        • Adrienne

          Don, I was on the Livable Corridors steering committee, and I do not recall any call for eminent domain. No need to be inflammatory. Moreover, now that we baby boomers are de facto seniors, I would love to see bike activities and infrastructure for seniors like those that exist in Pleasonton, where weekly rides meet at the senior center.

  9. Jame

    I don’t spend much time in Richmond. I am also a new bike rider. Well new in terms of using it for errands. I will happily detour a couple of blocks to a quiet street with little car traffic to ride where I feel safe.

    I live in a section of Oakland disconnected from a bunch of bike through dates, although within a few blocks bike lanes start up again. I am trying to figure out a safe ride home as I cross a full street.

    I support road diets, as there is lots of burgeoning evidence that they end up safer for pedestrians, cyclists and cars (check out data from NYC). San Pablo probably isn’t the right road for a bike thoroughfare, I’d rather see it used for BRT. I’d love to see if phone network of bike lanes from Oakland Richmond. Better infrastructure brings out more cyclists. I would know, I am one of them. I didn’t start riding till I saw more lanes in the places I frequent. I am sure there are many other people who feel the same.

    This also illustrates the flaws in our current accounting of bike usage. I likely won’t be commuting via bike anytime soon, I work in San Mateo County. But I will trade my car fir a bike to head to the pharmacy grocery or farmers market. Many others could do the same.

    • Hi Jame. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for your interest in taking more everyday trips by bike.

      I work for a local non-profit called the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and if you are interested in checking out and participating in some of our existing Oakland bikeways campaigns you can find more info online at http://www.ebbc.org/oaklandbikeways.

      Similarly, if you are interested in learning some skills on how to navigate busy streets by bike or plan a route from point to point go to our website at http://www.ebbc.org/education to sign up for a free class or get connected to other local cyclists to share tips.

      Our organization will be running a series of free bike education classes for adults, youth and families in Richmond throughout 2014 as well, and providing free reflective vests and bike lights to attendees. Stay tuned at http://www.ebbc.org/education for dates and locations.

  10. sandy

    I have lived here in Richmond all my life and I do not like all the changes to the roads for the bike lanes. We have many streets here in Richmond that need to be repaved not patched up, especially right at the tracks of cutting & carson, there is a big dip there and you have to turn into the far lane to keep from hitting the hole or whatever it is. I see all these bike lanes and no bike riders in them and when i do see a person on a bike, they are not in the bike lanes, so to me I’m looking at all this wasted money being spent on once again something other than where the money needs to be spent in Richmond. The lanes that were recently done on 23rd & Ohio are crazy. I came thru there one night for the first time since the change and almost didnt know what lane i should be driving in and you need more lighting under there. That is crazy right up in there. My final say is fix our Richmond street for all of us that drive our cars, because the city needs to be paying for all these wheel alignments that I and others have to continually pay for, if you just have money to waste. Richmond lets get it right, because I am a taxpayer in Richmond and I dont like where I see my money is being spent.

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