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
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”
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
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.