Thousands span SF Bay on Richmond’s new bike lane
on December 14, 2019
Early data are in, showing Bay Area cyclists are embracing Richmond’s new bike lane across the San Francisco Bay.
Figures for just the first two weeks’ ridership of the three-week-old bike and pedestrian path across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge indicate the path is most popular on weekends. It attracted some 950 daily riders the first week, and around 325 daily riders the second week, for an average of 660 daily bike trips from both the Richmond and San Rafael sides.
Chris Lillie, project manager at Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA), said that overall reaction from bikers has been immensely positive. “The estimated 10,000 cyclists who used the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in the first two weeks certainly exceeded my expectations,” he said in a phone interview. However, he added, “I expect to see much lower usage through the rainy winter months.”
The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge opened the bike-pedestrian path last month, making it possible for the first time to cross the bridge without a motor vehicle. The bike and pedestrian lane on the westbound upper deck of the bridge was an empty third lane before the project, and is now separated from the two car lanes by moveable concrete barriers.
The new lane marks the latest addition to the San Francisco Bay Trail, a project started 30 years ago that aims to build a “500-mile walking and cycling path around the entire San Francisco Bay running through all nine Bay Area counties, 47 cities, and across the region’s seven toll bridges,” according to its website.
On the morning of November 16, thousands showed up for the opening ceremony of the lane off of Stenmark Drive near the bridge. According to Mayor Tom Butt, 3,600 bikers and pedestrians made use of the path on Saturday’s opening day, and 1,400 did on the next day.
“This is just phenomenal,” Mayor Butt said on opening day. “This has been 30 years or more in the making. It’s just incredible to see so many people today.” He likened its adoption to another alternative transit option, the Richmond Ferry, which started operating in January 2019.
Despite speculation that it would take a while before commuters started to use it, the ferry proved popular fairly quickly. “It was packed from the first day and is still packed,” Mayor Butt added.
The path is a joint effort between various government agencies including Caltrans, Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), BATA, the Transportation Authority of Marin and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. Local advocacy groups and businesses were also involved in launching the project.
“This project has always been so much more than about putting a bike lane on a freeway,” said Ginger Jui, executive director of Bike East Bay, a bicycle advocacy group based in Oakland. According to Jui, Bike East Bay and other community partners have been able to raise $750,000 for bikeway improvements, making it safer to bike in Richmond.
“As bicycles become more popular and the global climate gets warmer, we just want to make sure that nobody is left out of the bicycle movement,” said Najari Smith, a bicycle advocate. “Everybody deserves access to healthy, low-cost, low-impact transportation.”
Smith founded Rich City Rides, a bike shop and nonprofit organization in Richmond, in 2012. Besides offering a selection of bikes, e-bikes and accessories, Rich City Rides leads community rides and bike workshops every week. Before the bike and pedestrian path officially opened, the group led two test rides over the bridge. The first test ride had more than a dozen people, while almost 100 came along on the second one.
Smith said the test rides were successful. On the opening day ride from Richmond to San Rafael and back, the fog had descended under the bridge giving his return trip the feeling of flying a plane and wanting to touch the clouds.
“Flying is one thing. Flying with a thousand of your friends and community members is something totally different,” Smith said. “So that is just amazing.”
In addition to recreational cycling for fun and sport, transportation experts expect the bike path to help alleviate traffic.
Car commuters suffer from congestion during rush hours on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, just as they do on other bridges in the Bay Area. Since April last year, the lower eastbound deck of the bridge has opened up its third lane for cars during peak hours. The bike and pedestrian path has encountered opposition from politicians and community members. Some argue that the lane should be a third car lane during rush hours, while others are doubtful that people would commute by bikes.
It is not likely, though, that the current bike and pedestrian lane could be turned into a car lane. According to Lillie, the transportation facilities on the Marin County side of the bridge are not necessarily built to accommodate the same volume of the traffic that would be brought by three lanes of cars.
Transportation agencies are looking into other solutions to reduce congestion on the bridge, including moving towards all electronic tolling and potentially removing the Richmond Toll Plaza on the east side, Lillie added.
Caltrans’ new District Four Deputy Director Dina El-Tawansy pointed out that the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California. Solving the issue would take “a wide array of multimodal options,” she said, including “investing more in mass transit, increasing sale of zero-emission vehicles, [and] creating more active transportation options for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
The path is a four-year pilot project and its effectiveness and popularity will be monitored by transportation authorities. “It should be an excellent and informative pilot,” El-Tawansy said, adding that there is no one simple solution to the Bay Area traffic challenge. “It will take countless projects like this one.”
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