Will San Jose’s new bicycle plan mark shift from years of car privilege?

Matthew Roth


San Jose is on the verge of adopting its new bicycle plan at the next City Council meeting on November 17th, which, as anyone who has cycled in San Jose knows, would be a welcome change from decades of traffic engineering focused almost solely on automobility.

“What I’m hoping we’re seeing here is a sea-change at the city of San Jose, where there’s priority on the pedestrian, bicyclist and transit rider, because historically it’s been the opposite,” said Michele Beasley of the Greenbelt Alliance, an advocacy group that supports transit, cycling, and pedestrian safety.

The new bike plan would mark a significant break from the past, with policy objectives to double the number of on-street lanes from 250 miles to 500 miles, add 5000 new bike racks, bring bicycle mode share to 5 percent, and achieve League of American Bicyclists (LAB) Gold-level Bicycle Friendly Community status, all by 2020. San Jose has tripled bicycle mode share in the last three years, up to 1.2 percent, which puts the city 15th among the largest 70 cities nationally, according to the San Jose Department of Transportation (DOT).

Still, even the top official at the DOT admitted his agency’s track record on bicycle infrastructure has been less than stellar.  “Clearly, San Jose has many decades of sprawling, auto-oriented community development to overcome, but the transportation policy tanker is turning,” asserted Hans Larsen, acting Director of the DOT, who told Streetsblog he wasn’t surprised by the vociferous anger expressed by readers in our post on San Jose’s innovative approach to LOS reform.

City Councilmember Sam Liccardo, who represents Downtown San Jose and has been a force for turning anemic references to bicycles in San Jose’s transportation policy documents into a full-fledged master plan, said that the city should capitalize on latent demand for cycling infrastructure.

“If we can implement this plan, it will set San Jose on a course to achieve a place among the great cycling communities in the nation, if not the world,” said Liccardo. “Our weather, topography, and demographics make San Jose poised for enormous growth in biking mode share–we’ve tripled our number of riders in recent years–but it will take determination and resources to alter our streetscape and create a more bike-friendly ecosystem.”

In addition to setting lofty targets, the bicycle plan would call for regular disclosure to the public on whether the city is meeting its performance targets, an important step to allay the skepticism of the region’s cyclists.  Among the targets, the DOT has pledged to add 25 miles of new bikeways each year, install 500 new bike racks each year, and seek to reduce bike collision rates by 5 percent from the baseline each year.

“Their goals are really good… but will they be implemented and implemented in the spirit of the original plans?” asked Greenbelt Alliance’s Beasley.

Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Corrine Winter echoed Beasley’s concern, though she was also clear to point out that the new leadership at the DOT was very encouraging. “We’re very happy with the vision of what’s going to happen,” said Winter, who said that between the Mayor, Councilmember Liccardo, and Larsen, all the important players are talking the talk. “How does the vision turn to reality– that comes down to dollars.”  Winter also noted that among 447 staff at the DOT, only two work full-time on cycling, a fact she argued would have to change.

“If the city really wants to see this project come to reality, they need to have more people [working on it],” she said.

San Fernando Bikeway and 4th Street Cycle Track
John Brazil of San Jose DOT’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program said the two biggest priorities for his department in moving forward with the bicycle plan are to make cycling in San Jose safe and convenient, so that it would be as commonplace to see throngs of cyclists commuting to work in his city as it is in Portland, Oregon or other cycling hotspots. Brazil noted that despite a large budget deficit, bike plan improvements will be built out, should the plan be adopted.

In addition to working with the Valley Transportation Authority on a trial bike-share program, Brazil said two projects in particular would capture the public’s attention over the next two years. The first is the San Fernando bikeway, a painted, buffered bicycle lane from Diridon Station a mile and a half to downtown destinations, such as San Jose State University. Because Caltrans doesn’t currently recognize colored bicycle lanes, however, Brazil said the city has to complete a rigorous experimental pilot process with the agency to convince it that adding paint will fit within its street engineering guidelines. Funding for the project will come from a mix of internal budget apportioning and external grants.

The second project of note is a bi-directional, physically separated cycle track on 4th Street from St. James Street to San Carlos Street, intersecting the San Fernando colored lane and linking up Japantown and destinations north with the downtown core. The DOT intends to remove a lane of vehicular traffic to make room for the cycle track, move the parking lane off the curb, and run the cycle track curbside. Numerous technical difficulties still need to be worked out, particularly the challenge of minimizing turning conflicts at the intersections where bi-directional bicycle traffic would create signal and visibility issues. Brazil estimated that this project would take 1-2 years to clear Caltrans experimental process designation, but hoped San Jose’s example, if successful, would make it easier for other cities to follow the lead with the innovation.

2020 Plan Objectives

• Bikeway Network – Complete 500 miles of the Bikeway Network
• Mode Share – Achieve 5% of all trips taken by Bike
• Safety – Reduce bike collision rate by 50 percent
• Parking – Add 5000 bike parking spaces
• Validation – Achieve Gold-level Bicycle Friendly Community status from LAB

Performance Measures

• Bikeway Network – Complete 25 miles of new bikeways each year
• Mode Share – Increase bike mode share by 1% from baseline every two years
• Safety – Reduce bike collision rate by 5% from baseline each year
• Parking – Install 500 new bike parking spaces each year
• Validation – Achieve Silver-level Bicycle Friendly Community status by 2013 and Gold-level by 2020.


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