News - June 29, 2011

Does Portola Valley need real bike lanes?

• Council looks at adding the lanes to Alpine and Portola roads.

by Dave Boyce

A lone bicyclist is seen pedaling along a rural suburban road. He approaches a stop sign after a long gradual climb, pauses slightly at the empty intersection, then continues along, finally disappearing around a curve. If a group of community volunteers who advise the Town Council on vehicle traffic overlooked the impact of this cyclist to the town's traffic congestion, no one would care. Not even if it happened every day.

What if it happened every five or 10 minutes at a busy intersection? What if many of those cyclists, jealous of their momentum, ignored the stop sign? What if a collection of cyclists, say 30 or 50 or 100, in an exercise of sophistication and beauty or monopolistic heedlessness, depending on who's watching, rolled through town every day in close formation and at high speed, flowing past the stop sign without pause, and not infrequently taking a whole lane and keeping it despite a train of several cars behind them?

These scenarios are a part of the milieu on Alpine and Portola roads in Portola Valley. On June 8, the Town Council discussed the possibility of revising the volunteer Traffic Committee's mandate to address bicycling issues, including safety and sharing the road.

In an indication of how serious the council is, Mayor Ted Driscoll has suggested widening Alpine and Portola roads enough to allow genuine bike lanes. (The roads have white lines at the edges but the resulting lanes are not consistently wide enough to be formally designated.)

The council asked Public Works Director Howard Young to return with a cost estimate for an analysis of what it would take to build bike lanes on the two roads. The analysis would likely cost $10,000, Mr. Young said.

Low carbon footprint

During the discussion, Mayor Driscoll floated the idea of renaming the advisory group to the Bicycle and Traffic Committee.

"Amen," chimed in Planning Commission Chair Nate McKitterick from the audience. Mr. McKitterick, an attorney, resident and dedicated bike commuter, had remarked earlier on the council's longtime commitments to reducing greenhouse gases.

An example: the council voted in 2006 to join the U.S. Mayors Agreement on Climate Change, committing the town to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

"The only way we're going to do that is if people buy (Toyota) Priuses or (Nissan) Leafs or get on bikes," Mr. McKitterick said, then outlined some tough questions that a committee might have to address.

In what way should the town advocate for a cycling milieu that it is safe for all riders, he asked. What is the best design for bicycle-safe intersections? What can be done to change driver behavior about sharing the road?

Mr. Driscoll wondered if the presence of bike lanes would mean less concentration by law enforcement on stop-sign citations and more on bike safety in general.

"I would think so," Lt. Larry Schumaker of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office said from the audience. "I think there won't be as many issues. It will be easier to (issue citations). I think it's going to make it safer for all. Hopefully there won't be reasons for enforcement if we do it right."

Councilwoman Ann Wengert initially dissented on combining both traffic and bicycles in the same committee. The bicycling community has more than enough spirit to have a stand-alone committee, she noted, but ultimately went along with the majority.

While the cycling community was represented at the meeting, no one spoke up for the concerns of motorists. Asked in an interview about that constituency, Ms. Wengert said she has "seen more interest on this issue than I have on many and for a long time."

The town needs a forum for bicycle issues, she added, particularly in light of having no town committee to respond when, on Nov. 4, cyclist Lauren Ward, 47, of Los Altos Hills died after colliding with a tractor trailer at Alpine Road and Interstate 280, an unincorporated area but nearby.


Posted by Dave Ross, a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Jun 30, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful reporting about the Town Council meeting and the cycling-related discussion. As a cyclist and motorist living in PV, I have mixed feelings about formal bicycle lanes along Alpine and Portola Roads. I predict that the cost will be prohibitive, since the paving in several areas is not now wide enough to accommodate both a vehicle lane and a full bicycle lane.

One of the benefits I could see for a formal bike lane, though, is the opportunity for Lt. Larry Schumaker and his colleagues to issue citations to drivers violating the bike lanes. Take a look at the "fog line" that defines the right side of the road at any of the curves on these roads and you will see the wear patterns made by drivers who like to use the shoulder as a shortcut around the turn. When that happens right next to me, it sure feels a lot more dangerous than rolling my bike through a deserted intersection at 5mph.

I would like to see the Sheriff's Dept. pay some attention to drivers who routinely create hazardous situations by not obeying traffic laws or through inattention. If I die riding a bicycle, I expect it to be from a collision with a car turning into me, driven by a person who has misjudged my speed and who was too impatient or inconsiderate to wait 10 seconds for me to get by. I seem to get at least one near miss like this on every ride, and sometimes it feels like I'm a target out there.

Maybe a formal bicycle lane would help drivers understand that there is room for cyclists on the roads. But I would rather see the money spent on driver education, outreach to the cycling community and more thoughtful attention by our Sheriff to the truly dangerous conditions. Citing riders who roll through the stop sign at Portola and Alpine is just picking the low-hanging fruit, maybe appeasing some of my irate neighbors but, in my opinion, doing nothing to improve safety.

Posted by Editor, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jul 1, 2011 at 8:28 am

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