Guest opinion: Aging cyclists on El Camino? Not really
As Mark Twain was reportedly fond of saying, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. This saying came to mind recently as I read an email message from the local group, Menlo Park's Future.
As an avid bicyclist, the subject line of the message: "Fate of Bikes on El Camino Real will soon be decided by City Council," caught my attention. The message noted that the Menlo Park City Council would soon be considering various options for reconfiguring El Camino Real as part of an upcoming vote on the Downtown Specific Plan. The author voiced her opposition to the addition of bike lanes on El Camino Real and urged readers to contact members of the council to weigh in on the issue.
What really stood out for me in the message was the author's assertion that the population of Menlo Park is aging, and that bike lanes would therefore be receiving less use, not more, in the future. In support of this argument, the author asserted that the median age of Menlo Park had increased from 32 to 37 between 2000 and 2010, that the percentage of residents over 45 had gone from 30.25 to 41.1 during that period, and that those in the 64-plus range had almost doubled from 8.7 percent to 14.3 percent.
These numbers surprised me, since my own anecdotal experience suggests that there is a baby boom in the area, and indeed, that our public schools are bursting at the seams due to increased enrollment. Menlo Park hardly seems like a graying community to me.
Thanks to the Internet, access to the U.S. Census data is easy. I went to the America FactFinder website (factfinder2.census.gov) and searched for the 2000 and 2010 demographic profile (DP-1) tables for Menlo Park. Contrary to the assertion in the email, those tables show that the median age in Menlo Park increased only slightly during this period, from 37.4 to 38.7, and that the increase in percentage of residents over 45 was also much smaller than was asserted in the email, from 37.2 to 40.1. Furthermore, the 65-year-and-over population had actually declined, from 15.9 percent to 14.3 percent, while the 19-year-and-under population rose from 23.4 percent to 25.8 percent. In other words, the email message from Menlo Park's Future was flat-out wrong. Mark Twain's saying should perhaps be modified to mention that even statistics deserve to be properly quoted.
Also, I'm not sure whether putting bike lanes on El Camino Real would be a good idea — there are lots of roads without bike lanes that feel perfectly safe to me, and there are also many roads with bike lanes that can feel unsafe. What matters most to me as a bicyclist is the speed of the cars around me, and whether or not the drivers of those cars demonstrate care, consideration, and respect for my safety and right to use the road. I am sure that any changes to El Camino Real that make the road feel more like an expressway, such as removing parking, would probably be a bad thing for the safety and comfort of bicyclists, whereas any changes to slow traffic and increase drivers' awareness of bicyclists would probably be a good thing.
While it is my opinion that there are many good reasons for us to advocate for increased bicycle use — environmental, cultural, and even psychological — and that Menlo Park residents of all ages will benefit from any changes that improve safety for bicyclists, I don't make up data to support that position. As the other old saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Let's keep that in mind as we finally move forward on the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan.
David Roise lives on Creek Drive and is the former chair of the Menlo Park Bicycle Commission.