Bridge the Gap!

bikes_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth

As I climbed the steps out of the Lake Merritt BART station this morning I heard loud chanting. "Wow," I thought, "those bicyclists have really pulled out the troops!" But the demonstrators that greeted me across 8th Street in Oakland were pile drivers, iron workers, carpenters and other trades workers, chanting "Jobs for Oakland Now!" Not far from their boisterous demonstration in front of the main doors of the Joseph Brot Metro Center were a few cyclists showing their signs to passersby, "Bridge the Gap Now" "All the Way Across the Bay" and "Safety Path!" Across the street, Transform and Urban Habitat were also making their presence felt, opposing the Oakland Airport Connector that the building trades unionists were clamoring for.

Democracy in action, I suppose. Long-time bicycle advocates from the
East Bay and San Francisco converged on this meeting, hoping to
convince the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) to support using some of
the new tolls ($5 on all bridges as of July 1, with $6 congestion
pricing on the Bay Bridge during rush hour, and for the first time, a
half-price toll for carpoolers) to fund a new west-span
bicycle/pedestrian/maintenance/safety lane
to make the bridge safer,
and to finish the transbay route for bicyclists and pedestrians too,
not just motorized vehicles. But that effort was bureaucratically
sidetracked before this meeting even started.

bike_signs_5222.jpgSurrounding the MTC hearing room were bicycle advocates from around the region. Photo: Chris Carlsson.

The BATA’s legal advice from a prior meeting was that they have no authority to allocate toll monies toward this new path, in spite of language in the law that allows for maintenance and safety improvements, which the new path unambiguously represents.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has asked for a second legal opinion from the State Legislative Counsel, which he said will take 2-3 months to get. Moreover, he followed the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) chair’s admonition to the assembled cycling advocates to save their comments for another time (since the question of funding and building a new west-span side path would not be addressed in this meeting), by stressing that the fight was no longer at BATA or the MTC but had moved to the state Legislature in Sacramento.

It’s hardly a surprise that the MTC wanted to duck this issue and pass the buck to Sacramento. The 15-member MTC is a lopsided status-quo minded entity. That was revealed again today when San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, responding to several public commenters who were casual carpoolers and feared the new toll would wipe out the phenomenon, proposed the $2.50 carpool toll be reduced to $2.00. A roll-call vote went 13-3 against the proposal, only Daly, Tom Bates, and Bay Conservation and Development Commissioner Ann Halstedt voting for it.

One comment from an employee of the Bay Area Air Quality Control District pointed out that casual carpooling reduces congestion, saves money for those who do it, AND builds community, but the majority of the commissioners were not inclined to tinker with their staff’s proposed new toll schedule. Nor did any of them choose to question the formula by which truckers have new tolls phased in over 3 years, denying the bridge budget $60 million according to their own calculations (recreational vehicle owners also showed up to challenge their being classified as trucks for purposes of bridge tolls, which will raise their bridge-crossing costs by 150%).

There is a long and charming local history of bicycle advocates who have pushed BART, Caltrain, the Golden Gate Bridge, and local bus systems for greater accommodation for bicycles and cyclists. It’s a thankless, Sisyphean task, and we can all be thankful for those folks who have stuck with it.

That said, I’ve always been astonished at the eager sincerity a lot of people bring to these governmental processes. As far as I can tell the system is deeply broken. The inordinate emphasis, even at this very late date, on automobiles, freeways, "level of service," etc., seems to always trump common sense efforts to promote the incredibly modest beginnings of a new infrastructure. After all, there are state laws mandating major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. How is that going to be achieved without an alternative as obvious as a Bay Bridge bike path?

It was Jason Meggs and some stalwart friends a decade ago who rode bikes across the Bay Bridge to dramatize the absurdity of denying access to a central transportation artery. But most of the energy these days goes into attending these hearings with homemade signs, with earnest behind-the-scenes message making so as not to offend the commissioners, or become unseemly or too aggressive.

The urgency of altering how we live day to day gets quite lost in these processes. The moods of commissioners, the technical language in obscure appropriations bills, the muscle-bound lobbying strength of corporate behemoths, together become the focus of political action, rather than the terrain of our daily lives. I like the slogan "Bridge the Gap" just fine, but I couldn’t help but feel that the real gap needing bridging at today’s hearing was between the building trades workers out front clamoring for "jobs" and the bicycling advocates inside who were firmly but cautiously seeking support for a maintenance lane to be added to the west span.

I wondered if anyone had spoken with the building trades folks about supporting the bike/ped/etc. lane? Or has thought to propose a much broader alliance on local projects? (And what is it with union workers and their leaders that they always abdicate control over deciding what work is worth doing to those with the purse strings? Shouldn’t workers be central deciders in how their work is employed in our communities?) What about a massive overhaul of local roads and bridges, adding Copenhagen-style bike lanes on every street and span? Think how much work that would be! Oh but we can’t pay for it is the immediate rejoinder.

And if you accept the narrow constraints of institutional political reality as it is, then the argument is lost. But what about repealing Prop 13, at least as it applies to major corporations in California? What about ending the U.S. empire’s military bases in over 100 countries around the world? Why is the U.S. spending as much on guns and bombs and death and mayhem as the rest of the world combined? Why did the federal government give away $1.5 trillion to the wealthiest owners of businesses instead of embarking on the much-promoted "Green New Deal" that if done honestly, might have provided resources for just this kind of drastic and dramatic reorganization and rebuilding of our urban physical infrastructure?

build_bikelane_to_reduce_congestion_5223.jpgCommon sense is trivialized and marginalized in the public process.

The west-span bike lane is a pipe dream for now. But by making it contingent on a massively expensive new lane being added to the existing bridge (and done under the design and control of the brazenly anti-bicycle Department of Highways, oops, I mean Caltrans), aren’t we shooting ourselves in the foot?

A bike/ped/safety/maintenance lane could be put on the top deck of the Bay Bridge in two weeks if we had the political vision to do it. Here’s how: Admit that traffic on the inbound west span rarely exceeds 30 mph and make that the new speed limit during rush hour. It’s a pretty drive anyway, who cares if you have to go slower? And most of the time you can’t get near 30 mph anyway, given the congested traffic. Narrow the five lanes from 12 feet to 10 feet, take the new 10 feet of space and barricade it with a cement railing. Voila! You have a bike/ped/safety/maintenance lane. The other five lanes are open during rush hour, but only 4 lanes are open the rest of the time, leaving a buffer lane next to the bike/etc. lane for additional safety. When traffic is light and only four lanes are open, the existing 50 mph speed limit can prevail… If we wanted to do it, we don’t have to wait 3 months for a new legal opinion, and then another 2-plus years for another toll increase, and then 5-7 years for design and building of this new lane.

We could do it by March 1. Why not?

  • soylatte

    Excellent post. Couldn’t agree more. I only hope that once the car / oil situation degrades enough, the chances of changes you outline getting implemented will increase. Oh and, open up BART to bikes around the clock.

  • Drop it. The project doesn’t make economic sense! If by miracle this moves forward and tolls is raised to fund this project, people will hate you forever. People will see this as ridiculous favoritism to cyclist and it will become a liability you can never shake off.

    Pick your battle. Take BART. Don’t commit political suicide!

  • I’m no structural engineer, but you probably have to be careful about weight distribution if you shift all the existing traffic toward one side. They worried about it in the engineering reports from the 1940s and 1950s when they were trying to decide how they could widen or twin the bridge or convert it to its current configuration.

  • yeah. because today was the day to fight this battle NOT redirecting $70 million to transit agencies away from a boondoggle that will serve no one, and is likely to end up with all the money going to some red state.

    yep. that’s strategery for ya. good job!

  • A

    My first thought about narrowing each lane is that it may not affect most vehicle drivers, but it will certainly piss off all the motorcycle riders who cross the bridge every day. As a daily bridge-crossing cyclist and not a motorcycle rider, I’d rather have the easy-to-build lane, but between the requisite NIMBY (NIMBayBridge?) car drivers, truck drivers, and motorcycle riders, it sounds like an unpopular proposal. I like the idea though. Didn’t SF approve another study on a western bike path span? Is there a way to chime in on ideas for that study?

  • Richard

    As much as I’d like to see bike accomodation on the bridge, if we were reallocating pavement space during rush hour, it would be better to give a lane to buses on the principle that there are many more transit riders than would-be long distance bicycle commuters crossing the Bay.

  • soylatte

    Much in the same vein as I think that more difficult / expensive motoring will mean better chances to reconfigure the bridge, I think it also means better chances to have a breakthrough for bikes on BART. As I watch more and more bikers on BART (and yes, I do take it during peak hours, because well, I have a job and life), I am hoping that at some point we will reach a breaking point where both bikers and non-bikers will demand a permanent solution. I would be fine with dedicating the last one or two car on a peak-hour train to bikes, and in exchange promising to not go on other cars. It would be first come first serve. If there’s a lot of bikers, it would mean that you have to wait for a few trains until it’s your turn, but in a way I already do that as I often pass on busy trains and wait for the next (largely empty) one.

  • Chris Carlsson, we so need current events analysts such as yourself.

    Responding in part (and to the comments so far):

    1) I did speak with the union workers, some of whom agreed to support the path and agreed to join in any cheer in support. However, they never got a chance as there was not a peep from the well-behaved crowd of bicyclists, who had been instructed not to cheer or clap, for “Just like on the road, giving respect will get us respect.” There is much potential for collaboration with the trades and given yesterday’s OAC situation, yes it is sorely needed.

    2) Remaking the Bridge configuration is a great way to save costs and oops, probably even pump more cars through. Being systems/solidarity minded myself, in past campaigns the Bike the Bridge! Coalition (now defunct/in hiatus) proposed such things be considered as a shared HOV/bike/bus lane; creating a Class II bikeway (on road bike lane) by narrowing the lanes 1 foot or more on average; creating variable HOV lanes based on bridge flows, to assure carpoolers and buses do not get stuck in traffic; and even rode a five-bike, 100-foot long banner-sculpture of a suspension bridge with trains on it across the Bay Bridge in 1998 with a group of about 20 supporters, to make a public statement of the importance of maintaining capacity for future rail on the bridge (essentially opposing the new bridge, and advocating for transit first, even after winning the bike path, as the new bridge represented significant problems with process, safety, and cost/greenhouse gas/environmental impacts, along with objections over the proposed bikeway design for public health reasons).

    3) Yes there *is* a tremendous disconnect in this political process, on a grand scale, and the political balancing act which emerges on this more micro scale is noticably different from a decade ago as the bicycle movement has become so much more established. The long campaign for the East Span was an all-fronts campaign, with everything from legislation/litigation to protest and direct action, and long lines of speakers at each of the 32 meetings, for we knew the institutional bias was (and still is) to simply ignore bicyclists for more trucks’n cars (MTC), much like the current RTP expands freeways and tosses billions at saving unsavable asphalt roads, under the banner of “Cutting Edge Climate Change.” Yes there is something Mickey Mouse-ish about naively coming out with signs and upbeat expressions of common sense, to try to influence the billions for business as usual, but can we not have some faith in the fundamentals of human goodness? The showing yesterday sends a clear message that we are organized and will not be brushed aside with inflated cost estimates, nor by bureaucratic legal maneuvers.

    Agreed: When those in the trades begin to demand a better world — a redesign — things will really start to move.

    To the follow-up posts to-date, each in turn:

    1) BART will likely never open to bikes around the clock, at least without a major project like a second tube, because (a) it closes at night for maintenance, with no redundancy in the transbay crossing;(b) space is constrained for the demand it would see in peak hours, which still prohibit bicycling. There are definitely improvements which can be made to increase bicycle access and reduce again the “BART blackout,” which we’ve made tremendous strides on over the past 10+ years. That said, YES, as oil availability declines, we may see reorganizing the bridge configuration become more politically viable. Once upon a time the bridge had trains and trucks on the bottom, and two-way bi-directional car traffic on top, and carried twice as many people a day. (Of note, the bike path doubles the capacity of the bridge– cheap!).

    2) “People will hate you forever.” I disagree. The inflated cost estimates will be debunked just as in the first bridge battle. The value will be tremendous to the public. The cost is a small fraction of the total bridge cost. And excuse me, “ridiculous favoritism”? Have you looked around at the infrastructure and priority given to cars? And no, as just discussed, we can’t simply take BART.

    3) Eric, agreed that “you probably have to be careful about weight distribution.” Of note: one thing that came out in yesterday’s hearing is that a world expert on the Bay Bridge, Prof. Astaneh at UC Berkeley, has studied the pathway and found that it will make the bridge stronger during seismic events. For one, the bridge is narrow and the path will reduce side-to-side swaying.

    4) Greg, if you have a problem with how things are scheduled, speak with MTC staff, I’m sure they’ll accommodate you. The fact is the OAC came up suddenly after organizing around the earlier meeting had already occurred. The bicycle organizations including BABC and their member groups SFBC and EBBC worked with TransForm, which supports the path, to ensure our crowds were complementary rather than clashing. Please don’t make unsubstantiated accusations; furthermore, there is no evidence that the OAC would have gone any differently if bicyclists crawled back under their rock in the gutter and ignored the biggest and most important bicycle facility in the region. (Chris, you made it sound like there were only a few bicyclists, those were our greeters to help the bicyclists not be lost in the chaos. They were directed to go directly inside for the first meeting, where many more bicyclists were present.)

    5) Regarding motorcyclists, I’m surprised they and the carpoolers weren’t more adamant about not paying a toll. Bates is right that people will switch from carpooling (and motorcycling) due to the toll. Regarding the study, yes there is a second study being done by TY Lin, a “Project Study Report,” which advocates need to be involved with. There is ongoing work with various agencies and SF to determine how the approaches to the bridge will be designed.

    6) Richard, no reason to ask for only one thing. By all means there needs to be a change in bridge operations to prevent delays for transbay buses (I’ve been a transbay bus-bike commuter, by the way, and have repeatedly made efforts to address that). Last I heard, from AC Transit Director Peeples, the controllers of the “dynamic” metering lights at Caltrans and CHP had not updated them in years, and MTC/Caltrans deny there’s a problem. Oh if only transit riders were as passionate and organized as bicyclists. But then, how would they get to the meetings? One more reason for bicyclists to push now for the Bay Bridge, to expand its uses: perhaps the toll, which is not scheduled to sunset, will be used for transit operations in the future.

    [Originally posted at 8:40 AM, reposted due to broken link, with minor edits.]

  • Imagine if most of the commuters would be part of a carpool, it would be so much easier to go in the city.

    I found this carbon dioxide and driving cost calculator on the carpooling network ( http://www.carpoolingnetwork.com ) . They suggest huge annual savings : up to 2000 $ and 1.5 tonnes of co2 per year.

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