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San Jose Council Calls for Banning Sidewalk Cycling on Five Downtown Streets

Cyclist on Sidewalk Passing Seniors
Bicycling on Santa Clara Street's sidewalks in downtown San Jose will remain legal, but will be banned on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and San Fernando streets. Photo: City of San Jose

Last Tuesday, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously (9-0) directing the city’s transportation department to draft an ordinance prohibiting bicycling on sidewalks along five streets in the city’s downtown: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and San Fernando. The ordinance would except children aged 12 and under, adults transporting children of those ages, and police officers.

The ban is intended to improve safety for pedestrians, as some fast or careless cyclists have recently struck and injured seniors on sidewalks in the increasingly popular city center.

"It's obvious that bicyclists travel faster than pedestrians, even on the sidewalks," said Senior Citizens Commission Vice-Chair Marie Hayter at the meeting in support of the ban. "Pedestrians have an expectation of safety."

The new ban is much less extensive than that proposed in September by the San Jose Department of Transportation (SJDOT), which included all downtown streets with bike lanes plus Santa Clara Street, for a total of ten miles of streets. Pressure from bicyclists opposed to the ban, and local transportation advocacy groups, convinced SJDOT to focus only on streets with "high pedestrian activity", namely Santa Clara, San Fernando, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th streets.

Sections of San Fernando, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th streets, marked in red on this map, where bicycling on sidewalks will be banned. Image: Andrew Boone / Google Maps

City Council member and Mayor-elect Sam Liccardo proposed excluding Santa Clara Street from the ban, and to permit adults transporting children ages 12 and under to ride on sidewalks. The city's proposal did not include that exclusion.

"On Santa Clara Street, there's no safe on-street option for cyclists," said Liccardo. "Obviously with [Bus Rapid Transit] being constructed, that's something we all need to be thinking about."

"I heard from several moms who are concerned about the fact that when they are transporting very young children, they need to have a very slow place to do it," reported Liccardo. "And obviously, it's easier on the sidewalk."

Santa Clara Street has been the focus of the debate over a potential sidewalk bike ban ever since SJDOT announced that a one-year education campaign along the street, consisting of streetlight post banners and "Walk Your Bike" signs and pavement markers, had largely failed to entice more bicyclists to share the streets with motor vehicle traffic.

"Roughly two-thirds of the people in the Santa Clara Street corridor are riding their bikes on the sidewalk -- we do not have a bicycle lane there," explained SJDOT Director Hans Larsen, who showed bicycle traffic data collected in September 2014 for Santa Clara, San Fernando, and 1st streets.

"About 25 percent of those who are riding their bikes on the sidewalk are riding in an unsafe, reckless way, [and] that's been the main concern," said Larsen.

"A full or partial ban on sidewalk bicycling in general is not the appropriate solution for this problem," wrote Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) Deputy Director Colin Heyne. "Most people who ride on the sidewalk do so safely, and forcing those people onto high-traffic, high-speed, downtown roadways puts them in harm's way."

This delivery truck parked for an entire night in San Fernando's green bike lane, according to a downtown resident. Photo: Steven J. Rice.

City Council member Donald Rocha proposed in a memo an alternative policy that largely mirrored what SVBC and transit advocacy group TransForm urged: Clearly defining and prohibiting unsafe bicycling behavior on sidewalks, and creating an educational campaign to establish safe behavioral norms for bicycling on sidewalks.

But Liccardo warned against such an approach. "[San Jose Police Department] Captain Tony Ciaburro has been very clear with us at repeated meetings. The police do not want to get into this business of trying to understand -- no matter how well-defined 'reckless riding' might be -- trying to figure out what's reckless, and what's not," said Liccardo. "It's going to be hard enough for them to enforce anything. I think we all agree a simple black or white is much easier."

The scaled-back ban on five streets (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and San Fernando) gained support from council members Johnny Khamis, Rose Herrera, Pierluigi Oliverio, and Ash Kalra. The council added the condition that the ban's effects would be reviewed by the council after one year, with data presented on both collisions and citations issued to bicyclists and skateboarders downtown.

Santa Clara Street consists of five lanes of traffic, with parallel parked vehicles on both sides. Photo: Google Maps.

City Council members Johnny Khamis and Rose Herrera both issued memos late last week calling for buffered or separated bike lanes on Santa Clara Street to improve safety for both pedestrians and bicyclists. The rest of the council members agreed, directing SJDOT to study alternative configurations for the street with bike lanes.

"We need to work for a safer bike lane system downtown," said Khamis. "It's very inexpensive to have the bike lanes on the inside and the parallel parking on the outside, so that [bicyclists] would actually be buffered by parked cars."

SJDOT staff confirmed that buffered bike lanes, or physically separated paths, on Santa Clara Street would probably require removing some on-street parallel parking spaces.

"The direction is to come back, looking at what are our options to enhance bike infrastructure on
Santa Clara Street," said Hans Larsen. "It'll be a challenge, because with the BRT project there is more priority given to transit services in that corridor."

While final approval for the ordinance has not yet been scheduled, the council could review it as early as December 16, before four newly-elected members are seated in January 2015. The city has not yet determined penalties for those caught violating the new sidewalk cycling ban.

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