Editorial: Motorists, Be Thankful about Cost of Bay Bridge Bike Path

The high cost isn't really about bikes, it's about giving almost everything to cars

The proposed bike and pedestrian path on the western span will be costly--but not because of bikes. Image: Arup
The proposed bike and pedestrian path on the western span will be costly--but not because of bikes. Image: Arup

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It’s likely to cost around $300 million to build a bike path across the western span of the Bay Bridge, finally giving cyclists and pedestrians (and scooterists) a way to get between San Francisco and Oakland.

The price tag came up at last night’s Bay Area Toll Authority-sponsored public meeting to get feedback on the proposed “San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge West Span Bicycle, Pedestrian and Maintenance Path” project. As previously reported, the idea is to add a bike lane off the side of the existing deck (more details are available on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s web page on the project).

The projected cost seemed to get CBS’s famously motor-centric Phil Matier upset. “That comes to about $100 million per mile…a boatload of money,” he said in his report. He likens the high costs to the overruns of high-speed rail and the Transbay Terminal. He also implies the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has an outsized influence on the decision to build such an expensive path.

But there’s a reason the path is projected to cost so much.

The western span of the bridge is 58 feet wide. There are five lanes on the bridge’s upper deck and another five on the lower–all of them accessible to cars, with cyclists and pedestrians banned.

When the bridge opened in 1936, there were six car-only lanes on the upper deck. The lower deck had three lanes for cars, trucks, and buses (one lane was reversible). There were also two train tracks.

In the 1960s, the capacity of the Oakland Bay Bridge was reduced by removing these trains and tracks. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers.
The capacity of the Oakland Bay Bridge was reduced by removing these trains and tracks. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers.

In 1958, rail service ceased and the bridge was later modified to its current configuration, so private cars get use of all lanes of both decks.

The only reason the bike and pedestrian path will cost $300 million is because it is now politically infeasible to get any of that space back from cars. To make bike and ped space, we have to widen the bridge.

If Matier thinks costs are excessive, as his story more than implies, how about instead of widening the bridge, we discuss modifying it again to something akin to its earlier configuration. Maybe two lanes could be reserved for buses, as they were once reserved for trains. In fact, adding Bus Rapid Transit to Bay Area bridges was actually one of the winning proposals from MTC’s Horizon’s project.

Another lane could be converted into a protected, two-way bike path.

This would increase the capacity of the bridge, smooth commutes for tens of thousands of bus riders, and finally give cyclists an option to travel between San Francisco and the East Bay. It would also reduce the need for cyclists to ride BART, opening up more space on our overcrowded trains.

And all for the cost of a new ramp for bikes and about 10,000 feet of concrete barrier to keep cyclists safe from collisions.

Of course, that simple, inexpensive solution will never happen–because we start every conversation with the assumption that fair distribution of road resources means keeping all space available for the most inefficient means of transportation, also known as private automobiles.

So don’t blame bike advocates for the costs of a bike and pedestrian path; sorry Matier and other motorists, but that’s on you.

BusVCarSpace

  • Jim Greer

    I agree that cars should share. But since that’s not going to happen, I don’t think the project is worth it. For $300 million you could buy a bike for for everyone in San Francisco.

  • Bruce

    And you’d still have no way to ride it to Oakland.

  • SuperQ

    The new bay bridge span cost 6.4 billion. For that much you could buy 130,000+ Tesla Model 3 cars, or 330,000+ Ford Focus cars. But they wouldn’t be able to get to Oakland from SF.

  • theqin

    I think what you forgot or didn’t know is that the project is intended to “improve access to the West Span for Caltrans maintenance crews,” i.e. the reason it cost so much is Caltrans wants the bike path to be able to support the weight of motorized vehicles so they can use it for bridge servicing instead of having to block of lanes. Because the bay bridge can’t reduce its clearance for the water shipping channel beneath it, they have to either replace the bridge deck or otherwise make modifications to the bridge to support this.

    If we were talking about only allowing bikes on the proposed bike lane (which are much lighter than cars), I think we wouldn’t be talking about this ridiculous cost. We should just be putting a lightweight painted aluminum deck and call it a day.

  • LazyReader

    That image of cars/bus/bikes is always used by transit advocates to entertain the idea a Bus can move more people than automibles. But this image is deceptive.

    The image shows a conventional 40-seat transit bus. To fit 60 passengers on that bus, 20 of them will have to stand. In other words, the bus is pretty much filled to capacity. Meanwhile, to move the same 66 people, count them, 60 cars. In other words, the city assumed that all of the cars would be nearly empty. Why is it fair to compare a full bus with nearly empty cars? When on average transit buses are only 1/6th full to capacity so they take up a lot of space too. To be fair, we would have to assume the cars are full. Most cars and crossovers can comfortably hold 5 people. SUV’s can hold 7-8 people, Passenger Vans no larger than an SUV can carry 9+. So we really only need 12 cars which can hold at least 72 people total; Stick a couple of people in the rear cargo area of SUV’s to mimic the effect of standees and we’re down to just an average of 10 or less cars equal one bus.

    What’s disingenuous about this picture is the assumption that all the people are going to the same destination or that they came from the same destination. That’s public transit’s flaw, collectivist linear transit takes time to accommodate every person that uses it or their destination isn’t served at all. These auto drivers may be suburban commuters, out of towners, businesses that require use of an auto. For far less money, we could push a program to encourage more carpooling and collective distributive transportation. Restoring obsolete transit is not the same as modernizing it.

  • Jim Greer

    Ok, I think it’s worth a lot, but less than $300M. You disagree. Fair enough. I’m curious though what price you think would be too much.

  • Andy Stow

    Because that’s how vehicles are actually used during the busiest time of day, the time when capacity matters. Buses get full, but passenger cars still average a bit over one person per vehicle.

  • Roger R.

    Thanks. I saw that but didn’t end up putting it in the post obviously (not sure why). Anyway, excellent point.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Even at $300 million, the cost is astonishingly low compared to other projects. Let’s assume that the pathway will carry 4 million annual bike/ped trips (similar to Golden Gate Bridge). Given annualized capital cost of $15m, that comes to just $3.75 per trip. For comparison, BART-SFO was over $20/trip, and BART-OAC over $100/trip.

  • Todd Edelman

    Caltrans needs to find other ways to make space for roadwork, but the critical thing here is that the proposed width in in the Caltrans plan – not the even worse idea to make this out of an existing lane – is absolutely inadequate for Type 3 e-bikes to share with pedestrians. Type 3 e-bikes are the tool that adds the most value to this crossing.

    Type 3 bikes get assist to 28 mph. It’s necessary to allow two people to cycle side-by-side. And while majority direction will vary during the day, there should be enough width for this to happen in both directions without risk of head-on collisions and making it easy to pass in single file, and side by side when possible. All of that will need at least 15 ft. on its own.

    Pedestrians should get at least 8 ft, plus there should be at least a 2 ft. buffer with the fast part of the path (also fast sport cyclists on normal bikes, etc.).

    So we’re talking 25 feet!

    This is really obvious, no? How did this plan get so far with this need excluded?

  • Alex

    That money should be invested in building ferry terminals all around the east bay connecting it to the city. Or better yet, use the money to finance a second bay crossing study

  • Kevin Withers

    Nice try. But this won’t happen. Pipe-dreams are free, but any available $300M will be better spent, in dozens of other applications.

  • Drew Levitt

    I hear you and I like your math, but it’s not reasonable to assume that SFOBB bike/ped volumes would be anywhere near GGB bike/ped volumes. For one thing, the Bay Bridge is not an international tourist destination. For another, ped volumes on a 6-mile bridge crossing would be negligible. Even bike commute volumes would probably be fairly low – as almost all bike commutes would be at least 10 miles long, farther than most folks are interested in biking twice daily.

    The BART Oakland Airport Connector was a totally awful project that we shouldn’t be willing to use as a comparison point, lest we erode the credibility of future analyses. But I think a comparison vs. ferries is interesting. WETA’s per-trip subsidy is about $6, and I have to imagine that some of the new ferry service that is taking shape will have (at least initially) per-trip subsidies well above that. So the West Span bike/ped path might look good in that transbay commuter context.

  • Jim Greer

    I did not know this. Thank you.

  • p_chazz

    I love the BART Oakland Airport Connector! I use OAK much more often as a result. It sure beats the funky ass bus that use to go from COL to OAK.

  • thielges

    You’d want the bike path to be able to withstand heavy loads anyway, even if no

    maintenance truck ever drove on it. While in normal use for commuting people will be dispersed and the weight low, it is best to design for the max case. That would be people packing onto the path to watch the Blue Angels or something like that,

    When the Golden Gate Bridge was open to pedestrians on its 50th anniversary, people flooded onto the bridge and loaded the bridge greater than it had been in its entire lifetime. The bridge roadbed even flattened out. Good thing those depression era engineers included a generous safety margin: https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/When-300-000-human-sardines-flattened-the-Golden-3118665.php

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-HE6OvzMqf08/UkQCUelZsyI/AAAAAAAAO3U/QuHXDiZBkYA/s1600/Golden+Gate+Bridge+50th+Anniversary+(1).jpg

  • thielges

    The Bay Bridge might not be a tourist destination yet, but with a west span path it could become one, inducing tourists to walk or bike to Treasure Island. While not as iconic as the GGB, the BB is a lot more central to the rest of SF’s tourist destinations.

    As for the 10+ mile commute, I hear you. Though keep in mind that commuters on the GGB also have a long commute despite the span being shorter. It is about the same distance from Sausalito to the FiDi as it is from Uptown Oakland to FiDi. And Oakland has a much larger amount of residents than Southern Marin. Then figure in the effect of e-bikes on the commute range that people will tolerate. It could really attract a large amount of use.

  • Mike C

    So much engineering analysis and advocacy talk about HOW to do this project, but only handwaving about WHY to do it. We could agree to do it because bikes are cool and deserving of better infrastructure, but instead there’s always claims about 10,000 daily trips, Caltrans maintenance convenience, fewer lane closings, heavy commute usage, etc. Okay, since the path is to be justified by real-world benefits, why is there no available analysis and documentation at all of those benefits, no demonstration that the path is designed in a way to realize/maximum those benefits?

  • Ben Phelps

    huh?

  • Ben Phelps

    no.

  • George Joseph Lane

    How dare transit advocates depict reality!

  • Looks like someone didn’t read the article.

  • The way I see it is that regardless of the cost, those who choose the *most* efficient means of travel – generating the *least* negative impact on everyone else – should have a fundamental right to protected space on that bridge. It’s like, one of my personal values as a human.

  • Average car in the US carries 1.2 people, or something like that. As for going to the same destination, that’s irrelevant because we’re talking about the consumption of space per individual on a unit basis (e.g. square footage per individual). Sorry, but you can’t argue away spatial constraints. Or I guess you could bulldoze the whole city..

  • The maximum possible load exerted by people crowded together is 150 pounds per square foot (psf) (ref. AASHTO LRFD Guide Specs for design of pedestrian bridges). Yes, that is a massive load (pictured above). Pedestrian bridges are required to be designed for a load of 90 psf. Office building floors are typically 40 psf (ASCE 7 – Design Loads for Buildings and other structures).

  • Kevin Withers

    Most efficient, regardless of cost?

    Efficiency correlates with cost…

  • Flatlander

    You’re forgetting that no one lives or works anywhere near the GGB. So its nominally shorter distance on the bridge is dwarfed by the rest of the trip. The Bay Bridge on the other hand…

  • Aaron

    Many excellent points in this piece. But before focusing on the anticipated costs, let’s look at what’s been spent thus far. The initial agreement between BATA and Arup in 2014 was for $10 million to be spent to prepare the Project Approval/Environmental Documents to 30% completion for four design.To finish the PA/ED documents for the selected design was anticipated to be another $10 million. That’s $20 million just to produce these pictures for a small group of people to salivate over. That’s already on par or dwarfing BART station bike upgrades and most safe route projects in the Bay Area… just for pictures and words.

    With the $20M initial plans in hand, now let’s look at the $300M that will most likely come from selling bonds– so really it’s a $600M price tag with financing, something reporting in California needs to start including. When it’s time to vote for that bond, who do you think might put up the money for the campaigning– all those color glossy mailers and web ad buys promoting the cause? Might it be any design and engineering firms who just made $20 million off planning the contested project? Almost surely, as well as the legal and finance companies handling the bonds.

    And let’s not stop at the bridge, Arup won MTC’s 2018 Transformative Projects competition for projects over $1 billion dollars, trumping numerous safe routes project submissions (I was not involved with any of the submissions.) While this competition is just a call for ideas, their $1B proposal for bicycle superhighways has to rank among the most idiotic and unasked for bike projects I’ve ever seen– that’s a polite way to put it. The proposal was sloppy and based on numerous unfounded suppositions. The notion that bikers want region wide access to the area’s highways and that this is what is standing in the way to wider bike use, reduction of cars, etc… is insane and truly out-of-touch.

    It’s not just motorists who are concerned about the price tag. The proponents of the west span bike path and these bike superhighways are doing an excellent job alienating otherwise very enthusiastic and supportive cyclists.

  • spragmatic

    Let us consider the costs. If I drive a car across a bridge, I’m paying for my car, my gas, the taxes on my gas, the toll costs which include all kinds of roadway maintenance and subsidies to- gasp- the people riding the bus, riding their bikes or walking. That’s right, bus riders don’t pay the full cost of their ride. Nor do the pedestrians or walkers. I know this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but where do you expect to get the money for the half of the bus ride the riders don’t pay for if people get out of their cars and stop paying the toll? Likewise, it’s free to cross the GGB on foot or bike. What happens when everyone crosses the GGB on foot and bike? Who pays for the maintenance? CalTrans and the GGB NEED people to cross in their cars. Their budgets DEPEND on the revenue.They DEPEND on the gas taxes.

    There’s a delicate balance of toll collecting and subsidizing of public transit and infrastructure. The discussion of getting people out of their cars must also be concurrent with the discussion of how those lost revenue dollars will be replaced. So far, the short-sighted proposals haven’t addressed the one issue that makes everything happen.

    MONEY.

    Not the cost, but where it will come from to sustain a program that will decrease the revenue collected.

  • Flatlander

    The bus that’s cheaper and often faster?

  • p_chazz

    AC Transit? Thanks but no thanks! I don’t care to get mugged while waiting on San Leandro Street.

  • thielges

    “What happens when everyone crosses the GGB on foot and bike? Who pays
    for the maintenance? CalTrans and the GGB NEED people to cross in their
    cars. Their budgets DEPEND on the revenue.They DEPEND on the gas taxes.”

    What? In the very unlikely scenario where the GGB carries only foot and bicycle traffic do you think the bridge authority will just throw up their hands and say “Our revenue dried up! We’re broke!” ?

    No, of course not. They will simply find another source of funds, likely either a general tax levy, a toll on walkers and bicyclists, or both. Sorry, motorists are not the savior of infrastructure and not an essential source of revenue. People are.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    Electric bikes and the thousands of new residential units being built on Treasure Island change the equation. With the former, a 15-25 mile ride can feel like a 5-10 mile ride, or less if you have a stronger electric bike. And with the latter, you potentially have thousands of new commute trips that are less than 5 miles long between the island and downtown/SoMa in SF.

  • thielges

    The cost is why we should simply just reallocate one of the existing ten lanes for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. That’s far cheaper than building a whole new path parallel to the span.

  • Drew Levitt

    True. I should clarify that especially considering e-bikes, it’s likely that the Bay Bridge would see more bike *commute* trips than the Golden Gate Bridge. I just think the huge tourist bike volumes on the GGB are irreproducible on the Bay Bridge, so the GGB would probably have higher *total* bike trips.

  • Flatlander

    You might be right about that

  • Drew Levitt

    I really like this comment because it is so civil and matter-of-fact. I didn’t think internet comment threads were supposed to operate like this 🙂

  • theqin

    I’m not really sure that paying for this extraordinary rare amount of capacity is worth $300 million, they can just limit the number of people on the bike path simultaneously and call it a day. Especially if it saved $250 million or so.

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