A Radical Proposal for Biking in San Rafael

San Rafael has written off Second and Third for too long and ignored the benefits reaped from promoting bicycling.  To change it, San Rafael should take the radical step of installing a cycle track on Third, reclaiming at least that part of the city for people. Bicycling is a major part of life in San Anselmo and Fairfax.  Though both towns have a long way to go before practical cycling is feasible on its thoroughfares, both are home to the serious Bikers [Youtube] that hang out around downtown and form the heart of Marin’s bicycling culture.  Though proximity to open space may play a role, both towns have done what they could to build a biking culture by installing racks, painting sharrows (Class III lanes) and bike lanes (of the Class II variety), and planning for Class I lanes on arterials.  San Rafael, in contrast, has reserved its downtown roads for the car, pushing bikes and even people out of the way to make room for more Ross Valley car commuters.

This is odd for a number of reasons.  San Rafael doesn’t have a major population west of downtown, so the Second/Third arterials almost exclusively serve residents outside their jurisdiction.  Yet, the population they do serve are those bicycle-mad San Anselmoans and Fairfaxians.  Rather than draw on the best habits of Ross Valley, the arterials draw on its worst.

To remedy this, I propose the San Rafael Bikeway, a two-way separated Class I cycle track.  Modeled after Washington, DC’s 15th Street cycle track, the bikeway would be 11 feet wide: four feet for westbound cyclists, four feet for eastbound cyclists, and a three foot buffer.  With the complementary Class II bike lanes east of Grand Ave., the Bikeway would run two miles through the whole of downtown San Rafael.

Practically, the Bikeway would be a major boon to San Rafael.  Not only would it take some of the pressure off the roads by putting more people on bikes – a much smaller form of transportation – but it would calm traffic along Third and make the sidewalks along Third much more pedestrian-friendly.  Bike lanes of the Class I and II varieties calm traffic, meaning they bring down vehicle speeds and road noise, and the protection of a bicycle lane makes the sidewalk more inviting.  Calmer streets also tend to have more efficient traffic flow, so Level of Service would likely remain the same.

Perhaps most important is that calmer streets are safer streets.  Heavy arterials like Second and Third promote higher driving speeds and cause more severe injury crashes.  Putting in the Bikeway and calming even Third would make it a far safer street than it is today.

Bicyclists also tend to shop more and spend more than drivers.  As the Third Street merchants would be the ones with the best exposure, they would have more to gain from the track’s installation than Fourth Street, rebalancing the downtown.

Politically, the Bikeway would be a major pain for the city.  The plan envisions that the 47 parking spaces along Third Street would be next to the Bikeway during off-peak hours, providing further protection against traffic.  During rush hour, the parking lane would be a traffic lane, ensuring that cars are still easily whisked back to Ross Valley.

Though the 47 spaces represent less than 4% of parking in the area – 975 spaces are available in the Third Street garages alone – merchants and drivers view parking as sacrosanct.  Removing even a single space can lead to legislative gridlock, and displacing 47 would likely raise a righteous anger not seen in San Rafael.  On the other hand, removing a lane to make space for parking, even during off-peak hours, would likely raise stiff opposition from drivers.

To help allay such fears, San Rafael should approach the problem methodically before even announcing the details of the project.  Among the unknowns to study: how many Third Street drivers shop on Third; what’s the typical occupancy of those parking spaces; how many cyclists are expected to use the route in 5 years; and how many people will use the intersections per hour in 5 years, and what share of those are riding bikes.  The city must be ready to answer its critics from Day One.

There are a few practical design issues as well.  The route has a huge number of curb cuts, which diminish the effectiveness of the Class I concept.  The hill at Third and E is a relatively steep one for a casual bicyclist.  The Second Street segment is incredibly complicated - if Third can be narrowed without removing a traffic lane between Ritter and Union, that would make the eastern half of the route much more simple.  However, none of these problems are technically infeasible, and can be properly addressed with enough thought.

This is a radical plan, not because of the technical challenge, but because it would require San Rafael to be bold in a way it hasn’t been in the past, and to put people before cars in a way it has definitely not in the recent past.  This plan, or something like it, will reshape both the city and Ross Valley and provide an alternative infrastructure to serve Marin's cyclists.