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.

There are details for each of the segments on Google Maps. Click to go there and browse. Green lines mean sharrows (Class III), brown means cycle track (Class I) without parking, red means Class I with parking, and blue means a traditional bike lane (Class II).

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.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

10 Responses to A Radical Proposal for Biking in San Rafael

  1. Pingback: A Radical Proposal for Biking in San Rafael « The Greater Marin | Bicycle News

  2. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  3. David M. says:

    Interesting idea. You might also mention the benefit of connecting this to the future SMART bike path that will intersect this route near Francisco. I imagine that will attract a lot of riders for commuting purposes when in place, further heightening the need for better bike infrastructure through San Rafael.

    A question for you: why not put bike lanes along 2nd and 3rd to calm both streets rather than a combined track on 3rd only? I think that would also allow you to avoid the parking issues on 3rd you correctly noted would arise in your proposal.

    • Second Street, from what I can tell, is a narrower street than Third and doesn’t have the 6 feet for its own Class I track without narrowing the lanes to 9 feet from 11 feet, which is just on the edge of passable space. It could get a 4-foot Class II lane, but the street is narrow and fast enough that it wouldn’t be terribly welcoming. I’d rather that space be used to expand the sidewalks by two feet on either side, to accommodate the kind of urban fabric San Rafael could have if it tried. There are other ways to calm a street, after all.

      • David M. says:

        I think you’re right about that. As many times as I’ve been down those streets, I never noticed that 3rd is indeed wider. Just thought of another question: what are your thoughts for traffic control at either end of Ritter? Would you basically move the Tam/Francisco and Lindaro signals (making those elongated intersections) to allow crossover for bikes? How much consternation do you think that would involve?

        This is a really fascinating and I think much-needed idea. I’d love to see something like this come to fruition someday.

      • I don’t think it would be necessary to move the signals. Both the Third Street and Second Street segments would be on the left side of the road, so shifting from one to the other on Ritter should be pretty easy and have minimal conflict with cars. I’d take the following steps:

        a) Remove the left-turn only lane on Third and Lindaro and make the leftmost through lane into a left-turn-only outside of rush hour.
        b) Add a four-way stop at Ritter and Lincoln.
        c) Extend the little triangular island at Ritter & Second south to provide protection for the cyclists while traffic is moving through that intersection.

        Bikers that want to turn across Second or Third would mix with traffic going in that direction or use the crosswalks when it’s safe. Turning onto W Francisco, for example, would mean biking into the southbound lanes of Tam and waiting until your light turned green. I do think drivers would be upset about bikers getting in their way, but that’s inevitable anyway.

  4. Apparently just having a protected bike lane gets pushback in Golden Gate Park, so let’s add “generalized opposition” and “media sensationalism” to the list of political concerns with this plan:

  5. Scott Mace says:

    Thank you to the author of this for not using the term “protected bike lane” even though David Edmondson and Streetsblog SF do. The term has no place in bicycle signage. Buffers remove these from being designated bike lanes under current California law. Therefore I as a cyclist am not required to use them as per CVC 21208. “Cycletrack” and “bikeway” are not objectionable terms as they are not used by CVC 21208.

  6. Pingback: Mid-Week Links: Streaks « The Greater Marin

  7. Pingback: San Rafael Bikeway under official consideration… in San Anselmo « The Greater Marin

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