In April the Menlo Park Complete Street Commission proposed that all street parking on Middle Avenue be banned between Olive and San Mateo and existing parking areas replaced with bike lanes. The Commission alleges this action is needed to increase the safety of students biking to Hillview and Oak Knoll, primarily because they might otherwise swerve into the path of fast-moving traffic to avoid opening doors. After talking to other bicyclists, parents and affected homeowners I have concluded that bike lanes are not needed and street parking should only be banned for a couple of hours on weekdays. This measure should be sufficient to address bike safety concerns.
1. Bicyclist Safety Responsibilities. Like motorists bicyclists including students who are qualified to ride bikes to school without supervision must recognize the general risks associated with using our streets and accept responsibility for avoiding actions that endanger them. This includes how they pass parked vehicles. They should slow down, remain vigilant, and be prepared to stop quickly if a door opens into their path. No bicyclists should ever swerve into a vehicle lane unless they are absolutely sure it is safe to do so. An unavoidable slow collision with a vehicle door is always preferable to getting run-over.
2. Non-Bicyclist Safety Responsibilities. Our city cannot completely eliminate the risks of biking. Bike safety education programs in our schools need to identify the risks of riding on popular streets AND emphasize appropriate safe riding behavior. Parents need to reinforce bike safety education and act as fine examples. (Note: I often witness Oak Knoll parents with children ride through the stop signs at Oak and Lemon after school.) And motorists need to always check for bicyclists before opening doors and exiting street parking spaces.
3. Street Sharing. Menlo Park streets were originally designed and built to support vehicles and pedestrians long before the city had a policy of supporting bicyclists. Unfortunately, this means new bike lanes typically require other street users to sacrifice existing services and benefits. While these may be reasonable, bike projects proposals must always include fair evaluations of all trade-offs. This requires an honest assessment of both safety concerns and negative impacts AND meaningful input from non-bicyclists who would be directly affected, e.g., businesses and homeowners.
4. Our city RARELY studies the actual need for new bike infrastructure elements, e.g. bike lanes, signage, street markings. It neither conducts trustworthy field audits (observations) nor performs well-accepted safety analyses. Instead, it relies largely on opinions and anecdotal evidence.
Middle Avenue Observations
Illustration: West End Of Middle Avenue
1. Bike Lane Safety. Installing bike lanes can sometimes significantly increase bike safety. It depends on things like street characteristics, vehicle traffic patterns, motorist behavior, and parking patterns, I do not believe the riding conditions on this section of Middle warrants the installation of bike lanes based on safety concerns. The existing parking/pedestrian area on Middle is 11-feet wide, and most vehicles take between 6 and 7 feet of this space. This leaves plenty of space for bicyclists to safely pass a parked vehicle when doors are closed.
On two school day mornings in early June I observed vehicle traffic, parking and bicyclist patterns on the west end of Middle and learned the following:
=> Only three vehicles were parked on Middle between San Mateo and Olive; another three were parked between Arbor and San Mateo. None of the vehicles had a driver inside and their were no "opening doors".
=> Fourteen Oak Knoll students were observed; eleven were very young and accompanied by adults. This is sound behavior as very young bicyclists need to be actively coached and are less visible to motorists. Twenty-four bicyclists were Hillview students, and they rode carefully and confidently. No student abruptly swerved around parked cars.
=> Adult bicyclists generally ride either on or just inside the white line when passing parked vehicles. This is a safe maneuver as they did so smoothly and were highly visible to motorists.
=> Most adult bike commuters who crossed Middle at San Mateo stopped and waited for motorists to let them pass, and motorists were generally very supportive. However, bicyclists riding westbound on Middle and turning left on San Mateo often took the vehicle lane without first checking vehicle traffic. This is a very unsafe maneuver and surprised several drivers.
2. Infrequent Exposure To Opening Doors. The Commission acknowledges that usually no more than five vehicles are parked on both sides so the exposure to opening doors is extremely small. I have driven on Middle thousands of times and never witnessed a bicyclist colliding with an opening vehicle door.
3. Bicyclist Comfort. Bike lanes make some bicyclist feel more comfortable (less stressed), and some parents feel more comfortable knowing their children are riding in them. I have not seen any data or analysis that indicates riding comfort is an usually high level of concern on this section of Middle.
4. Street Parking Loss. While the benefits of adding bike lanes remain questionable, the loss of street parking would be certain and significant for thirty Middle Avenue homeowners, visitors, guests, and service providers if street parking were banned all day every day. (Note: ten more homes would be affected if the bike lanes were extended to Arbor). Keep in mind that many households have three drivers and vehicles, short driveways and do not park in garages, There would also be negative impacts on side streets, e.g., more street parking.
5. Vehicle Speed Limits. Middle Avenue homeowners have repeatedly expressed concern about bicyclist and pedestrian safety at the intersections where they cross Middle. They believe many vehicles ignore the existing 30 mph speed limit and travel between 30 to 40 mph and have frequently proposed lowering the speed limit to 25 mph.
Photo: Hillview Students Riding On Santa Cruz Avenue After School
1. “More bike safety at all costs” is bad city policy. The needs of all street users must be considered and the trade-offs must be carefully and pragmatically weighed. Taking away existing benefits is not a small matter.
2. Bike lanes on this section of Middle will NOT materially improve bike safety. They would increase the comfort (reduce the stress) of some bicyclists and parents of young children. And bike lanes would also act as an effective reminder to motorists that Middle is popular with bicyclists.
3. Banning all parking would significantly harm homeowners and other motorists. While street parking in residential neighborhoods is neither a right nor a privilege, it is a widely accepted norm and should NOT be violated unless there are big safety problems. This has NOT been proven for bicyclists riding on this section of Middle. Banning parking on just one side creates NEW safety problems - especially after dark - for drivers who park and must then walk across Middle. Crosswalks at intersections are too inconvenient to be of value to them.
4. Regardless of whether bike lanes are installed or not, street parking should only be banned when MOST Hillview and Oak Grove students are biking to and from school, e.g., in the morning, between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m. This solution would balance the needs of homeowners, motorists and bicyclists.
5.. Lowering and enforcing a 25 mph speed limit on Middle might significantly improve pedestrian and bicyclist comfort and safety at crossings. The new "bike and pedestrian crossing" signs at San Mateo are very beneficial; adding flashing warnings would be better (more visible).
6. All proposals for new bike infrastructure should be based on real-world data, observations and sound analysis. Depending on idealism and abstract reasoning generally leads to "overkill" solutions. Also, field trials cannot be trusted without the study of real-world observations before and after them.
7. There are many streets in and near downtown Menlo Park popular with bicyclists that warrant much greater safety concerns than the west end of Middle.
= > More than two-dozen Hillview students regularly ride on downtown Santa Cruz after school. They can share the vehicle lanes but seldom do in traffic and instead ride closely along parked cars. These vehicles are more likely to open doors in their paths. Also, many motorists do not believe bicyclists even have the right to be on this street.
=> Similar situations exist on University between Santa Cruz and on Menlo and the same bike improvements are needed.
=> Ravenswood lacks continuous bike lanes between El Camino and Laurel.
1. Ban on street parking ONLY during the times most students are riding bikes to and from
school. In the morning this means between 7:30 and 8:15 am.
2. I do not believe bike lanes are needed. If they are installed, street signs should indicate that parking is permitted except at specific times during the school year. Physical barriers should NOT separate the vehicle and bike lanes as these would harm motorists who wish to park along the curb.
3. Adding a white line along Middle about 6.5 feet from the curb would encourage motorists to park close to the curb.
4. Strictly enforce the speed limit on Middle and evaluate whether more stop signs and a 25 mph speed limit would significantly improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
5. The Complete Street Commission should make improving bike safety on University, downtown Santa Cruz, Menlo and Ravenswood a high priority. (Note: These are not addressed in the draft Transportation Master Plan.) While bike lanes are not possible until the city has more off-street parking downtown, meaningful short-term measures are possible now. For example, “Bikes Have The Right To Share Lanes” and clearly visible sharrow street markings would benefit both motorists and bicyclists.
Note: For a detailed analysis of the bike lane proposal see "Should Street Parking Be Removed On Middle For Bicyclists? (Part 1)".