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San Jose sidewalks become places of contention for bicyclists and pedestrians

By Melissa M. Pandika | 7 Jan 2013

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A bicyclist rides on the sidewalk along Fourth Street in downtown San Jose, despite the extra-wide buffered bike lane that the city installed on the street last summer. (Photo: Melissa M. Pandika / Peninsula Press)

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On what was supposed to be a routine walk to a work meeting, Jack Wimberly found himself tangled up with a bicycle and its rider in the middle of a downtown San Jose crosswalk.

When Wimberly saw the cyclist crossing from the opposite sidewalk on San Fernando Street, he dodged other pedestrians to avoid him. Still, the bicyclist ended up plowing into Wimberly’s rib cage. “He literally runs straight on into me,” Wimberly, a downtown resident, said.

Although the collision didn’t cause Wimberly to fall, it did “knock me off balance.” He recalled how the cyclist defended the right to ride on a sidewalk because the traffic lane didn’t sufficiently accommodate bicycles.

That happened in 2009, before the installation of eight miles of extra-wide bike lanes on downtown streets last summer. The city hoped the lanes would reduce the number of pedestrian-bike clashes by offering riders an option other than the sidewalk.

“Obviously we’ve all seen a lot of bicyclists on the sidewalk,” said Colin Heyne, deputy director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, a bike advocacy group working with the city to develop its bike measures. “We’re hoping that by providing this great facility we’re going to get them off the sidewalks and onto the street, freeing up space for pedestrians on the sidewalk.”

The 11-foot wide downtown lanes include a 4-foot-wide striped buffer zone to protect cyclists from auto traffic.

But some downtown residents say that cyclists still aren’t using the sidewalks, causing collisions and close calls with pedestrians.

The debut of the bike lanes, which eliminated three miles of vehicle lanes, drew the usual complaints over slowed commute times and reduced parking. Four months later, underutilization of these lanes has added another layer to the bicycle conflict.

“The biggest complaint that we are getting has nothing to do with the lanes, but rather the fact that the bicyclists are still not using them,” said Kymberli Brady, president of the San Jose Downtown Residents Association. “They continue to ride their bikes on the sidewalks, and people who are out walking their dogs or their strollers or just taking an evening walk over to dinner are constantly having to dodge these people on bicycles.”

Downtown resident Brian Vaeth wrote this comment on the Downtown Residents Association’s Facebook page: “I always hate having to dodge bicyclists on sidewalks, and for some reason people continue to use the sidewalks instead of the bike lanes.”

Another comment on the Facebook page, by Susan Strehlow: “As a bike rider, I originally loved the idea of the bike lanes. Unfortunately, they are not being used very much! I walk my dog several times a day and usually NO one uses the bike paths. Bike riders continue to bike on the sidewalk, many times almost running me over and scaring my dog.”

The city of San Jose installed eight miles of 11-foot wide buffered bike lanes on downtown streets last summer, partly to reduce the number of pedestrian-bike collisions. Nearly half a year later, some downtown residents still see cyclists on the sidewalks, leaving the bike lanes underused. (Photo: Melissa M. Pandika / Peninsula Press)

San Jose installed the lanes as part of its ambitious Bike Plan 2020. The plan calls for completion of a 500-mile network of bike lanes by 2020 in an effort to boost the percentage of commutes by bike from 1 percent to 15 percent by 2040. After the winter rainy season, the city will unveil its first green-colored bike lane, meant to make cyclists more visible, on San Fernando Street.

A recreational cyclist himself, Wimberly said he could understand why some people prefer to ride on the city’s sidewalks. “The downtown area doesn’t lend itself well to bicycles,” he said.  “I think the reality is that our city was planned on cars, but I think it’s important to understand the arterial system of bicycles and how they connect with trails and city streets.”

Wimberly, who recently ended his two-year term on the planning board for the Guadalupe River Trail, said the city should plan more east-west bike lanes to connect the north-south trails, which could serve as bike thoroughfares. Most of the city’s existing bike lanes run north-south. The latest lane proposals for Hedding and Ocala streets would add needed east-west bikeways.

Completing a continuous bike lane network throughout the city will take years. For now, cyclists face riding down a street with a bike lane only to find the next street without one. Brady believes that some cyclists are dealing with the problem by remaining on the sidewalk.

According to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, the safest place for bicycle riding is the street, where cyclists follow the same laws as motorists and travel in the same direction. Sidewalk bicycling is only recommended for young children who haven’t yet gained the skills to ride on the street next to traffic, as well as on busy streets with no bike lane.

“The risks of sidewalk bicycling occur mainly at driveways and cross streets,” said John Brazil, director of San Jose’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program. “At these locations, bicyclists must stop and look in all directions to make sure no cars are turning across their path.”

One evening, a few months before getting struck in the crosswalk, Wimberly witnessed a bicyclist hit the passenger side of a Jeep as it turned right from a driveway onto North First Street. The cyclist, who was riding against traffic, flew over the vehicle’s hood on impact, landing on the other side.

Statistics on collisions due to biking on city sidewalks could not be obtained at this time.

Sidewalk cycling laws vary by jurisdiction in the South Bay. Riding on the sidewalk is legal everywhere in San Jose but illegal in other cities, including nearby Campbell. Other neighboring cities, like Sunnyvale and Gilroy, allow cyclists on sidewalks everywhere except business districts as defined by a city’s municipal code. Mountain View has the same restrictions, but in business districts as defined by the California Vehicular Code.

Brady said the key to keeping sidewalks free of cyclists is education and outreach. The Downtown Neighborhood Association wants to plan workshops featuring city and law enforcement officials to raise awareness about proper bike lane use.

“It’s a meet in the middle kind of thing where we want to try to get everybody to respect each other, respect the laws and give the bicyclists the opportunity to know how and when to use these lanes because they were put in there for their safety as well as the safety of the pedestrians,” Brady said. “Once we get everybody using them properly then I think it’s going to make life a whole lot easier.”

Wimberly believes the solution relies on “more of a grassroots type of education.”

“I appreciate the city’s efforts to put up flyers in neighborhoods about safe cycling and training kids about safe cycling, but it really falls on the people, on those who are the true cyclists, people who are riding their bikes everyday, to set an example,” he said.

Several bike community members discourage riding on the sidewalk. The San Jose Bike Party, some of whose members are friends of Wimberly, prohibits sidewalk riding on its monthly nighttime group rides. Kyle Jay, an employee at La Dolce Velo cyclery in San Jose, said that the practice “is a bad idea” rooted in a lack of confidence about riding on the street.

“It’s a human tendency to want to follow the majority,” Wimberly said.  “If you see the majority of the people riding their bikes on the street versus on the sidewalk, you’ll start following the majority.”

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