Struggle on Capitol "Expressway"

Historical Article, 1998 

Akos Szoboszlay,
Past-President, Modern Transit Society

State law only allows prohibiting bicycles and pedestrians from freeways. But, the highway engineers placed signs stating "pedestrians bicycles and equestrians prohibited." Pedestrians were "prohibited" from using many sidewalks and bus stops on Capitol Expressway in San Jose. Also, bicycles were "prohibited" from bicycling in the "bike lane" for 15 years.

Last summer, due to MTS' efforts, most "pedestrian prohibited" signs were removed allowing continuous pedestrian access, but some signs remain on one side of the road or the other. The effort continues to remove all the signs because this scenario forces unnecessary crossings of the road. Where there is no paved sidewalk, the pedestrians walk either on a pedestrian path or a shoulder. Accident statistics show that crossing the road is the most dangerous action for pedestrians. Going along the road is much safer.

About 1985, the word "bicycles" was painted over on the "prohibited" signs, and "bike lane" signs were added. There was no other change made to the roadway when the sign was changed. This means bicycles were illegally "prohibited" from the bike lane for 15 years!

How did this unjust situation come about? Capitol Avenue in San Jose has existed since at least the 1920s where it shows up on old streetcar maps. In about 1970, the name of the road was changed from "avenue" to "expressway" at the same time that lanes were added and shoulders created. When I was in high school, I bicycled in the 45 mph traffic lane on Capitol Ave. when it had no shoulders and it was a two lane road. Two months after constructing the "bike lane", County highway engineers posted "pedestrians bicycles and equestrians prohibited" signs. It was astonishing to me even then, since I felt much safer on the shoulder, and believed that it was simply discrimination against non-motorists. The speed limit was exactly the same after re-naming the road, so "expressway" did not mean higher speeds. Also, most intersections have stop lights, so there is no resemblance to a "freeway." Yet, the highway engineers continue to claim these County roads are "freeways" for the sole purpose of prohibiting non-polluting transportation.

Pedestrians walk on Capitol Expressway in San Jose because there is no practical alternative route in most cases. This is due to the hierarchical street patterns that were designed for motorists which contrasts with a grid street pattern. Many walk to or from a bus stop. Many pedestrians, forced to walk past illegal "pedestrians prohibited" signs, are risking a citation of $120. If a detour was possible, it was typically one mile in length, adding 20 minutes to the travel time. This inconvenience to pedestrians is equivalent to forcing freeway-using motorists to detour 20 miles!.

For over five years, County Roads & Airports Department stonewalled the Modern Transit Society in its request to comply with State Law and remove the illegal signs. "Safety" is not the reason for placement of the signs, as should be obvious when seeing the pictures where they prohibit use of existing sidewalks and pedestrian paths (and previously, bike lanes). Shoulders are safe to walk on. It is safer to walk on a shoulder than to bicycle on a shoulder because the pedestrians invariably walk adjacent to the curb, while bicyclists usually ride closer to the traffic.

MTS requested the County Bicycle Advisory Committee to request a legal opinion on the matter from County Counsel. The opinion was rendered on November 12, 1996, but the staff liaison, a highway engineer, refused to hand it over for five months. This legal opinion acknowledges that the signs are illegal. In contradiction to its own legal opinion, the County Counsel sent a memo, dated June 27, 1997, to the highway engineers advising them to continue violating the law by not removing the illegal signs. The argument for violating the law in the memo includes lack of an "engineering study" to remove the signs. Yet, the memo does not cite any section of State Law that gives them authority for making such a statement. In fact, the legal opinion correctly concludes that there is "no authority overriding this position."

As a result of this further stonewalling, MTS sent the County Board of Supervisors pictures of the ludicrous signs. The County highway engineers were most peeved at MTS, but it did result in removal of most of the signs.

The last sidewalk "prohibited" to pedestrians on Capitol had the sign removed only recently, in January, 1998. This, despite the fact that the highway engineer told both County Supervisor Alvarado's transportation aide and MTS last October that the "work order" was given to remove the sign. This sign was at a bridge which crosses over three things: Monterey Highway (50 mph), the railroad, where people step across the rails and there's no signaling or "crossing," and another road with no crosswalk. It is obvious the highway engineers increased danger to pedestrians by "prohibiting" by far the safest crossing (the bridge), where no traffic at all has to be crossed. This section of Capitol is the most frequently used by pedestrians, being adjacent to the Capitol Expressway Flea Market. There was no reason for the delay in sign removal other than to harass the pedestrians. It only takes a minute to unscrew the two bolts of the sign.

Here, and at all other locations on Capitol where the highway engineers took down the sign on one side of the road, a large sign on the other side "pedestrians and equestrians prohibited" remains. Its purpose is to scare people from using both sides of the road, encourage ticketing by police, and incorrectly informs motorists with the message "do not watch out for pedestrians." The large sign could be interpreted to be applicable to both sides of the road. Until 1989, the highway engineers only had these signs on the right side of the road. In 1989, they doubled the number of signs (one sign at every corner) as a direct result of the MTS victory before the San Jose City Council (11-0 vote) which repealed bicycle prohibitions. The highway engineers want to discourage pedestrians by leaving these large signs up even where they verbally say pedestrians are free to use the other side of the road.

The latest struggles --and victories-- to allow pedestrians are on our expressway topics page.

See pictures on Capitol Expressway.

Read about the 10-year struggle to allow pedestrians, transit access on "expressways" in Santa Clara County (California, USA).

For a history of the prohibitions and destructions of streetcars and electric trains, see Conflict of Transportation Competitors.

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