More about Bicycles on Expressways

The art of persuasion

There are different methods that can be used in trying to persuade an official to vote in a particular way. One method is to give whatever argument works to achieve that purpose, even though it may not be the truth. The bicyclists who worked to repeal prohibitions, including myself, have never taken this approach. (We are careful to correct any incorrect statements we may inadvertently make.) But the traffic engineering departments can be faulted for taking just this approach. Their arguments varied from "not enough room" to "dangerous" to "children." This served the purpose of confusing many council members who do not bicycle.

The "children" argument, in particular, raised the emotions of some council members. The fact is that children on bicycles are much safer on a 45 mph expressway than on a 40 mph arterial. Some arterials, in fact, are 45 and 50 mph. Children sometimes weave in and out between parked cars, possibly paying more attention to not colliding with a parked car in front rather than looking back before entering the traffic lane. Furthermore, their presence can be hidden by a parked van or truck. On expressways, there are no cars to hide their presence, nor any reason to go in other than a straight line. On top of this, expressways are safer for children for the same reason they are safer for adults: few intersections, almost no driveways and no parked cars popping doors open.

There is another reason why their "children" argument is invalid -the rights of adults to do any activity cannot be curtailed by government for the purpose of preventing children from doing the same activity. In contrast, government may restrict children only from an activity (e.g., drinking alcohol, owning guns, buying cigarettes, working long hours). Children don't have many rights adults have. Prohibiting adults from bicycling on expressways is no more reasonable than prohibiting use of chain saws or power lawn mowers, playing football, traveling in a car, walking across arterial and expressway intersections, etc., simply because a very few parents may neglect their responsibility by not supervising their children. There is no precedent in law for curtailing the rights of a large number of adults in order to increase safety for a few children who happen not to be supervised by their parents when they should be.

The "children" argument would have been an easy rebuttal, if it were entirely up to logic. Because of the emotional element, it was most formidable - an effective argument for the traffic engineers (although untrue). Fortunately, the traffic engineers of the Santa Clara County Transportation Agency (SCCTA) [now reorganized as Roads & Airports Dept.] never used the "children" argument. "Lawrence is safe for bicyclists in its current condition," said Scotty Bruce (Deputy Director, SCCTA).

Instead, the SCCTA traffic engineers argued "there is not enough room for bicyclists after constructing lanes [on Lawrence]." I found the opposite to be true by examining their blueprints, asking them for their requirements, and doing arithmetic (and some computer graphics). We convinced the County Supervisors. SCCTA also used the "liability" argument, in contrast to city staffs who stated more than once that there is no liability problem. SCCTA traffic engineers eventually conceded, not by acknowledgment, but by dropping the topic.

One traffic engineer (in Los Altos) got carried away when he cited accident data for Foothill Expressway as the reason for prohibiting bicycles. He failed to mention that the reported accidents involved bicycles crossing the expressway at arterial-expressway intersections, not bicycles using the expressway. The result was an unnecessary battle to allow bicycles along Foothill. (Now, he is very supportive of bicycles on expressways.)

For similar reasons, the Sunnyvale battle took two years, and the Santa Clara battle took four. These delays unnecessarily increased the risks for bicyclists, by forcing them to use the more dangerous arterials, and by increasing their trip length.

Is the role of traffic engineering departments changing?

Recent events indicate that the goals are being broadened. They are starting to consider the larger transportation picture and expand their mandate. Santa Clara (City) traffic engineer Chris Fernandez supports a People-Mover to connect the Santa Clara Convention Center with the airport and other areas. This is maximizing people capacity, not just automobile capacity.

Scotty Bruce, a highway engineer and then deputy director of SCCTA, proposed that the Lawrence Expressway bridges be further widened to more easily accommodate pedestrians and bicycles, when future lanes are added. In addition, he added sidewalks to the redesign of the roadway (encouraged by the fact that the pedestrians were no longer prohibited as a result of the authors efforts). The sidewalks were completed in 1997. Considering time efficiency for bicyclists, instead of only for car users, is a major turn-around. The prohibition signs stipulated a two mile detour on slower arterials.

Traffic engineer's goals need to be recognized

The battle 20-year battle between the bicycling community and traffic engineering departments would have been shortened if the traffic engineers would have recognized what their goals are and, when making their arguments before officials, they would have stuck to arguments based on those goals. Using arguments that may serve the desired result, but are not based on fact, drained traffic engineering department budgets to write staff reports, drained the time of bicyclists who rebut them, and drained the energy of officials who must agonize over making a decision on a topic that, for the most part, they don't have firsthand knowledge about (unless they bicycle).

A case in point: instead of arguing that "there is not enough room," they should have simply stated the dollar figure for keeping the shoulders. As was subsequently proven, there was not only room for bicycles, but also sidewalks. Eventually, they were forced to give this figure to the County Supervisors; and the Supervisors voted for bicycles a second time. But why did we have to go through a year-long battle to accomplish this? It involved 5 votes of the County Highways and Bikeways Committee, one of the County Transportation Commission, and 2 votes of the County Supervisors. Each vote was preceded by a staff report and often by staff meetings of the traffic engineers. Each staff report had to have a rebuttal (by me). Each meeting had to be attended by bicyclists. It was a waste of time and energy not only for me personally, but also for other bicyclists and the elected officials.

For their part, the city council members should have recognized the goals of their traffic engineering departments. The council members must always take a broader view than the traffic engineers, and consider the entire transportation system, and the even broader view of the environment.

A market perspective is also helpful in considering the transportation arena. Prohibitions and detours discourage usage of the transportation mode prohibited or detoured. This encourages usage of other modes. 10.8% of Palo Alto residents who commute to work choose to travel by bicycle, compared with 2% for the county as a whole [1988 figures]. We need to increase the figure for the whole county, by eliminating discouragement to bicycling, and by encouraging bicycling.

The final victory for bicycles came when the Santa Clara City Council repealed the bicycle and some pedestrian prohibitions, in June 1991, after voting on this topic over 20 times in four years. Since the previous votes were 3-4 against bicycles, we approached all three candidates for a city council seat. All the candidates stated they would vote for bicycles. All the "pedestrians prohibited" signs on Lawrence Expressway were also remove later that year within the City.

Since the victory for bicycles, there have been many more battles with the traffic and highway engineers. Details are provided in struggle to allow pedestrians, transit access on "expressways". You may first want to see the incredible pictures.


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