Jun 18, 2012

Bicycling in Old Contra Costa County

I spend a fair bit of time in the East Bay in the cities in and around Walnut Creek since I have a number of friends who live over there and it's also where my girlfriend grew up. For a city boy like me, I really enjoy being able to leave the concrete jungle behind for awhile and move a little bit closer to nature. What's nice about central Contra Costa County is that much of the area feels more rural than suburban in nature. Danville, Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda, and the older parts of Walnut Creek have this sort of rustic charm that is absent through most of the exurban Bay Area. Many neighborhood streets in these towns lack sidewalks, but people mostly feel welcome walking right on the road. There's also lots of protected open space and the over century-old downtowns of these Contra Costa towns are largely preserved.

Given the folly of not bringing BART directly into downtown Walnut Creek and the lack of proper public transit in the area, I'll usually bring my bike with me when I travel east. If you've never explored the central East Bay by bike, you're in for a pleasant surprise, especially if you're looking for a nice recreational ride. Miles of trails connect the many cities which dot the East Bay valleys and people driving are quite respectful of sharing the road with bicycles. This isn't to say that bicycling in the East Bay meets the 8-80 standards of accessibility, connectivity, comfort, and safety, but these cities have surely been making some great strides in recent years. I've been meaning to document the state of bicycling in the East Bay for awhile now, so here you go – the good and the bad of bicycling in central Contra Costa County.

Let's start with the good, as I believe it's generally best to give credit and encouragement rather than criticism. We'll start in Walnut Creek where my journeys usually begin – the BART station. The City of Walnut Creek (likely in cooperation with BART) recently installed a grade-separated cycle track (gasp!) connecting the station to the nearby intersection of Oakland & Trinity. Though it only covers a short stretch, what was built really represents a perfect road system – there's a defined and comfortable place for people to walk, bicycle, and drive. It's a great use of the previously-unused BART right-of-way too.

Heading now over to Lafayette, since quite honestly there's not too much to praise Walnut Creek for, let's take a look at some signage. We've been ogling over Oakland [official design guidelines], Berkeley, and Portland's new bike route signs for awhile now, but few know that the City of Lafayette has some spiffy way-finding signs of their own. While they don't show estimated travel times as in Portland (admittedly, a difficult measure to estimate), they do provide excellent way-finding to diverse categories of destinations, including BART stations and parks. These bike route signs have proven very useful for me, since I'm honestly still not too familiar with many neighborhoods.

Continues after the break.

Continuing on through Lafayette, the city has started to build out a network of sort-of bike boulevards. Here, extra-large (XL) white sharrows were placed along a bike route which travels through quiet neighborhood streets parallel to the busy main drag of Mt. Diablo Blvd. It's a great route if you're just traveling through the area and don't intend to visit downtown Lafayette. The XL sharrows show that people bicycling may use the whole lane to steer clear of the door zone on this narrow street.

Complementing the XL sharrows in the last shot, the main bike routes in Lafayette have a little bicycle icon on the street signs similar to those used on the famous bike boulevards of Berkeley. It's a subtle but effective way of designating certain routes as bicycle corridors. I think the Wiggle and other SF bike routes could use something like this one day.

Many cities in Contra Costa County have elaborate networks of mixed-used trails. They're mainly recreational, but can be used to travel between cities or for other longer-distance journeys. The residential street in the photo above is a little different. It enjoys a regular sidewalk on one side and then a generous mixed-use path on the other – perfect for bicycling. I would love to live on this street.

Now, I'm going to move over to a few points of criticism. What I've shown thus far really demonstrates that many of these cities are trying to move beyond merely thinking about the automobile and are starting to take other modes of transport more seriously – and that's wonderful. Unfortunately though, most streets in the East Bay, even in the older parts, are built for driving and little has been done to change that.

Remember that wonderful cycle track in Walnut Creek I showed you in the first photo? This is how it connects to the street grid and the BART station. The sign asks you to just get off your bike and then tackle the six-lane boulevard ahead as you may. This is just lazy. And don't expect any bike lanes on the other side – city officials even encourage you to ride on the narrow sidewalk and avoid the street entirely.

No accommodations for bicycling on the notoriously-dangerous Ygnacio Valley Road – and we're right in front of the Walnut Creek BART station! Note: Riding on the sidewalk, though seriously frowned upon and illegal in SF, is perfectly legal and often the most comfortable place to bicycle in most California cities. But sidewalks are built for walking and, especially at intersections, are consequently no place for bicycling. It's obvious we need a cycle track or at least a buffered bike lane on this street. This location isn't too far from where that father and daughter were killed by an over-zealous teenage driver while riding their bikes a couple months back.

While Walnut Creek has thus far refused to place sharrows on their streets (I have yet to see even one), Lafayette has played around with them on some streches. Clearly, a little shared lane stencil here on Mt. Diablo Blvd is insufficient to motivate this man and many others like him to ride on the road.

So, in sum, it's surprisingly wonderful to bicycle in the central East Bay and hopefully there will be more progress to come. Walnut Creek and other neighboring cities have recently or are currently in the process of developing modest updates to their bike plans. If you have a chance to take a ride out in the East Bay, I think you'll really enjoy yourself. But clearly, just as in SF, these cities still have a long way to go. They face different problems from a dense urban city – in some ways their transition may be easier and in other ways more difficult. In a future post, I'd like to consider the differences in what it takes to create a complete street in a city as compared to a suburb or small town. You guys have any ideas?

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