San Jose Ups Its Biking Game

In this sprawling Bay Area city, more than half the carbon footprint comes from cars and trucks. So the city is focusing on growing its network of safe bike paths—and fast.
Ford GoBike station, San Jose, California, December 2018

Shutterstock

Cyclists pedaling through downtown San Jose are used to dodging trucks, darting between parked cars and fast traffic, and weaving around Ubers pulling over for drop-offs. But those days could soon be behind them.

In 2017, the northern California city’s planners jumped into high gear with a project to create safer bike corridors. They hosted 7 community meetings and presented at dozens more; spoke with more than 1,500 local residents, bikers, police officers, firefighters, Uber and Lyft drivers, and sanitation workers; then got to work painting bright lanes and installing flexible green plastic posts along some of the busiest bike corridors.

To date, the Better Bikeways San Jose project has completed nine protected bike lane projects, with nine more under construction. Altogether, that adds up to about 20 miles of protected bike lanes in two years. “In some cases that is 10 times what other cities are doing,” says NRDC city strategist Elizabeth Stampe.

To make such quick progress, the city skipped the more permanent lane divider materials that are usually used. “It’s challenging but worthwhile, because in this quick-build process, if we needed to modify it a little, it was faster, easier, and cheaper to move a plastic post than to move a solid concrete curb,” says John Brazil, the city’s active transportation program manager.

But Brazil isn’t focused on quick paint jobs and plastic posts just to help Lycra-clad cyclists heading to high-tech jobs downtown in this Silicon Valley metropolis. He and his team are working to make sure they respond to the needs of a wide spectrum of current and potential bikers. After all, San Jose—America’s 10th-largest city—is also one of its most diverse. About 37 percent of its 1 million residents are Asian American, 33 percent are Latino, and 27 percent are white.

It’s also a sprawling place, stretching 180 square miles. Compare that to 49-square-mile San Francisco, an hour’s commute north. “San Jose’s destinations can be far apart, which can make people think their only option is to drive,” Stampe says. Currently only 1 percent of trips in the city are made by bike. And more than half of San Jose’s carbon footprint comes from cars and trucks.

As part of its sustainability efforts, the city—a winner of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge—aims to help its residents transition from four wheels to two. It’s a goal that many of the 25 winning cities have focused on as they work to address one of the biggest sources of their carbon emissions: transportation. The cities are being supported in their endeavors by Bloomberg Philanthropies and NRDC, among other organizations.

In particular, San Jose seeks to increase bike commutes 15-fold by 2040 with a plan to build 500 miles of bikeway. They also aim to cut bike collisions in half by 2020. To make the project as inclusive as possible, Brazil’s team has partnered with three community organizations representing people in neighborhoods where biking is prohibitively dangerous and where protected lanes are needed most. The groups are LUNA (Latinos United for a New America), VIVO (Vietnamese Voluntary Foundation), and Veggielution, which runs a community farm in the city’s low-income Mayfair neighborhood.

Better Bikeways San Jose is a network of safe, comfortable bikeways serving all ages and abilities.

Stephen Lam for NRDC

Each organization received a stipend in exchange for helping the city to spread the word about the bike lanes within their communities and providing feedback to the government. “We meet them where they are. We bring people who speak a different language, if necessary, and who they’re most comfortable with,” Brazil says.

On one hot August weekend, VIVO organizers set up a workshop outside the crowded front entrance to the Grand Century Mall in Vietnam Town. Shoppers who stopped by the booth were able to learn about the Better Bike Plan 2025 and give input on various types of bike lanes.

“The excitement over the different bike lanes the individuals were advocating for was something I’ve rarely seen,” says VIVO project coordinator Ellena Tran. “It was really exciting for me to see the community participate in this bureaucratic process that I feel often isn’t understood or thought about in the Vietnamese community.”

That same month, LUNA organizer Omar Vasquez helped collect feedback from Latinx communities in the city’s Tropicana neighborhood at an event featuring ice cream, tacos, and free fix-it services from a bike mechanic. Vasquez echoed Tran’s comments about the importance of giving all residents a stake in the initiative. “We need to change the culture of how we move around in the city,” he says. The results from participants in the East San Jose gathering yielded quick results: On the basis of the input received, the city added a proposed trail segment that will run parallel to the 101 freeway and connect a residential neighborhood and a park.

Chava Bustamante, the executive director of LUNA, notes the group is already planning a follow-up event. In fact it will be the third cycling-related community gathering Bustamante has organized in recent weeks; he also partnered with the local police to host a bike tour of his neighborhood. “I had a blast just being able to ride up and down the street,” he says of the tour, but he adds that biking in San Jose can be dangerous. “If we can organize more events, get drivers to respect people on bikes by slowing down and not getting too close, I think that in itself would be something that could inspire people to use their bikes more.”

San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo and Alix Bockelman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission at the kickoff of a bike infrastructure conference in San José

Stephen Lam for NRDC

Local officials are doing their best to heed the concerns and advice of residents like Bustamente, Stampe notes. “The city is trying to hear from people who may be too busy to come to city hall on a weekday evening to speak up,” she says. And in turn, “the diverse communities in San Jose are making themselves heard and making their government accountable to them.”

Safety is one of the primary concerns that residents share with Brazil and his team. It’s something the city is doing its best to address with protected bike lanes, which studies show do limit collisions better than only a paint stripe—whether those lanes’ physical barriers are a row of plastic posts (as San Jose has introduced), planters, a lane of parked cars, or concrete curbs. And making people comfortable with the new lanes is key to bicycle adoption, Brazil notes. “You can talk to somebody until you’re blue in the face,” he says, “but if they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to get on the bike.”

As the city installs post after post, Vasquez is certain more members of his community will hop on their bikes to go to the store or to commute to school or work. “People want to bike, only they don’t have the infrastructure,” he says. Lane by lane, that’s starting to change.


Read more about San Jose's efforts to build a sustainable future:
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