(IAP ’12) Erica Simmons G
Coda: Thinking Beyond Infrastructure
Before I finish this project blog, I have to share one more thought:
My project focused on the physical design of roadways and how to improve them to promote bicycle use. However, a comprehensive bike program should be about more than just infrastructure. What we really need to do is to promote a culture of safety, respect, and fun on our streets, and this requires us to think beyond paint on pavement and focus on user behaviors, as well.
So what should bike planning be, beyond paint on pavement? Well, a key component should be education and outreach, so that bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians all understand traffic regulations and know how to navigate the roads safely. Programs should also address issues of equal access to bikes and bike infrastructure. The City of Boston, for example, has a program to repair and donate bikes to children from low-income families, called Roll it Forward. Programs to help cyclists keep their bikes in good repair and to encourage safe riding will help prevent accidents and make everyone more comfortable.
I was thinking about this on my commute home one of my last days at SFBC when I came across a creative effort to promote safety: Reflectorize! A few SFBC volunteers had set up a sewing table and ironing board along a popular bike route. They were calling out to passing cyclists and offering to attach new reflective material to jackets or bags. They also fed us brownies. This event was a fanciful follow-up to Light up the Night, an event SFBC holds every year to give bike lights to cyclists who need them.
So I stopped and chatted with the reflectorizers and got my stylish new backpack reflector, which will make me more visible on the streets of Cambridge this winter. And it occurred to me that a light giveaway would be a great idea in a place like Cambridge, with so many busy students who aren’t always so great at taking care of their bikes. Maybe that should be my next project…
Conclusion from Cambridge
I had a wonderful time interning for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition this January, and I learned so much about bike planning, the history and politics of Golden Gate Park, and the role that non-profit advocates like SFBC play in the development of sustainable transit options.
One of the things that surprised me as I started my project was how much great bike infrastructure Golden Gate Park already has, but that is not well known or well marked. According to the Golden Gate Park Master Plan, the primary bike route through western Golden Gate Park is a multi-use path that runs from Speedway Meadow to the Beach. Although narrow, it is a lovely, peaceful path. But it is poorly marked, so many San Francisco residents don’t know it exists. (I didn’t know of it, and I ran through the park for almost five years!)
As part of the 1998 Master Plan, the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks closed several road sections to prevent car commuters from short-cutting through Golden Gate Park. These old roads, now closed to cars, provide great opportunities for bicyclists and pedestrians traveling through the park, but these are also not well publicized.
So the good news from my project is that the City can improve visitors’ experiences substantially by installing signs and pavement markings to help people take advantage of the infrastructure that already exists. Right now, these roads and trails do not look inviting.
Although the multi-use path and closed road segments are great amenities, they are not enough to fill the park’s bike network needs. Many cyclists are still going to want to bike along JFK Drive, because that’s where the attractions are. (Like the baby buffalo!) So I spent a lot of time looking at JFK Drive. I found that most of the road west of Transverse Drive is too narrow to install buffered bike lanes without removing a lane of traffic or a travel lane, making the road a one-way street. Both of those options are possible, and more in-depth parking and traffic studies could help planners understand their impacts.
But what I realized over the course of my project is that those are not the only options to make the JFK Drive safer and more comfortable for cyclists. The reason JFK Drive is intimidating now is because cars move very fast on it. There are only two stop signs in the 1.5 miles between Transverse Drive and Ocean Beach, making this road one of the fastest routes through San Francisco. (There are very few parts of the city with so few intersections.) Cars pick up speed over this distance, which causes bicyclists to stay to the right, where they end up weaving around parked cars. Maybe, rather than armoring up a bike lane, it is worth focusing on how to encourage cars to slow down. Traffic calming measures, such as narrowing traffic lanes and installing new stop signs and crosswalks, could tame the park’s “wild west.”
This would also benefit pedestrians in the park. As I discovered in my fieldwork, there are very few marked crosswalks on western JFK Drive, and crossing can be scary!
I wrote up all of my observations and ideas for the Bicycle Coalition, which will use them as it refines its vision for western Golden Gate Park. I can’t wait to see what happens!
Golden Gate Park’s “Wild” West
If you ever travel through Golden Gate Park, whether on foot or bike or by car, you may notice a distinct change as you pass from east to west. The eastern half of the park feels more developed, with diverse recreational amenities: a children’s playground (including a carousel!), the Conservatory of Flowers, the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences, and various manicured garden landscapes. JFK Boulevard, the major promenade through the park, is wide, and it is regularly used by cars, bicyclists, roller bladers, skateboarders, pedestrians… If you stand around for long enough you can see almost any kind of conceivable locomotion.
But about half-way through the park, you pass under Crossover Drive, an elevated, north-south highway. Almost immediately, the road narrows, and the vegetation closes in. The flower gardens disappear, replaced by views of forests and grassy meadows. There are still recreational amenities, but they are of a more rustic flavor: picturesque ponds, horse stables, and a bison pasture. This is Golden Gate Park’s Wild West.
Before I flew to San Francisco for this project, I met with transportation planners in the Boston area to learn about bike projects around MIT. When I told them about my project, I would describe how the roads differ between eastern and western Golden Gate Park, but I did not know why this was the case. Each of these planners told me that this was one of the first questions I should ask.
What I have learned is that this difference is by design, and it can be traced to the early history of the park.
While visiting San Francisco in 1866, Frederick Law Olmstead initially proposed the creation of a large public park to signal San Francisco’s emergence as a world class city. The park would be similar to New York’s Central Park, built in 1858. For political reasons, the City’s supervisors chose not to build the park in the center city, as Olmstead envisioned, but in the cheap, sparsely populated “Outside Lands” in the west of the city. William Hammond Hall, a surveyor and engineer, won the design contract for the park and began to develop plans to transform the park’s 1,017 acres of windswept sand dunes into a premiere city park.
A central part of Hall’s vision was the park’s thematic division: he designed the eastern park, which is closer to the city, to resemble a traditional urban park, while the western half would be a more “natural” landscape of lakes, meadows, and forests. (Of course, this landscape was also heavily shaped by the park’s builders. Hall and his crew planted thousands of trees to transform the coastal dune landscape into the forest you see today.) Hall wanted visitors standing on top of Strawberry Hill in the middle of the park to see a cultivated landscape to the east, wild lands to the west.
So what does this mean for bike planning in the park? The first consequence is practical: the City is able to build protected bike lanes on eastern JFK Drive, because the street is already so wide. There was plenty of room to carve out a separated bikeway, or cycle track. In the western half of the park, JFK Drive is significantly narrower, and the eastern JFK Drive design will not fit on the existing roadway.
The other consequence is more conceptual: in the 1998 Golden Gate Park Master Plan, San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department stated its commitment to preserving the park’s historic design, meaning that western Golden Gate Park should remain less developed and more “wild” in character. What could this mean for bikeway designs in the western half of the park? Are there some design elements that would be incompatible with its less-developed character?
Now, I certainly don’t think that bike lanes should be considered more incompatible with the park’s design than car lanes. However, this is something to keep in mind as I consider potential designs. In the western half of the park, it may be more appropriate to use a lighter touch. Travelling through the western half of the part should feel like a peaceful, sylvan route rather than an urban promenade.
Project Start: Bike Planning for Diverse Users in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Hello! My name is Erica Simmons, and I am a master’s student in urban planning at MIT. I will be spending January in San Francisco, interning for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC). My project is to develop a plan for safe, inviting bikeways in the western end of Golden Gate Park. The goal is to make biking in the park easy and fun for diverse communities throughout San Francisco.
This is a project close to my heart. Before coming to MIT, I lived in San Francisco for five years, working for a parks agency south of the city. During that time, I discovered the joys of urban cycling, both for travel and for fun. Although I was initially terrified of the city’s steep, busy streets, I soon found that biking was one of the easiest ways to traverse the city, a great source of exercise, and an intimate way to explore new neighborhoods.
I also came to appreciate the infrastructure that made my trips through the city safe and enjoyable: the city’s expanding network of bike lanes, bike parking, and other improvements. These did not happen by accident, but through the policy decisions that City agencies have made over the past several years and the tireless efforts of the SFBC, a non-profit advocate for biking in San Francisco.
SFBC’s most recent initiative is the Connecting the City vision plan, which calls for a network of interconnected bikeways running through the city that are physically separated from traffic, so that riders of all ages and cycling abilities can use them. They call it the 8-80 standard, meaning that an 8-year-old child or an 80-year-old grandparent should feel comfortable using these routes.
My project is a small part of this vision. SFBC started by focusing on an East-West route from the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, of which the relatively calm streets of Golden Gate Park play a major role. This past October, San Francisco’s Department of Recreation and Parks approved a proposal to build a 1.5-mile bike path on JFK Drive in the eastern half of Golden Gate Park, where bicyclists will be protected from the flow of traffic by a row of parked cars. Tackling the western half of the park is a logical next step, but the west end’s narrower roads will require new creative solutions to get cyclists to Ocean Beach. In addition, it is important to evaluate access routes into the park. Creating a world-class bike network in the park won’t do that much good if people cannot get into the park safely.
For the next month, I will tackle these questions, surveying biking opportunities in the park and the barriers to access along the park’s borders. What options are there for improving the park’s bicycle infrastructure, to support community recreation and sustainable transportation? How can we help people throughout San Francisco connect to the city’s premiere open space?
I’m looking forward to it!