Transforming Suburbia into Eco-Utopia (part 3)
This is the final entry of a 3-part series on the city of San Jose's sustainable transportation goals, based on Sociecity's April 12, 2012 interview with Hans Larsen, the city's Director of Transportation.
Continuing our conversation on bicycle infrastructure, I tell Hans that I have some fun stuff for him, too, and present a private stash of bike-infrastructure photos, taken during my visits to various cities including Barcelona, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Seoul, among others.
The first photo (shown at right) is of a Tokyo suburb – I use the term 'suburb' loosely, as the density of a Tokyo suburb is about on par with the most dense urban areas in the U.S.
In Tokyo, a city where you're rarely ever more than several hundred feet from a metro station, bike usage is not tremendous; but, I tell Hans, if you visit the stations a little further out from the city, you have these huge parking lots, not for cars, but for bikes.
Looking at the photo, Hans cracks a smile; it is — as he mentions later in our conversation — not something he had witnessed during his visit to Japan.
The next photo we look at is a mockup that sociecity produced in 2011 for an article on the Alameda Bicycle Boulevard. I take the opportunity to ask Hans about the feasibility of a center lane that is physically separated and reserved for bikes, walking, and a landscaping buffer.
I know that New York has one, Hans responds, and Washington D.C. has one in a small stretch.
It's interesting, because we have a project on the Alameda to make it more pedestrian friendly, kind of beautification, putting a landscape buffer in the center, make crossing easy for a pedestrian refuge area…
…but this, Hans says as he looks at the sociecity illustration (seen below), this is interesting…
Hans tell me that the main issue is how to deal with the intersections, and he gives Copenhagen and Amsterdam as examples where individual traffic signals are necessary for the bikes. He also admits that, while San Jose's goal is to be "one of the nation's leading bike cities," the city has lot of catch up to do.
We're very open to looking at trying new things, he adds.
One of the assets we have is the creek trail, kind of like a bicycle freeway that provides major avenues of long distance right of ways that are safe and convenient, and we're looking to create a network to get from the creek trails to where you are going. I call it a ladder system, where most of the creeks run north/south and then there are these east/west connectors that form the rungs of the ladder.
The east-west routes would be mostly on city streets, where Hans says they intend to foster a trail-like experience, using both physical separations and colored bike lanes.
I ask what issues San Jose has with creating new bike lanes that are physically separated from cars, such as in New York, where some lanes use parked cars as a buffer between bikes and traffic.
When we had the downtown bike plan go to council, says Hans, Sam Liccardo [City Councilman] added some direction to actually have us look at that concept, and we do have a few places where we can, like 4th street where we've laid out a two-way bike lane buffered by parking, running against San Jose State and City Hall.
Generally, however, Hans tells us that most successful bike lanes of this type in other cities were originally one way streets built pre-car with few or no driveways to get in the way. Unfortunately for San Jose, most of the city's streets were built post-car and are full of driveways and parking lot entrances.
The city is planning, however, to look at a separated bike lane option for 4th street along San Jose State University and City Hall, and Park Avenue from Guadalupe River Trail to the Cesar Chavez Park.
Hans pulls out a document containing a bicycle network that will be implemented this summer. The plan shows the 3rd/4th street corridors and the 10th/11th street corridors will lose a lane for automobile travel, and each gain two bicycle lanes.
These streets are currently main north/south thoroughfares, each with at least 3 lanes of one-way traffic, so it's an impressive statement to drop an entire lane of car travel for two bike lanes. The city is not, however, planning to create a physical separations or buffer zones between bikes and traffic when they re-stripe the streets this June, something both Councilman Liccardo and many other advocates would like to see as a safety mechanism.
After these new bicycle lanes are completed in the Downtown area, the city will launch a bicycle share program in the city's center. The system is the first of its kind in Silicon Valley and will initially comprise about 200 bikes installed in the city core.
These projects show a city leadership that is finally making strong efforts to live up to its promise of having a serious bicycle infrastructure…
…an infrastructure that aims to move a lofty 15% of the city's traffic on bicycle by 2040, according to the city's general plan.
Hans tells me, that although the city has a lot of good ideas, they have been struggling for a while in terms of not having much money to implement these projects.
How about corporate sponsorship, or joint public/private developments, I ask Him, maybe the Adobe Bike Paseo or Specialized Bike Highway?
We've kind of kicked that around on the maintenance side, more of having somebody adopt the bike route to help with money to re-paint the bike lanes every couple years. I don't really know how generous corporations would have to be. Specilized is actually partnering with us on the Walk and Roll program, and we also have Lucille Packard working with us on that.
Hans turns his attention to a photo I handed him of Seoul, and asks if it is a dedicated corridor… I explain that it is part of Seoul's revitalization of the main river running through the city (Han River). The photo shows a four lane bike highway along the river.
I've been to Japan, he continues, but I didn't really see that much bike use, I guess like you say, it's not until you get out into the suburbs.
That's the idea, I tell Hans, and even then, you have things like an underground bike parking garage at the shopping center.
Looking at another photo taken in Germany, Hans says that the city has considered separated bike and pedestrian areas on trails, where, as the trails get congested you have people walking their dog, or the stroller on one side, and people moving faster on bikes on the other side. Hans seems skeptical, however, of whether San Jose will get to the point where pedestrian/bike separation is necessary on the trail system.
It would be a nice problem to have, I tell him; we share a nod and smile at the notion.
Yes, it would.
Hans' main interest in moving San Jose towards these sustainable transportation goals, he says, is that they can be driven largely by building smart around existing transit hubs.
The "station city" concept is popular in Europe and Asia, where is isn't uncommon to see a dozen stories of shopping, corporate offices, entertainment and housing above, under, and adjacent to main train stations.
San Jose certainly isn't planning for a "Station City" anytime soon — although development in the city's Diridon Station area might come close — but with a sea of parking lots currently surrounding San Jose's transit hubs, the city does have many open opportunities to develop smaller, station-centric villages.
Hans says that the transit-oriented village is a key goal for the city, and the transit authority is essentially waiting to develop the current parking lot real estate that surrounds light rail stations into higher density shopping and housing — when the right plan comes along.
The city's transit network is good, Hans says, but he also maintains that city land use does not support that system well.
It's clear that there is opportunity to increase and optimize the use of existing mass transit — such as the city's light rail system, which serves just 30,000 passengers per day — but in order for that to happen, smart, higher-density development needs to happen around the existing stations.
Hans finishes the statement by taking it back to bikes…
Having that [bicycle network] downtown, and expanding it to North San Jose, the East Side, Willow Glen, Rose Garden; building a really strong bike network is where we are going. I am optimistic in hoping that we can see some big changes.
After hearing and seeing the work the Hans is doing, I too, am rather optimistic for San Jose.