by Michael Fukuyama

The Bay Area, like almost every urban area in California, has long been dependent on cars as its primary mode of transportation. Because of this, the infrastructure in the Bay Area has been constructed for the sole purpose of making roads as car-friendly as possible, which has come at the expense of pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

With this in mind, State Sen. Scott Wiener recently introduced legislation that would require Caltrans to add safety improvements such as bike lanes and sidewalks when updating streets that are part of state highways. There are numerous streets to which this applies within the Bay Area, such as SR 123 (San Pablo Ave) and SR 13 (Ashby Ave) in the East Bay and Van Ness and 19th Ave in San Francisco.

A section of San Pablo Ave featuring no lanes for either cyclists or pedestrians

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 127, seeks to accomplish the goal of constructing “Complete Streets” in California. This term stems from the need to create roads that accommodate all road users rather than just drivers, and the movement that spawned from it in 2004 now has support from 1300+ local, regional, and state-level agencies creating over 1400 policies across the United States. Caltrans first outlined “Complete Streets” as a goal in 2008 through Deputy Directive 64-R1, but has yet to take action on it.

The bill is long overdue, as the risk per trip is far higher for pedestrians and bicyclists than it is for drivers. In 2017, there were 5,977 pedestrians and 783 bicyclists killed by motor vehicles in the United States. These fatalities as a percentage of overall traffic-related deaths is increasing: in 2003 they constituted 12.6%, while in 2017 they accounted for 18.2%. Safer roads are critical to reducing these fatalities.

An example of a “Complete Street” in Vancouver with a two-way protected cycletrack and ample sidewalk space

Furthermore, safer roads will result in more people choosing to bike or walk in the first place. Thus, by improving road safety, SB 127 would also help California fulfill its goal of tripling bicycling and doubling walking by 2020 from 2015 levels as part of the Strategic Management Plan 2015-2020. These targets were set by Caltrans as part of its larger goal of promoting “sustainability, livability, and the economy.” Bicycling and walking are the most effective ways to accomplish all three, as they 1) produce no greenhouse gas emissions, 2) promote exercise and healthy living, and 3) are cheaper/free modes of transportation. The targets set forth by Caltrans are aspirational and commendable, but neither of these drastic increases can or will occur with the current infrastructure, which makes biking and walking both inconvenient and hazardous.

The environmental benefits are particularly pronounced in California, where 39.5% of GHG emissions come from transportation. Not only are biking and walking emission-free, but they also cut down on infrastructure construction that can be utilized for green spaces: bikes require 1/3 as much road space and 1/9 as much parking space to transport and park the same number of people as cars

Given the current state of California’s traffic congestion and environment, it is time to make non-private motor vehicle transportation a top priority rather than an afterthought. SB 127 would force Caltrans to start thinking about taking measures to support this idea, marking a significant first step in the right direction.