Part 3: My years as a San Tomas Expressway commuter

August 3, 2016
Some sections of San Tomas Expressway look like this.

Some sections of San Tomas Expressway look like this.

After abandoning Pomeroy as the main route to and from work, around 2000, I decided to try San Tomas Expressway. It’s ironic that I waited so long, considering my history with the road.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I lived in Menlo Park, I got swept up in the cycling-community frenzy to see the expressways opened to biking. Santa Clara County had a blanket prohibition of bikes on expressways, except for Foothill Expressway (not sure about Oregon Expressway).

That always seemed odd, allowing cycling on one expressway and not others. In addition, it went against state law, which allows bikes to use all roads except freeways. It took a lot of advocacy and political pressure on the county and cities, but it finally happened.

At a Santa Clara City Council meeting attended by dozens of cyclist, I got up and said a few words. The way I said it was lame, but I was glad to give my support back when I had a voice as a San Francisco Chronicle columnist.

The late Mayor Eddie Souza, one of the more liberal-minded mayors in the county, seemed to be in favor, going against the wishes of the Santa Clara city traffic engineer.

In late 1991, Santa Clara County supervisors began taking measures to allow bicycles on the expressways. San Tomas was opened for cycling in 1992, maybe later, and it wasn’t long before all the county expressways were open for cycling. Today you can still see signs where “bicycles prohibited” is covered over.

I quickly discovered the advantages. During commute hours the traffic signals stayed green longer. I got to work faster than before.

As time went on, I saw more cyclists using the expressway, but when I started I rarely saw other cyclists.

After a year it was routine riding the expressway. I usually turned left on Monroe and took a side street to Kiely, which I was on long enough to cross under the Caltrain tracks. That route served me well for quite a few years, until I started working near Trimble and Montague Expressway.

During my time on San Tomas I never had a single incident with a car beyond the usual driver turning right and cutting me off. The only flats I had were from puncture vine, which grew in profusion in the pumpkin/Christmas tree lot near Monroe and San Tomas. I complained and the county responded with spraying, to such an extent that today it’s gone.

Traffic volumes have spiked on the expressways since I started riding. Traffic engineers have responded with proposals for more road widening. San Tomas will have an extended bike path, but I’d much rather see my taxes spent on trains and light rail than I would on road widening.

Up next: my four years commuting to North San Jose.

Part 2: Evolving my commute route

July 31, 2016

Lawrence Station underpass was a welcome addition, for the most part.

Lawrence Station underpass was a welcome addition, for the most part.

It takes time to find the best route to work, and experimentation. You’ll never know if a route is good unless you try it.

It took me more than a decade to settle on the ideal route to work in the area of Kifer Road and Lawrence Expressway in Santa Clara. The route has changed in part because I got tired of dealing with the Caltrain railroad tracks.

Early on I tried taking Kiely Boulevard north from Pruneridge. If ever there was a road to avoid, Kiely is it. It’s bumper to bumper traffic, lots of stop lights and downright miserable riding. I quickly gave up on that option.

I then settled on Pomeroy Avenue (bike lane), jogging left on Warburton to Nobili Avenue (light traffic) north to Monroe Street. I’d take a left onto Monroe (no stop light so it was a chore) and pick up a frontage road, French Street, next to Lawrence Expressway. Today there’s a massive apartment under construction at the Lawrence/Monroe intersection.

However, I had to walk my bike up stairs and down stairs on a Caltrain overpass. It was a big pain. Once the Lawrence Station was remodeled in the early 2000s, I could take the underpass, although bikes must be walked through the subway.

There’s a handicap ramp, but it’s also prohibited to ride bikes on it. After a while I got tired of the hassle and quit taking that route. (The Lawrence Station area will be built out with housing and retail in the coming years. I’m not sure bicycle access will improve, but city planners do seem to have bikes in mind these days.)

Another issue cropped up when going home by that same route. I cut through an office complex parking lot to get to Nobili. Eventually I couldn’t cut through the parking lot when it was closed off, so the route home no longer appealed to me. French Street is one-way going north.

I also tried out Willow, Monroe, Timberpine, Halford Avenue, Benton, but it took me out of my way and the roads are congested from high-density housing on Halford.

Next I’ll discuss San Tomas Expressway and how I rode it daily for many years.

Pomeroy route, used for about five years. Caltrain underpass was the only issue. (Google Map)

Pomeroy route, used for about five years. Caltrain underpass was the only issue. (Google Map)

Bike commuter’s credo: cars are assault rifles

July 28, 2016

As much as I dislike all the traffic these days, Central Expressway was my daily route home.

As much as I dislike all the traffic these days, Central Expressway was my daily route home.

Before I continue with my analysis of bike commuter routes, it’s important to understand the bike commuter’s credo: cars are assault rifles.

Let it dictate how you choose your best route to work. That may sound harsh, but it’s nothing against cars or assault rifles. It’s just that cars can hit you, by accident or on purpose. Either way, the results are going to be dire, just like being shot by an assault rifle.

Wearing a helmet isn’t going to save you all the time, nor is taking the right of way when you clearly have it as a car is bearing down. Never think that a car is going to do the right thing. Assume the driver will do the wrong thing, and be ready.

I’ll tell you how well that served me: In my 45 years of daily bike commuting (except for six months when my job required driving) I never had a bike-car accident. But hundreds of close-calls.

However, I’ve had more than one bike-bike accident, which says something but the meaning is open to interpretation.

Over the years, I became less interested in the shortest/fastest route to work and more interested in taking streets with light traffic. It’s all about playing the odds. Keep that thought in mind.

The more you mix with high-speed traffic, especially large trucks (heavy artillery), the greater your risk. Additionally, study after study has shown that riding next to air-polluting cars is bad for your lungs, not to mention your hearing from cars buzzing by.

Next up I’ll discuss a couple of other routes I took and why they fell to the wayside, including San Tomas Expressway.

Freedom Bridge spanning San Tomas Aquino Creek in peril

July 27, 2016

Freedom Bridge spanning San Tomas Aquino Creek is on notice for removal.

Freedom Bridge spanning San Tomas Aquino Creek is on notice for removal.

Intel employees who ride (or walk) to work on San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail were none too happy to learn that Freedom Bridge, which provides a convenient connection between campus and creek path, is slated for removal.

I don’t blame them. The wooden bridge supported by steel beams isn’t much to look at, but it eliminates the hassle of riding down to busy Mission College Boulevard and then backtracking on Juliette Lane through the main campus. It saves several minutes for northbound riders, where most people live, and avoids traffic.

Here’s what Barbara Keegan, District 2 director for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, told a concerned bridge user, and she gives the bridge history:

Barbara Keegan

Barbara Keegan

“This pedestrian bridge was originally permitted for temporary access to facilitate the construction of the Intel campus, at a time when Intel owned property on both sides of San Tomas Creek. The opposite side of the creek was never developed, and Intel is selling the property to another entity. The modifications made to the levee to accommodate the temporary construction bridge and the access points to the levee do not meet established criteria for permanent public trail connections.

“Bridges in general pose an ongoing maintenance issue for us and can exacerbate flooding. However, when there is a strong public interest being served, the District does occasionally approve bridges. For this bridge to remain, a couple things would need to happen. The bridge and access ramps do not meet established criteria for construction on a levee, so there would be a need for some modifications on Intel’s campus and the property on the west side of the creek. The bridge and access locations need to serve the greater public, which would likely mean making changes to Intel’s campus and perhaps the property on the west side of the creek, to have a dedicated pedestrian/bike path that would promote full public access. Concurrence by the city would also be necessary, as public trails are operated under agreements with local municipalities, in this case the city of Santa Clara.

“Plans for the removal of the bridge and restoration of the levee were received in late June and are being reviewed at this time. In the meanwhile, staff is reconnecting with Intel representatives to see if a solution that provides access while meeting our criteria is feasible.” [Note: Anyone can use the bridge.]

While the loss of the bridge isn’t the end of the world for cyclists and the noon-walk crowd, I’m reminded of the expression “death by a thousand cuts.”

Intel, one of the world’s most innovative electronics companies, needs to work with the city of Santa Clara and the water district to keep Freedom Bridge, or am I to believe that all this talk about fixing our traffic problems is nothing more than lip service?

Part 1: Finding the best commute route

July 25, 2016

Google Maps recommends bike routes, but they're not the best.

Google Maps recommends bike routes, but they’re not the best.

As I look back on my commute days, I realize that it’s no easy matter to find the best route to work on a bike. It takes experimentation and a careful analysis of a map, preferably one that shows bike lanes and paths.

Although you probably don’t commute the direction I’m going to describe here, it can still be useful information as I delve into the tricks and tips for bike commuting.

Consider Google Maps and its fledgling effort to provide desirable bicycle routes. Their routes are not the best, not even close.

Let’s consider my commute route of years gone by. Google Maps suggests taking Lawrence Expressway. Now that’s hardly what I call a good route. In fact, it’s downright hazardous.

Clearly, Google needs to tweak its algorithm. It should favor roads with less traffic and make those the recommended route. While the Google Maps blue route is the most direct — we all like that — taking a longer route usually means less traffic. It might even take less time.

But back to the Google routes. The blue line, their best recommendation, I have taken home from work, never to work. Lawrence Expressway is choked with cars during commute hours and traffic moves at 50-55 mph.

One of the more unnerving intersections is at El Camino Real where the cyclist has to cross two exit lanes.

Homestead Road, used to reach Lawrence, is equally hazardous, with lots of driveways. It’s a road I always avoid.

The gray route — Los Padres Blvd., Cabrillo Ave. — is much better. Los Padres had a bike lane the entire distance and less traffic. It goes through residential streets, 25 mph. Perfect for bike commuting.

However, there are two schools on this route, which is never a good thing. Parents clog the streets dropping off their children, right when you’re commuting.

The section of Lawrence you’d be riding isn’t as bad as other segments, but it’s still an issue.

Another problem with the Google Maps route is the left turn from Lawrence to Kifer Road. You’d have to cross four lanes to turn left. Good luck with that!

What they should show is a right turn onto the frontage road in front of Costco, riding under Lawrence past the Caltrain station. However, Google Maps can’t account for riding through parking lots of commercial buildings, which I always did when I took this route, so they’re stuck recommending the left turn on Kifer.

In Part 2 I’ll review some more roads I’ve taken to this work address and give their pros and cons.

Why do riders say “CAR BACK”?

July 24, 2016

Loma Mar store construction continues.

Loma Mar store construction continues.

Yesterday the Devil’s Slide Ride rolled by as I climbed Alpine Road, so it was not unexpected that I rode with some of these participants raising money for Parca, an organization supporting people with developmental disabilities.

All well and good. However, the “car back” crowd was out in force. I can’t say what causes this quirky and annoying behavior, but I wish it would stop. It’s entirely unnecessary, even in the unlikely event the person ahead has a hearing problem.

If you disagree and you say “car back” or “car up,” I’d like to hear from you. Give me your reasons for stating the obvious. Just be civil about it.

I decided I didn’t want to be a curmudgeon and make a rude comment, so I just slowed to a crawl and let the rider pass. I then picked up the pace and followed. It worked: no more incessant “car back” chirping.

Loma Mar store creeps toward completion. The exterior looks to be in place, minus the windows. Maybe it will open before year’s end.

Summit Road a cool choice in July

July 17, 2016

One of my favorite trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Mount Madonna and Summit Road.

One of my favorite trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Mount Madonna and Summit Road.

As I contemplated riding to Santa Cruz, that prospect looked less and less desirable as I approached Summit Road on Old Santa Cruz Highway. It was downright foggy and cool.

I decided to strike south for Summit Road where it would no doubt be warmer — not that I really enjoy taking Summit Road. Then I’d ride down Mount Madonna Road, for 11 miles of dirt.

Summit Road offers little in the way of views overlooking the south valley, or the Pacific Coast for that matter, even though it follows a ridge. There’s a lot of tall brush and hillsides to block vistas.

The road rolls along, never too steep up or down, but it’s a lot of washboard, dust and some gravel. Many people continue building their dream homes up there, all off-grid.

The stretch of pavement down to Mount Madonna Road makes the gnarly dirt worth it as paved Summit makes a beeline downhill at about an 8 percent grade. Last night’s dense fog condensed in the trees, making for wet pavement, but not enough to cause riding issues.

Mount Madonna Road is, as always, smooth dirt but a bit dusty below the redwood tree drip line. I blasted down the paved road (14 percent) to Redwood Retreat Road and then home via Uvas Road, thankful for the lack of any headwind — more like a tailwind.

Loma Prieta Way becomes Loma Prieta Avenue, then Loma Prieta Road at the Summit Road junction.

Loma Prieta Way becomes Loma Prieta Avenue, then Loma Prieta Road at the Summit Road junction.

Newspaper article gives balanced report on mountain biking

July 16, 2016

Henry Coe is one of the best state parks for wild and scenic riding.

Henry Coe is one of the best state parks for wild and scenic riding.

I read the San Jose Mercury News daily and I was pleased to see today’s article about mountain bikes because it gave a balanced view of the pastime some 40 years after it got its start in the Bay Area.

The headline “Bay Area lays out welcome mat to once-shunned mountain bikers,” pretty much sums up the article. We’re told that some parks are making accommodations for mountain bikes, especially new riders who want to learn more in a safe environment.

The sentiment expressed in the article mirrors what I’ve been noticing over the years. I’ve followed the mountain bike boom since the early 1980s when Tom Ritchey started building top-of-the-line frames out of his garage. The sport, if you can call it that, was born out of a desire to ride bikes off-road.

That’s a wonderful attitude to have because riding a bike off-road allows you to see miles and miles of open terrain, far more compared to hiking. It can also be mixed with road riding, giving a healthy individual the ability to ride from home in Santa Clara Valley into the mountains and back in a matter of hours.

The only downside is that off-road cycling has a kinship to off-road motorcycling. All that’s missing from today’s mountain bikes is the motor. They have suspension, beefy brakes, strong frames, wide, sturdy tires. Great for speeding down hills.

That was the rub in the beginning and it’s still the rub today, only most of the young Turks who rode like Yahoos back then have aged and saw the error of their ways, or just chalked it up to youth.

Nothing wrong with that. Young people like to have a little excitement and the mountain bike is a better option than a lot of other risky outdoor activities.

While I believe things will improve for mountain bikes, we still need to remember that the bike is the “car” on the trails. That means yielding to other trail users and slowing down to a crawl to pass.

With the mountain bike comes responsibility, no different from driving a car. I always keep that in mind while I’m riding trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

PodRide a look at the future

July 13, 2016

It’s so darn cute. For that reason alone, PodRide should be a popular choice for the day when we rely more on human-powered hybrid transportation.

Best route to traverse Santa Clara Valley

July 5, 2016
Here's the route traced in red, shown on Google Maps. Click on map for large size.

Here’s the route traced in red, shown on Google Maps. Click on map for large size.

Probably one of the worst rides in Santa Clara Valley is riding across the valley itself. You’ll encounter dozens of lights and stop signs, not to mention plenty of traffic. You can check the route in Google Maps view.

After 25 years trying, I think I’ve come up with the best route. It’s not perfect and it’s not the shortest or fastest, but it avoids most traffic without going more than a half-mile total out of your way.

There are a few tweaks I didn’t show here, but this is close enough. The Hwy 85 bike overpass is problematic, because it can’t be ridden without a dismount, so if you’re willing to put up with a tricky intersection at Fremont and S. Bernardo Avenue, take that route instead.

My advice at this intersection, when there’s traffic, is to go straight instead of turning left and pull over to the right side of Fremont or do a U turn on Bernardo once across Fremont.

Inverness, The Dalles and Fremont through Sunnyvale are far superior to Homestead Road’s heavy traffic and frequent lights.