A View from Mountain View, on Bicycles

Northern California — and in particular the areas south of San Francisco known collectively as "the Silicon Valley" — is crazy about bicycles, not least in terms of the effort government makes on behalf of their riders. The buses of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority have bike racks on the front, which are usually in use. The Caltrain heavy rail system that links San Francisco to San Jose and points in between has entire cars for bike storage, something that commuter rail trains here could consider. Bike paths are plentiful on smaller streets off main highways and sometimes on larger suburban boulevards as well. In a recent trip to this area, which I mostly spent in and around Mountain View, I saw a fair number, if not mobs, of bicycle riders on a variety of streets.

All causes me as much despair as elation. Because despite all this effort, the Silicon Valley is still a pretty lousy place to bicycle in my judgment, particularly in terms of safety. Seeing this California sprawl struggle with accommodating bicycling makes me appreciate New York City and the other urban centers here. For despite all the debate and controversy here, making room for bicycles is much easier in a 18th and 19th century city than a 20 and 21st century one.

Silicon Valley didn't start as an auto-centric place, but it matured as one. An already thriving Stanford University heartily survived the 1906 earthquake, a time before the car had taken hold. In the streetcar suburb of Palo Alto, a transit-centered grid developed. Mountain View was a fruit-growing community, and the Castro family — which lent its name to the town's main street — negotiated a train stop for logistical reasons and development sprung up around it. Later, the advent of the car and the freeways that followed changed these places, accelerating growth in a more auto-centric style. Crucial are big wide suburban boulevards, like the historic El Camino Real, which traces its roots back to the trail between missions founded by the Spanish in the 1600s along the California coast. Camino Real is now a conventional wide suburban boulevard, although a lovable one, filled with an eclectic mix of taquerias, automobile dealers, In-N-Out hamburger stands, Indian restaurants and markets, computer shops, and other establishments that reflect the valley's diverse inhabitants. But that doesn't obscure the fact that the street's a dangerous place to bicycle, as are its less historic brethren.

Cars travel along at high speed, and cyclists, which I would occasionally see, get lost among the wide lanes of traffic. Multiple turn lanes are difficult for cyclists to navigate. The safest thing would be to avoid it completely, but because such roads act as central arteries, you can't get anywhere important in the Silicon Valley — an office park, a shopping center, a taqueria — unless you at least cross one of these arteries.

Mixed among the suburban boulevards are the big freeways, like California 101 and Highway 85, which most residents could not imagine being without. They of course are even larger barriers to cycling. Not only could one never cycle safely on an interstate, the width and speed of them tend to spread development out over long distances, which makes cycling not work as well. Freeways also cut off surface streets.

How can you make cycling safe and convenient in such a landscape? I don't know. You can put in more bike lanes, but it's hard to see a bike lane ever functioning on El Camino Real. The road is simply too big and wide.

By comparison, making cycling and walking easier and safer in older cities like New York is relatively easy. Such a city has narrow, right-angled streets built on a human scale around train stations, harbors and streetcar lines. Distances, whether to work or to a hardware store, are usually a few miles at most and often much less. Cars travel at relatively low speeds. To have cyclists mix in better, government has the comparatively easy task of putting in a few bike lanes and changing some laws to put pedestrians and cyclists higher up on the transportation hierarchy.

Despite this, Northern California carries along with its bicycle love affair, and I don't want to deter them. It will be interesting to see where they carry it. Cyclists of all sorts, from the hunched over, lycra-clad racers, to the leisurely rider who coasts along with one hand on a handlebar, populate California roads.

The Silicon Valley's attempt to accommodate cyclist is taking place in a new kind of city, and that's part of the story. This place has resources. As I wrote ten years ago in my first book, How Cities Work, in a chapter on the Silicon Valley, this place is not really suburban, in the traditional sense of the word of being outside the center. This place is the center. Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel and many, many other companies that are central to the computer revolution have their headquarters here. These companies generally reside in low-slung buildings set on green lawns.

On my last day in Mountain View, I took a drive to what I dubbed "Google Land," a dozen or more buildings on lawns near the freeway California 101 that are the headquarters of the reigning prince of the Internet. The search engine company had bought up a good chunk of real estate in this part of Mountain View. The area had a leisurely feel to it. There's even a Google soccer field. The company had provided a fleet of yellow bicycles to be used to go between its spread-out buildings. I bet they have some bike racks inside. Despite all this, I bet there are few Google workers who bike to work. The distances are too far, the streets to dangerous.

As New York City prepares to unveil its much-anticipated bicycle-sharing program, copying cities like Paris and Barcelona, it's good to remember that whatever the challenges may be, we start at a point far ahead of more suburban areas.