Bicyclists need to reverse being kicked off Rt. 87

Akos Szoboszlay

Update: Rt. 87 (in San Jose, CA, USA) has been approved for a 6-lane freeway. It may be too late, politically, to get bicycles back on this road.

Traffic engineers illegally kicked bicyclists off Rt. 87 in San Jose before the road was ever completed. The result of a multi-year Alternatives Analysis process was that in November of 1981, a Light Rail Transit (LRT) / Expressway / Bikeway was approved to be built in the Guadalupe Corridor (Rt. 87). The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was completed and published in August of 1983. Without any notice to the public, the County traffic engineers in late 1984 changed the expressway to a freeway. The FEIS never mentioned a freeway, nor even hinted that the expressway would turn out to be a freeway. A freeway alternative had been previously considered but rejected in the Alternatives Analysis process. After the illegal change, Caltrans pressured the Guadalupe Joint Powers Board to prohibit bicyclists from the "freeway" (in Dec. of 1985). This violated the FEIS, which states that "Bicyclists will have access to the expressway shoulders except north of Curtner Ave." (where the expressway intersects I-280).

Bicyclists who supported the LRT/Expressway/Bikeway alternative felt double-crossed. Even with a freeway, there was no logic in prohibiting bicycles. The nearest alternative route, Monterey Rd., forces bicyclists to merge with 50 mph car traffic whenever there is a parked car! (I commuted that way to IBM.) The shoulders of a 55 mph freeway are much safer. On Feb. 20, 1987, Caltrans, the "Traffic Authority" and the County were convicted of violating environmental law, and the court stopped freeway construction south of I-280. The suit was filed by the Pinehurst Residence Association. The traffic engineers then simply re-wrote the FEIS to state "freeway" and construction resumed.

Rt. 87 as a freeway would be even better for bicyclists. With no signal lights or stop signs, a bicyclist can easily travel four or more miles and still beat the light rail in the median with today's 10-20 minute headways. In contrast, light rail transit would suffer. Because the FEIS guaranteed signal pre-emption, the "green signal", for light rail transit, grade separation has no advantage. It is a big disadvantage because the expensive grade separation had to be paid out of the limited transit funds. Expensive elevators, escalators, and pedestrian ramps had to be built from transit funds. The freeway isolated pedestrians from the stations which were placed in the middle of the freeway (an awful environment), just to satisfy the traffic engineers' desire for an increase in automobile capacity of the road. Changes to accommodate more automobiles should have been paid for by automobile funds, yet even the legal costs of fighting for the freeway (against the Pinehearst Assoc.) were paid for entirely from transit funds. This is even more astounding considering that neither light rail transit nor the Transit District was ever mentioned in the suit!

The freeway wouldn't even help traffic congestion, except for a temporary short term. Freeways increase automobile trips and increases the average automobile trip length. As with computer memory, usage increases to take advantage of any increase in capacity. Congestion returns as before. With more automobiles trips and an increase in miles traveled per average trip, air quality will go down.

With the collapse this year of the traffic engineers' prohibition of bicycles on expressways [they instituted it in 1965] and recent major victories in allowing pedestrians on expressways, the time is ripe to repeal the bicycle prohibition on Rt. 87, enacted in 1985 by a now-defunct entity. Time is important. It would be harder to repeal after road construction is complete. I think the best approach is by getting the San Jose City Council to vote to request Caltrans to repeal their prohibition. Then request the same of the County Board of Supervisors (but not at the same time, or the traffic engineers will have an excuse for endless delay "let's wait to see what they do"). They both voted unanimously for bicycles on expressways despite vigorous opposition from their respective traffic engineering departments!

While the FEIS did not mention bicycles north of downtown, it will be important to prevent Caltrans from imposing bicycle prohibitions on Rt. 87 north of the city hall, even when the road here becomes a freeway. Currently, this roadway is under city jurisdiction and allows bicycles. The city council should get an agreement with Caltrans that bicycles will be allowed before relinquishing jurisdiction.

It should also be relatively easy to repeal the prohibition on the existing freeway between Taylor and Julian, since there is a dramatic and convincing difference in safety and travel time between this and the nearest alternative, a narrow, circuitous route. Caltrans, with a vested interest in maximizing auto use and road construction, wouldn't be convinced, but the City Council probably will be.

It will take a volunteer to initiate, track and guide the cause through the political process. Experience is not necessary. Time and a word processor is. The pay off will be decreased bicycle accidents, and decreased travel time for bicyclists using the corridor. Since my advocacy time will go toward repeal of remaining prohibitions of pedestrians on expressways, please volunteer your time by contacting Bill Michel, President, Santa Clara Valley Bicycle Association, at 415/965-8456. Update: organization name was changed to Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

Also see: list of bicycle articles.