On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 11/1/2014
I'm digging in my closet and pulling out an old hobby horse. It's one you'll recognize if you read these columns with any regularity. It's my pet peeve hobby horse: how cyclists are treated as second-class citizens…trivial non-factors in the big scheme of roads and transit.
What's brought on my latest bout of cranky angst are two road construction projects in central Sonoma County and what the contractors on the jobs have done about processing traffic through the work zones.
The first of the two projects is the renovation of Memorial Bridge, which carries Healdsburg Avenue over the Russian River and out the the south end of the city of Healdsburg, connecting to all points south: Windsor, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, etc. Coming up Old Redwood Highway and Healdsburg Avenue to the bridge is the default setting for cyclists coming to Healdsburg from the south (or, of course, for heading in the other direction). There are other ways to connect Healdsburg with places to the south, but all are considerably longer rides. You might choose to go those ways for fun, but if you’re commuting or trying to get the connections made by the quickest, simplest route, the bridge is it. And even if you’re on a recreational ride, using one of the longer, more scenic back roads to get to or from Healdsburg, 90% of the time, the bridge and its connector roads will end up being one part of your loop. One way or another, the bridge almost always features in any ride that connects Healdsburg with the south.
I don't want to get into too much finicky detail here--don't want your eyes to glaze over--but I do want to make clear the nature of the problem. So here are a few numbers: the distances from two points to the south to Healdsburg by the three available routes…
From Larkfield to Healdsburg (corner of Mark West Springs and Old Redwood Highway to Healdsburg Plaza)…
Via Old Red, Healdsburg Avenue and the bridge: 11 miles
Via Westside Road on the west side of the river: 20 miles
Via Chalk Hill Road, Hwy 128, etc: 22 miles
From Windsor to Healdsburg (corner of Windsor and Windsor River Roads to Healdsburg Plaza)…
Via Old Red, Healdsburg Avenue and the bridge: 6 miles
Via Westside Road on the west side of the river: 17 miles
Via Chalk Hill Road, Hwy 128, etc: 21 miles
Either of the alternatives adds anywhere from 9 to 15 miles to the journey. That means anywhere up to an hour of additional riding time. You might choose to do this on a recreational ride, but if it means adding most of two hours to a round-trip commute--and yes, there are people who commute between Healdsburg and the south--then that's significant, especially in months with limited daylight.
In case you’re from somewhere far away and are not familiar with the region, let’s make this clear: Healdsburg sits right at the heart of Sonoma County’s wine country and is at the hub of many great cycling roads exploring the wine country. Cycle-tourism is the second biggest revenue stream--behind the wine industry itself--for tourism dollars in this county. Aside from the many touring companies that funnel riders across the bridge on their wine country tours, there are the legions of local riders, in small groups or singly or on club rides, who are moving along these roads every day. In short, it’s one of the busiest hubs for cycling anywhere in Northern California, which means it's one of the busiest hubs for cycling in America.
The construction project is extensive and has the bridge closed to cars for at least a year. Initially, the contractors simply said they would close the bridge to everyone, period. For drivers of cars, that's only a minor hardship for a few locals but is not a problem for anyone else. They have the Hwy 101 bridge over the river just a few hundred yards downstream. But cyclists are not allowed on the freeway bridge, and when they objected to the total closure of Memorial Bridge for over a year, pointing out that they have no other reasonable options for riding between Healdsburg and points south, the contractor grudgingly agreed to find a way to include a bike lane over the bridge, through the construction. (I'm oversimplifying here: it took concerted efforts from Sonoma County Supervisors, the Healdsburg City Council, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, and other players to finally broker the deal to allow bikes access to the bridge.)
I don't want to cap on the contractors too hard on this. I appreciate that accommodating bikes amidst their very extensive and messy and dangerous construction activity is not easy to do…a pain in the butt for them, really. But it has to be done. For the most part, they are doing it, but not quite as fully as they promised to do. So far, on at least a couple of occasions, they have closed the bridge to bikes for a few days each time while they did something really heavy duty, like removing lead-based paint from the old structure. I certainly don't want to be breathing air filled with sandblasted lead-paint dust. I get that one. But they didn't make any effort to provide for an alternative. They just said: "No bikes…too bad…go away."
Some intrepid cyclists have taken to riding over the river on the freeway bridge, which is illegal and probably too scary for most cyclists. Technically, I think cyclists are supposed to be allowed to use a freeway shoulder when no other option is available for connecting A to B. I have ridden on 101 in other parts of California in exactly those situations. But no one from the construction company went to Caltrans and did the spade work to make that happen in this case. Someone should have taken that on, but apparently it was too much trouble. There is also an old railroad bridge immediately upstream from Memorial Bridge, which has a funky grate deck that some riders are now using to walk their bikes across the river. You can't ride it…I've tried. Even walking it is a bit dodgy in bike shoes. Fortunately, trains are not using the bridge right now, but the railroad authority was never going to agree to allow pedestrian access to their bridge, so anyone doing so now is doing it illegally and at their own risk. In other words, in the cases of both the freeway bridge and the railroad bridge, cyclists have been forced to go rogue…to break the law simply to get around in their world, a world where their access is supposedly guaranteed by the California Vehicle Code.
As for taking the longer way around on River and Westside Roads, that isn’t as simple at it might appear either--never mind the extra miles--because that road is where the second construction project is currently happening. (By the time you read this, it may be almost done.) On one level, this is a wonderful, good-news story. You may recall my enthusiastic reports on recent paving projects in Sonoma County. The county, once noted for having the worst pavement on its back roads of any county in the Bay Area, has in recent months been doing a much better job of securing funding for road work and then for going out and putting their money down on the roads in the form of silky new paving. It's heaven for riders. I couldn't be happier about this new state of affairs.
However, in this case, the new paving has come with a little unexpected baggage for cyclists. They are repaving a 6.6-mile section of Westside Road…3 miles from River to Wohler Bridge and 3.6 miles from Wohler to Sweetwater Springs. In prepping the road for the new top coat, they have ground down the old pavement and left the road base looking like something from the Middle Ages. Quite rough. They have left the road open for car traffic during the rather protracted period during the work--a few weeks--but they put up signs at each end that say NO BICYCLES, and they have workers out there to enforce their ban.
This is in effect during weekday working hours. But on the weekends they go home and leave the road unattended, and although the "no bikes" signs are still in place, cyclists are riding it. I did so a week ago. It's not much fun--a rather abrasive and lumpy ride--but it can be done, and for three miles or three and a half miles, it's just a minor purgatory to be endured to complete your ride. My friend Laura Charameda had a fund-raising ride for the Team Swift junior development team a couple of weeks ago along that route, and something like 100 riders did it en masse. She said it was okay. Not great, but not much of a problem.
I understand that during working hours, the crews are watering the surface to keep the dust down, and the damp hardpan might be a bit funky for riders. (There was minimal dust from passing cars when I rode it on a weekend.) But overall, it's a surface than can be handled by cyclists, at least for the relatively short distances involved.
However, the contractor, perhaps with the best of intentions, made the decision that this was no place for bikes. How they arrived at this decision or whether it was imposed upon them by the county as a condition of their contract, I don't know. Someone made the call, and I wish I knew who had done so. As far as I understand these things, local municipalities or agencies are not allowed to contravene the Vehicle Code without permission at the state level. I don't know this for sure, and I will concede that there may be exemptions to that rule for construction zones. But if you are letting cars go through, how can you prohibit cyclists? I doubt very much you'll find that exemption--that distinction--anywhere in law. A better solution, it seems to me, would have been to place warning signs at the beginning of the construction zone advising cyclists of the conditions ahead and then letting the riders choose what to do. That way, they've covered their ass legally but have allowed the riders the option to proceed if they feel they can deal with the rough conditions.
What would the Westside Road closure have meant for some hypothetical cyclist? Okay, say you're a cycle-tourist or a group of them on a route you laid out months ago, doing a multi-day tour through the region. You ride east along River Road, coming in from the coast…say, a 65-mile stage…with the route you've planned going up Westside Road to an overnight destination in Healdsburg. But you arrive at Westside Road and find it's closed to bikes. What do you do? If you know enough, perhaps with the help of a mapping app on your phone, you might try to get over to Eastside Road and approach Healdsburg via Memorial Bridge. But--oh dear--that route is closed as well. If you don't want to break the law by riding on the freeway or to trespass by walking your bike across the old railroad bridge, you have to circle all the way around on Chalk Hill and Hwy 128 to approach Healdsburg from the east and north, and your comfortable 65-mile ride turns into an 85-mile grinder. Or you could backtrack to Guerneville and take Sweetwater Springs to get to the top end of Westside, beyond the closure. Then you'd only have a 75-mile ride…but one with a very tough, 15% climb and descent long the way. All of that assumes you could even figure out a detour. The paving crews certainly haven't been handing out maps with alternate routes offered. Nope…sorry…go away. Not our problem.
What upsets me with both these construction projects--here's my old hobby horse--is that the people in authority--probably the contractors but possibly county officials as well--have taken the position that bikes are expendable and irrelevant. That when it's inconvenient or problematic for them to accommodate bikes in their plans, they simply chop them off without any thought to the consequences. It's that same old mindset that cyclists don't matter; that the folks on bikes are somehow not on the same playing field with all the other road users out there and can be dismissed out of hand as easily as one might brush away a fly.
C'mon, folks. We've got to get past this. Sometimes dealing with those darn cyclists might be a bother. But hey, suck it up! Do the right thing. We're here. We're not going away. We're legitimate. We're part of the package. You can't just pretend we cease to exist when it's inconvenient for you to make allowances for us.
Some day the bridge will be open again. Some day--one day quite soon!--Westside Road will be open again with lovely new pavement. Then all of this fuss and bother about how to ride a bleeping bike to bleeping Healdsburg will be just a bad memory. But as things stand now, we can only assume the same old mindset will remain alive and well for the foreseeable future, and that bikes will be shunted aside as a minor irrelevance the next time it suits the folks in charge to do so. And when that happens, I'll be rooting around in my closet for that tired old hobby horse again. Grrrrr….
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org