Sunday, March 17, 2019

Rerouting the Peninsula Bikeway

The Peninsula Bikeway with my modifications shown in blue.

[This is the second post in a series. See the first post for background on this one.]

My interest in rides through the flatter neighborhoods on the east* side of the peninsula and thus of this series of blog posts were inspired by a demonstration ride of the preliminary Peninsula Bikeway I attended last September. In this post, I describe how I developed alternatives to the route taken by that preliminary bikeway to make it more to my liking. Do these changes simply reflect the idiosyncratic tastes of a timid old man with too much time on his hands, or do they say something of general interest about the future of the Peninsula Bikeway? What is the purpose of that bikeway anyway? I spent a fair amount of time searching their website for answers that question, and there is a lot to unpack, perhaps even enough for a future post, but for the purposes of this post, I just want to abstract one bit:

"A high-quality bike facility ... [to make] ... possible travel for:
  • work,
  • school,
  • shopping,
  • errands,
  • fun."
I would have added health to that list, but fun will do for the purposes of this post. I am retired, so work is not an issue (nor is school), but it is for my kids, one of whom commutes by bike from Redwood City to Facebook in Menlo Park. Neither the original version of the bikeway nor my modifications will take him all the way there, but in a future post, I will describe how an easy extension will. As for shopping and errands, I shamefully admit I am still doing that by automobile. The why of that would be a whole blog post of its own, and it is something I am trying to fix. But when I think about shopping by bike, once again, the Bikeway will not take me all the way to where I shop, but it does give me ideas for getting there and I hope my suggested modifications adds more ideas to the mix. So we are left with fun. I find my version of the Bikeway more fun than the original, and hope you will agree.

How relevant is the Peninsula Bikeway, does it use the streets cyclists actually prefer? One way to answer that question is to look at the Strava Global Heatmap. To be fair, the Strava dataset is strongly biased towards recreational cyclists, whereas the target demographic for the Peninsula Bikeway is more the transportation cyclist (e.g. bicycle commuter) but with that reservation in mind, what does the Heatmap show? It varies. The roads of the Peninsula Bikeway are never the most popular north-south route in a given area, but over some stretches the the roads of the Peninsula Bikeway are fairly popular, while in others they are barely used at all. In some cases, I agree with Strava Heatmap, in others, I most definitely do not. Another way to look at the question is to ask the cyclists who commute from San Francisco to Google in Mountain View, who have formed a club, SF2G. They go beyond the scope of the Peninsula Bikeway by starting much farther north, but do ride its entire length. What route do they recommend? They recommend seven, three of which are in scope for the Peninsula Bikeway, and none of these overlap with it at all. Next, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) recommends a north-south route that runs through Redwood City, Atherton, and Menlo Park. Again, there is no overlap except at the very end where this route terminates onto the Peninsula Bikeway as it enters Palo Alto. Finally, there were the comments from experienced local cyclists on the demonstration ride which I will refer to below. (Briefly, they agreed with some parts of the bikeway and disagreed with others.) One last point: The SVBC route is different from all the SF2G routes, and all of these show up on Strava Global Heat Map but none dominates it. In summary, there are lots of ways to bike north-south on the peninsula and little consensus as to which is best. I have ridden many parts of the SF2G and SVBC routes, and I personally prefer the customized route described here.

One issue I struggled with while writing this post is that the bikeway I am improving is the "interim bikeway." The final bikeway will apparently not consist of quiet neighborhood streets as the interim bikeway does, but rather travel along less attractive routes, such as El Camino Real, Middlefield Road, or the Caltrain right of way. The Peninsula Bikeway website promises that "the design concept will consider how to improve intersections, driveway crossings, and other features" in order to produce a design that is "safe, comfortable and efficient." Depending on how successfully these goals are met, it is possible that I would prefer this new route to the current interim route, but it is also possible I might continue to prefer the interim route. In any case, it is estimated that it will be ten years before the permanent route is ready, so I think my remapping is not in vain.

The Peninsula Bikeway goes completely across the cities of Redwood City, Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Mountain View in a North-South direction, starting at the northern edge of Redwood City and ending at the southern edge of Mountain View. I will discuss this route city by city.

Redwood City

The Peninsula Bikeway starts in Redwood City where I would have it start and finishes in Redwood City where I would have it finish, but I prefer other streets for almost everything in between. The Peninsula Bikeway jogs back and forth as it goes through Redwood City, ending up on Cleveland Street just before it gets to Jefferson Avenue. Jefferson Avenue is sufficiently busy that I prefer not to cross it without a light, and there is no light at Cleveland Street. The experienced cyclists on the Peninsula demonstration ride threw up their hands in exasperation and asked the ride organizers, "Why not Hudson Street?", so I tried Hudson Street and found it to be much better than the Bikeway route; it even has a bike lane along part of it (which the Peninsula Bikeway route does not), and there is a light at Jefferson and Hudson. My preference becomes even stronger when we reach Highway 84/Woodside Road, which I definitely would not cross without a light. The Bikeway crosses at Hess Road and then jogs east, riding on the very busy Highway 84 for one block before continuing south on Cypress Street. This is barely acceptable heading towards Mountain View, as there is a light at Hess, but unacceptable heading towards Redwood City, as there is no light at Cypress. In contrast, there is a light at Hudson, so again I agree with the experienced cyclists. Shortly thereafter, my route merges back with that of the Bikeway just before it exits Redwood City and enters Atherton.


The Peninsula Bikeway does go through Atherton on a previously developed network of bike routes. These bike routes do not feature dedicated bike lanes, merely signs and sharrows. Because none of the streets used continue uninterrupted through Atherton, there is a lot of weaving east to west when one north-south street ends to get to the next. That said, I made no changes in the part of the Peninsula Bikeway that goes through Atherton. It is not so much that I carefully tried other alternatives and decided that the bikeway was the best, it was mostly because, unlike in the case of Redwood City, the experienced cyclists suggested no alternatives, and because I found the route used by the bikeway to be just fine. One alternative I did try is Middlefield Road, mostly because it had been suggested as a possible route for the final bikeway. I found it unpleasantly busy even on the stretch through Atherton that has a bike lane, and I doubt I would ever chose to take Middlefield instead of the bikeway. Another alternative I tried, one perhaps out of scope for the bikeway, is Alameda de las Pulgas. I ride this road regularly when I am out for a workout on my road bike, and when I tested it on my Public city bike, I found that it was not at all too hilly for this bike, though it was a bit hillier than the bikeway. Nine times out of ten, I will chose the bikeway when I am out for an easy ride, but occasionally I will take Alameda for variety.

Menlo Park

The somewhat busy but generally bike friendly street of Valparaiso defines the border between Atherton and Menlo Park, and the bikeway rides that border. The left turn onto Valparaiso can be a little tense, but I have found no better alternative. Once on Valparaiso, the bike lane is excellent, making for a safe and comfortable ride. For no reason I can imagine, the Bikeway does a weird jog just before crossing El Camino, a jog I ignore. Continuing straight seems perfectly comfortable to me, so that is what I do. Other than that, I follow the Bikeway exactly through Menlo Park.

Palo Alto

There is no part of the Palo Alto stretch of the Peninsula Bikeway that I would not be happy to ride, though as I discuss below, I deviate from the posted route to enter Mountain View at a different point than the Bikeway does. The first part of the Peninsula Bikeway goes along the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard, which goes down Briant Avenue. With the irrelevant exception of a half a block of bike lane at the beginning of downtown, riding Briant Avenue mostly means riding with traffic protected only by signage. Downtown Palo Alto has more the feel of a small town than a city, but there is more that enough traffic even so. At first, I found this street intimidating, but it works better than I had expected. I think part of that is that drivers have become accustomed to heavy bicycle traffic on this road, and simply have learned to deal with it, but another thing that has been done is to prevent cars from using it as a through street by providing barriers to cars which bicycles can pass through, reducing automobile traffic. There are about half a dozen of these over this part of the Bikeway. Bottom line, I really enjoy cycling on Briant Avenue. The Peninsula Bikeway leaves Briant Street and the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard and takes a right turn on West Meadow Drive and then a left turn on Wilkie Street. The goal of this jog is to get onto California Street once you enter Mountain View, which I find unrideable, as is discussed below. So, rather than take that right turn onto Meadow, I continue on the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard by continuing straight on Briant Street. Between Meadow and the border with Mountain View, this bike boulevard wanders over a number of residential streets, making it less than trivial to follow. It is fairly well marked, but even so, I often end up missing a turn and having to retrace my path. Shortly after crossing into Mountain View, this becomes the Mayfield-Whisman Bike Boulevard.

Mountain View

I don't like the route the Peninsula Bikeway picked through Mountain View, and a lot of my efforts have been devoted to finding a route through Mountain View that I do like. Most of the Peninsula Bikeway through Mountain View goes along California Street. The one time I tried to follow the Peninsula Bikeway route, I found California so uncomfortable that I turned east onto Shoreline Drive and came home on the Mayfield-Whisman Bike Boulevard (described below.) This is in spite of the fact that California Street has a bike lane. The problem is that it is very busy and is lined with shopping centers so there is a lot of traffic crossing the bike lane, making it feel very unsafe, to the extent that I vowed never to ride it again. I had to find an alternative.

One of the discussions I had with the city staffers during the Peninsula Bikeway demonstration ride was about the differences between the cities involved in developing the bikeway. One example of such was that Mountain View favored Middlefield road as the main north-south bike corridor, whereas Palo Alto favored Briant Street, so I thought it made sense to try Middlefield as an alternative. When I rode it, I did not like it either. It had many of the same problems as California Street, so much so that I was unwilling to follow it to the end. I turned west onto the Stephens Creek Hike and Bike trail and again took the Mayfield Whisman Bike Boulevard home.

If I keep taking the Mayfield Whisman Bike Boulevard home, why not make that my route? In fact, I have. This Bike Boulevard is like the Peninsula Bikeway routes through Atherton and Palo Alto, there are no bike lanes, but traffic is light so I find the route very comfortable. The only problem with Mayfield-Whisman Bike Boulevard as an alternative to the Peninsula Bikeway is that has its southern terminus at the Stephens Creek hike and bike trail some distance from the southern border of Mountain View, the end point of the Peninsula Bikeway, and I felt I had to respond to the challenge of making all the way to that border. To that end, I took the Stephens Creek trail to its western end. At that point, there is only a couple of blocks on comfortable neighborhood streets to the southern border of Mountain View, which I rode. Mission Accomplished.


My modified version of the Peninsula Bikeway has become a go-to ride for me. If I ride the whole thing out and back, it is over 30 miles, a worthwhile addition to my training schedule, and it is a very pleasant ride. It also provides for a variety of attractive variations, a topic to which I expect to return in future posts.

* The San Francisco Bay Peninsula is at about a 30 degree angle northwest to southeast, but for simplicity's sake, I will refer to the ocean side of the Peninsula as the west side, the bay side as the east side, heading toward San Francisco as going north, and heading towards San Jose as going south.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Exploring the Plains of the Peninsula: Preliminaries

A Portion of the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. San Francisco and the entry to the bay is off the top of the picture. The blue to the left is the Pacific Ocean, that to the right is San Francisco Bay. Terrain View was turned on in Google Maps to show the hilly vs the flat parts of the Peninsula. I start many of my rides at the blue dot near the center of the picture and ride south. If I go through Portola Valley (bottom center of the picture), Woodside, and Emerald Hills, as I do for my "GoTo" ride, I have a strenuous, hilly ride. This post is about some easier, flatter rides I have been doing that go through Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Mountain View (in the lower right corner of the picture.)



A while back, I posted that I had "...started exploring routes through the beautiful neighborhoods on the eastern flats of the Peninsula." This post goes into that exploration in more detail. The inspiration for this exploration was the demonstration ride of the interim Peninsula Bikeway I went on last September. What I learned from that ride was that there were delightful neighborhood streets through the flat parts on the bay side of the Peninsula that are worth riding. That demonstration was actually organized was as two rides, one coming from the southern end of the route, the other (which I rode) from the northern end, with both groups meeting in the middle, in Menlo Park. So one inspiration for exploring this region a bit more was to try out the southern end of the route, which I had not ridden in the demo. Another was to see if I could find better roads than those identified by the city governments when putting together this interim route. I suspected this was an option because some of the experienced riders on the demonstration ride asked pointed questions about route choices, suggesting alternatives they liked better. A third was to explore some destinations beyond those reached by the Peninsula Bikeway. This was originally planned as a series of three posts, which, despite my general policy of posting monthly, I planned to post over three successive weeks. Posts one and two, this one presenting background material and the next one on how I would remap the interim Peninsula Bikeway, are on track, but as I have been developing post three, about extensions to the Bikeway, it is not clear that it is a stand-alone post. Perhaps its contents can best be presented as parts of other posts over the next several months, or perhaps it will appear as originally planned two weeks from now. Stay tuned to find out.


If you look at the picture above, you will note that the part of the San Francisco Bay peninsula where I live angles from northwest (San Mateo) to southeast (Mountain View) with the San Francisco Bay on the right and the Pacific Ocean on the left. Most of the roads on the Peninsula run either parallel or perpendicular to the peninsula. For convenience, I will ignore the angle and refer to heading towards San Mateo as going "north", towards Mountain View as going "south", as heading towards the Bay as going "east" and as heading towards the Ocean as heading "west".

Criteria for a Better Route

What makes for a better route? It depends on the rider and the reason for the ride. A brave young commuter might look for a fast, direct route to work. As a nervous old man riding for fun and exercise, I look for pretty scenery, low traffic, dedicated bike lanes, and anything else that leads to a fun, safe experience. What this post will be about is finding the safest and most pleasant roads that allow me to ride this part of the Peninsula.

So is the idea to string together as many dedicated bike lanes as possible? Actually, no. As it happens, dedicated bike lanes tend to be on busier streets, and that busyness can outweigh the advantage of the bike lane. Also, bike lanes come in many different qualities. I could (and might) do an entire post on what makes bike lanes more or less useful, but very briefly, they can be divided into properties of the lanes themselves, their width, surface quality, and how they handle intersections, and properties of the road of which they are a part. The aforementioned busyness is one such property, but so are speed limits, the number of intersections, and amount of traffic which crosses the bike lane. Bike lanes on roads like the section of Middlefield Road which goes through Mountain View contain many strip malls, with lots of traffic into and out of the mall crossing the bike lane and making it unsafe. Junipero Serra Boulevard is at least as busy and much faster than Middlefield Road (the speed limit is 45 mph) but is almost controlled access. Although it goes by strip malls, there is no access to these malls from Junipero Serra, access to the malls is from a parallel street, so there is much less traffic crossing the bike lane. As a result, I vastly prefer riding the bike lane on Junipero Serra to that on Middlefield, and in fact prefer lightly travelled residential streets with no bike infrastructure at all to the bike lanes of Middlefield.

In the end, although I can explain my preferences for one route over another after the fact, my ability to predict the best route is weak at best. I find that I simply have to try promising-looking routes to discover the ones I prefer.


One more important factor in this exploration is my choice of bikes. Mostly, I ride road bikes, my classic 1960 Bianchi Specialissima, my Surly Cross Check, and the road bike I use most often these days, my Bianchi Volpe. The Volpe has the lowest gears of all my bikes due to its 28/38/48 tooth triple chainwheels in front and its 11-32 cogs in the back. When I am tackling some of the steeper climbs in the region, Kings Mountain for example, I really appreciate its bottom 24 inch gear, but when I am riding my GoTo ride, I leave the chain in the middle 38 tooth chainwheel which provides an adequate range of gears for this ride, 32 to 93 inches. When my wife died, I originally tried to find a good home for her commuter bike, a step-through frame Public bike with a 7 speed internal gear hub. I failed to do so before the move to California, so brought it with me, and found that if I raised the seat and scooted it all the way back and raised the handlebars, it actually fit me pretty well. I replaced the seat with which it came with a Brooks Cambium C19, and the result was a bike I am enjoying very much, and it has become my choice for my exploration of the Plains of the Peninsula. The synthetic Cambium is harder than my favorite saddle, the leather Brooks B17 I have on my road bikes, but I have gotten used to it and overall, find this bike extremely comfortable for rides up to 35 miles. (I have yet to try it on longer rides, but my experience so far suggests 35 miles may be no where near its limit.) Even on these flat rides, there are hills. In particular, my home is on a hill so there is an inevitable steep climb for the last few blocks of any ride I do. A concern I had about the Public bike is that, because it had an internal gear hub, it might not have an adequate range of gears. However, when I sat down and figured out what its gears actually were, the low gear on the Public bike is 33 inches, virtually identical to the 32 inches low gear on my Volpe when I am using only the middle chainring. That is not the whole story, the fact that the Public bike has me sitting upright compared to the Volpe's traditional road bike posture means that I have less power climbing on the Public bike even at the same gear ratio, but even so, the Public bike has gears more than adequate for any of the flat rides I want to do. Due to the higher wind resistance of that upright posture, it is a slower bike, about 2 mph slower than my road bikes, but who cares when I am out for fun and exercise?

So what is the attraction of the Public bike? First, the upright posture makes it easier for me to look around and appreciate the neighborhoods through which I am riding. Second, there is no changing into bike clothes, which makes rides less of a production. Also, I find it a bit easier to stay warm in normal clothes. Third, because of the Brooks Cambium seat, fenders, and internal gear hub, rain is just not a problem on this bike. Between the lower traffic roads I have selected, the lack of hills, and the fact that the Public bike is more comfortable, an easy ride on this comfortable bike is great when my motivation is a bit low.


Why am I doing this exploration on my own? Aren't there guides to tell me what the best routes are? Actually, there are lots of great resources out there, and I use all that I can find, but at the end of the day, I find my preference in roads is different than anyone else's, so that there is no substitute for exploring possible routes on my own. Still, I always start with these resources.
  • Google Maps is almost always the resource I go to first. Besides its basic mapping function which is essential planning a ride, if I turn on the Bicycling option, I get excellent (if not perfect) information as to where the bike lanes are, and Google's recommendations for "Bicycle Friendly Roads", though problematic are not worthless.
  • On principle, I want to love Open Cycle Maps, an open source resource built on Open Street Map. However, I almost never find it useful. The one thing it has that Google Maps lacks is "official" bike routes. For example, the interim Peninsula bikeway is marked on Open Cycle Maps but not on Google Maps. That said, I cannot think when I have ever found this helpful. I keep returning to Open Cycle Maps hoping my love for it will grow, but so far, it hasn't.
  • Also based on Open Street Maps is Google Map Pedometer (its name notwithstanding.) Its primary function is to plan out routes; lay out your route on this resource and you get back the mileage and elevation change. It has one additional critical feature, however, and that is it shows stoplights! When I am trying to plan a route that only crosses busy streets like El Camino at a stop light, by zooming in on any intersection, I can tell if there is a light there.
  • What is it that I want from Open Cycle Maps that it lacks? A crowd-sourced compendium of what roads cyclists prefer. Guess who has that? Strava, in their Global Heatmap! This is absurdly cool, but still, I find it more fun than useful. More often that not, I look at the bright red lines of cyclist-favored roads and think "Are these people crazy? That road is much too dangerous!" There are three things missing that prevent this from being the resource I am looking for. First, it is just a counting of where cyclists have happened to go. Thus, regions with high populations and lots of cyclists will have brighter lines for worse roads than regions with lower populations and fewer cyclists. Second, there is no option for feedback. Maybe there is no great road from San Carlos to Facebook, but folks commuting by bicycle do the best they can, taking their chances on uncomfortable roads. If they had the opportunity to rate these routes, that would provide essential information now missing. Third, all riders are lumped together. As I noted at the beginning of this post, different riders are looking for different things. I can think of a variety of ways of stratifying riders that would be helpful.
  • Finally, there are curated lists of good biking routes. There are many local organizations that map their favorite rides, here are just a few:
    • Given how this whole project started, I have to begin with the Peninsula Bikeway Website.
    • The Stanford Bike Club has an excellent list of local rides. I developed my GoTo ride from information on this list. That said, this resource is better for strenuous rides through the hills than it is for the flatter rides I am looking at here.
    • SF2G stands for San Francisco To Google, and started as a group of bike commuters who worked at Google in Mountain View and lived in San Francisco. (This is a 2-plus hour commute, each way!) They have developed several highly optimized and creative routes for this commute and are an invaluable resource for biking north-south on the Peninsula. Of all the ride lists I have come across, this one is the most directly relevant to this post.

Next Time

With the preliminaries out of the way, I will describe how I have modified the Peninsula Bikeway route to suite my preferences in my next post.