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Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Biking the Bay Bridge



Ever since the new east span of the Bay Bridge opened I’ve wanted to try out the feature it didn't possess in its previous incarnation—a bicycle/pedestrian path cantilevered into space. So yesterday my husband and I made the trek on BART from San Francisco to Oakland and biked the Bay Bridge trail. There was the good, the bad, and the ugly to the experience, but overall it was worth doing.

Now I must say that I find using BART for bikes trips to be a pain because I hate carrying my bike down multiple sets of stairs, and unfortunately, the elevators on BART tend to be slow, smelly and located in inconvenient places. Bizarrely, cyclists are not allowed to use BART escalators. (Why, why, why? I am far more of a menace to society lugging my bike up and down stairs than I am keeping it propped next to me on an escalator.)

We managed to haul our bikes down to a BART platform in the Mission nonetheless and boarded a train quite packed with passengers for a Sunday morning. After pouring over Google maps, we decided to get off at the West Oakland BART station because it’s the station closest to the Bay Bridge Trail. Another plus is that all BART trains stop there, reducing wait time for trains. 

Was this a mistake? Well, first off, even though West Oakland is the closest BART station to the Bay Bridge Trail, and the Bay Bridge Trail is one of the nicest public amenities/possible tourist attractions in the area, there was absolutely no signage on how to get to the trail. We took the Nelson Mandela Parkway, which was decent enough, with a reasonable bike lane and not all that much traffic. However, when we turned onto West Grand Ave, we found ourselves pretty much on a freaking freeway. Cars whizzed by at 50 mph on their way to actual freeway on ramps, and there were no bike lanes or any other bicyclists in sight. The only saving graces were a wide shoulder to ride on (filled with a certain amount of debris) and the fact that though traffic was fast, it was sparse. (The road was perhaps three times wider than it needed to be. Plenty of room for bike lanes!) I would say it was one of the nastiest miles of biking riding that I've put myself through. And it was the route Google Maps recommended. (There are not many streets that get you across the train tracks running through this area.)

Landscaping with flowers!
Eventually we found the parking lot on Maritime Street where one branch of the Bay Bridge Trail begins. The lot was full of cars with bike racks. Evidently driving your bike to the bike trail was far more popular (sensible, safer) than biking your bike to the bike trail. Once we got on the trail, however, our biking experience brightened considerably.

The first mile or so is flat and parallels the freeway through a kind of industrial wasteland, but the path itself is lovely, wide, and shiny new with pleasant landscaping and a separate section for pedestrians (which they sometimes use.) After the first mile there is an area with half a dozen portapotties, hand-washing stations and warnings that there are no more facilities for 2.4 miles. (Tip: bring your own water bottle and snacks.) We pressed on. As we left land and started on the bridge, the uphill climb began. The grade wasn't difficult—only 2%--but we were also riding into a headwind. Still it was enjoyable. I saw a little kid on a tiny bike struggling up this long grade, but anyone on a bike with at least three gears was fine. After a mile or so, the grade got easier—1 %—not something I could detect with my eye, but I sure felt the difference on my bike. 
Nice wide path

Once we were actually on the bridge, the noise of the cars reverberating over the bridge structure was quite loud. Perhaps not as loud as the Golden Gate Bridge (which, oh my gosh, is LOUD), but my husband and I had to raise our voices considerably in order to talk to each other.

The hazy south
The bike/ped path is on the south side of the bridge which is unfortunate. It means you can’t see the views off to the north, neither of San Francisco, nor of any of the islands. And it was fairly hazy (smoggy?) to the south so we couldn’t see much in that direction except some freighters waiting to be unloaded at the Oakland port. On the way back we could see downtown Oakland and the east bay hills, so it’s not as if the path offers no views at all.
The single tower

There were quite a few people on the path, probably an equal number of pedestrians and cyclists, though not so many as to make negotiating the path in any way difficult. (Not even a fraction of the bike/ped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.)  Again the path is wide, and in a few places there are bulb outs with benches so people can rest or safely take photos without being in anyone’s way.

There was a nice breeze during our ride, so even though we were only ten feet from the car traffic, the air quality wasn’t bad.  Still, we were only ten feet from car traffic the entire time we were on the bridge, not an exactly a relaxing experience. Off the bridge, the trail felt much further from traffic impact.

Me at the end of the road
We biked uphill 2.4 miles until we could go no further, a spot about a hundred yards from Yerba Buena Island. Crews are still deconstructing the old bridge, and a chunk of the old bridge blocks where the bike/ped path would go if it were to make it all the way to the island.  When the bridge is completely torn down, perhaps the path will go all the way? (We can hope!) As it stands, this path goes nowhere and provides no utility as transportation, only recreation. But many people were happy enough to make use of it nonetheless.

One benefit of riding the trail that I did not expect was being able to see the east span tower up close. In a car, I always pass by too quickly to get a good look. This time I could appreciate its design details (it has more than I thought) as well as admire the geometry created by its sweeping white cables against the blue sky.

Riding back we had 2.4 miles of coasting down hill! No peddling necessary. In fact, during the stretch with a 2% grade I had to brake occasionally to keep my bike under the 15mph speed limit.

The way to Emeryville
Since we’d not been enamored with our chosen route on the way there, on the way back we followed a spur of the trail that took us to the Bay Street shopping area of Emeryville. From there we got ourselves on 40th street which took us to the MacArthur BART station. This put us three stops further out on BART (lengthening the BART ride home), but by and large 40th Street has bicycle infrastructure the whole way that made for pleasanter, less scary biking. (However, I can’t say I understand the sharrows painted on a continuous green stripe in the middle of the car lane? As a bicyclist I really prefer to have my own dedicated, unmistakable space.) Though we had one hill at the beginning to get over a rail track crossing, in general the route was pancake flat compared to my San Francisco neighborhood. (From my point of view, flat=easy biking.)

After a certain point on 40th Street there was signage to the MacArthur BART station which made me happy. There was also decent signage on the Bay Bridge Trail, although it mentioned 40th Street and not BART. The busy MacArthur BART station has elevators that are not smelly, not abysmally slow and are large enough to hold bikes. Thumbs up there.

Coming down
I think it’s not unreasonable to expect a non-terrifying bike route from the West Oakland BART station to the Bay Bridge Trail. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a decent biking experience—half the route on Mandela Parkway is already fine, and there’s plenty (plenty!) of room on West Grand Ave to put in a protected bike lane. Get out some paint, glue down a few dozen soft hit posts, and West Oakland could become a  popular jumping off point for people wanting to experience the Bay Bridge under their own power. (Look at the number of bicyclists and pedestrians who cross the Golden Gate Bridge!)

As we passed through West Oakland, I noticed around me a neighborhood that has enormous potential. If I had ten million dollars (which, sadly, I don’t) I would snatch up as much property within a mile of the West Oakland BART station as I could and develop walkable, transit-oriented development with ground floor retail. A few thousand units of housing in this sunny location that is a mere 7 minutes by BART from downtown San Francisco would take a great deal of pressure off San Francisco real estate. And, unlike Treasure Island, West Oakland probably won't be under water in twenty years. I can’t see how this area will remain a run down, post-industrial wasteland much longer.

Over all I'd say biking the east span of the Bay Bridge is a worthwhile and interesting experience. Perhaps not as spectacular as the Golden Gate Bridge, but pleasurable in its own way. Maybe someday the path will extend across the western span as well. I look forward to biking from San Francisco to Oakland when I'm seventy!

The old and the new

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