While acknowledging that bicycle infrastructure is behind the curve and merits increased expenditure, we are seeing bike path projects where expenditures have been getting out of hand. Transportation funding is dwindling, the SMART train already diverted $11.4m of funding earmarked to solve congestion at the 101 Greenbrae interchange.
Thanks to highly effective bicycle lobbyists and “transit oriented development” Marin’s commuters face another diversion of transportation funding. The Cal Park tunnel project works out at a cost of $675,000 to remove one car from our roads. That’s quite an extraordinary expense. And we now look set to follow this boondoggle with another bike path costing even more over the Richmond San Rafael Bridge.
The Cal Park Tunnel – the $27m Bikers Boondoggle
SF Streetsblog, a pro-cycling and TOD site, reports:
After 17 years of planning, the Cal Park tunnel will open to Marin County cyclists today, providing a shorter, safer route between San Rafael and the Larkspur Ferry for an estimated 800,000 riders a year.
The 1.1-mile project includes class 1 bike lanes to connect the 1,106-foot bore with Sir Francis Drake Boulevard on the south and Anderson Road in San Rafael
So how much did the project cost? The initial estimate was $3m but by completion the cost had ballooned to $27m.
Claim: 800,000 Annual Riders. Reality: 40 an Hour at Peak
It’s claimed that tunnel will be used by 800,000 riders a year – a seemingly enormous number. This translates to 2,191 riders today if the claim is to be believed. Consider for perspective that the population of Marin is only 258,365 according to the latest US Census figures.
This 800,000 figure is conveniently manipulated – inflating ridership into an annual figure. Google does not reveal any source or basis from which this figure were derived as a future projection. If we were to use the same basis of calculation to assess 101 traffic today (not the future) at N San Pedro Road we could arrive at this comparson:
Cal Park Bike Users: 800,000
(projected annual future, date unspecified)
101 Users : 135,050,000
Even using this highly inflated 800,000 pie in the sky number the annual bike count in the future is 0.6% of 101 use.
Today, nearly four years after the tunnel’s completion the reality is far from the story we’ve been sold of 800,000 annual or 2,191 daily users. Walk Bike Marin publishes bike counts for 18 locations with the total ridership at peak hour for weekdays an aggregate of 963 last year. This peaked 2 years prior in 2011 at 1,295 cyclists per hour across the 18 locations. Cal Park tunnel was one of those locations.
The actual bike counts for Cal Park tunnel itself are dismal – attaining an initial 60 riders average per hour during weekday peaks in 2011 but since dropping to just 40 in 2013 (see chart, left).
If the 800,000 riders per year claim is to believed we should be seeing 2,191 riders per day – most during those peak hours. Not a mere 40.
Then we need to translate the benefit – it might be argued that the tunnel removed 40 riders from Marin’s roads during peak rush hour. Of course this is optimistic – it’s likely that some of those 40 were already commuting by bike, the tunnel improved their commute.
Here’s the math using the optimistic assumptions:
Expenditure: $27 million
Cars Removed: 40 at best (some cyclists may have cycled prior to the tunnel’s construction)
Cost per Car Removed: $675,000
Compare this to the Novato Narrows project to add HOV lanes to 101. A recent 1.3 mile section of the project cost just $9m and will increase capacity by 1,200 cars or 1,356 people at peak – equivalent to add a capacity of 1 person for $6,637. That capacity will get used. The Novato Narrows increases transportation capacity for less than a hundredth of the cost of the Cal Park tunnel bike path.
Imagine – how many people would take transit or bike or work from home if we paid them anything even close to $675,000. This represents an almighty benefit from the taxpayer to a very small group. Name another group that receives anything like that amount. Imagine if we had spent that same $27m on genuine traffic choke points in Marin – how much could we have increased mobility and road capacity?
The Richmond Bridge Bike Path – the Next Boondoggle
Here are the actual statistics on Richmond Bridge traffic counts vs. likely bike usage. On page 108 of Caltrans “2013 Traffic Volumes on California State Highways“ the Richmond Parkway traffic count for peak is 13,000 vehicles per hour. This bridge has acute traffic issues with substantial daily backups.
The US Department of Transportation’s 2009 Travel Trends Survey tells us that average vehicle occupancy for trips to and from work is 1.13. This means 14,690 vehicle users who are directly delayed or inconvenienced; this traffic routinely backs up onto highway 101 further delaying an additional 14,000+ vehicles per hour at Lucky Drive or 15,280 people. That’s 131m users annually if we apply the bike lobbies counting method (but this is an actual, not an unsubstantiated forecast). This lost time of those 131m road users translates into real impact, in terms of both time wasted and economic waste. For instance in the time spent in traffic:
- a plumber or electrician could have fitted in another call (e.g. a plumber, electrician…)
- someone who would have taken a shopping trip would be dissuaded from doing so due to known traffic delays
- a worker who could otherwise have commuted to Marin would discount considering a job in our county due to the severe traffic delays
- a company considering locating in Marin might be turned away by our transportation issues, causing an economic opportunity loss
By comparison Walk Bike Marin’s bike count figures show 963 bikes were counted at 18 different Marin locations during peak hours. That works out at 53.5 cyclists per location. Therefore we might reasonable assume bridge usage would look like this during a peak hour:
Vehicle users: 14,690
Bike users: 53.5
Bike users as a percentage of vehicle users: 0.37%
(It’s a near meaningless figure, almost a rounding error).
The cost of adding an extra lane to the Richmond San Rafeal Bridge is estimated to be $70m (Source: MarinIJ, Sept 22nd 2014). But the majority of the expense and reasons for delay is that complex planning is needed to build the entrance to the bike path that is planned along the upper deck of the bridge. The author would suggest that at least half of the $70m is to plan the bike path. This is the Cal Park tunnel all over again – $35m+ to help a small number of cyclists.
The real impact is that tens of thousands of vehicle users on the Richmond Bridge and on 101 (caused by backups) are being delayed all for the benefit of a tiny handful of cyclists. This just isn’t sustainable – either economically or in terms of emissions.
Benefits of a Bike Path Network
It’s important to point out that Marin does not have a complete bike path network. Creation of such a network could double or triple bike usage. But even when tripled the numbers remain in the weeds compared to car use.
Only the most hardened riders would cross a long, cold, windy bridge such as the Richmond San Rafael.
Instead of channeling money into “hero projects” we should be seeking to improve the most popular bike paths where there is a realistic return on investment. How many miles of regular bike paths could have been built using the millions spent on the Cal Park Tunnel or now set to be spent on the Richmond San Rafael Bridge bike path?
Ultimately this misallocation to “hero project” bike paths is a disservice to bikers. How many accidents could have been avoided? How many more might have cycled to school and removed cars from our roads?
The Moral – Let’s Restore Accountability
Transportation funding is being squeezed:
- Gas taxes are dropping as cars are becoming increasingly fuel efficient, with more hybrids and EVs on our roads – especially in Marin
- Funds generated by cars through gas taxes and bridge tolls are being diverted to pet projects such as the SMART train and these hero bike projects.
We simply cannot afford to be ineffective with our tax dollars. This is affecting thousands of people every day through delays, lost income, lost economic benefits and time spent in traffic we’ll never get back.
Let’s demand sanity and ensure that adding an additional Eastbound lane to the Richmond San Rafael Bridge is not delayed any further.