I don't know if it was the irony of giving chocolate bars in the shape of California to visitors from the land that gave us Coenraad Johannes van Houten, or the psychedelic treatment one of the project teams proposed for the corner of Balbach and Market, but something about my circumstance on Tuesday night made me realize that I had spent the previous two days as a part of something strange and special. When John Brazil at the City of San José initially asked me if SVBC would like to help organize a ThinkBike Workshop with the Dutch Cycling Embassy, I believe my first reaction was something like “Ha ha, John, very funny. Can't we get the Swiss Cheese Consulate instead?” But he wasn't joking; the Dutch Cycling Embassy was a real thing, and they wanted to visit San José to help city staff and advocates realize some of the bicycling goals the City put forth in its Envision 2040 General Plan and Bike Plan 2020. I wholeheartedly agreed to join. Though the idea of diplomats traveling the world in the pursuit of cross-cultural bikeyness still seemed a bit odd, who was I to argue?
I'll spare you the full diary entry in favor of a quick(ish) recap. Basically, the Dutch Cycling Embassy (I know – still weird) worked with the San Francisco Consulate of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to set up the two-day workshop. The public was invited to attend opening and closing sessions at which “problem” areas for bikes in San José were presented (opportunities, really – am I right, people?) and solutions were proposed, respectively. In the interim, city staff and representatives from VTA, SJSU, the San José Downtown Association, and advocacy groups like SVBC, Greenbelt Alliance, and TransForm were broken into two teams that tackled the study areas. We biked or walked out to the locations, looked into the City's goals for moving people out of cars and onto bikes, brainstormed, drew pictures, debated, talked about our cats, compared designs from The Netherlands, ate sandwiches, and made photoshop magic. We were told to formulate both an ideal solution, without consideration of budgetary constraints, and also a short-term plan that could be enacted within 90 days.
The results were awesome, inspiring, and totally out-of-the ordinary for a city that has basically been built on the concept that cars need to constantly be moved great distances, and quickly. How can we make the 1st and 2nd Street transit center more bicycle friendly? Get rid of all private auto traffic, of course? How can we best get people on bikes comfortably from the Guadalupe River Trail to Reed Street? Well, naturally, you build a beautiful, wandering, tree-lined bike path on the side of Market Street! That particular design still left a conflict area at the Balbach/Market intersection, which was elegantly addressed with the aforementioned psychedelic treatment.
These weren't just pie-in-the-sky treatments, mind you. The City has some extremely ambitious goals in its general plan: auto trips down from 78% to 40%, and bike trips up from 1% to 15%! These aren't changes that are going to come from a few bike lanes painted on conveniently wide roads on the outskirts of town. These are challenges that will require significant changes in our most heavily traveled corridors. People need to feel safe and comfortable to even begin considering ditching their cars for bikes. As our Dutch guests kept emphasizing: if you want people to ride bikes, you need to consider bikes first when designing your transportation network. Cars are already extremely well accommodated here – San José is crisscrossed by seven freeways, as many expressways, and dozens of roads that are too big, busy, or fast for the majority of people to comfortably ride a bike on. As many seemed to agree at ThinkBike, it's time for that kind of enthusiasm and engineering to be put to work for people – on bike or on foot – to help make our city more active, attractive, and connected.
Many thanks to the City of San José, the Dutch Cycling Embassy, the San Francisco Consulate General of the Kingdom of The Netherlands, and everybody who participated in this fantastic event.