Sharrows Needed on Middlefield Road in North Fair Oaks

Cycling activist Andrew Boone presents alternatives to costly street modifications.

The bicycle route recommended by the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) between San Francisco and San Jose follows streets with lower traffic volumes that are often painted with bike lanes that run parallel to Caltrain.

Motorists prefer to travel on the much faster Highway 101 or El Camino Real, which leaves most of the streets along this route relatively free of traffic and safe for cyclists.

Except for a one-mile stretch of Middlefield Road in the unincorporated North Fair Oaks community from Woodside Road to 5th Avenue, just south of Redwood City.

This commercial district, North Fair Oak's "downtown," has high daily traffic volumes - over 17,000 vehicles per day, and among the highest vehicle-bicycle accident rates in the county. Contributing to this is diagonal parking, which requires motorists to back out into the vehicle lane before they can see approaching traffic.

Because Middlefield Road has four vehicle lanes and no bike lanes here, cyclists are often squeezed between speeding traffic on the left and diagonally parked cars on the right. Ideally, cyclists would get bike lanes, but there's no space for them without a major reconfiguration of the street - either reducing the number of vehicle lanes from four to two, or converting the diagonal parking to parallel parking.

Converting the street to parallel parking would be fiercely opposed by residents, because it would reduce the number of parking spaces. There are several auto mechanic shops and restaurants there, none of which have their own off-street parking lots.

Reducing the number of vehicle lanes from four to two, known as a "road diet", still wouldn't allow bike lanes to be painted, because the diagonally-parked cars would still have to back out into them. But it would give cyclists much more space in which to safely ride.

Such a road diet was completed successfully last August on Arastradero Road between Foothill Expressway and El Camino Real in Palo Alto, a street with similar traffic volumes.

County officials have stressed any changes to the configuration of the street would have to be strongly recommended in the , which is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

At ongoing community meetings designed to gather input from local residents who use Middlefield Road on a daily basis, consultants have heard repeated calls for more parking and improved safety for pedestrians, but little about bikes. But most bicycle advocates aren't calling for such drastic changes anyway.

A very simple and cheap improvement would be for the county to paint "sharrows," or shared lane markings, in the middle of the right-hand vehicle lanes. Sharrows encourage cyclists to ride in the middle of the lane, where it's safer, and they make it clear to motorists that cyclists are supposed to ride there.

Sharrows have long been used on narrow streets with high traffic volumes in San Francisco and Berkeley. Some county officials feel that cyclists should avoid Middlefield Road through North Fair Oaks altogether, and that sharrows or bike route signage would encourage more bicycle traffic and lead to more accidents, for which the county could be held liable.

This doesn't make any sense from a safety perspective though, because a lot of people ride bikes there already, because it's the most direct route between Redwood City and Menlo Park, and because it's a commercial corridor with many retail destinations.

Local residents who work there and who don't own a car have no choice but to bike or walk. There isn't really a safe alternative route.

Bay Road, the county's recommended alternative bicycle route, is also a four lane road with no bike lanes. El Camino Real? Three lanes of rushing vehicle traffic in each direction make that road even more dangerous than Middlefield. Assuming the county doesn't improve the North Fair Oaks section of Middlefield Road anytime soon, what should cyclists do to get through safely?

Reality Check March 26, 2011 at 05:16 PM
That stretch of Middlefied is an excellent place for the same 3-lane "road diet" that has proved so succesful in so many other places ... Such as the one Redwood City aplied to the previosly 4-lane Indusrial Way between Whipple and the San Carlos city limits.
J.R Wacker March 27, 2011 at 12:57 AM
I used to ride on Middlefield almost every day between Redwood City and Palo Alto. I was hit by cars 2 times near the intersection of Middlefield and Fifth Ave. Once by a driver PULLING INTO a diagonal parking space, how did she not see me? The other time by a northbound driver making a left hand turn onto Fifth as I going through the intersection southbound on Middlefield. This guy saw me and figured he could out run me. His calculations were off. People driving on Middlefield see bikers and just don't care.
Irvin Dawid August 05, 2011 at 04:00 PM
thanks, Andrew, for this great column on sharrow. I used to think that the only sharrows on El Camino Real were in RWC - there are 2, count them 2, at the intersection near Broadway - but I recently came across LOTS in Millbrae - from Safeway to Millbrae Av....check'm out!


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