Stanford proposes local bike-route improvements

Stanford proposes to fund four bikeway improvements for neighboring communities in tandem with its pending General Use Permit application. The improvements are designed to coax more employee and community commuters out of their cars and onto their bikes.

As part of its 2018 General Use Permit application, Stanford has proposed to fund four off-campus bikeway improvements that will benefit both Stanford commuters and residents of surrounding communities.

10/27/2006 Student on bicycle near the quad.

Proposed off-campus bikeway improvements will benefit commuters to Stanford. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Currently, an estimated 2,600 employees commute to campus by bicycle, including about 2,000 members of the Commute Club. Most live within 7 miles of the university. Proposed investments by the university and its neighbors could increase that number by about 800, according to Stanford senior environmental planner Lesley Lowe.

Funding the four sets of improvements is proposed as part of the 2018 General Use Permit application. If approved by Santa Clara County, the 2018 General Use Permit would replace the permit approved in 2000 and enable the university to grow through 2035, while ensuring effects on neighboring communities are minimized. The four proposed bike-route improvements are part of long-term efforts by Stanford to achieve no net new commute trips.

The proposed improvements, which will need to be studied, approved and constructed by the respective local jurisdiction, are designed to help address gaps in the area bike network. Specifically, the university proposes to fund implementation of projects that would:

  • Improve an existing bike/pedestrian route that links the campus with Menlo Park via a bridge over San Francisquito Creek near the Stanford West Apartments, which are located off Sand Hill Road.
  • Install improvements along Alameda de las Pulgas and Santa Cruz Avenue between Sand Hill Road and Valparaiso Avenue.
  • Install a bikeway along Hanover Street in Palo Alto that will better connect the Stanford Perimeter Trail to the Bol Park Path, creating a continuous route to the campus through southern Palo Alto neighborhoods and the Stanford Research Park.
  • Install improved connections in East Palo Alto to the soon-to-be-constructed bicycle and pedestrian overcrossing of U.S. Highway 101 between Clark Avenue and Newell Road.

Reducing drive-alone commutes

The proposed funding for improvements is the result of an annual survey of Stanford commuters that suggests the university can get more employees out of their cars and onto their bikes by overcoming certain barriers and altering perceptions of safety and distance.

According to the annual survey, 43 percent of all university commuters (including students) drive alone to campus. More than 20 percent bike, far exceeding the 2 percent of Santa Clara County residents who do so. Seventeen percent take Caltrain, and 8 percent carpool. The remaining get to campus by walking, participating in a vanpool or taking a Marguerite shuttle bus.

Although university transportation planners believe those numbers can be improved, they nevertheless represent a significant improvement from 2003, when 67 percent of all university commuters drove alone, 11 percent biked and 7 percent took Caltrain.

Stanford’s recent Bicycle Commuter Access Study found that key to increasing bike commuters is addressing fears around such physical barriers as U.S. Highway 101; vehicular traffic on El Camino Real, Sand Hill Road, Page Mill Road and Junipero Serra Boulevard; and the Caltrain tracks, which can be crossed only at select locations.

“The impetus for this study was our sense that Stanford is doing great in terms of bicycle use, but we want to do better,” said Carolyn Helmke, senior transportation planner.

“We have a strong commitment to biking, to our biking community and to a strong network of on-campus facilities to support them,” she said. “Still, we recognized that we needed to start partnering with our neighbors, specifically on infrastructure improvements, if we were to encourage more drive-alone commuters to consider a bike commute. We have worked to identify the major barriers in place for riders of all levels, with an eye to perception of safety and distance.”

Perception versus reality

Helmke, an avid bicyclist herself, said 46 percent of Stanford commuters who live within 1 mile of the campus commute by bicycle. This drops to 16 percent within 3 miles and 7 percent within 5 miles.

“So, the opportunities to attract more riders are clear,” she said, adding that the challenge is primarily one of perception.

The Bicycle Commuter Access Study shows that commuters who bike 1 mile to campus perceive the distance as more like 2 or 3 miles. Those living 3 miles away see their commute as 5 or 6 miles. At 5 miles – an often-used threshold for bicycle travel – many commuters perceive themselves as biking 7 to 9 miles. The difference between perception and reality is closely related to safety, Helmke said.

“What I’ve found so compelling about this study is how much perception influences people,” she said. “I find it fascinating that distance seems longer if there are scary obstacles. This is probably why there are so many people who live a mile or two from campus, but the distance feels farther away on a bike. The psychological stress of trying to ride across train tracks, for instance, makes people think it’s a hard ride.”

A national survey on commuters found that 60 percent of commuters are interested in biking to work but are concerned about safety. A Stanford staff member who bikes to work, for instance, described what it is like to ride alongside drive-time car traffic. He wrote, “When I ride from East Palo Alto, I am terrified when I have to cross the bridge. Once I get to the bike lanes in Palo Alto, I feel like I can breathe and just ride my bike.”

Overcoming that type of stress means making the commute easier and less scary with the kinds of improvements proposed for funding. The university is also pondering how technology – like electric bikes – might make the commute feel shorter and safer.

A platinum university

The national survey also suggests that some commuters will never be convinced to bike to work. The challenge, they acknowledge in their responses, is related to their family’s needs and to obligations to be somewhere, like a day care, at a specific time.

Even without the chance to convert those employees, Helmke is optimistic about the university’s ability to convince more people to abandon their car commutes. For one thing, the survey proves bikers experience less stress and a healthier lifestyle as compared with non-bikers.

Additionally, since 2011, the League of American Bicyclists has recognized Stanford as a Platinum Bicycle Friendly University for its outstanding programs, a designation that it shares with only four other universities nationwide.