The San Francisco Bay Area is enormous and becoming more enormouser every day. The tentacles of growth are slithering in every direction and not just east to the Central Valley where land and housing are cheap(er). Housing development has meant some of our favorite riding areas have changed, usually for the worse. Morgan Hill used to be a farmtown; now it’s a suburb of San Jose, and Gilroy further south is quickly being suburbanized. People who work in San Jose even consider Hollister a reasonable commute. In the north, quiet Sonoma towns such as Sebastopol are no longer sleepy and are putting in higher density housing to meet demand. The SF-Sacramento corridor is turning into one long suburban tract where it all used to be farmland.
As the Bay Area puts more land under development there are fewer and fewer quiet places to ride road bikes. Many places that used to be rural are now surburbs or even bona fide cities with downtowns, witness Walnut Creek. When I was in high school in the late 60s we used to ride to Cupertino and Saratoga—it was all orchards. Today it’s completely built over and Cupertino’s tasty fruit has been superceded by a very different kind of ‘fruit’. When Different Spokes was formed Contra Costa County was mostly ranchland east and south of Lafayette. We used to ride on empty “back” roads such as Sycamore Valley Road or Tassajara, which today are motor-filled boulevards full of commuters. The complete paving of Contra Costa County is taken for granted today despite the rearguard actions of the Greenbelt Alliance.
Nonetheless the forethought put into preserving some open space has saved us some pretty nice areas to ride without having to pile into a car and drive miles and miles to find greenery (or brownery in summer). Most Spokers, when they want to escape city streets, ply west Marin roads precisely because they’re fairly close by and easy to get to by bike from SF. We are fortunate that much of west Marin is an agricultural preserve locked out of development. Did you know that the Marin Headlands between Rodeo and Tennessee Valleys—called Gerbode Valley—was slated for 30,000 residents and even skyscrapers? That idea was quashed and it remains open space today. San Mateo has a similar situation with its coastside where development is tightly constrained preserving beautiful roads such as Stage Road and Tunitas for cyclists to relish. Where I live, the East Bay, has two entities—the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the East Bay Regional Park System—that control significant swaths of land that cannot be developed thus conserving open space and parks. Although these lands don’t have many roads open to road cyclists, the adjacent roads are often pleasant to ride, for example Pinehurst and Redwood roads.
So, where do we ride? If we stay within the confines of the Bay Area we are left with urban and suburban roads. They’re convenient because we can step outside our front doors and go for a ride. With so many of us pressed for time that’s the choice that makes sense. But increasing traffic means increased danger too. Very close to where I live there are several examples of roads that were pleasant to ride on but are now nerve-wracking at certain times of day. I’ve written about Pinehurst before, a very quiet redwood-shaded road up to Skyline. It always has been used as a cut-through to bypass the Caldecott Tunnel. But with Waze and Google it has become much more widely known. Most of the time the car traffic is nonexistent except for locals coming and going to the tiny “town” of Canyon. But during commute hours or whenever the eastbound bores are jammed, cars race down this narrow, curvy road at 30-40 mph to make time. With no shoulder and some terrible sight lines Pinehurst is an anxious place to ride from about 2:30 to 6:30 pm on weekdays. Even with the one-lane Canyon Bridge still in place commuters find this way quicker than sticking to the freeway. Pinehurst is just one example: streets that cars rarely used are becoming commuter roads, forcing cyclists either to put up with the increased danger or discouraging us so much that we search for other roads to enjoy.
How do we respond? One could stop riding outdoors at all—just stay on your trainer! With TrainerRoad, Zwift, or the old Computrainer you can do a faux road ride at home or at the gym. Car drivers would love that: get all the cyclists off the road, period. Another is to give up on road riding and go where cars can’t, i.e. dirt roads by mountain bike or all-road bicycle. But getting to trails and fire roads require that you either drive or…ride your bike on roads to the trailhead. A third way is to drive out of the Bay Area to where the roads are less crowded. That might work occasionally but on a weekday driving out of the Bay Area is easier said than done. Another strategy is time-shifting: ride when fewer cars are around. When I lived in San Francisco and had to work into the evening (sometimes until 10 pm), I would go for a ride at night and there were certainly fewer cars. It was quiet and peaceful! The trade-off is statistically you’re five to seven times more likely to have an accident at night than during the day because car drivers can’t see you (and/or they’re drunk).