It should come as no surprise to students to learn that the League of American Bicyclists recently named Stanford the most bicycle-friendly university in the nation. We should remember that the vehicle-free paths, bike racks, bike lanes and subsidized helmets that we take for granted have not always been here, and that biking on campus is an enjoyable, relatively safe option for so many of us only because of far-sighted investments of the past. Today, almost 22 percent of Stanford faculty, staff and students get to work or class on bicycles. Stanford should not rest on this accomplishment; rather, it should continue to improve the cycling experience on campus and work with nearby communities to make cycling a safer option for all students and local commuters.
On the campus level, problems are generally congestion-related and affect only small areas. Some areas, such as the intersection of Escondido Road and Lasuen Mall (widely known to students as the “circle of death”) do not lend themselves to simple solutions, but others do and should not be dealt with accordingly. For example, where Escondido Mall becomes Escondido Road near Meyer Library, there are only two narrow ramps allowing cyclists from campus onto the road. This often results in blockages — especially when cars park in front of the ramps — as well as numerous cyclists moving onto the sidewalk, which is dangerous to pedestrians. The common-sense solution is to make the entire intersection between Escondido Mall and Escondido Road sloped.
Another area of high congestion is White Plaza. Every weekday around lunchtime, student groups flock to White Plaza to spread information, sell tickets and generally engage in campus life. While the vibrant atmosphere of White Plaza is a vital part of the Stanford experience, groups often encroach on bike paths, forcing pedestrians and cyclists into slow-moving corridors that sometimes come to a complete halt. Bike traffic in the center of campus could be significantly improved if students kept activities several feet removed from the bike path.
The biggest problem with cycling in the area goes far beyond Stanford. Although there are many beautiful, bicycle-friendly East-West streets in the area, such as Page Mill Road, Sand Hill Road and Woodside Road, there is no north-south corridor to connect them. Considering that cities on the Peninsula are arrayed north to south, this has the effect of isolating downtown areas from some bicycle commuters and forcing others onto dangerous thoroughfares like El Camino Real. Two cyclists were killed on El Camino just last October.
The most promising starting point for a north-south bicycle corridor is Alma Street. Already, the street does a good job connecting Palo Alto with Menlo Park, and has the advantage of being near most residential and commercial developments. South of downtown Palo Alto, however, Alma Street’s bike lanes disappear without any shoulder to replace them, making the street very dangerous street for cyclists. North of Menlo Park, the road simply ends. Improving bicycle infrastructure on Alma Street and integrating it with nearby east-west roads would not only make cycling practical for many more people, it would save lives.
Stanford recognizes the usefulness and efficiency of bicycle transportation in a way few other universities do. Local communities are also widely considered to be leaders in the provision of bicycle infrastructure. As we enter an era of permanently high gasoline prices, Stanford and the Bay Area should do their utmost to make alternative modes of transportation efficient and safe. On a micro level, this means addressing problems on campus like Escondido Road and White Plaza. On a macro level, it means bike-friendly roads that link downtown areas in a direct way, allowing cyclists to avoid mazes of side streets or dangerous highways like El Camino Real.