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Richmond Bridge Bike Path Has an Amazing View — and an Uncertain Future

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A person bikes on a road.
A biker uses the bike lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on Jan. 8, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Regional transportation officials face a key deadline this year about the future of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge — whose pedestrian-bike path is part of a four-year pilot. This pilot is now over, and Bay Area transportation officials must decide whether to keep, change, or scrap it amid long-standing concerns over a traffic bottleneck that some blame on the path.

The issue has ignited a debate between Bay Area business leaders, who have been lobbying aggressively to address traffic jams leading to the bridge, and many cyclists, like Najari Smith, who has led calls to make the bike path on the bridge’s upper deck of the bridge permanent.

“I believe that everybody should have access to getting where they need to go without being dependent on a car to get there,” said Smith, founder and executive director of Rich City Rides, a nonprofit that promotes biking in Richmond.

According to Metropolitan Transportation Committee data, an average of 86 cyclists and 15 pedestrians use the path every weekday (that number rises to 237 cyclists and 23 pedestrians on the weekend), while during weekday morning rush hour, an average of 3,000 westbound drivers an hour cross the bridge. Studies led by a team of researchers at UC Berkeley show that backups happen often, beginning around 3 miles before the toll plaza in Richmond, slowing traffic to a crawl.

In response, the Bay Area Council, a coalition representing over 300 of the largest employers in the Bay Area, including private companies like Amazon and public agencies like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is proposing adding a bike and pedestrian path to the bridge’s lower deck.


John Grubb, the council’s chief operating officer, said that change would relieve congestion for morning commuters on the westbound upper deck.

“If we’re able to do that, then the backup that happens in the Richmond side would go away,” he said.

The council’s proposal calls for moving the “zipper” barrier that separates the upper-deck bike lane from vehicle traffic on weekday mornings to create a third westbound traffic lane.

A bright yellow sign with the image of a bicycle on it.
A sign cautioning bikers of a steep decline on the upper deck of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on Jan. 3, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A new zipper barrier on the lower deck would be deployed to allow cyclists and pedestrians to cross the bridge when the upper-deck path is closed, then moved aside to accommodate eastbound drivers during the afternoon and evening commute.

The council sees this configuration — in which one deck of the bridge would always be open to bicycles and pedestrians — as a grand compromise. Lanes would be devoted to vehicles when most drivers are on the road while maintaining 24/7 access for active transportation.

The council is emboldened by the results of another pilot project on the bridge. In April 2018, bridge officials opened the eastbound shoulder lane on the lower deck to vehicle traffic during the afternoon rush hour back to the East Bay from Marin County, increasing the number of lanes on that deck from two to three. Studies of the change found that travel times from northbound U.S. 101 in Marin to the toll plaza in Richmond decreased by 14 minutes.

Grubb sees this as clear evidence that opening a third lane to vehicle traffic on the upper deck during the morning rush hour would yield the same benefits.

Staff at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission warn that improvements to the freeway on the Marin side of the bridge would be needed for this plan to be feasible.

The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on Jan. 8, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“If we convert a shoulder on the upper deck to a third lane, what we’re really doing is moving the choke point from the toll plaza [in Richmond] to the west end of the bridge,” said Lisa Klein, a staff member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission during a November 2023 meeting of the Bay Area Toll Authority.

A 2020 study by the Transportation Authority of Marin estimated that if the third lane is opened, it would take $70 million to $90 million to address the new bottleneck and improve travel times for drivers headed to northbound U.S. 101. But the study notes this would do nothing to help drivers heading to southbound 101, towards San Francisco. To expedite travel times in both directions, the total price tag comes to as much as $310 million, according to a staff report by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Opening the westbound upper deck to more traffic could also undo the travel time reductions currently being seen on the eastbound lower deck during the afternoon commute, when the shoulder lane is opened to traffic, according to Francois Dion, senior research engineer at the UC Berkeley PATH Program, which Caltrans commissioned to study the traffic impacts of the pilot.

Dion said it’s possible that opening a third lane to traffic on the upper deck could induce demand. If you widen a road, it will temporarily reduce congestion, which incentivizes more people to drive. Eventually, you’ll end up with the same or more congestion, only now with more cars on the road.

“If you make travel going from Richmond to Marin easier, then it may increase traffic going that way, but it may increase traffic coming back, as well,” Dion said.

There are several other issues regarding the council’s proposal. The bridge would likely need to be strengthened to accommodate the added load of shifting barriers on a two-path bridge, and state environmental laws would require an analysis to determine if the proposal would increase the total “vehicle miles traveled” on the bridge — a metric that measures the total amount of distance traveled by motor vehicles in an area over a period of time.

“If the lane were found to increase vehicle miles traveled, we would need to provide mitigation for that, and that would increase the cost for a third lane,” Klein said. “But a high occupancy vehicle lane is less likely to have an impact on VMT than a general purpose lane.”

The council also claims that their proposal will help alleviate the poor air quality that plagues residents of the city of Richmond — home to a coal terminal, an oil refinery, railroads and highways, as well as various other heavy industries.

A bike lane on a large bridge on which cars are also driving.
The upper deck of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on Jan. 3, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

According to a 2022 study by PSE Healthy Energy, fine particulate matter concentrations “were generally elevated and hovered around or exceeded the federal National Ambient Air Quality Standards 3-year annual average in many Richmond-San Pablo neighborhoods.”

Grubb said that a third lane would reduce congestion and, therefore, improve air quality and its associated health impacts on Richmond residents.

“Air pollution is a big concern everywhere, but in particular, it’s a big concern in Richmond,” he added.

But Metropolitan Transportation Commission staff have said congestion isn’t the biggest contributor to fine particulate air pollution — it’s the amount of cars on the road.

“The majority of particulate matter in the Richmond community as elsewhere in the Bay Area is from road dust, brake wear, and tire wear, these are non-exhaust emissions,” said Klein of the MTC during the November meeting of the Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight Committee. “Reducing congestion on 580 is not, in fact, likely to significantly reduce the vehicle emissions that most impact health in the community. If a third lane were to increase Vehicle Miles Traveled or truck traffic, harmful emissions could increase.”

Tproject’s high costect and the unknown outcomes raise doubts for cyclists like Najari Smith of Rich City Rides.

“I would need to see a study that shows that this thing that they want to do is actually going to create improvements that will impact people’s lives and that it connects with the price tag that’s placed on it in order to do that,” he said.

More on Cycling

Both the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Caltrans are working on a scope, schedule, and budget for studies and potential pilots of adding another path to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

Other changes with the potential to reduce morning traffic are already underway on the westbound approach of the bridge. The Bay Area Toll Authority plans to remove the toll booths at the toll plaza and extend a high-occupancy vehicle/bus lane on the approach to the bridge.

In the long term, UC Berkeley is also studying the continued traffic impacts of the bridge’s bike path pilot. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is expected to review that study sometime this summer. (According to Francois Dion with the UC Berkeley PATH Program, his research so far indicates that the creation of the path has not worsened congestion.)

Smith said more could be done to improve the existing path and encourage more people to use it. He points out there are no bathrooms, water fountains or lights on the path for evening travel.

Although cyclist numbers on the bridge pale in comparison to drivers, there is a passionate cohort of riders who support the bridge path. In November 2023, on the fourth anniversary of the path opening, over 1,300 cyclists rode on the bridge, some as part of a ride organized by Rich City.

“You know, how can we activate the bridge more? Because it really is a beautiful asset,” said Smith, noting the majestic views from the bridge.


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