Biking on the freeway: it can happen here
SF Chronicle, February 20, 2008
It was a heavy fog that settled over the freeway in the early morning of that day when we closed the Pasadena freeway for four hours to allow bikes and walkers on the roadway. More than 3,000 bike riders and several thousand more pedestrians began to appear from every direction. The excitement was palpable. Getting Caltrans to agree---as well as the California Highway Patrol and all of the different transportation departments---required months and months of organizing. But here we were, on the freeway. It was June 15, 2003.
The bike riders took off just as the fog began to lift. Because it was Father's Day, a number of families came to ride for the sheer pleasure of biking and walking on a freeway. The experience for the bike riders, particularly, was a revelation about how a bike ride not only provided pleasure but could potentially serve as an alternative form of transportation. Several bikers who traveled the entire 8.5-mile stretch of the freeway corridor reported that they did it in far less time than their rush-hour car commute the previous week.
The bike riders and residents adjacent to the freeway also noted how uniquely silent it had become that morning and how much they appreciated their chance to connect to the green space and natural surroundings of this area, known as the Arroyo corridor, from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. A resident who lived close to the freeway spoke of how disorienting - and liberating - it was to "open my window in the morning and hear birds and the wind and breathe the air in a way I had never experienced before." Another reported the reaction of a 12-year-old girl who lived in a nearby neighborhood. While walking on the freeway, she suddenly let out a shriek. "That's a passion flower," she cried, pointing to a delicate flower growing along the roadway's edge. "I know it, because I studied it, but I never thought I'd actually see one!"
Since that day when the Pasadena freeway was closed for the walkers and the bikers, new bike groups and walkable city groups in Los Angeles have proliferated. At the time, it seemed so improbable that a freeway could be closed in Los Angeles, the place where no one walks, as the song has it. But it did close, and, combined with the enormous frustration of two hour and longer car commutes, it helped change the notion that alternatives to the car and the freeway needed to become the central rather than the marginal criteria for how we plan our cities.
But if it happened in Los Angeles, could it also happen in the Bay Area, where the bike movements are larger and more vocal and the idea of a pedestrian friendly city seems more plausible, if not more achievable? The barriers, to be sure, are enormous. Even in the Bay Area, the car commutes are getting longer, the freeways are more congested and parking's big footprint gets even larger.
But change is in the air. Closing Golden Gate Park to cars and making it available for bike riders on a Sunday---and now on a Saturday---points to new possibilities. Bike groups and networks such as the San Francisco and Bay Area bike coalitions provide important resources and information about where and how to bike to get around the Bay Area. Events like Parking Day, where volunteers temporarily transform parking space into public parks, have become celebrations and statements about the need to challenge and eventually break the car's stranglehold over the city.
But can a freeway actually be closed in order to appreciate a different kind of experience of the city? A couple of years ago, Kaiser Permanente, as part of its Thrive campaign, placed billboards with a photo of bike riders on the 580 freeway. Kaiser was applauded for this masterful Photoshop creation, designed to encourage healthy activity. But the time has come, here as in Los Angeles, to transform a doctored photo into the real thing!
To hear more:
Robert Gottlieb will speak on his new book.
When: 6:45 p.m., March 12.
Where: The Prevention Institute,
221 Oak St., Oakland
For more information: