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Richmond-San Rafael Bridge bike lane adds to pollution and congestion, detractors allege

RICHMOND — Is the bicycle-pedestrian path on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge an unintended catalyst for pollution wafting into the city’s neighborhoods?

Some Richmond neighbors living near the busy Interstate 580 bridge are complaining that the bike lane — the first-ever transbay connection between Marin County and the East Bay — has removed emergency shoulder access for the two lanes of westbound cars, and they say it increased congestion, especially when merging onto the bridge. And where there’s congestion, these residents argue, there’s also particulate matter expelled out of idling vehicles’ exhausts.

But others say this is the latest ruse to sour the bike lane, which was a $20 million pilot project started in 2014 to help provide a link in the 500-mile San Francisco Bay Trail, which hopes to eventually connect 47 cities, nine counties and seven toll bridges around the region.

The Richmond and Marin Coalition for Transportation Justice — a newly formed group of community leaders, labor unions, service workers and commuters fed up with the number of cars on the road, particularly in low-income neighborhoods — is leading the charge to analyze whether the four-year pilot project spurred by Caltrans, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and other agencies negatively affects residents’ health.

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The core of their concern: Are these bicycle and pedestrian access improvements hurting more people than they are helping?

Richmond Councilmember Demnlus Johnson, who grew up in the Iron Triangle neighborhood 10 miles inland from the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, will bring the issue to the Richmond City Council’s Tuesday meeting.

The matter is on the consent calendar, and Johnson is hoping to get unanimous approval to request a public hearing of the Bay Area Toll Authority to consider constructing a new bike path with a movable barrier on the lower deck of the bridge, opening up a third lane for morning commuters driving west from Richmond toward Marin and analyzing air quality and health impacts from vehicle emissions on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

A bicyclist rides along the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge bike path in Richmond, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
A bicyclist rides along the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge bike path in Richmond, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

“We support bikes as an alternative to cars, but not at the expense of our community’s health and well-being,” Johnson said in the agenda item’s report to the council. “Studies of air pollution in Richmond have shown that one of the primary sources of particulate matter emissions that affects residents’ health, comes from the freeway. This traffic congestion has made it even worse for our communities.”

But Richmond Mayor Tom Butt says this focus on bicyclist data is a misguided effort to incorrectly blame the Bay Trail for inevitable Bay Area car traffic, which must share seven cross-bay bridges.

A collaboration between Caltrans and UC Berkeley’s California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology has studied how the new bike-pedestrian lane affects westbound traffic’s travel times, delays and impact on local streets. According to data from a September presentation, the bridge has welcomed an average of 50 to 75 bicyclists on weekdays since May 2021. While these rates range from 100 to 300 cyclists on weekends and holidays, overall use of the bike-pedestrian path is trending much lower than rates after its opening in late 2019 through 2020.

However, the data also shows that congestion, travel times and impacts on Richmond’s local arterials during peak periods are all similar to trends before the bike-ped path was installed. When there are slower traffic speeds, delays have added less than a minute to commutes, on average.

Citing evaluations from the Transportation Agency of Marin, Butt also said that any bridge renovation that invested less than $310 million would only shave a few minutes — if not seconds — from all motorists’ drive times and back up traffic farther than the current design.

“This is a continuation of ongoing efforts by shadow organizations to eliminate the Bay Trail on the upper deck of the Richmond San Rafael Bridge,” Butt posted on his e-Forum. “There is no doubt that there is often congestion on the westbound deck during early commute hours. Those who are frustrated, however, by the (commuter) congestion are deceiving themselves and others that there is a quick fix and that the Bay Trail on the upper deck is the culprit.”

Traffic passes through the toll booths on the approach to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in Richmond, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Traffic passes through the toll booths on the approach to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in Richmond, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

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