One day last December, my wife, Mary, came home and asked me, “What is with the bike lanes on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto?” I had no idea, so I had to go see for myself.
She was referring to the area near the intersection of North California Avenue and Middlefield Road, and the entrances to Greene Middle School, which my brother attended more than 50 years ago when it was Jordan Middle School.
There are short two-way bike lanes along both Middlefield and North California to funnel cyclists in and out of Greene. However, they do not continue up North California to Stratford School, where regular roadway rules apply (there are sharrows to tell motorists that cyclists may take the whole roadway, if necessary).
The schools are right around the corner from where I lived for three years while growing up, and I have great memories of a simpler time when traffic was sparse and well behaved. Because the bike lanes take space, motor vehicle traffic is constrained to narrow lanes that are separated from the bike lanes by white posts near the school entrances. A cyclist using these bike lanes has to temporarily turn into a pedestrian at well-marked intersections at their ends before resuming travel as a cyclist on the correct side of the road on either Middlefield or North California.
Special lane marking continues for several blocks on Middlefield and includes more posts to control cars making right turns. It is easy to see why this was done. Lots of kids on bikes and lots of parents dropping off and picking up their kids at rush hour causes a crazy mixture of traffic that must be hard to control, and I think the markings are a fine idea. I have had to alter my cycling commute route in the past to avoid several schools at rush hour; the biggest danger is distracted parents pulling in and out.
But what are the rules for navigating this mixed-mode traffic area? You won’t find a lot of guidance in the California vehicle code. Specifically, the physical barriers for cars making right turns make it impossible to follow standard procedure for bicycles merging with traffic and for motorists turning across bicyclists. Hopefully, the restricted road makes everyone slow down and follow this simple rule: “When in doubt, yield to the other person.”
A bicyclist who is not going to the school but merely using the same street to go home or to work should not mingle with the school traffic in the bike lane (unless the person is a novice and not comfortable in the traffic lane). These cyclists should ride normally in the traffic lane and be cognizant that they may be slowing down traffic and therefore should not dawdle. Conversely, I hope motorists understand why these cyclists are in the traffic lane (instead of adding to the bike-lane chaos) and not yell at them to use the bike lane.
I sincerely hope this kind of special bicycle accommodation is an interim step to address congestion on what were once quiet roads and not a permanent design feature to be incorporated by California traffic planners into their roadways. They definitely take a bad situation and make it less bad. But they also create a problem – ambiguity.
Cyclists and motorists both have to stop following normal rules and instead follow a different set of rules – intuitively obvious, but not spelled out – unique to the specific facility design. This is especially true on Middlefield, where the curb near several other intersections is deliberately blocked, to prevent cars from parking there, I assume. The path available to cyclists is narrowed, and cars are forced to take right hooks across the cycling lane to turn right. Because these features are not part of the normal roadway landscape, they are not anticipated, and when encountering them, an unfamiliar driver or cyclist is forced to improvise.
One size does not fit all. This type of bicycle facility is meant to address specific local issues. It is not a part of a regular roadway where vehicle code rules and driver and cyclist training apply, and it is not a separate bike path, where bike path rules apply. I’d like to hear what readers have to say.