In theory, the heart of Silicon Valley—towns like Mountain View and Santa Clara—should be the ultimate place to bike. It's usually 72 degrees and sunny; it's mostly flat. But it's also a classic example of suburbia designed for cars, bisected by 10-lane freeways and extra-wide streets filled with speeding cars.
Google is hoping to help turn its home turf into something more like the bicycle paradise of Copenhagen, minus Copenhagen's snow and bracing Baltic wind.
"We're in a place where biking should be the logical solution for any of your medium-distance commutes," says Jeral Poskey, Google's transportation program manager. "But if a route doesn't go all the way, you're not able to do it."
At its Mountain View headquarters, the company wants to double the number of employees who ride bikes to work from 10% to 20%. Poskey cites a long list of reasons—riding to work is better for physical and mental health than driving, it cuts carbon footprints, and it's another way, like the company's shuttles, to help ease out-of-control traffic on freeways.
But after Google did everything it could to promote biking internally, from showers and changing rooms to locker space, the company realized that surrounding communities would also have to change if more people were going to start to ride.
Unsurprisingly, they tackled the problem with data. "Rather than looking at what bike infrastructure is there, they looked at the user experience, which makes sense for a successful tech company," says Colin Heyne, deputy director of the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition, which partnered with Google and Alta Planning to create Google's Bike Vision Plan for the area.
"They looked at levels of stress faced by bicyclists, and how those could change based on the infrastructure that could be there in the future," Heyne says. "By doing that, they're painting a picture of how we can really initiate behavioral change rather than just check items off a list and say we've put a bike lane in there—now we're done."
Poskey points to the example of Shoreline Boulevard, a local street that shows up as green, or safe, on bike maps because a bike lane runs down the side. "In reality, there are places where that bike lane is not green, it would be red," he says. "There's a very dangerous intersection—you're crossing traffic that doesn't have to stop, and it's supposed to yield to bikes, but it's moving at high speeds. We have to go back and rework the bike network data to show all the dangerous intersections, all the places where safety isn't what it appears."
Next, they analyzed non-stressful routes and looked for the places where those routes could link up. "Where are the places that you can make small shifts and regain that safe connected network again?" Poskey says. "Then the plan goes through and prioritizes where are the places you can get the biggest bang for the least buck in building out this connected, safe network."
They looked to famously bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen for inspiration. Despite the fact that Silicon Valley was designed for life with cars—and Copenhagen had the advantages of centuries of life on a more human scale—they say that the differences aren't as big as they might appear.
"It's important to keep in mind that Copenhagen was not built for bicycles, either," says Heyne. "In the '70s, they were very much a car culture. When they put in their first pedestrian streets to go through the heart of downtown, there was a huge backlash. People weren't ready for it, and people didn't think it was going to be a success. Now that is the most prized real estate in the city."
"It was a conscious decision they made," says Poskey. "So certainly if they made that decision, we can too."
Silicon Valley's current layout actually might have some benefits. "In some ways our constraints here are advantages," he says. "There's not space. There's not a whole lot of space here to do anything. But there's more space for bike lanes than car lanes. So a space so tight, a bike's about the only thing you can still fit in in this area."
Creating a fully connected bike network that can lead commuters across Silicon Valley's sprawl is achievable if transportation money is invested differently, Poskey says. More money isn't necessarily needed, it's investing it in a coordinated way where "we will get a larger, safe connected network over time."
The plan suggests a potential bike network that revamps dangerous intersections and connects routes that stop in certain cities, stranding commuters. Busy roads could add protected bike lanes, while roads with less traffic could add bike boulevards or buffered lanes. Existing bike trails could be act as bike superhighways (or "super bikeways"), something that the Valley Transportation Authority is already considering. Even expressways—small, slower freeways that cross the area—could possibly add bike commuter lanes.
"We've got these mini-freeways that cut through our county, and they're good options for protected bikeways to go a long distance," says Heyne. "There's not a lot of driveways and curb cuts, and there seems to be a lot of space, and so if there's the will, we could definitely fit in some pretty stellar bike infrastructure on those expressways."
Google plans to give $5 million in matching grants to cities in the area that want to start building out a better bike network. But even the matching grants don't come free: The money is offered as a community benefit, contingent on Mountain View's approval of Google's North Bayshore redevelopment.
"I think what needs to happen is for cities to take Google up on this challenge and start addressing those gaps in the low-stress networks, to see how well it works, and then they'll have a good model to follow," says Heyne. "And maybe that will inspire other companies, or other cities to take the same approach."
Google is also hoping that other areas copy their data-driven approach of mapping out stress on bike routes, and finding the best places to invest.
"The notion that you can now not only have this ambitious goal, but have a way of measuring it quantitatively, really could trigger a change in the way bike networks are laid out," says Poskey. "It was only after we prepared our plan that we realized that the beauty wasn't in the fact that we had these pretty maps for the area, but that what went behind them can work anywhere."