San Francisco? You can’t get there from here

Posted: February 18, 2013 in CATCH-ALL
Tags: , , , , , ,

Well done is better than well said.
– Benjamin Franklin

Sunset on the Bay Bridge, with San Francisco aglow in the background (original photo here)

18 February 2013

Dear Bay Area Toll Authority,

It’s not often I write an open – or for that matter a closed – letter to a government entity.  It feels too much like yelling at the TV.  But just this once I thought I’d make an exception… because as a current East Bay and former South Bay resident, I have a long-overdue plan to help ensure the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – with its new eastern span to be completed later this year – is the architectural marvel and civic masterpiece it deserves to be.  Besides, isn’t speaking up and making my voice heard the mark of a good Bay Area resident?

Don’t worry, I’m not writing to take you to task – as many Bay Area residents already have – for the project’s staggering and ever-escalating price tag (currently estimated at over $12 billion, making it the most expensive public works project in California history), nor for the fact that design and construction of the bridge’s Self-Anchored Suspension Tower has been outsourced to at least seven countries, chief among them China.  Though admittedly, these would provide solid starting points for a discussion of California’s enduringly inept bureaucracy.

Nope, I’m writing to you today as a runner, one who’s spent countless hours exploring the Bay Area’s myriad roads and trails on foot.  Fact is, the Bay Area’s calling card is its geographic, cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, and running provides ready access to that diversity as no other mode of transport can.  So my ongoing issue with the Bay Bridge is one not of unchecked excess but of glaring omission.  It’s a first-world problem, but here in the pedestrian-friendly Bay Area it’s also a conspicuous oversight.  It’s the lack of a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path extending from Oakland to San Francisco.

GG Bridge from Bay Bridge

It makes me blue to think that this view – shot from the Bay Bridge at 50 mph – is inaccessible by foot

Do you know what the East Bay, North Bay, South Bay, and City by the Bay all have in common?  It’s not a trick question.  The San Francisco Bay separates east from west, Oakland from San Francisco, A’s fan from Giants fan, Raiders fan from 49ers fan, future Warriors fan from former Warriors fan, and foggy from, well, foggier.  Several months ago, while the 49ers were flexing their muscles and the Raiders were regularly getting sand kicked in their face, the cheeky response to the question of “What separates the NFL’s best and worst teams?”  would have been “the San Francisco Bay.”  But as divisive as five miles of water can be (particularly during football season), it’s the Bay Bridge that physically connects and otherwise unifies the two sides of the bay.  Unless, of course, you’re on foot.

Granted, both Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and an inconvenient ferry system operate between Oakland and SF.  But as Bay Area residents we pride ourselves on our progressive joie de vivre, particularly as regards our spectrum of eco-friendly transportation options.  I see more hybrid vehicles at a typical stoplight here than I see during an entire week in most other states.  Bike lanes are a staple of our commuting diet, and out-of-town guests are constantly amazed by the pedestrian-savvy temperament of the drivers here.  From my home base in the East Bay, I feel like I can get pretty much anywhere I want to get in the San Francisco Bay Area on foot.

Except San Francisco.

The fact that I can’t run directly from Oakland to San Francisco is absurd.  Currently all my runs along the Berkeley Marina end by necessity on the border of Emeryville, at the eastern end of the Bay Bridge.  From there it’s either head back up the Marina the way I came, head east into Emeryville (which without Pixar would pretty much qualify as Oakland’s appendix), or gaze longingly across the bay at a vast running landscape that in those moments of frustration might as well be the Emerald City.  Except that – OOPS! – we forgot to build a yellow brick road.

Artist’s rendering of a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path… look how much fun those faux people are having!
(photo © 2011 Rmleczko, courtesy MTA)

Why has a Bay Bridge pedestrian and bike path not yet happened?  It’s unclear why its original architect – unlike the architects of its more popular and flamboyant neighbor, the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB) – failed to prioritize pedestrian access in his part-suspension, part-cantilever design.  This oversight is even more puzzling given that initial construction on both bridges began six months apart in the same year, 1933.  It’s hard to imagine that two groups of architects, each working on its own similarly massive engineering project, could operate in such close physical proximity without swapping stories or sharing ideas.  In any case, since opening in May 1937 the GGB has boasted pedestrian walkways on its eastern and western sides.  On pleasant days these walkways are crowded with sightseeing tourists and smitten locals, around whom I’ll dance and weave as I hoof my way from the Marin Headlands to all parts of San Francisco.

True, the new Bay Bridge eastern span leading from Oakland to Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands will contain a pedestrian/bike lane, a fact that former SF mayor Willie Brown is quick to take credit for.  Inexplicably, however, there are no plans to extend pedestrian access all the way to SF.  This feels like popping a handful of M&Ms in your mouth, only to discover after your first chew that they’re actually Skittles – great expectations give way to visceral annoyance gives way to resigned disappointment.  It’s a bewildering lapse in both planning and judgment that’s earned the new walkway the derisive nickname of “bike path to nowhere.”  Try not to take it too hard, Treasure Island.

From a busine$$ perspective, I’m envisioning the commercial applications for a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path.  This past week, Matier and Ross reported in the SF Chronicle that a 12.5-mile run from Oakland City Hall to SF City Hall is in the works as part of the opening weekend festivities for the new bridge.  It’s a terrific idea, but why stop there?  Add another half mile to the course, and what Bay Area runner wouldn’t sign up and line up to run the annual “Hall to Hall” Half Marathon to benefit Oakland and SF charities, with the incentive of an additional donation (plus bragging rights) going to the city with the fastest runners?  The walkways on the Golden Gate Bridge figure prominently in three current SF races – the U.S. Half, the newly rebranded Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco Half, and the 200-mile Golden Gate Relay.  Plus the city’s signature event, the Wipro San Francisco Marathon, runs on the GGB roadbed.  There’s no reason the Bay Bridge couldn’t (and shouldn’t) follow suit.

I’m happy to design a Bay Area-savvy medal for the “Hall-to-Hall” Half Marathon

I expect your higher-ups at the Bay Area Toll Authority will be quick to cite financial constraints and design considerations, and to suggest that I get in line behind everyone else’s pet projects.  But that’s why I’ve addressed this letter to your agency – because you have the authority (the word’s in your name, after all) to “fund the long-term capital improvement and rehabilitation of the bridges.”  And given that the Bay Bridge east span replacement is already grossly over budget – a budget that has been alarmingly immune to public scrutiny – what’s another half a billion dollars among friends?  You’ll likely spend a solid chunk of that on Labor Day opening ceremonies anyway.

I’m encouraged to read that finally we’ve reached the stage where a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path is now an official project eligible for funding.  But you and I both know that’s government-speak for “we’ll get to it when we get to it,” and unless the project shows up on someone’s priority list soon, it will remain without funding ad infinitum.  In the meantime, while the relevant “project initiation document” sits gathering the sloughed-off dead skin of feckless government officials dust in a file cabinet in Sacramento, think about the vital opportunity the Bay Area is losing to improve traffic flow and further reduce carbon emissions by increasing the number of commuters biking (or even running!) to work.  And running or biking is more affordable than riding BART or taking the ferry.

Since we the taxpayers are obligated to foot the bill for Bay Bridge reconstruction, then we should also be able to foot the Bay Bridge.  A two-way pedestrian and bike path should have happened years – nay, decades – ago.  Yet somehow, here in the nation’s crown jewel of progressive foresight and ingenuity, I can still swim from Oakland to San Francisco faster than I can run.  So come on BATA, let’s get this done!  Do the right thing and don’t drop the ball on this one.  We both know the Raiders don’t need the competition.

Best regards,
Mike Sohaskey
Founder and Chief Running Officer, CRO-BAR (Concerned Runners Of the Bay Area)

  1. Dan says:

    And I thought my suggestion that Chicago build a pedestrian walkway that bypasses the 5-block gap between the Lakefront Trail south of Navy Pier and north of it would be a costly endeavor. But hey, anything that gives us more paths to take and opens our training log up to new terrain would receive my government stamp.

    • Mike says:

      Agreed… and having run the (very nice) Lakefront Trail in your city a few times, the Navy Pier area you’re talking about stands out vividly in my mind. Who doesn’t like to stop mid-run for a fake tattoo and some carb-rich caramel corn? Too… many… people…

  2. Jen says:

    I agree — it’s utterly ridiculous that there isn’t a pedestrian and bike path on the Bay Bridge. The plan to have it go to Treasure Island is, shall we say, half baked as well. It would be a huge boon to transit and the local economies to open up the Bay Bridge to pedestrians, runners, and bikers.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks Jen, glad to know I’m not the only runner who finds this situation absurd. It feels all wrong to have the Bay Bridge – which should be facilitating all types of movement across the bay – acting instead as an insurmountable obstacle to foot traffic. You should join CRO-BAR so we can fight this thing! We’re now accepting applications for, well, all other positions…

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