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Google's New Bike Plan Wants Silicon Valley to Be More Like Copenhagen

It envisions a connected, low-stress cycling network.

AP Photo/Ben Margot

Commuting in Silicon Valley is a drag. The big tech companies that make their homes there know that, and devote significant resources to sweetening the trip to work for their employees, like the famous (or infamous) buses that shuttle workers from San Francisco down the peninsula’s crowded highways.

But as the tech giants plan massive campus expansions in the area, overburdened transportation infrastructure is going to become even more strained. When the digital behemoths seek approval for the architectural flights of fancy they want to build on limited available land (a hotly competitive process that goes on for years), the question of how to accommodate all those commuters is often one of the key sticking points.

So as part of Google’s proposal for its enormous, futuristic new headquarters in the North Bayshore section of Mountain View in Santa Clara County, the company has come up with a bicycle master plan to radically improve bicycle infrastructure in the area by emphasizing connections and creating low-stress cycling environments. The idea is to create a network of high-quality bike routes that would cross city lines throughout the northern part of Santa Clara County (North County, in the plan) and seamlessly allow bikes to negotiate current obstacles, such as freeway overpasses and busy arterials.

Google’s bike plan is an ambitious vision, developed in partnership with Alta Planning and the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. It projects a near future in which at least some of North County looks more like Copenhagen than typical suburban California, in that  “almost anyone [could] ride a bike comfortably & safely—for any type of trip they might need to take.”

Already, nearly 9 percent of Google employees who live in North County commute by bike to the company’s existing headquarters (also in North Bayshore), and 21 percent of those who live within five miles ride to work. “We’ve gotten so far almost without trying,” says Jeral Poskey, program manager for transportation planning at Google. “It’s happened spontaneously.”

Still, the majority of employees are unlikely to consider cycling as a commuting option because even the best protected bike lanes in the region are often isolated from other lanes by intersections or pieces of road where biking becomes far riskier and more frightening. That’s why the plan emphasizes connections—creating low-stress, continuous routes that transcend municipal lines and create a unified system.

Google’s bike vision emphasizes creating low-stress, continuous cycling routes. (Google)

Poskey says building on the momentum of existing bike commuters as a way of reducing car traffic in the future “is low-hanging fruit in two respects.” First, improving bicycle routes is a lot cheaper and easier than adding capacity to streets and highways for cars. Second, there are a lot of people who would be willing to try biking, if only the infrastructure were there to make them feel secure. “Sixty percent of the people are willing to try this if they have a safe way to get there,” says Poskey, referring to the group known to bike researchers as the “interested but concerned.”

To build a network that addresses safety concerns of these 60 percent, says Poskey, Google is willing to pony up $5 million in grants for specific projects that improve crucial aspects of bike infrastructure—funding that’s contingent on the approval of Google’s plans by the Mountain View city council. North County cities (Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, parts of Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale*) would be encouraged to submit applications, with preference for groundbreaking solutions that might provide local or even national models. The winners would be selected by representatives of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. Poskey praised the regional transit agency for its input on coming up with criteria for selecting grantees. “They were pushing us to favor innovative projects,” says Poskey. “No one would think that VTA is pushing Google to be innovative, but they were.”

Poskey says Google hopes the master plan could be implemented within a relatively short period of time—closer to 5 years than 20. He adds that while Google’s $5 million will only go so far, the hope is that it would help communities attract other funds.

The benefits, he emphasizes, would reach far beyond the Google campus, allowing residents of the entire North County to have access to a new regional transportation option—one that’s active, safe, and cost-effective. “One of the big outcomes is not just that Googlers have a better bike commute to work,” says Poskey. “It’s to have a regional network where you can’t perceive the city limits.”

Ultimately, he hopes that North County could provide a national model, proving that a Copenhagen-style attitude toward bicycle transportation doesn’t have to be just a Danish thing.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Sunnyvale as Sunnyview.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear
    Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.