Google has a grand plan to make Silicon Valley as bike-friendly as Copenhagen

Google bike Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesA bicyclist rides through the Googleplex.

If you work at Google, chances are your feet are too busy pedalling a yellow-framed bicycle ever to touch the ground.

But venture outside the Mountain View campus, and the buzzing highways of Silicon Valley remind you you’ll need to trade in your two wheels for something with a little more horsepower.

Google wants to fix that. The inspiration: Copenhagen’s extensive and easy-to-use bike network.

The company is offering $US5 million in matching grants for cities in the valley that come up with plans to help build a Silicon Valley-wide bike system.

Rather than apply a prescriptive solution on its own, Google’s grant program calls on the neighbouring regions to come up with creative ways to boost their bike-friendliness, based on their local infrastructure.

“We designed it as a model for Mountain View and the areas around Mountain View,” Jeral Poskey, program manager for transportation planning at Google, tells Business Insider. “And what we’re realising is that it’s a template that can be used anywhere.”

If Google gets approval from the Mountain View city council later this year, the company could begin work on plans that set an example for the rest of the country.

The company has partnered with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and has commissioned the design firm Alta Planning + Design to hammer out the logistics. Through extensive research, they have learned where the easiest fixes to existing roadways can be made and which problems need the most attention.

A hard truth quickly emerged: Most places just aren’t built for bikes.

For those Google employees living within nine miles of work, 21% of people bike there, according to Alta’s recent report on the expansion project.
For all of Google, that rate dwindles to 9%.

What the company really wants is to emulate the gold standard for bike-friendliness, Copenhagen — a city that has effectively cracked the bike-friendly code. Its streetlights favour bicycles over cars, and in the winter bike lanes are cleared before roadways. Should it be any wonder half the city commutes by bike?

Google knows reaching that ideal is a long ways away, though it may have discovered a way get closer to it.

The bulk of non-bikers actually aren’t opposed to commuting on two wheels instead of four, the research has shown; they’re just concerned. Stressful rides feel longer, which adds to the uneasiness.

“If we want to substantially increase the number of people riding bicycles to work,” the report explains, “we need to attract the largest pool — the ‘Interested but Concerned’ group.”

Remove the concern, and the commute becomes more enjoyable.

In practice, that involves designing bike paths that do two things.

First, it means creating safe bridges across intersections and railways with so-called “bike boulevards,” which offer a physical buffer between the roadway and the bike path. Palo Alto’s success offers hope.

It also involves like larger-scale connections between individual networks at the city limits. After all, it doesn’t help if a town is bike-friendly when you have to pass through six other non-friendly towns to get there.

These visions are decidedly lofty. But if every region participates in Google’s program, stress levels could go down two orders of magnitude, according to Alta’s projections.

Here’s the current layout, which is hazardous and stressful:

Alta1GoogleWithout any systems in place, most of Silicon Valley is too stressful for people to commute on bikes.

And here’s the imagined layout, cleaned up and safe:

Alta2GoogleBy avoiding roads with speed limits over 35 mph, many riders would feel comfortable enough to bike to work.

The bicycling vision is actually a small piece of a much larger plan from Google.

That original vision, which called for a 2.5 million square foot project in Mountain View’s North Bayshore district, was replete with affordable housing and infrastructure repairs. It got shot down back in May by the Mountain View city council.

Its cost was put at roughly $US200 million. LinkedIn won most of the land instead.

Now the company has narrowed its sights to bikes.

“It’s a different way of thinking about bike planning, and it’s a different way of delivering funding for bike planning,” Poskey said. “We’d be really excited if other people took this up and used this model to improve bike networks and bike safety — really anywhere.”

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