It’s rush hour, 9am on a Wednesday, when I meet up with Frederik Venter and Marissa Garcia of planning and engineering consultancy Kimbley-Horn and Associates and Stefania Castillo, a planner at the Transportation Agency for Monterey County. They’re not dressed in business attire; Venter wears a neon yellow jacket and matching helmet. Garcia and Castillo are in casual but comfortable pants with windproof jackets and helmets.
It’s 10 days after the opening of the new bike lane down the center of Fremont Street in North Monterey, and we’re all on bikes. We gather at Casa Verde, the south end of the bike lane. It’s empty, save for a few screws lying about the path, remnants of the year-long construction project.
The three are breathless in their excitement pointing out the features of the new bike lane, which runs down the center of this four-lane road. Venter lists the things I should pay attention to while riding: there’s a bikewalk/crosswalk feature, curb ramps, yellow paint around bike signals. It’s easy to tell this group has had to do a lot of convincing.
As we start pedaling north toward Seaside, it starts to look like they’re not super experienced cyclists, sometimes struggling to get going from a stop or to make the sharp 90-degree turns required to get on and off the bike path. Today is Castillo’s first time riding the path that she helped to design, and she’s beaming. “I love being elevated and seeing the entire street while I ride,” she says.
It feels strange to ride in the middle of four traffic lanes, with cars moving in both directions, but with railings on both sides, it feels safe. While the railings are mostly a visual barrier (they are bike-proof but not car-proof), they give the feeling of a protective cocoon around the bikes-only path that parallels a corridor that 30,000 cars traverse daily.
After the new waterline went in underneath Fremont in 2017, the city of Monterey took the open ground as an opportunity to get started on intersection improvements (like new traffic signals and wheelchair-accessible curbs). “There were a bunch of ideas coming together and we thought, ‘Why don’t we put the bike lanes in the median?’” Venter says. This idea allowed street parking to remain on both sides of Fremont Street, something business owners didn’t want to part with; it’s also safer for cyclists, and minimizes the risk of getting “doored” by a driver or passenger getting out of their car.
Parking issues aside, during the year of construction, planning officials with TAMC and the city of Monterey heard a lot of criticism over the $9.1 million project.
“When the public sees projects like this, they only care about the road and cars, so they wonder why money is being spent on [bike paths],” TAMC spokesperson Theresa Wright says. “They need to understand there were funding sources just for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.”
As we near the first intersection, Garcia shows off a new feature – bike-only signals. “The linchpin of this project is the bike signals,” she says. “Now you have your own signaling phase. It’s what makes this thing work. Now bikes are a part of the intersection.”
These are just like crosswalks, but for bikes – with red, yellow and green signals in the shape of little bicycles.
We get lucky on our four-block ride, and the car and bike traffic signals are green almost the entire way. The whole journey takes just five minutes, and we’re at the end of the protected bike lane, in the middle of Fremont.
We say goodbye, and I watch the transportation planners’ bike-shaped signal flash from green to yellow; a driver nearly runs into them as she makes a left turn onto Fremont. “Until we see people using this area correctly, we will continue to do outreach,” Venter says. “We use the three E’s: engineering, education and enforcement.”
The team expects the changes will take some getting used to, but also notes there haven’t been major updates to this high-trafficked corridor in roughly 50 years. Changes include narrowing the wide lanes from 16 feet to the more standard 11 feet, new curbs and new traffic lights, and the elimination of some right-turn-only lanes – a hazard for cyclists and pedestrians.
The bike path is the most obvious element, so it has garnered the most attention (and criticism). It’s that public criticism, the team says, that was the hardest thing about the project. But now, within days of opening, they’ve started getting positive notes, including one from a mom who now feels comfortable taking her baby in a stroller to get groceries at Safeway.
“People can be mean, they get personal,” Garcia says. “I’ll get an email from somebody saying ‘I rode it, it was really awesome’ and I’m just like ‘Yes! I’m going to blow that up and put it over my desk.’”