When traffic backs up on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Rebecca Kittredge takes a shortcut that can get her to work in Larkspur half an hour faster — by a route that’s twice as long.
Driving an electric car that qualifies her for the fast-moving diamond lane on Interstate 80, she instead heads to the Bay Bridge and drives through San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge, looping the bay to get from Berkeley to her Marin County teaching job.
“It really shouldn’t be faster for me to double-bridge,” said Kittredge, who is in her 20th year teaching at Redwood High School.
The commute used to be a straight shot — 17 miles across one bridge in 25 minutes. Now, on days when Kittredge has to take the shortcut, it’s an hour. In the past decade, a million more vehicles have merged in. Morning peak traffic on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge’s westbound upper deck has increased by nearly a third, from 3.5 million vehicles a year in 2010 to 4.5 million in 2019.
Yet Kittredge and other motorists have a bigger complaint: the new bike lane.
Beloved by cyclists, it consumes what used to be the right-hand shoulder of the westbound span, where vehicles pulled over after a stall or crash. Without that lane, small fender-benders have caused more than an hour of gridlock, annoying everyone but especially vexing teachers who have to get to work on time. Those at Redwood High and neighboring schools have become vigorous bike lane opponents.
“The main problem for me is the uncertainty,” said Nickolai Butkevich, another Redwood High teacher who hits the road at 6 a.m. to get to school from his home in Richmond Heights. Three years ago he left an hour later, “got a decent amount of sleep, and had breakfast at home.” Now, with more cars choking the bridge and the looming threat of a problem — he’s experienced two since November — he’d rather show up to work tired than late.
Since opening in November, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge bike lane has carried roughly 160 commuters in each direction on an average weekday, a number that jumps to about 800 cyclists on Saturdays. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages Bay Area bridges and other infrastructure, will evaluate the lane over four years and decide whether it should stay.
“I love the bike lane,” said Emeryville City Councilman and cycling enthusiast John Bauters, who uses the lane twice a month, pedaling from his home in Emeryville to Bay Area Air Quality Management District meetings in San Francisco’s South of Market. The three-hour, 41-mile ride requires him to leave home at 5:30 a.m., navigate a maze of city streets, follow a trail that skims over marshland, and cross two bridges before landing in the city.
“I show up to meetings in my cycling bib and jersey, and I just don’t give a damn,” said Bauters, who is also an Air District board member. “This is how we should be doing things.”
Cycling advocates who championed the lane hoped it would be an attractive alternative to driving, particularly with the rising popularity of e-bikes, which can zoom along at up to 25 miles per hour. Yet teachers and other rush hour commuters say that cycling is not an option for them. While Butkevich enjoys biking, he cringes at the idea of pedaling through central Richmond on a $5,000 e-bike — or any bike — shrouded in predawn darkness. Muggings are still fairly common along the route; a chop shop with discarded bike parts litters part of the greenway that snakes beneath I-80.
Kittredge dismissed the bike-commuting suggestion as foolish and romantic. The motorists who slog alongside her each morning aren’t just teachers with time-sensitive jobs — they’re also construction workers and landscapers.
“I’m sitting there surrounded by pickup trucks,” Kittredge said. “You cannot bike to your job with a bunch of rigs and a shovel.”
Though drivers train their frustration on the bike lane, the root cause of these morning traffic jams is deeper. Marin, for generations, has opposed development, leaving the North Bay with a severe shortage of affordable housing. Thus, the county has become increasingly dependent on workers who travel from Sonoma County, Solano County or the East Bay, where homes may be cheaper.
The transportation system wasn’t built to handle so many commuters. Horrendous traffic chokes the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and Highway 37, a crumbling freeway that carries workers to Marin from Solano County. Since the bridge has only two vehicle lanes, it lacks a fast route for buses and carpools. Moreover, bus service from the East Bay is meager, with only two lines running to San Rafael from the El Cerrito Del Norte BART Station. For most workers, riding the bus would take “a shocking number of hours and a lot of transfers,” Kittredge said.
Commutes have become so arduous that many businesses in Marin County are struggling to hire and retain workers, particularly in low-paying industries like hospitality or home health care, said Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council. Recent surveys by the Marin Economic Forum found that construction companies in that county are turning down projects because they can’t find enough workers.
Teaching is a different beast. Affluent districts pay better, so many teachers commute from working-class neighborhoods of Richmond, Berkeley or El Sobrante to teach in high-end districts like most in Marin County. The secret, Butkevich said, “is to live cheaply and teach expensively.”
So, teachers are consigned to the daily drudgery of a horrible bridge or freeway commute, made worse when they glance over at a pristine bike lane that’s usually empty at 6 a.m. Several Redwood High teachers say they have a solution: Open the bike lane to car traffic during rush hour, and reserve it for cyclists at other times.
Marin County Superintendent Mary Jane Burke supports that proposal, as do county Supervisor Damon Connolly; state Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael; and Murray of the Leadership Council. But officials at Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — the public agencies that manage the bridge — expressed doubt. Removing and reinstalling the 4-mile concrete bike barrier is no easy task, and Caltrans still has to complete a study to determine whether the bridge could hold that much vehicle weight. Adding a third lane of westbound traffic could also create bottlenecks in San Rafael, prompting more motorist complaints.
“We can’t move the bike barrier every day — it’s just too costly,” said Randy Rentschler, legislative director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Nonethless, he acknowledged that it’s neither fair, nor sustainable, to give so many motorists an unreliable commute on an important stretch of road.
“If it turns out that the loss of a breakdown lane has a really substantive effect on traffic, because cars that break down have nowhere to go, that’s a really important bit of information for us to consider,” Rentschler said.
Novato City Councilman Eric Lucan warned motorists not to rush to judgment against the bike lane, which opened in the fall and could draw more users during the warm months of spring. Outside his government job, Lucan is an avid cyclist and chief marketing officer at Mike’s Bikes, a regional chain. He also serves on the Transportation Authority of Marin, which is monitoring the bike-lane project.
“It’s unfortunate that in this case, one user group gets pitted against another,” Lucan said, noting that in an ideal world, the bridge would have everything: a wide, safe bike lane, ample space for cars and designated lanes for carpools and buses.
For now, there’s no way to make everybody happy. Stressed commuters hope that a simple compromise — removing the bike barrier during commute hours — would solve many problems. With political pressure mounting, transportation officials are considering their options: keep the bike lane in place, make it a weekend-only lane, or get rid of it altogether.
Those limited options anger Bauters, the Emeryville councilman. He’d rather see far-reaching policy solutions, like reliable cross-bay transit or affordable housing for teachers in Marin County.
“We’re forcing teachers to be at war with other transportation users,” he said. “If we’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just bike lanes versus teachers getting to work on time,’ then we’re making the wrong choices at the front end.”