Bridge bike lane causing traffic backups, harmful pollution in low-income Richmond neighborhoods: coalition

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Coalition: Bridge bike lane causing traffic backups, harmful pollution in low-income Richmond neighborhoods
Traffic on the westbound approach to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

Bike lanes are typically created with the intent of reducing the number of commuters traveling by car, thus improving the environment. But a sizable coalition of Richmond residents says the one installed on the top deck of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is instead contributing to harmful pollution in their city.

In 2019, the bike and pedestrian lane opened in the westbound lanes of the bridge as part of a four-year pilot program. The bike/ped lane was heralded for providing a connection to the ever-growing San Francisco Bay Trail. But the project has reportedly had unintended consequences, with Richmond residents and community leaders saying it contributes to traffic backups that worsen air quality in neighborhoods along I-580.

The ongoing issue prompted the formation of the Richmond and Marin Coalition for Transportation Justice, a coalition of neighborhood council leaders, community leaders, the NAACP, labor unions, service workers and commuters representing areas on both sides of the bridge. 

While a third eastbound traffic lane was installed on the lower deck of the bridge in 2018 to improve traffic flow for evening commuters from Marin County, the westbound top-deck remains with two vehicular lanes and now has no shoulder due to the bike lane, resulting in traffic backups in Richmond during the morning commute that impact air quality in neighborhoods along I-580, according to the coalition.

“The bike lane eliminated the shoulder on the top deck, making it impossible for cars to move out of traffic if they break down for any reason,” reads a letter sent to Bay Area Toll Authority from members of the coalition, including Willie Robinson, president of the Richmond NAACP; Oscar Garcia, president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council; Linda Whitmore, president of the Sante Fe Neighborhood Council, and several local pastors.

The result, states the coalition, “is traffic backing up on the freeway, particularly during the morning commute, in Richmond and into our neighborhoods. This brings pollution to our neighborhoods, and into our lungs.”

The coalition points to recent analyses of data collected by the nonprofit Groundwork Richmond, derived from air monitors installed throughout Richmond, showing how traffic contributes to spikes in particulate matter, especially during the morning commute.

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Where does Richmond’s pollution come from? City of Richmond, Groundwork Richmond webinar provides insight 

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The environmental impact, residents say, hardly justifies commute patterns across the bridge, where over 80,000 cars and 77 bikes cross daily on average. In the morning commute, the bridge reportedly sees an average of 18 bicyclists and 18,000 cars.

“We need a solution, so Richmond communities don’t continue to suffer,” the coalition’s letter states, adding, “In fact, we in Richmond want the same ‘deal’ Marin residents got. We want to see three lanes, during the morning commute, going from Richmond to Marin, easing the backup on the freeway and into our neighborhoods.”

The Richmond contingent is not seeking to eliminate the bridge bike lane entirely.

“We understand the desire to encourage people to get out their cars,” the coalition states. “So, we propose a new bike lane on the bottom deck that can be used during the morning commute, particularly since the third lane on the lower deck is not needed for cars in the morning.”

The coalition intends to seek the support of Richmond City Council for their proposal soon. The issue is scheduled to go before the Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight Committee in September. The Bay Area Toll Authority manages toll revenues and bridge-related projects.