Thursday, August 30, 2007

Old La Honda

Yesterday was a scorcher, so it seemed like the ideal day to go to the coast. Last time I went over the hills to the Pacific was 2000, so now would be a good time. Transit was free (spare the air day), so it seemed like there were good opportunities to bale if needed. I had planned on Alpine-Westridge-Portala-Old La Honda to get up, then finding a good way down, and then one to Half Moon Bay, and a bus or biking along 92 back. 92 wold be the opposite direction of commute traffic, so it seemed like a good idea...

Unfortunately, I got a little bit of a late start... Then Westridge was closed for some utility work. No problem, I'd just take the next through street. That would be Golden Oak. Unfortunately, while Alpine is mostly flat, the inner streets seem to go straight up. I eventually made my way up, and over to Cervantes and down to Westridge. Unfortunately, I turned the wrong way on Westridge. When I hit Escobar, I knew I had gone the wrong way around, but I took advantage of the opportunity to see if it went through to Ladera (it didn't). Then back up and down some hills to get to Westrdige and Portola, and finally to Old La Honda.

Old La Honda is nice and shady. Unfortunately, the hour of meandering around in the hills before was right in the sun. The climb was even nicer than I remember it. It also seemed to have more traffic. (Not a whole lot, but it wasn't an empty road like Alpine). It took me about 34 minutes. From this site, the record time is about 15 minutes. So, where did I lose those 20 minutes? I decided to give myself some handicaps:
1) An hour of climbing in the sun before starting
2) Poor bike (I'm using a beat-up Trek mountain bike with a slick rear tire. Even compared to my stolen Specialized Globe hybrid, this one is a clunker that requires a lot more energy. It was also weighed down with two baskets filled with work stuff (computer, backpack, clothes, etc.) from the commute home from work.
3) Lack of familiarity with the route. (It was less steep and shorter than I was mentally expecting. There were also a few ill-made gear decisions)
4) Pure lack of ability on my end. (After all, I'm no where near a world-class cyclist)
So which ones were most significant? Lack of familiarity probably accounted for no more than a minute. (I guess I could try it again to verify.)
The previous climbing was probably a little more of an impact. Though, I'm guessing that the bike was probably the most significant factor, followed not far behind by 'me'.

On the way back, I decided to just take Skyline down to 84. You can't round corners super fast with a loaded down beat up mountain bike. Then Portala/Alpine/Arastradero/Fremont/Foothill... Unfortunately, I had a slow flat on the way home. After months without a flat, its been 4 in the past three days. D'oh! The first two were on Monday after running through a goat head farm. (Note to self, Los Altos Hills pathways are never worth it. They might at times be shorter, but I'm not one that likes downhill descents on dirt straight in to gates.) Yesterday it was shrapnel. A two inch staple, followed by a little shard of metal. Uggh.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Skyline commute

Well, I just had to try Skyline today.

In the morning, I did a nice 'easy' 20 mile ride. The outside of 280 ride from Loyola to Alpine. The climb at Moody was great. Nice easy rolling hills for a while, then boom, straight up for the last little bit. It seemed a lot nicer than I remember Altamont. There were also a few nice small climbs and descents in Los Altos hills. I explored a couple pathways, but only briefly. No new 'shortcuts' to think of. (Though I did take the crucial Stonebrook shortcut to get from Magdelena up to Moody.)

For the trip home, it was up Alpine to skyline. The initial part of Skyline is fairly easy, the grade is so gradual it might-as-well be flat. Past the library, traffic dove of to just about nothing. (I saw one car and 2 bikes in the section from there to Page Mill.) Alpine gradually gets steeper and narrower. The road is in fairly good condition, and nicely shaded making it an ideal climb. Then the gate and the dirt road begins. It is slightly rutted, giving a little bounce, but actually seems to be an easier climb than the paved section. All goes well until the washed out section, with the detour on the trail. The trail seems to go just about straight up, and is filled with roots and rocks. I was able to ride a few sections. However, I was mostly pushing my bike up this short trail. (Even that could be a challenge with the loaded down bike.) My first bit of riding on the trail ended when I bumped a small rock. It wasn't anything big, just enough to slow my momentum, and make it difficult to restart. The next bits of riding were brought to an end when the rear wheel seemed to just be spinning in the dirt. I guess there would be some advantages to having a MTB tire.
Luckily the trail portion was short, and soon it was back to dirt. And gnats. They seemed to love my sweaty face. The grade seemed to be getting even easier, and I ended up moving to midrange gears before I reached Page Mill. From Page Mill, there was a little more to go to reach Skyline. I managed to make it there in under 90 minutes, so I was just about right on track.

Skyline started with a nice descent. It seemed like I was home free. However, it soon leveled off, and then began going up. D'oh! Those ups just seemed harder now. Luckily the sign posts had been going down. San Mateo county 2... San Mateo 1.5... (Of course they were much more precise and frequent than that.) Highway 9 is at the county line, right? Unfortunately, no... Santa Clara began starting in the high teens... I sure hope that is not going down towards highway 9 at 0. I had only given myself 30 minutes to go down the stretch of skyline, and hadn't anticipated all the climbing involved. And there aren't many turnoffs. (I'd considered a trail down to Stevens Canyon, but descending on a trail just did not seem fun. The Mora Drive descent in Rancho San Antonio has to rank as the most unpleasant downhill experience I've had. Steep grade and poor, narrow pavement do not make for a fun downhill.)

Then came a same for a fire station. Civilization! Then I noticed it was a forest district one. D'oh! It was named Saratoga Summit. That means climbing must be over. But why am I climbing just past it? Luckily shortly after that, there is a stop ahead sign. I didn't know of any other major streets intersection Skyline. Could this be 9? Yes!

The descent on 9 is one of the greatest. Traffic is fairly light, the pavement is good and the curves are very well manageable. Very little braking is needed. It was just a quick sail down. The sign said curves ahead, next 7 miles. It seemed to be a quick trip zooming down. Did I really climb that much? Saw Pierce. Should I? No. Time for the quickest/flatest way. Skyline took a little more than 30 minutes. Luckily, I was able to make up the time (and then some) on Highway 9, and then had a little more than 30 minutes to cruise down Saratoga-Sunnyvale home. It was a little longer than I was thinking, but easily accomplished.

Now is it possible to work the Pacific Ocean in to a commute?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Alternatives to the commute

My regular commute is from Sunnyvale to Stanford. Foothill Expressway is the logical bike option. It is fairly fast, few lights, and takes about 40 minutes. (My best time was 35 - but it was primarily due to hitting green lights.) The biggest challenge is Page Mill. Its probably the steepest climb, and near the end of the ride. Powering up can be the difference between a momentum sapping 2 minute wait and a clear cruise on in to work.

However, the same route gets boring. So there is El Camino. Distance is about the same. There are still the challenges of beating the lights. However, most lights seem to run on shorter cycles (except for that Castro run that seems to run much longer than it needs to.) It is the much more urban alternative. [ughh... What is with this mouse that loves to suddenly send me back a page...]

Then there is the 'inner passage'. Winding primarily through the streets of Los Altos, and never hitting Page Mill or El Camino. Also taking advantage of the bike path for Los Altos to Arastradero and the Bol Park to Hannover path. There are plenty of variations of quiet streets and bike shortcuts to go on this slow, meandering way. It is nice when there is just not much of hurry, and no desire to go fast.

But sometimes, it is nice to mix in a few small hills. The outer passage goes through Los Altos Hills on the outside of foothill, mostly between foothill and 280. One variation of this is the 'follow Fremont'. It gets cut off a couple times in Los Altos, though it is fairly obvious where it should go. However, it ends near downtown Los Altos, and then a Fremont starts up not to far away in Los Altos Hills, and goes until it becomes Hillview. Is this the same road? It sure seems like it, though the obvious connection point seems to be buried in a big valley where Fremont dead-ends.

Though sometimes, the simple outer passage is not enough, and the desire for hills takes over. Thus, the swing to the other side of 280. It is possible to travel entirely between 280 and Skyline, sneaking around past the quarry, and on down to Page Mill or Alpine. Some nice hills, and a low-traffic ride. Though the shortcut through Rancho San Antonio has one of the scariest descents I have been on. The road (which I think is just a trail now) is in poor condition, with a very steep grade. It may be fun to climb, but not to go down - even with no other traffic to worry about.

But hey, there are even more hills out there. The Page Mill to Montebello route manages to totally avoid civilization. However, the entrance to Montebello from Page Mill seems to be blocked by a fence. Ugh! Thus a ride on a dirt trail for a while before getting to the unpaved old road, before getting to the paved road for the descent. After climbing Page Mill in the hot sun, and then descending Montebello in the shade, I realized this would have been a much better morning ride. Though I'll probably try out skyline next. And I suppose after skyline, I'd eventually get to the coastal route.

There is also the other direction to go. Middle passage goes down Park Avenue, eventually to California and Dana/Washington. It may also include the bike path from the Palo Alto Caltrain to Palo Alto High. This is between caltrain and El Camino the whole way. Low traffic, some annoying lights (especially on California) and fairly good biking. There are also some routes on the other side of Caltrain (bryant-central, middlefield) but I haven't tried them yet.

I have gone way out to the other side of 101. There is the bayshore route which pretty much hugs 101 the whole way. Fairly fast, not too pleasant. Even further out is the bay route. From East Palo Alto to Palo Alto baylands to Mountain View Shoreline to Stevens Creek trail. Lots of trail riding (paved and unpaved) with few stops, and not too many others on the trail. (Simple formula: number of people on trail inversely proportional to distance from parking lot) It almost seems odd to be keeping a steady pace. It is also interesting to look at Shoreline and Moffett from the outside. They look like big tents stuck out in the mud.

Then last week I decided to go just a little further, and journey around the other side of the bay. So, over the dumbarton bridge I went, making it through the gusty crosswinds. Then it was down the other side of the bay through Newark and Fremont, and down to Milpitas. (Though Dixon landing road could use some help. It is only accessible via an 880 overpass. On the overpass, bikes are best in the middle lane (because the two other lanes get on the freeway). However, there is no bike lane there. Just past the overpass, there is a bike lane on the right. It seems anybody that could manage that overpass probably does not have a need for a 50 yard bike lane instructing them to stay right.) In Milpitas there was a nice little path going through farmland that links up with a very poor path going along 237. Then it was to Tasman on to Sunnyvale. (I had considered taking light rail in the event that I was running late. However, the light rail was traveling just about the same pace I was. It even got stuck in traffic as I did [planners wouldn't dare give it priority in such a car dominated area!]) Then it is back down Fair Oaks in to the heart of Sunnyvale.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mary avenue overpass

There has been a lot of angst recently over a proposed Mary avenue overpass over 101 and 237. People living on or near Mary claim that it will destroy their community. They have formed community organizations and signed petitions protesting this. They have even created proposals to expand other roads and intersections and roads as an alternative to this overpass.

Unfortunately, they are missing the forest for the trees.

The core problem is that there is that the vast Moffett Park office park area in Northern Sunnyvale is virtually inaccessible without a car. By zoning design, there are no residences in the area. Even retail is for the most part absent. The Mathilda freeway intersection is a disaster, scaring off all but the most hard-core cyclists. The sidewalk network is incomplete requiring circuitous routes across dangerous intersections by pedestrians. There is a light rail running through the area, but the incomplete sidewalk network and multi-lane arterials can result in a half mile walk just to get to a building across the street. (And the streets are often faced by large parking lots making it more of a challenge.) The light rail also only runs through northern Sunnyvale down to San Jose. Somebody far away in south San Jose can take the train, while somebody in southern Sunnyvale is out of luck with transit.

If people really want to 'preserve community' and reduce traffic on Mary, the simple solution is to reduce the available supply of traffic lanes, while also increasing the connectivity of the system. Reducing supply will make it less convenient to make short car trips - while encouraging other means of travel. Increasing the connectivity will reduce trip lengths, thereby reducing aggregate travel distance. Shorter trip lengths and greater network connectivity will also encourage more biking and walking.

A simple solution to the Mary Avenue issue: build the bridge. Give it two car lanes, two bike lanes, and two sidewalks. But before doing so, extending the bike lane from Homestead to Maude, reducing car traffic lanes to one in each direction. This will allow for local connectivity, as well as providing the first safe Sunnyvale bike route to Moffett Park. It will also provide a good bike route from all of Sunnyvale (and even Cupertino once the 280 bridge is complete.) The reduction in traffic lanes will reduce the value of the road as an out-of-town short cut.

Even better from a long-term perspective would be an overhaul of the zoning regulations in Sunnyvale. With the city requiring all single-family homes to have 4 off-street parking spaces, is there any wonder why people drive so much. (Add to this the insistence on preserving additional on-street parking, and you get about 7 or 8 parking spaces per house - enough space for an additional house!) And these housing units are often built in housing ghettos, separated from arterials with 'great walls', and far isolated from commercials and retail areas.