The River with No Bridge

The rain this past weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area reminds me of the modern Japanese classic “The River with No Bridges.”

Guadalupe River Trail at Highway 101

In the 1960s, author Sue Sumii (pronounced “soo ay s’mee”) brought a human face to the trials of the Japanese underclass in her seven volume epic novelization on the lives of the burakumin or the “bicycle people” of post-feudal Japan. The Meiji-era slang for bicycle derives from the rhythmic thumping sound of solid rubber bicycle tires rolling on poor quality roads — “bura bura bura” — punctuated by the metallic clanking “ku!” of a kickstand bouncing against the chainstay. Hence, people who rode bicycles or “bura ku” were called burakumin or “bicycle people.”

As in the United States and Great Britain during the Victoria Era, bicycles in Japan were initially a toy for the aristocracy and wealthy merchant class. When mass production made bicycles affordable to the masses, the one percent and those who could afford to emulate their lifestyles abandoned bicycles in favor of automobiles. Bicycles then became a means of transportation for the untouchables of Japanese society.

These burakumin often lived on the other side of the river from the city (think of the American idiom “wrong side of the tracks”) and bridges to cross the river by bike were rarely constructed. Hence, the river in Sumii’s novels becomes a barrier to opportunity and social mobility.

VTA BPAC meeting June 10 2015

I’m kidding about the meaning of burakumin. The word actually translates to “village people” — think “redneck” or “bumpkin” — and is a relatively modern term replacing the older, derogatory eta, a label that literally means “full of vile filth.” Labeling people like this as unimportant and inconsequential is a quick and easy way to dismiss their concerns and needs. When city councilmember Dick Quax of Howick, New Zealand, for example, claims “nobody in the entire Western World” shops by train or on foot, he’s using this mental shortcut to dismiss the needs of who do, indeed, shop by bike or with public transportation. His reference to the “Western World” is a quick dismissal of those who bike as backwards “village people” with no place in our modern, civilized world.

Bikes facilities

During last weekend’s rain storms, I saw Caltrans plow trucks patrolling our state highways scooping rocks, tree limbs, and mud out of the lanes as quickly as possible.

Two days after the San Tomas Aquino Creek crests, however, the city of Santa Clara public works department has yet to scoop the large mass of debris trapped on the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail underneath Great America Parkway.

San Tomas Aquino Trail Santa Clara debris under Great American Parkway

I appreciate that the city of San Jose patrols their trail system during storms to remove fallen trees, but they also have problems with flooding at low crossings. Especially maddening are locations where storm drains dump directly onto the path, making them unusable even in light rain.

The long term parking lot for San Jose International Airport drains directly onto the Guadalupe River Trail. This one is especially bad because flooding here blocks access across Highway 101 immediately north of the airport. With detours miles out of the way and difficult for newbies to find, this river with no bridge sometimes encourages those vile, filthy people traveling this way to risk their lives by running across a very busy freeway, which occasionally ends badly. Other road crossings as you approach the Bay are only marginally easier to cross when must bypass flooded areas.

Part of the beauty of cycling is it’s modest infrastructure requirements and flexibility when roads and trails fail. Just like the “village people” of Japan learned to cope, people like me and other long time bike commuters know to just HTFU and deal, but we’re not going to get much beyond 2% of trips on bikes when we allow elected officials and public works departments to dismiss service complaints from the burakumin, because only crazy people ride their bikes in the rain, after all. When the vile filth of those on foot try to ask for something approaching parity, comments that we’re whiny, entitled, and unrealistic — from both the general public and too-often from long time bike advocates — discourage further action.

The long-term design issues will take funding and planning, which means engaging our local elected officials. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. In the meantime, if you’re a bike commuter who was blocked by the storm debris on the San Tomas Aquino Trail, you can take immediate action by calling city of Santa Clara Public Works at (408) 615-3080. Somebody at the National Bike Summit last night said “An individual advocate is a crackpot; a group of advocates is a voting block.” Public works can ignore that single crackpot, but if 20 people called in to complain about the trees blocking the San Tomas Aquino Trail under Great America Parkway, maybe they’ll do something about it.

Thank you to my colleague Rick Warner for the photo on the San Tomas Aquino Trail and reporting the blockage at Great America Parkway.


  1. It was unblocked quickly. Thank you for writing how to report the passageway being blocked, I added a note to my contact list. I went North on Lafayette on Tuesday, after seeing it was blocked on Monday. It was clear by Wednesday. The passageway was clear on 3/14 after the storms over the weekend.

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