Why land use matters for cycling advocacy

Stephen and Kate Downing live in Palo Alto, California, where they split the rent with Stephen’s sister and her family. Kate works as an attorney in Santa Clara, while Stephen is a software developer in downtown Palo Alto.

California Avenue Palo Alto mixed use proposal

They probably have a combined income well north of a quarter of million per year, but they cannot afford to live near their Silicon Valley jobs. Kate and her family have decided to move to Santa Cruz, and Ms Downing can no longer serve on Palo Alto’s Planning and Transportation Commission where she has been an outspoken thorn in the side of a city council that refuses even modest increases in higher-density housing development.

Kate’s one-way commute will now exceed 30 miles, while Stephen will now travel over 40 miles to his job. The distance and nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain for each direction give even strong, avid cyclists reason to pause, especially if they value family time and work-life balance.

Much of Palo Alto is very bikeable, and 7.3% of residents tell the US Census that they bike to work. But if Silicon Valley workers can’t afford to live within reasonable biking distance of their jobs, that means more cars on the road and more cars taking up parking spaces in Palo Alto and surrounding cities, which in turn leads to lower quality of life due to noise and air quality for the residents who continue to vote against senior homes and two-story zoning.

As a few people besides me have been pointing out lately, fewer than 20% of trips are work trips, so focusing on riding bikes for fun and errands can help nudge the needle up, but even these close-to-home trips become more of chore when you spend three to four hours of your day just on the commute.

I beat this land use drum for the San Francisco Bay Area, where lack of housing is especially acute, because it matters for cycling promotion. Some of the issues surrounding land use and transportation will be touched on Thursday, August 11, 2016 at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Summit. Pre-registration will be closed by the time you read this, but I think you can still register in person the morning of the event. I know several spaces are still available.

Image from “California Avenue Concept Plan“, showing a proposal to replace commercial zoning with mixed use. H/T to Lauren Ledbetter of VTA for the pointer to Downing’s letter of resignation.


  1. Actually, the number of people living within easy biking distance of their Palo Alto jobs should not decrease—density is not dropping. Now I don’t know how biking to work correlates with income, but I’m assuming that the people who move into the Downing house have about the same probability of commuting by bike.

    Also, if they were really committed to staying within cycling distance, couldn’t they move up to RWC or over to EPA or EMP?

  2. Hey Nat, Palo Alto has 95,000 jobs. Of 65,000 residents in the city of Palo Alto, 33,000 are in the workforce (the rest are children, non-working partners, retired, etc). If you add 5,000 jobs, that’s 5,000 new commuters coming from somewhere else.

    Sure, this couple could have moved somewhere a lot closer, but that’s besides the point — they’re illustrative of the larger problem of the housing vs jobs imbalance throughout the Bay Area. Maybe they move to RWC (or, as another commentor suggests, Santa Clara), which means somebody in RWC (or Santa Clara) moves to Fremont, and that Fremont family moves to Stockton.

    See also the city of San Jose’s recently filed lawsuit against the city of Santa Clara. An estimated 28,000 jobs will be added when the just-approved CityPlace development is completed, but the city of Santa Clara will add only a few hundred residential units in the meantime, which puts an inordinate burden on the transportation system out to a 40 to 50 mile radius.

  3. All People becoming so health conscious Now days. And with just a good diet but without an physical activity, i doubt it even works. Yeah, I myself consider cycling as one of the best way to get a great physical activity (and a great leg muscles too, bub). So everyone should do a little cycling (Robin Williams did that regularly, yes the guy who made the Good Will Hunting, can you believe that). And yes, there are several peoples in this world (yes, like Lance Armstrong) have made a great career out of just cycling. Here goes a useful post if you want some motivation to ride your bike in a tiresome day. you can get some awesome views.

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