Stevens Creek Trail has turned into a wildly popular travel route for Mountain View residents, serving as both a recreational hub and a commute path to and from the jobs-heavy North Bayshore area. On any given day, hundreds of people -- on bikes and on foot -- pour through each trail head during the peak commute hours.
But with the increased usage, frequent trail users are questioning whether a 15 mile-per-hour speed limit is the best way to keep the mixed-use trail safe for both bicyclists and pedestrians. Some residents claim bicyclists are out of control, zipping around blind turns at high speeds, while others say the speed limit feels excruciatingly slow.
The speed limit was imposed in 2015, when the Mountain View City Council approved a pilot program allowing electric bikes, electric scooters -- eventually electric skateboards -- on both the Stevens Creek and Permanente Creek trails, encouraging their use as an alternative to driving on city streets. The pilot program ended last year, and both the city's Parks and Recreation Commission and the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee recommended making the pilot a permanent ordinance. City Council voted unanimously in December to approve the recommendations.
Council members also agreed to a speed limit on both trails of 15 miles per hour, with an emphasis on education rather than enforcement, to get trail users to adhere to the new rule. Since then, 100 speed limit signs have been added along the trail, along with 60 "etiquette" signs reminding trail users to yield to pedestrians, reduce speed around turns and to announce themselves when passing on the left.
Committee members and public speakers more or less agreed that electric bikes -- and the very occasional electric scooter -- should continue to be allowed on the city's major trails. Electric skateboards were only allowed on the trail as of Dec. 1, 2016, and still remain in a trial period. The major sticking point at both committee meetings, however, was the speed limit imposed on trail users.
"I'm pretty much tired of being forced to be a lawbreaker with this ridiculously low, 15 mile-per-hour speed limit," said resident David O'Brien at a Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee in October. The speed limit does nothing to improve safety on the trails, O'Brien said, and a speed limit closer to 18 or 19 miles per hour would be more appropriate. Stronger enforcement of the existing speed limit, he said, would only reduce trail usage.
"If we do get strong enforcement ... it will lead to a great decrease in commuters" O'Brien said. "The first time I get a $250 speeding ticket I will never get on that trail again."
On the other side, Sunnyvale resident Don Myrah told Parks and Recreation Committee members earlier that month that speeding is a big problem on the city's trails, and that the city hasn't done nearly enough to control the problem. He said he recently recalled seeing three head-on collisions on Stevens Creek, including one incident on the Highway 101 underpass where a bicyclist moving close to 25 miles per hour struck a senior citizen, who was later taken away by an ambulance.
"Nothing is really being done out there," Myrah said. "Putting up a sign isn't going to do it, and it isn't going to slow people down."
City data shows that traffic on Stevens Creek Trail has increased by a staggering 96 percent from 2012 to 2016 during morning and evening commute hours, with about a three-to-one ratio of bikes to pedestrians using the trail during the peak hours. Trying to share the trail when it's so busy can be a challenge when everyone is moving at different speeds, said Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee member Greg Unangst.
"If you have two bicycles passing each other and there's a couple pedestrians there, yeah, there's going to be some issues," he said. "There's just not quite enough room."
Some speakers at the Parks and Recreation Committee meeting advocated for a variance in speed limits, with lower speed limits around sharp turns and blind spots on the southern end of the trail and higher speed limits on the northern end, where bicyclists have close to a half mile of visibility. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Safe Mountain View, told committee members that the speed limit is fine, and suggested the problem stems from bicyclists simply not knowing how fast they are going. He suggested that the trail include signage and marks that allow bicyclists to gauge their own speed without the use of a digital device.
Other agencies in the Bay Area seem to agree that a flat 15 miles per hour limit across the entire trail system is the way to go. Santa Clara County's parks have the same maximum speed for all trail users, whether on bikes, horses or on foot, said Greg Bringelson, the county's park program coordinator roads and trails. Similar to Mountain View, Bringelson said speed enforcement is used sparingly, and more as a tool for education rather than enforcement.
"I think once people realize that when an enforcement tool is out there, they tend to slow down," he said.
County trails, though used primarily for recreation rather than commuting, have seen a similar explosion in usage in recent years. Preliminary trail count data for this year has been "mind blowing," Bringelson said, with thousands of people heading through some trail heads over the course of a week.
Jeral Poskey, a Shoreline West resident and Google's transportation planning program manager, said it may come down to a change in attitude on the trail. Particularly with electric-assisted bikes, he said it's tempting for commuters to try and go as fast as possible rather than taking travel at a slower pace.
"I think a lot of people who are used to saying 'I'm going to set my personal best, and this is my race track' are just going to need that attitude adjustment," he said. "I think occasionally there has to be that heavy-handed enforcement because some people get it, and some don't."