Marin County is often called the birthplace of mountain biking — it's a mecca of sorts that draws cyclists from all over.
But right outside the town of Fairfax is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in all of Marin. With its hills, twists, turns and narrow shoulders, the section of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard saw the most crashes in the county in the last five years, according to data from The Bay Citizen’s recently expanded Bike Accident Tracker.
Overall, Marin has become more bike-friendly over the past decade, with the number of bike commuters — and bike lanes — skyrocketing, thanks in part to a $25 million federal investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Cycling has increased by about 120 percent, according to a county study, and the mileage of bikeways has doubled. The roads are also less fatal to bikers than those in other counties. Just one biking fatality was recorded in Marin between 2005 and 2010, a tie for the lowest total in the Bay Area during that time.
Still, bike crashes have climbed in Marin. From 2005 to 2009, there were 679 bike crashes in total. Accidents dipped from 137 in 2005 to 112 in 2007, but then rose back up to 147 in 2009.
One of the contributing factors is sections of road like Sir Francis Drake Boulevard near Baywood Canyon Road outside Fairfax, where 10 crashes were reported to the California Highway Patrol from 2005 through 2009.
(Local jurisdictions are required to report to the CHP every bike crash for which local police file a report. The Bike Accident Tracker is based on these statistics. Crashes are mapped to the nearest intersection.)
According to the Marin County Biking Coalition's advocacy and outreach coordinator, Andy Peri, this area is accident-prone because of a combination of high-speed traffic and narrow roads.
“If that road were a new road it never would never be approved today," Peri said, "but because it was an existing road that’s been there forever, and a housing development went in there, it continues to be an intersection that’s problematic.”
Peri said the road could be improved by repaving for better traction and encouraging cyclists to slow down. Six of the 10 crashes were caused by unsafe speed, according to the data.
The biking coalition is also working with the county to create a bike lane on the narrow uphill portion of the roadway. The project has funding through a federal grant, but no designs or construction permits yet, according to Assistant Director of Marin County Public Works Craig Tackabery.
He said in the "best case," the new bike lane would be completed during the summer of 2013.
Other accident hot spots in Marin include the intersections of Second Street with Main Street and with Richardson Street, both in Sausalito; Corte Madera Avenue and Chapman Drive in Corte Madera; and Diablo Avenue and George Street in Novato.
The two Sausalito hot spots are located one block from each other, near the city's popular waterfront walkway — and along the route that bicyclists take to and from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Tourists riding at a leisurely pace can make the area difficult for faster bikers to navigate, according to Marin cyclist and competitive mountain biker Sam Pannepacker.
“There’s usually a fair amount of tourists just taking their time, going slowly, and you’re trying to get from point A to point B,” Pannepacker said. “Usually you have to try to maneuver around them, which requires veering into traffic. Then you also have to deal with pedestrians.”
Marin is one of four communities across the country that received $25 million from Congress from 2006 to 2010 as part of a pilot program aimed at getting people to bike and walk more.
The biking coalition has also been working for 13 years to improve access for bikers and has collaborated with the county to create multiple bike paths. Last December, the coalition celebrated the opening of the Cal Park tunnel, which connects Larkspur to San Rafael using a refurbished railroad pathway, speeding up the trip by 15 minutes.
But regardless of infrastructure improvements, Officer Chris Rardin of the CHP's Corte Madera office said reducing bike accidents depends on both drivers and cyclists slowing down and obeying the rules of the road.
“Any roadway, regardless of where you’re at, can be a dangerous roadway,” Rardin said.
This chart shows accident rates per bike commuter in Bay Area counties. Marin's actual accident rate is likely lower than shown here, because of the high number of recreational cyclists in the county. Click on column headers to sort: