On May 31, at a little after 8:15pm, Isidro Magana rode his bicycle onto the Bay Bridge. He was doing what thousands have done since the new bike path was opened from Oakland to Treasure Island.
It wasn’t a long ride for Magana. He stopped short of the end of the path and was back by 8:42. But he was in for a surprise: the gate that would let him leave the path was locked.
Furious, Magana was forced to climb over the gate with his bicycle—no small feat, given he’s had two knee surgeries and bicycles as a form of physical therapy.
According to posted hours, the path across the Bay, operated by Caltrans, is open until 9pm this time of year. Magana says a Caltrans employee pulled up behind him on a motorized vehicle during his westward trek and tried to persuade him to turn back, but when he said he had plenty of time to return before closing, “[the employee] said, ‘whatever you do, I really don’t care, just make sure you get back before 9 because I’m going to close at 9.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, no problem.’”
But the worker was gone when he got back, still 18 minutes before 9pm. “They locked it and left us inside. No one was there,” he said.
Magana took pictures of the inside of the locked gate next to a phone displaying the current time. It reads 8:48pm.
“It sounds scary to me,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “If this is true, that is an error, and something Caltrans needs to be held responsible for.”
Magana is apparently not be the only one who’s had this problem.
The bicycle and pedestrian path on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge finally opened for service seven days a week on May 2, but Caltrans’s lack of written procedures for its workers operating the path, inconsistent behavior, and improper signage has fostered confusion and created potentially unsafe conditions.
Since February, many pedestrians and bicyclists have been surprised to find the gate to the path either locked long before the posted closing time or left open well into the night, with seemingly no rhyme or reason.
Bob Haus, a Caltrans spokesperson, said he didn’t know about the incident with Magana, but he was aware of a separate complaint about another incident that took place the same night. He would not share further details. “I’m researching the inquiries. I’ll provide the answers as soon as they are available,” Haus said via email.
On April 7, in response to a California Public Records Act request, Caltrans admitted there were “no written procedures for the task of opening and closing the gate,” and that “communications regarding this operation are limited to verbal instructions to staff to safely close the path by the posted time and secure the access gate.”
At the time, responsibility of the path was being transitioned from the Construction to Maintenance departments. On May 12, Haus said in an email, “The official transition has not yet taken place, although Maintenance has been taking the responsibility for opening and closing the path,” but that there were still no written procedures. “Those will be in place once the transition has taken place.
“In the meantime, we are using procedures from the existing Maintenance manual,” Haus said, and later provided a link to the manual on the Caltrans website. “The information is in Volume I, Sections C, E, F, D, J & H.”
But those chapters have titles such as Vegetation Control; Drainage Facilities, Fences, and Roadside Appurtenances; Litter, Debris, and Graffiti; Landscaping; Maintenance Storm Water Management Program; Tunnels, Tubes, Ferries and Pumping Plants; and Drawbridge, Tunnel, Tube, and Ferry Operations.
The title of Chapter H, Bridges, would appear the most relevant, but it covers topics such as bridge maintenance and inspection procedures following an earthquake. The words “bicycle” or “path” do not appear anywhere in the chapter.
The opening of the Bay Bridge bicycle and pedestrian path was celebrated by bicyclists who had worked for years to complete the Bay Bridge Trail. Although some dreamed of a bike lane all the way to San Francisco, the idea of a protected bridge lane for riders to head to the mid-Bay island was a critical part of the new bridge design.
But the lane isn’t open all the time. It’s controlled by the Caltrans gate. And since shortly after the grand opening, there have been irregularities surrounding closing the gate.
In February, I saw Caltrans workers closing the gate at 4:30pm, an hour and a half before the winter month’s posted closing time of 6pm. The workers themselves appeared confused by their instructions to lock the gate early. One said he took pictures of the sign next to the gate with the posted hours to show his supervisors.
On other nights, just last month, the gate has been left open more than an hour past the posted closing time.
Operating hours are posted on large, bright-orange signs along the Bay Bridge Trail. Sometimes accompanying them are additional signs on a white background stating “CHP Begins Clearing Path 1½ Hours Before Gate Closure.” However, those less prominent signs are easily overlooked. Worse, they do not appear in every location where the hours are posted. They are noticeably missing from the hours posted next to the gate itself.
On the Oakland side of the trail, the closest warning is more than 2,000 feet—almost a half mile—from the gate, around a bend in the trail and out of sight. On the Treasure Island side, the warning does not appear at all.
The signs are confusing in another way: The California Highway Patrol does not appear to be involved in gate closure operations. After observing numerous gate closures over a period of months performed by Caltrans workers and supervisors, I have never observed CHP on-site.
“They are involved, although their staffing levels may vary from day to day,” Haus said, in an email.
But CHP disagrees. “It’s Caltrans that actually opens and closes it,” says Officer Kevin Bartlett, a CHP spokesperson. “If someone was hurt, or needed help, we would go out and help them. But in terms of opening, closing and maintaining, that’s a Caltrans function.”
Placement is not the only issue regarding signage. Signs positioned on the gate itself, so they face someone who may be locked inside, state “If gate is locked call (510) 286-6954.” (Magana says he was so angry when he found himself locked in, he didn’t notice the sign.)
But that phone number is answered by the Caltrans tow service, where staffers say they aren’t involved in the trail.
“We have nothing to do with the bike trail,” said an employee who answered the phone, although he knew of the sign. “We’ve been getting calls for a couple months now, at least.”
A tow department supervisor speculated that perhaps their number was listed because they are a 24-hour department. “I guess I should take a look at the signs if they’re going to be calling us,” he added.
“Some of the Tow Service staffers are new, and may not have been sufficiently briefed on their level of involvement with the path,” Haus said, in an email. “All staffers are now up to speed on that issue.”
But the supervisor does not appear to be a new staff person. Employees who answered the tow service phone number indicated the supervisor had been with Caltrans for many years.
Several pedestrians and bicyclists interviewed after the posted closing time wondered why the gate had to be shut at all.
Rudy Moncada, a bicyclist from Emeryville, said he came expecting the path to be open and pointed out the Golden Gate Bridge is open for bicycles (but not pedestrians) 24-hours a day.
Ginger Jui, communications director for Bike East Bay, says their organization has long been advocating for 24-hour access to the path, also citing the Golden Gate Bridge as an example. “We think 24/7 access is crucial for this path to be a practical option for people,” she said.
“The 24-hour issue is one we are currently addressing,” Haus said, in an email. “We would have to work with the CHP to resolve several issues before we could open the path around the clock.”
In the meantime, just sticking to the posted hours would clear up a lot of confusion.