500 Miles of Fun: the San Francisco Bay Trail

Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a trail all the way around the entire San Francisco Bay? Through all nine counties, 47 cities, across toll bridges, over hill and through dale? You might not know it, but there is. If you ride a bike in the Bay Area, chances are good that you’ve ridden on the San Francisco Bay Trail, a planned 500-mile bicycle and pedestrian path that’s been in the works since 1989. 350 miles are complete and in use today, iconic stretches along the Embarcadero, Golden Gate Bridge, Tiburon rail trail and the East Bay Shoreline, and lesser known windswept reaches bordering San Pablo Bay in Sonoma County. The ultimate goal is a shared, 12-to-20’ wide paved trail adjacent to the shoreline—the “Bay” in Bay Trail. 

The Bay Trail caters to the broadest possible range of wheeled conveyances. On any given day you’ll find tykes on trikes, moms on cruisers with a gaggle in tow, commuters hustling to the office, and MAMILs on $8K+ road bikes dodging all of the above in addition to strollers, dog-walkers, birders, joggers and that annoying pack of peeps who walk five-abreast across the trail. 

As one of three full-time planners dedicated to the effort from 2004 through 2021, these were some of the most common questions: 

Q: When will it be done?

A: Good question. Our most common response, and the most accurate, was that the “low-hanging fruit has been picked.” Of the approximately 150-miles of gaps that remain, most are in constrained or sensitive environments, or have astronomical price tags. Or both. The West Span of the Bay Bridge clocks in at an estimated $400 million. The 13 remaining miles of trail alongside Highway 37 in the North Bay with its epic traffic jams surrounded by sensitive wetlands and rising seas neatly checks all of the “difficult” boxes—sensitive habitat, climate change, jaw-dropping price tag. 

Q: “Wow, so you just, like, walk on the trail all day? For your job??”

A: No, I sit in front of a computer, just like you. A trail planner’s job is not as sexy as it sounds (though to be sure, we got out on the trail more than a corporate lawyer or a software engineer). As planners we worked with the cities, towns, counties and park districts the trail passed through, ensuring and advocating for its completion. Planners went to City Council meetings til 11:00 p.m., read and commented on drool-inducing environmental impact reports (EIRs), and wrangled the additional foot, sometimes six-inches of trail width out of a reluctant developer or Caltrans engineer. 

Image: David Hoffman

Q: Has anyone ridden or walked the whole thing?

A: Yes! More and more folks are circumnavigating the entire trail, getting creative where gaps exist (Hwy 37, the West Span, Napa County airport…). With the completion of the Bay Trail on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in 2019, cyclists in particular have taken advantage of the new routes offered by this historic connection between Marin and Contra Costa Counties, many of them circumnavigators. Most  tackle the elephant one bite at a time, checking off segments over a year, a handful of months. A few hearty and intrepid souls have ridden it continuously over a matter of days, couch-surfing, or credit-card camping. 

Q: Are e-bikes allowed on the Bay Trail?

A: Yes, mostly. The San Francisco Bay Trail is a project of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) whose role is to collaborate, coordinate, advocate for the completion of the trail. As such, the Bay Trail does not own or operate any of the trail segments. Each piece of trail is subject to the rules and regulations of the respective jurisdiction. So while this writer is not currently aware of any prohibitions to the use of e-bikes on the Bay Trail, this is a constantly changing environment and a very hot topic. As you are likely aware. 

And here’s one of my all-time favorites:

Q: Where does it start?  

A: Ummm, it’s a loop … I always tried to keep the sarcastic “Really?” off my face when asked this question….

The San Francisco Bay Trail is an invaluable contribution to each and every community graced by its presence. I invite you to think about that segment near you, the one you likely ride weekly if not more, and then think about its absence. Yuck, right? Conversely, consider the smaller gaps whose completion would be transformational—Highway 37 and the West Span of the Bay Bridge are “Uber Gaps”—but there are many small-but-mighty gaps—some only hundreds of feet long—whose closure could lead to the existence of mile upon mile of continuous trail connecting neighborhoods, schools, jobs, parks and the region’s largest open space—the San Francisco Bay itself. 

But I didn’t really answer the question “when will it be done.” Political will and an active, engaged citizenry will be required to complete the remaining segments. And the money will come from a patchwork of sources—local, state, federal, private, foundation, bridge toll, bonds, special districts, grants, etc. So if you want to circumnavigate the entire 500 miles in your lifetime, write your local, state, and federal elected officials, vote for park bonds, and speak at your city council/county board of supervisors. 500 miles, 47 cities, 9 counties, 1 trail. Let’s bring it home. 


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