RICHMOND -- A small but growing band of residents who want more roadways turned into bicycle paths is gaining momentum in this automobile-dominated city that is home to the Bay Area's largest oil refinery.
The city's busiest vehicle thoroughfares are shrinking as broad lanes are cut down or cut out in favor of widened sidewalks and freshly painted bike paths, leaving some motorists and city leaders dismayed at the narrowing streets and slowed traffic. More than $550,000 in public dollars have been spent doubling the city's bike lanes since 2005, and the 12 miles of bike lanes in use are scheduled to nearly double again by 2016.
Bike proponents hail the transformation as a cultural and physical sea change in a city long defined by petroleum production, high crime and urban blight.
"There could be something other than (new) urban farming and the Chevron (refinery) fire that puts us on the map," said Najari Smith, owner of Rich City Rides, a bicyclist-advocacy organization that has cropped up in the city. "My vision of Richmond is having it become the cycling epicenter of all of California, if not the nation."
But not everyone is so sanguine. Some say a small group of bicycle "zealots" are having an outsize impact on the city's infrastructure and giving short shrift to the vast majority of residents who commute by car.
"How come I can't park on the street anymore? How come the bus no longer pulls over to the curb?" said Richmond resident Don Gosney, who commutes by car.
Gosney said the biker agenda has been forced on residents, and traffic-jamming lane reductions can't easily be undone.
"Once it's a done deal, it is a done deal," he said.
Richmond has about 12 miles of bike lanes, with nine more planned before the end of 2016. Berkeley, a smaller city with a long-established reputation for bicycle-friendliness, has more than 15 miles of bike lanes, according to the city's Transportation Division.
According to the U.S. Census, about 200 people in Richmond commute to work by bicycle, a figure that bike proponents say is too low.
Councilman Nat Bates pointed to the relatively small numbers of cyclists in a city of 104,000 as evidence that it's not economically feasible to pour tax dollars into infrastructure projects to accommodate bicyclists.
"For the amount of money that we're spending to accommodate bikers' infrequent usage of the roadways, except for the weekend ... we could be spending this money on repairing streets," Bates said.
Bike proponents counter that street modifications will improve safety, lessen long-term street-maintenance costs, reduce traffic and emissions and encourage more people to leave their cars at home.
Smith points out that the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's proposed Richmond campus could bring a surge of people to Richmond and that the city will have to rely on bike infrastructure to accommodate this new population.
"Once that opens up, they're expecting about 10,000 new people in Richmond," Smith said. "And there's no plans for new motorist roadways. It's all going to be increased bicycle infrastructure."
Bicycle advocates say the city remains behind its neighbors in terms of basic needs such as bike shops and adequate bicycle lanes.
Doria Robinson, co-founder of Richmond Spokes -- the only bike shop in Richmond until it shut down and moved to Oakland in May -- said previous city engineering officials failed to understand how many Richmond residents actually ride bikes and that the city lacked organized advocacy.
In November 2011, the City Council adopted the Bicycle Master Plan and Pedestrian Plan. The plan provides the groundwork for how the city would gradually accommodate cyclists, promising that any new roads would include bike lanes.
The master plan also puts a selection of existing roads on a "road diet,"cutting down lanes to slow speeding traffic and making room for bikers and pedestrians.
Construction is well underway. New lanes run along 18th Street and Costa Avenue. Additional lanes are being installed on South 23rd Street, between Cutting Boulevard and Ohio Avenue, according to Richmond Engineering Department staff.
The Barrett Avenue Bike Lane Project will be completed within the next couple of months, essentially eliminating two of the four traffic lanes on one of the city's biggest boulevards and replacing them with bike paths.
The ongoing push for narrowing roadways rankles opponents such as Bates.
"This whole concept in terms of bikes is just shoved down people's throats without any planning and accommodation, and exclusionary of the people who are mostly affected," Bates said. "So it's obviously irritating some people, and other people think it's just great."
This article was produced by RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news service based in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of public dollars spent doubling the city's bike lanes and the estimated cost of the Bicycle Master Plan and Pedestrian Plan to cut down lanes and make more room for bikers and pedestrians.