MEET MICHAEL JONES. Starting in 1996, from a converted summer cabin on Creek Road in Fairfax, he built Alta Planning + Design into the largest bicycle and pedestrian transportation planning company in the world. It now has over 200 employees working in 35 offices in places like Seattle, Portland, St. Louis, Boston, and Singapore.
This passion has taken him around the world. Stateside, he’s managed bicycling and pedestrian master plans in Nevada, Minnesota, Hawaii, and Tennessee, among other states. Internationally, Jones has overseen projects in Dubai, Qatar, Mexico, Singapore and Guangzhou, China. Closer to home, his fingerprints are on such projects as the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, the Napa Valley Vine Trail, and the East Bay’s Ohlone Greenway.
Here in Marin, important projects he’s been involved with, recently completed or has in the planning process include improved bike and pedestrian access to SMART stations, a bike-and-pedestrian-friendly Miller Avenue in Mill Valley, an extension of the Samuel P. Taylor bike path to Point Reyes Station, bikeway improvements between Fairfax and San Rafael and a Safe Routes to School segment in San Anselmo.
Jones is a third-generation Marinite: his grandfather moved to Fairfax in the 1920s. He grew up in San Rafael’s Bayside Acres neighborhood, graduated from San Rafael High School in 1973, and received his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in planning from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1988. Now 62, he has two grown daughters and lives in Tiburon with Anne, his wife of 30 years.
A recent Time magazine article titled “The Trouble with Sharing” claims that China’s bike-sharing companies are changing the world. What do you know about bike sharing? And is that headline hyperbole or an accurate assessment? I know more than a little about bike sharing. In 2010 I started Alta Bicycle Share, which by 2014 was the largest bike-share company outside China, with over 15,000 bikes in operation in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities. It was an adventure — and a headache. In regard to Chinese companies such as Ofo and Mobike, they have dramatically changed the game by introducing dockless bike share — bikes that can be parked anywhere and have their own computer on board that can unlock or lock the bike, allowing it to be rented with a smartphone. Their service is usually free to cities and very low cost to the public. These business models may be unsustainable, however, and recently Ofo has been withdrawing from some cities. Dockless systems have greatly reduced the cost of bike share, which expands bikes’ availability but has perhaps made them less dependable and manageable. So I think the answer to the question lies somewhat south of accurate assessment.
Compared to other industrialized nations, is the U.S. keeping pace when it comes to using bicycles as a means of transportation? It’s difficult to compare the U.S. to other countries in regard to bicycling because of the different histories, governments, land-use densities, and other factors. We are still far behind some countries like the Netherlands, but cycling has increased in the U.S. and in Marin.
Why do you think bike use has increased in Marin? Marin has many of the attributes that make walking and bicycling enjoyable — great weather, small towns close to each other, an environmental orientation, and a population that is interested in active lifestyles. You would think our bicycle and walking rates would be even higher, but we also have a lot of older, narrow roads and streets with heavy traffic volumes. And we have many steep hills; then there’s Highway 101, which splits our communities in two. Trying to make safety improvements in such conditions is extremely challenging. It could be discouraging, except that looking back we have a history of visionary investments such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Civic Center, the ferry system and now SMART. We’ve been at the start of mountain biking and Safe Routes to School. We are also blessed to have the remnants of the old railroads in Marin that have left us corridors converted to pathways starting back in the 1960s. I hiked these abandoned lines on a daily basis when I was younger, working at Morgan Railcar next to the Hutchinson Quarry in Greenbrae, which some people may remember.
In Marin, we’ve been hearing for some time about a greenway that will enable a bicyclist to pedal from Novato to the Golden Gate Bridge (and back) without having to deal with automobile traffic. How is that going? Marin’s North-South Greenway is a bold vision led by supporters such as Patrick Seidler (Transportation Alternatives for Marin), Marin Bicycle Coalition founder Chris Lang, the late Deb Hubsmith (Marin County Bicycle Coalition), bike builder Joe Breeze, the late Supervisor Charles McGlashan, former Supervisor Steve Kinsey and county staff such as Dan Dawson, Bill Whitney, Craig Tackabery and many others. Credit also goes to active members of the public, local organizations such as the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, local elected officials and the county’s staff. New segments such as the Cal Park Tunnel and East Sir Francis Drake Bike Bridge see a steady stream of bicyclists and walkers. And a new North-South Greenway link currently under design will go over Corte Madera Creek to connect with the Larkspur Bike Path, which will close a major gap. Once it’s completed, many Marinites will have a safe way to get to work, school, transit, ferries or shopping or simply have a place to exercise separated from busy roadways.
How about the bike and pedestrian pathway that was promised to run alongside the SMART train’s rail line from Santa Rosa to Larkspur? What is its progress in Marin? That is slowly being designed and constructed. People can see a segment under construction now between Second Street and the Andersen Drive/Cal Park Tunnel stretch in San Rafael. Another new segment was constructed in Terra Linda recently. The remainder requires funding, which is actively being sought by local agencies.
Cal Park Tunnel? Camino Alto Tunnel? Bike sharing in Marin? Electric bikes? What are your thoughts on these and other bike-related topics? The future of transportation is very exciting in Marin County. Our local funding agency, Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM), has been tremendously effective in using our sales tax measure and state and federal funding to plan, design, and implement projects and programs such as Cal Park Tunnel and our Safe Routes to School program. The partially collapsed old Alto railroad tunnel between Mill Valley and Corte Madera — a direct and level connection — was studied and found to cost over $20 million to rehab. So that’s a rather distant dream. As for bike sharing? It looks like it is coming to Marin County, with the type (dock-based or dockless) to be decided soon. Given that bicycle and pedestrian safety are directly related to the car traffic that shares the roadways, TAM’s sales tax proposals to relieve traffic congestion on Highway 101 and local roads will also help bicycle and pedestrian safety. The same can be said of fixing potholes on our local roads, expanding the successful Safe Routes to School program, providing school buses and continuing to pay for crossing guards. The success of Marin’s Safe Routes to School program cannot be overstated. It has helped get our children back to walking or biking the few blocks to their school, helped relieve neighborhood congestion and overall has improved safety for everyone. Looking further in the future, Alta Planning + Design is working in the “smart mobility” world, which includes “micro-mobility” options such as electric bikes and scooters, autonomous vehicles, smart bike parking pods, and the integration of bike share with car share. The world of transportation is rapidly changing.
Any special memories from your career? I’ve had a lot of good fortune and the support of people at critical times — like any growing business needs. At the same time, and I shouldn’t say this to my clients, but I love what I do so much I’d probably do it for free. I’ve hiked and biked in some of the most beautiful places in the world and had quite a few adventures — including working on a trail at 5,000 feet on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. There was a time when I was doing fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro, and armed guards accompanied us and had to radio ahead to drug lords for permission to enter their area. I recollect having to give a television interview in León, Mexico, about a major project we were working on, and watching the increasingly perplexed looks on the faces of my colleagues as I tried to describe our project using my 10 words of Spanish. And recently I had the pleasure of cycling in the Netherlands on an educational tour with a Romanian delegation that included the Prince of Romania. He went from royalty to beer-drinking buddy in about 24 hours. It’s been a fun ride.