Wondering why a plan for a bike boulevard doesn't contain any data about bike trips, the Palo Alto Planning Commission kicked back a proposal from city staff on Wednesday night.
The lack of data related to actual bike trips throughout the city cast doubt among some commissioners about where a bike network should go.
Commissioners split 3-3 on the proposed Matadero Avenue-Margarita Avenue Bicycle Boulevard plan, suggesting instead that city staff return with hard data so they could make an informed decision.
Alex Panelli, Eduardo Martinez and Mark Michael voted against the proposal, and Arthur Keller, Michael Alcheck and Carl King voted in favor. Greg Tanaka was absent.
Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez sought a recommendation from the commission to the City Council for a multistage project to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. The bike boulevard would run from Park Boulevard down Margarita Avenue, across El Camino Real and up Matadero to connect with the Bol Park path.
The proposal is part of a network to increase bike connectivity across town to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent over the next seven years.
But Rodriguez said the proposal is not based on any real bicycle data and that no strong data exists regarding bicycle volumes throughout the city.
"We do have a pretty good handle on how many bicyclists are at the schools because we can count them on an annual basis. We are really lacking good tools to help us capture ongoing bicycle and pedestrian data the same way we do for vehicles.
"That's one of our biggest challenges, specifically with our Safe Routes to School program. And so, short of having someone sit on a roadway for 24 hours a day for seven days a week, it's almost impossible to get that data. We're starting to develop those tools," he said.
That revelation concerned some of the commissioners, who questioned how one can design a bicycle network -- and know where and if there is a need -- without a clear understanding of bicycle movements and projected future volumes.
Some commissioners voiced concern that absent hard data, the Matadero bike boulevard might serve a few but inconvenience many.
"I'm disappointed with this presentation. To say it is difficult to get the numbers just doesn't cut it. I want to know the number of bikers coming through these places. Will it result in increases?" Panelli said.
"If you can't get the numbers, figure out a way to estimate the numbers -- the number of bikers that are currently going across these different places. And if you don't have the numbers or don't have a good way of getting the numbers, come up with an estimate and tell us how you did it," he said.
Staff also did not present other alternatives to the bike boulevard, he noted. Panelli was not convinced Matadero is the best place for the arrangement. He wants to see a list of alternatives, he said.
"Building a network just for the sake of connectivity I think is a really poor use of resources because it's effectively guesswork.
"To cite an example, look at the light rail system in L.A. Really expensive. They spent a lot of time on it and nobody rides it. I don't want to see a situation where we build something and nobody uses it -- they just keep using the same streets they're already using," he said.
"There is an absence of essential data that should've come here tonight ... I'm not entirely convinced that it's going to be safe, and I think that the expectation that this is actually a formal bike boulevard is going to create an illusion of safety that is probably unwarranted," Michael said.
Matadero "is manifestly not a bike lane," and had "potentially incredibly unsafe conditions," he added.
Rodriguez said that community input over 1 1/2 years created the 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan, which defines routes people want.
The bicycle boulevard is also included in the Safe Routes to Schools program, Rodriguez said.
Keller supported the proposal. The crossing from El Camino to Matadero, is "a very useful connection," he said.
"This is the best way to cross El Camino Real. It is essentially the only way to do it," he said, considering Barron and Los Robles avenues.
"It's not only an issue of bike boulevards as where you want people to go. It's also an issue that we're increasing way-finding. We're making it easier for people to get around the city, and even if people wanted to go that way and they don't know the way, they might get lost. Having clear bike paths with signage in and of itself is a useful thing," he said.
The Matadero boulevard would be designed to double the rate of bicycling to 15 percent for local and 5 percent for work commutes by 2020. Staff held meetings that incorporated public input in May 2012 and September 2013. Rodriguez had hoped to begin the traffic-calming portion by this winter.
But the commission asked staff to return with the bicycle-traffic data and possible alternatives at a future, unspecified date.