Running a marathon in Palo Alto is an exhausting and exhilarating trial, with wild rabbits, disinterested horses, manic squirrels and the occasional heron or coyote offering welcoming distractions from steep hills and concrete lanes.
After meandering through the trails of Foothills Park, running up the new Matadero Creek trail, dashing past the Dish and proceeding up the Stanford Avenue trail, along El Camino Real, across the Caltrain tracks and toward the flat, marshy trails of the Baylands, a runner can easily forget that the scenic, leafy city is, to the wider world, largely synonymous with smart phones and silicon chips.
The marathon is a scenic course, with a slight flaw. Much like Plato's cave or Turing's machine, it only exists in theory. Unlike Berkeley or Half Moon Bay, Palo Alto doesn't have a flagship distance race. The city may be in the midst of turning itself into a bicycling mecca -- an effort that continues to accelerate thanks to a new master plan, numerous county and regional grants, unanimous City Council support and a vocal bike lobby -- but it hasn't been nearly as active toward promoting projects to support those whose favorite vehicle is their own two feet.
Not to worry. Life is about to get more exciting for Palo Alto's trail warriors. The city's already giant menu of scenic running options is expected to grow in the coming years as the council moves ahead with its ambitious Bicycle + Pedestrian Transportation Plan. Simultaneously, the city and Stanford University are moving ahead with a joint effort to build a network of perimeter trails around the Stanford Dish and along El Camino Real.
The Bicycle + Pedestrian Master Plan has ambitions well beyond narrow green lanes, "sharrow" markers and "bike boulevards" where stop signs are largely limited to cross streets. Though bikes are the main focus, the projects will have the barely intended consequence of creating scenic new running routes. Some of its objectives -- including creating a network of paths to "promote healthy active living" and maintaining "complete streets" accessible to all modes apply equally well to both physical activities. And Stanford's trail proposal includes "multi-use trails" that are geared toward bikers, runners and walkers alike, according to the university's grant proposal.
With that in mind, here are a few local projects that should boost a runner's high in the coming years.
BAYLANDS BRIDGE: No project in Palo Alto has as much support or momentum as the proposed bike bridge between South Palo Alto and the Baylands. A cornerstone of the city's bike plan, the $10-million structure would span Highway 101 at Adobe Creek and replace an existing underpass that is typically closed for about six months a year. It has unanimous support from the council, the enthusiastic backing of the city's bike advocates and more than $8 million in county and regional grants.
This will, of course, be a boon to runners in the southern half of the city, who currently rely on the far less safe San Antonio Road overpass whenever the Adobe Creek underpass is closed. According to the Bicycle + Pedestrian plan, an estimated 100,000 bicyclists and pedestrians would use the bridge each year, a figure that is expected to rise "as adjacent bicycle connections improve and area land uses adapt." The new structure would encourage more runners to cross over to the marshy nature preserve and enjoy its 15 miles of trails.
Last June, just after the council voted to launch a contest for the design of the new bike bridge, Councilwoman Gail Price proclaimed that she's "never been happier with a vote in my entire life." Her colleagues were also stoked. Liz Kniss called Palo Alto an "elegant city" and said the bridge should reflect this. It would be nice, she said at the June discussion, if Palo Alto was known for more than its high-tech prowess. It should also be known as "the city with a beautiful pedestrian bridge." With the funds mostly in place and design work apace, residents who enjoy running past birds and marshland critters have plenty of reasons for optimism once the new gateway to the Baylands opens.
STANFORD PERIMETER TRAIL: Stanford University has been on a trail-building tear in recent years, with the latest milestone in 2012, when university officials unveiled a new 1.3-mile Matadero Creek trail along Page Mill Road, between Junipero Serra Boulevard and Arastradero Road. Part asphalt and part dirt, the multi-use trail near the Dish offers runners a brief but beautiful route, with horses and rabbits making the occasional cameo.
The trail was built as part of Stanford's agreement in 2000 with Santa Clara County over development rights on campus. Also, as part of that agreement, Stanford pledged to build a new trail along Alpine Road, a proposal that San Mateo County officials later rebuffed.
San Mateo County's loss may soon be Palo Alto's gain, with runners reaping major rewards. With the Alpine Road project rejected, Stanford contributed $10.4 million in funds to the county to be used for recreational projects benefiting the community. Two years ago, the county returned $4 million to Stanford in the form of a grant to build a "Stanford Perimeter Trail," a paved, multi-use pathway along Junipero Serra between Old Page Mill Road and Stanford Avenue; on Stanford between Junipero and El Camino Real; and on El Camino between Stanford and Quarry Road.
The perimeter will, among other things, fill in the missing piece in the existing Stanford Avenue pedestrian trail between El Camino and Junipero Serra, a trail that now stops abruptly at Raimundo Way but that will now be extended to the Dish. The project will also include a widened sidewalk on various segments of Stanford Avenue; a new 12-foot-wide trail segment connecting the Matadero Creek trail with the entrance to the Dish; and new buffers between cars and pedestrians all over the trail network. For runners both in Stanford and in Palo Alto, this is good news.
MATADERO CREEK: While Stanford's new Matadero Creek trail keeps a low profile on the periphery of Page Mill Road, Palo Alto's proposed trail of the same name would cut right through the middle of the city. For this reason, it has already attracted some concern and opposition from residents whose yards the new trail would run through. City planners and bicyclists, meanwhile, see the new trail as a much-needed panacea to Palo Alto's insufficient east-west connections.
The trail would follow the creek's existing levees and access roads and stretch between the Caltrain tracks and the entrance to the Baylands near U.S. Highway 101. On March 17, the council unanimously approved a contract for a feasibility study to consider "community-preferred alignments" for the Midtown trail and across-the-barrier connections at both ends of the trail.
The trail is included in the city's bike master plan and has already received $1.5 million in grant funding from Santa Clara County.
SIDEWALKS: Wider sidewalks mean more room to run, a welcome thought for runners who frequent California Avenue, live near El Camino Real or prefer roads to trails. Palo Alto last month broke ground on the long-planned renovation of the eclectic and centrally located business district, an effort that would transform the city's second downtown into a "complete street" that is as welcoming to bicyclists and pedestrians as it is to cars. The project includes more landscaping, new plazas, enhanced crosswalks and fewer driving lanes.
Other streets may follow suit. The council is scheduled to consider later this month a new "area concept plan" for the locality around California Avenue. One of its many recommendations is to make life safer for pedestrians and bicyclists on Park Boulevard, which has seen a recent growth in high-tech startups. The plan includes as one of its policies: "Enhance the pedestrian environment along Park Boulevard with such improvements as wider sidewalks, re-striped crosswalks, or additional pedestrian amenities."
In the longer term, Palo Alto is hoping to widen sidewalks on El Camino Real by adopting zoning rules requiring new developments on the car-heavy thoroughfare to accommodate sidewalk widths of at least 12 feet, with an average building setback at 15 to 18 feet. At recent public hearings, the proposal has been criticized by El Camino property owners concerned about new restrictions on redevelopment. The main beneficiaries, meanwhile, would be pedestrians, which includes runners. Even if El Camino never lives up to the "grand boulevard" vision of local and regional authorities, the King's Highway could become a useful conduit for runners heading toward Stanford Avenue, the university campus or the trail network near Page Mill Road.