Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 29, 2011

Palo Alto challenges Portland on biking excellence

Strategic plan proposes 'core network' of bicycle boulevards, new trails and bike lanes

by Gennady Sheyner

Spacious bike lanes, winding trails and a network of bicycle boulevards stretching to all corners of Palo Alto could soon become visible features of the city's landscape thanks to an aggressive push by local officials to make the city the nation's top bicycling hub.

The city's plan for overtaking Portland, Ore., San Francisco and other famously bike-friendly hubs is detailed in a new strategic plan, which the consulting firm Alta Planning + Design released Tuesday (July 26). The plan, almost a year in the making, proposes a "core network" of bike trails and boulevards connecting major thoroughfares and a link between the east-west Bay to Ridge Trail and the north-south Bay Trail in the Baylands.

The release of the new bike plan is the latest milestone in what City Manager James Keene and the City Council dubbed the "Year of the Bike" in Palo Alto. In May, the council began its meeting with a tour of the city's next bike boulevard, which stretches from Park Boulevard in the north to Wilkie Way in the south.

Though the plan gives Palo Alto's serious bikers something to cheer about, its main focus is on the casual cyclist. The plan particularly targets the 60 percent of commuters who are classified by planners as "interested but concerned" — a group whose members are open to biking but who tend to avoid major speedways like Foothill Expressway and traffic-heavy roads such as Alma Street. The other three groups, according to a theory developed in (where else?) Portland, are the "no way, no how" people who wouldn't get on a bike even in the safest of settings (they make up about 30 percent of commuters); the "strong and fearless" riders (1 percent) who are perfectly at ease swerving through traffic jams; and the "enthused and confident" set (9 percent), a group that was particularly well represented at Tuesday's meeting, when the master plan was unveiled.

The city's goal with the plan is to double the rate of bicycling for both local and work commutes by 2020 — to 15 percent and 5 percent, respectively, according to Alta consultant Casey Hildreth.

"The aspirations are to be at the higher echelon of communities really committed to bicycle and pedestrian planning," Hildreth said.

As such, Palo Alto officials want to overcome their Portland envy by becoming the nation's top biking city. They hope to see Palo Alto's status raised from the respectable "gold" level to the elite "platinum" level, as designated by the League of American Bicyclists.

City officials don't expect every commuter to make the switch to bicycles (their goal of raising the percentage of work commuters who use bicycles to 5 percent may not strike the average reader as particular ambitious). But they hope to see more residents rely on bikes for discretionary trips around town, whether to go to the grocery store or the library.

For this reason, the plan pays particular attention to bicycle and pedestrian connections around popular destinations such as schools and shopping areas, Hildreth said.

The plan is unlikely to be implemented in its entirety any time soon, but many of its components will start popping up around town in the coming months. This includes the city's newest "bicycle boulevard," which is scheduled to be completed along Park Boulevard, Castilleja Street and Wilkie Way as early as this fall, according to Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez. Future bike boulevards are planned for Moreno Avenue, Greer Road and Ross Road. These thoroughfares would also, under the plan, ultimately connect to trails in the Baylands and the Foothills, allowing bicyclists to traverse the city easily.

Not everyone has bought into Palo Alto's recent bicycling renaissance. The city's recent projects aimed at calming traffic and making life easier for bicyclists were met with skepticism and, in some cases, criticism from some residents and business owners (see main story). Some have argued that the new roads don't discourage drivers but rather enrage them and, in some cases, prompt them to detour onto residential side streets.

Rodriguez said many aspects of the bike plan would have little or no impact on drivers. The planned bike boulevard on Park already has most of the traffic-calming measures in place, and driving conditions are not expected to change. He also noted that the council and the community will have plenty of opportunity to decide which projects they want to take on.

"The bike plan is as aggressive in implementation as the community wants it to be and as the council wants it to be," Rodriguez told the Weekly in a recent interview. "For a future bike boulevard — like Ross Road, for example, which could be about five years away — we would go through a community outreach effort and see what types of traffic-calming measures the community will accept."

Bike boulevards typically include a series of traffic-calming methods as well as designated bicycle lanes and way-finding signs directing bicyclists to notable local destinations. The plan urges the city to proceed more aggressively with creating a "network" of boulevards to complement the existing one on Bryant Street.

The plan recommends branding the proposed network by installing way-finding signs and other low-cost improvements in the short term and proceeding with more significant improvements on a spot basis, as funding becomes available.

Funding, in fact, remains the largest obstacle in the city's quest to overtake Portland. The city's previous strategic bike plan, which the council adopted in 2003, also outlined a series of bike improvements, but its recommendations were never implemented because of a lack of funding and political commitment.

City officials are confident the new plan will get greater traction. The city is in the midst of reconstructing the busy El Camino Real and Stanford Avenue intersection, a project that aims to make the crossing safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. The council also approved funds last week for design work on the California Avenue streetscape project, which includes reducing driving lanes and improving bicycling amenities.

Palo Alto residents will have two months to comment on the draft plan. They can submit their comments at http://www.altaprojects.net/palo-alto .

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