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By Douglas Moran

El Camino/Page Mill intersection needs more pedestrians?

Uploaded: Apr 8, 2015

The intersection of El Camino and Page Mill is one of the most congested in the city, but no improvements are expected in the foreseeable future.(foot#1) Those familiar with this intersection likely have seen the substantial impacts of even a few pedestrians.(foot#2)

I attended a talk Tuesday on Tactical Urbanism?"faster, cheaper, better ways of prototyping small community driven projects that are effective and delightful ways that improve streets and neighborhoods"?sponsored by the advocacy group Palo Alto Forward. After the talk, there were five break-out groups. I was assigned to the one addressing this intersection (#5). Our task, as provided by PA Forward:
"Design Problem/Goal: Could this intersection be a more social place and be recognized as the geographic center of the city?"
with the first "Metric for Success" being
"More people than cars at noon."
One of the major suggestions was to put a cafe on the southeast corner, in parking lot of Palo Alto Square, to encourage children to cross over from the playing fields, which are on the southwest corner (satellite view). Remember, the whole idea was changes that could implemented quickly and cheaply. Except for me, the group ranged from dismissive to hostile to having the intersection efficiently serve vehicles. Two members of the City's Planning Department, in unofficial roles, actively participated in this group, often taking the lead.

Another group, #1, was tasked with the "problem" of pedestrians being barred from crossing at every position of a few exceptional intersections:
"Design Problem/Goal: Signs to direct people to cross at one side of busy intersections are hostile and inconvenient."
Two examples were cited, with one being in my neighborhood on the northeast corner where El Camino is intersected by Wilton, which is a quiet residential street. This section of El Camino has multiple "messy" intersections because the streets on the north side don't line up with those on the south side
? satellite view
? street view, toward Page Mill: The "hostile" sign with the graphic for "No pedestrian crossing" isn't itself visible here. It is mounted the other side of the low support in front of the door for 3703.
? street view, toward Mountain View: showing the tangle of turn lanes.
In that satellite view you will notice two nearby crosswalks: one less than 80 feet northwest (toward Page Mill, visible in both street views above) and one less than 120 feet south. Recognize that neither of these crosswalks requires the slightest actual detour, unless the pedestrian is going to that one building directly across the street (cleaners, Marine Corps recruiting, 2 salons). But crossing at that spot would be highly dangerous.

Was deciding that this situation needed to be eliminated a triumph of ideology and orthodoxy over safety? Or is it an example of a group of Palo Altans who feel the need to be protected from even an erroneous perception that they are being asked to walk but a few more feet in order to avoid worsening traffic for tens of thousands?

Palo Alto purports to have a policy of creating "Complete Streets", that is, ones "designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities." My experience from workshops and other City Hall processes is that the process is better described as "Conspicuous Consumption", with the various special interest and advocacy groups trying to grab disproportionate and unwarranted shares of scarce resources, and some seemingly intent on depriving others of their fair share (out of a sense of moral superiority). This talk and sessions were but another example of why these issues are so contentious.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Congestion at El Camino/Page Mill: Improvements being considered for the intersections on Foothill Expressway at Arastradero and Page Mill and widening of Page Mill between El Camino between El Camino and Foothill might provide some reduction of congestion at ECR/PM as a side-effect. See County Looks to Revamp Palo Alto's Expressways, Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-04-03.

2. Effect of pedestrians: On north-bound El Camino there is no right-turn lane?there was supposed to be, but City Hall "forgot". I have seen a single pedestrian crossing Page Mill reduce the throughput of the right lane in half?a car turning right will block all the cars behind it that are going straight through. Three pedestrians spread out can reduce the throughput of the right lane to 2-3 cars during a light cycle. During the Caltrans/El Camino Design Study in the early 2000s, I stood on the corner counting vehicles during evening peak hours. Cut-through traffic on Olive and Pepper (residential streets) was essential to the functioning of the intersection, with Olive and Pepper often each handling roughly the same number of vehicles as the intended lane on El Camino.
On south-bound El Camino, there is a right-turn lane, but the volume of right turning traffic often exceeds its holding capacity, so pedestrians can cause it to back up enough to impede the right-most through lane.
I have not observed the throughput of the southbound left-turn lane being impacted by pedestrians on the far side: Vehicles use the intersection itself as a holding area while pedestrians cross, and any delays are indistinguishable from the routine running of the red light (which seems to play a role in keeping the intersection functioning).

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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