Palo Alto's ambitious quest to become the nation's top biking city received a boost Wednesday night when the city's planning commission green-lighted the creation of a new bike boulevard on Matadero Avenue.
The new bike route, which will east-to-west along Matadero and Margarita avenues, would be part of a greater network of existing and planned bike routes, including ones on Park Bouleverd and Maybell Avenue. The Planning and Transportation voted 5-0, with Eduardo Martinez absent, to recommend the creation of the new boulevard, which is listed as a priority project in the Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan the city adopted in 2012.
If the City Council goes along with the recommendation, construction of the new bike boulevard would begin this summer and will include five new speed humps along Matadero, between Laguna Avenue and Whitsell Avenue; a new speed table at the intersection of Matadero and Tippawingo Street and will also function as a raised crosswalk table for pedestrians; and berms on Josina Avenue that will create walking space for pedestrians.
"The consistent message of every bicycle project we've worked on is that bicycle projects are not just about bicycles, they're equally important toward pedestrians," Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez told the commission. "We made a strong effort with Matadero-Margarita to provide equal weight to pedestrian opportunities."
Future improvements include "bike boulevard" signage at every intersection, roadway markings and crosswalk improvements at the Bol Park path and the Tippawingo Street-Josina Avenue intersections, according to a report from Rodriguez.
The Wednesday hearing was the planning commission's second discussion of the proposed bike boulevard. In November, commissioners split 3-3 on the project, with several members criticizing staff for a lack of data to support the project. At that time, Commissioner Alex Panelli (who has since resigned from the commission) characterized staff's failure to come up with bike-ridership numbers and criticized the staff proposal as "effectively guesswork." His colleague, Mark Michael, agreed and warned that creating a bike boulevard on Matadero could "create an illusion of safety that is probably unwarranted."
Since then, staff has been gathering data to satisfy these concerns. In December, officials set up video cameras at four locations along Matadero and Margarita and determined that bicycle and pedestrian use is as high as 10 percent of vehicle volumes. Videos also showed cars moving at speeds greater than 30 mph near the west end of Matadero, a problem that members of the community have complained about.
Rodriguez said the research also showed about 800 bicyclists and pedestrians using the Bol Park path, confirming the city's impressions of the path's popularity.
"We're trying to give people opportunities to take advantage of these dedicated off-road facilitites, but you have to get to them," Rodriguez said. "That's what we're trying to do with this project."
During its discussion, several commissioners recognized that under current conditions, Matadero isn't very safe. The absence of sidewalks forces pedestrians to share the road with cars and the large number of children biking on the road creates uncomfortable conditions for drivers and bicyclists alike.
Chair Michael, who has been conducting his own research in the area, called staff's new project "essentially a good proposal, but not perfect." Making the street a bike boulevard, he said, would invite more sharing between bikes and cars on the narrow street, which is not necessarily a good thing.
"It's in many ways important and this can be constructive, but I don't think it's going to result in a safe roadway without some additional follow-up," Michael said.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck was more sanguine about the new bike route and made a case for proceeding with incremental improvements on this well-used road.
"Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good," Alcheck said. "Kids are already on this road. Let's make it safer."
That was also the sense of most of the speakers who address the commission before the vote. Doug Moran, who lives in Barron Park, said the neighborhood has been waiting for traffic-calming for more than 20 years. Though the plan didn't integrate many of the features he and his neighbors had hoped to see, Moran asked the commission to support it.
"Half a loaf or even crumbs is better than the nothing we've had to endure all this time," Moran said.
Emma Shlaes of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition also spoke in favor of the new Matadero Avenue bike boulevard. About 100 bicyclists use the boulevard are already using this route every day, she said, and it is "essential to make it safer for them by reducing traffic speeds."
"These improvements will only increase the number of users," Shlaes said. "It's important to create these low-stress routes to encourage people to choose bikes over vehicles for transportation."
View a Planning and Transportation Commission staff report for maps of the city's existing and proposed bike routes.