Once a novelty, bike boulevards are about to become a common sight in Palo Alto, with the city embarking on more than 20 projects aimed at making local streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
On Tuesday night, the concept plans for the first two projects surged forward when the City Council enthusiastically and unanimously approved proposed bike amenities around Maybell and Churchill avenues.
By approving the staff proposals for new bike amenities, the new council made it clear that last year's election did nothing to stymie the city's dream of becoming one of the nation's top biking destinations. To further this vision, the city approved a new bicycling master plan in 2012 and has committed $1.2 million in annual funds for work on the new bike boulevards.
The topic of bike improvements featured prominently during Tuesday's meeting, where Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez presented the council with an overview of the city's 24 projects and its myriad efforts to improve safety and better measure pedestrian, bicycling and vehicle activity at major corridors.
This includes new camera technology that the city plans to install to count bike riders and pedestrians (and ultimately cars) at major thoroughfares; green-bike lanes coated with colored glass beads; "bike boxes" that carve out space for bikers near intersections to wait for the traffic light to change; bike-corral parking; and road marking such as "sharrows," which typically include a stenciled image of a bike and a few arrows and which aim to encourage motorists to share the road with bicyclists. In some cases, streets are imbued with "greenback sharrows," which are just like the original white stenciled but enclosed within green boxes.
"We're beginning to change the way bicycling and pedestrian activity is being looked at within the region," Rodriguez told the council as he recapped the recent efforts and innovations.
Bike boulevards (streets that are prioritized for bicyclists through use traffic-calming measures and road markings) are not exactly new in Palo Alto. More than three decades ago, the city became a pioneer in the field when it unveiled its first bike boulevard on Bryant Street. The city's more recent efforts have targeted bike-heavy areas such as Park Avenue and Stanford Avenue.
The sheer quantity of the new proposals, however, is unprecedented in the city's history. The current list of projects includes new biking amenities on Greer Road, Fabian Way, Charleston Road, Stanford Avenue, Homer Avenue and San Antonio Road. The city is also preparing to build a new bike bridge over Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, a project with an estimated price tag of about $10 million.
Not all of the city's recent innovations have been met with glee. Residents on Bryant Street panned the city's plan to draw green boxes on their leafy residential streets, prompting the city to scuttle the plan. And the city's plan to build an off-road bike path along Matadero Creek likewise met a cool reception from Midtown residents whose yards are next to the creek. The city is now in the midst of selecting a citizen advisory committee from the neighborhood that would help transportation planners come up a palatable alternative and assist with outreach.
Rodriguez acknowledged that in some cases the city is intentionally putting forward experimental concepts just to see what sticks. If residents say they don't want to see the proposed amenities, he said, the city is perfectly willing to change its plans. Both the Maybell and the Churchill projects were designed after several community meetings and were modified to better conform to the wishes of neighborhood residents.
The Maybell project, for example, extends the existing bike route beyond Maybell to Georgia Avenue, Donald Drive and El Camino Way. Based on the residential character of Georgia and Donald and the wishes of residents on these streets, the city agreed to avoid the greenback sharrows and go forward with traditional non-colored one. El Camino Way, which is more commercial in nature, would get green sharrows. The project also includes an extension of a bike lane on Maybell and installation of three new speed tables on the prominent school corridor, between Donald and Arastradero Road.
One of the major goals of the project is to make the biking commute safer for students at Terman Middle and Gunn High schools. Later improvements to this corridor would include raised intersections at several portions of Maybell (creating a "speed-table" effect) and improved crosswalk markings near the Bol Park path and at the intersections of Donald Drive with Maybell and Georgia avenues.
On Churchill, the plan is to create a new bike ramp that would allow westbound bicyclists heading to Palo Alto High School to turn into an existing pathway leading to the campus without having to travel through the busy intersection of Churchill and Castilleja Avenue. Staff will also explore time-of-day parking restrictions on the south side of Churchill to create a wider area for bicyclists.
The council approved both projects with no dissent and with only minor modifications, including a direction to staff to "give special attention to options along El Camino Way" and to consider additional improvements to "facilitate access to the bike trail (near Paly) as you cross Alma from Churchill."
The latter was proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff, who told Rodriguez that he likes everything about the Churchill project.
Councilman Eric Filseth concurred and called the new path into Paly a "great idea."
Filseth and Tom DuBois both raised concerns about an earlier proposal to install a bike lane on El Camino Way, which would require the narrowing of the driving lanes. That plan was scrapped and staff now plans to mark El Camino Way with sharrows.
Otherwise, council members had few reservations about the comprehensive bike plan or its first two projects. Rodriguez said the plan is to bring the concept ideas for all 24 boulevard proposals to the council some time this year. Councilman Pat Burt predicted that the roll-out of the plan will be a "real milestone in our community."
"Frankly, with the problems we have with traffic, this is one of the essential ways for us to have a high quality of life in our community in the future," Burt said.