New bikeways would roll out alongside one of the busiest stretches of Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto as part of a road-improvement project that the city's Planning and Transportation Commission heartily endorsed Wednesday night.
The two raised bikeways, one on the north side of Embarcadero and one on the south, would stretch from the central intersection of Embarcadero and El Camino Real, past Town & Country Village and Palo Alto High School and toward Emerson Street, bringing riders to within close proximity of the Bryant Street Bike Boulevard.
In addition to the raised bikeways, the plan calls for modifying the El Camino crossing to create a "Dutch-style" intersection, which offers bicyclists a dedicated and protected lane.
The goal of the project, according to city officials, is to improve safety and create a smoother flow for a well-used stretch that has long been plagued by traffic lights crammed close together and, at times, working out of sync. This includes the traffic signals at El Camino, near Paly and at the Trader Joe's driveway -- signals that for years have flummoxed drivers and caused traffic backups. (Read "Palo Alto seeks to make 'waves' with traffic lights")
City planners have been working in recent months to address these discrepancies, recently installing a signal box that will make the traffic signals at Town & Country and Paly work in sync, said Josh Mello, the city's chief transportation official. That signal box, however, has yet to be connected to the city's central system, which also is being upgraded to create a coordinated timing program between U.S. Highway 101 and Bryant Street.
Concurrently, staff has been working with the consulting company BKF Engineers to design road improvements that would make conditions safer and less confusing for bicyclists and pedestrians. On Wednesday, the commission was presented with two different design alternatives: one that would create two bikeways, one on either side of Embarcadero, and another that would have one two-way bikeway on the south side of the street.
Jason Mansfield, project manager with BKF Engineers, told the commission that the goal of the project was to "improve bicycle comfort and safety."
"Right now, there is zero bicycle infrastructure through this corridor, so we really need to include that," said Mansfield, whose firm took part in two community meetings on the Embarcadero project. "That's one of the big things we heard from the meetings and the stakeholders. There is a real need and desire for improved bicycle facilities through here and also improved pedestrian facilities."
The commission found much to like about both proposals, though it preferred by a unanimous vote the alternative that includes a raised bikeway on each side of the street. The commissioners particularly lauded the fact that under the preferred design, the bikeways would be running along the sidewalks and not on the roadway, where traffic volumes, merging lanes, traffic lights and intersecting driveways make for congested conditions.
Commission Chair Adrian Fine said the main reason he supported the two-bikeway alternative is because he believed the city "shouldn't necessarily give preference to one side of the street over the other."
He also concurred with Vice Chair Przemek Gardias, who argued that the city should have a policy of aligning bike pathways with sidewalks, rather than streets, along major arteries. That way, he said, bicyclists and cars won't have to fight for space like they do at certain corridors in San Francisco, where green bike lanes are a common site along major city streets.
Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, who frequently bikes in this area, agreed that the two-bikeway design is superior because it creates protected bike lanes without diminishing the level of service for traffic.
"To me, it would be a much less stressful journey," he said.
The Embarcadero project, which is expected to cost about $2.45 million to construct, is one of more than a dozen bike-improvement efforts that Palo Alto is moving ahead with. The long list of projects, which are included in the city's 2012 bike master plan, also includes new bike amenities and traffic-calming measures at Park Boulevard, Maybell Avenue, Churchill Avenue and Greer Road. In addition, the city is looking to expand its original "bike boulevard" on Bryant Street.