For Palo Alto's bicyclists and drivers, the bustling stretch of Embarcadero Road near El Camino Real isn't just a shared commuter artery. It's also a shared source of frustration.
The segment between El Camino and Emerson Street has three traffic lights virtually next to each other, a setup that for years has helped exacerbate the traffic jams in the area. Moving east from Stanford University, the two eastbound lanes of Embarcadero merge into one as the street dips under the Caltrain overpass, forcing bicyclists to either navigate through narrow and heavily congested lanes or to take the sidewalk.
Drivers chronically complain about the long wait times while bicyclists have been urging the city to improve conditions in this central corridor, which goes past Palo Alto High School and Town & Country Village.
On Monday night, the council signaled its intent to do just that when it approved a dramatic revamp for the intersection of Embarcadero and El Camino and to pursue a slew of bike improvements in the area.
Once completed, the intersection will include protected raised bikeways for bicyclists going in all four directions (what's known as a "Dutch-style intersection"). New bikeways will also be constructed and separated from the driving lanes on both sides of Embarcadero, between El Camino and Emerson.
The goals of the $2.4 million project, according to Joshuah Mello, the city's chief transportation officer, are to improve traffic operations and boost bike safety and comfort. But after debating several alternatives, the council chose the plan that gave a significant preference to the latter over the former. That's because in accepting the alternative with the two separated bikeways, the council rejected a separate alternative that would have added new right-turn lanes near both the Trader Joe's driveway and El Camino. That proposal, however, would have created a single two-way bikeway along the south side of Embarcadero.
The proposal with a single bikeway had one distinct advantage. By adding capacity for cars, it promised to alleviate some of the congestion at the intersection and cut down on the delay time for motorists. Several council members, including Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Tom DuBois, supported moving forward with this design, citing its benefits to all parties.
Scharff made a case for what's known as "Option Two," but noting that he's been hearing complaints from the community for years about the need to make traffic improvements on Embarcadero. The second option, which includes a single two-way bikeway, takes care of both drivers and bicyclists, he said.
"Option Two makes so much more sense in terms of keeping it balanced and really solving the problem the community asked us to solve when we started looking at Embarcadero," Scharff said.
DuBois agreed and said the second option would improve the street "for everybody."
"Compared to many other places in town, this is actually a place where we can improve the flow for all modes of transportation," DuBois said. "We should take advantage of it."
Yet the council ultimately voted 5-4, with Scharff, DuBois, Greg Schmid and Karen Holman dissenting, to move ahead with "Option One," which makes things considerably safer for bicyclists, but does not create new driving lanes. As such, it would not increase capacity for motor vehicles.
The council's razor-thin vote followed a unanimous recommendation from the Planning and Transportation Commission in favor of the first option. As Commissioner Asher Waldfogel explained Monday, the commission thought "the advantage for cyclists in Option One outweighed the advantage to vehicular traffic in Option Two."
The design also benefited from an endorsement from the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee, though the citizens group initially favored the second alternative.
Robert Neff, who chairs the committee, said the committee's experienced bicyclists initially felt that having a regular bike lane on one side and a two-way bikeway on the other would work just fine. But they later realized that riders who are less experienced would likely appreciate better protection from traffic.
"Having the two separate bike lanes on normal sides of the street seemed like it would appeal to a lot more bicyclists," Neff said.
The council's majority ultimately agreed, with Mayor Pat Burt making the case for the first option. He noted that nearly all letters that the council has received from the public favored this option. Burt called the proposed project a "real breakthrough," and predicted that it would make biking the fastest mode for going to Paly, Town & Country and Stanford.
He also pointed out that as more people switch to bikes, remaining motorists will benefit from reduced congestion and more parking. As for drivers' concerns, Burt noted that the city is now going through a two-phased traffic-signalization project that is expected to create a smoother traffic flow for all parties.
"On top of that, this is not just about improved efficiency and mode share; it's about bike safety," Burt said. "The issue of whether we're going to have a safer alternative here really does matter. Both of these improve bike safety significantly over what we currently have, but alternative one is the safer mode and that should matter a lot."