A city effort to make the tunnel under the train tracks at Palo Alto's California Avenue accessible to motorized wheelchairs and bicycle trailers has left pedestrians cursing cyclists and feeling anxious about using the underpass.
A set of "maze" gates used to force bicyclists to dismount and walk through the tunnel. Now on either end of the underpass are a pair of gates jutting out diagonally from the walls and separated by about five feet, which cyclists easily ride around. Signs directing people to "Walk bikes" are posted at the underpass entrances, and by city municipal code cyclists ought to comply.
Vic Befera, who uses the underpass daily, said he was nearly knocked down by a pack of bicyclists in early May.
"I had to throw myself against the cement wall to escape injury. I could feel their clothing brush against me. The city is not enforcing walking bikes," he said.
Befera has been so bothered by the frequent near-misses that he and other Palo Alto residents have formed a group — Pedestrian Safety, or P.S. — to make the underpass safer.
Joan Meyn, another member of the group, agreed the situation with cyclists has gotten out of hand.
"They pay no attention to us — especially us senior citizens," she said.
Group members say they aren't against bicyclists and don't see them as the enemy.
"I remember the first bike I got when I was 12 years old. It had a front light and an electric horn and big, balloon tires. It was the thrill of my life," said Befera, recalling the joy of riding a bike with a girl by his side and the wind going through his hair. "I have no quarrel with bikes and bicycling. The only thing is, I think there is a flaw in our enforcement."
Bicycling should be encouraged, but the city should fix the tunnel so it is safe for all users and enforce its laws, he said.
"The only money they've spent is on the fanciful fish," he said, noting the colorful marine-life-themed mural on the walls.
While Befera can jump out of the way of a zooming cyclist, he said he's mostly worried for the young children who use the tunnel to get to the playground at Jerry Bowden Park, which is adjacent to the tunnel's eastern end.
Befera and Meyn also noted the tunnel is dark and people don't know whether they are on a potential collision course with others.
At Befera's prodding, the city recently replaced some of the burned-out light bulbs. Palo Alto police spokesman Capt. Zach Perron said the city plans to replace all of the bulbs with brighter lights. The police department is also stepping up patrols in the area when staffing permits, he said.
Perron said officers will focus initially on educating bicyclists. It will be up to officers to decide whether to ticket violators. A ticket would cost a $20 base fine plus penalty assessments, which are determined by the court, he said. (Such penalty assessments can add in excess of $100, according to state penalty schedules.)
Perron said it isn't illegal to ride through when no one else is in the tunnel, however.
Given its central location in the city, the tunnel is well-used, according the city's 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority also identified the North California bike lane, which includes the undercrossing, to be of "countywide significance" because it links the California Avenue business district to parts east, including Jordan Middle School, and is part of the larger Bay to Ridge Trail.
Members of Pedestrian Safety would like to see the aged tunnel replaced with one similar to the Homer Avenue undercrossing, which is well-lit, spacious and has designated lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The idea of improving or rebuilding the tunnel is nothing new. The city's 2012 bike plan recommends rebuilding or retrofitting the tunnel, which it estimated would cost $2 million to $5 million. At a minimum, the improvements would include ramps for better pedestrian access. Other projects, pending feasibility and funding, would include widening the tunnel with separate pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists. But existing underground utilities would force a much deeper and more expensive tunnel to be dug than similar tunnels, the plan noted.
Restoring the earlier configuration of railings in the tunnel is not feasible because the changes were made to ensure the underpass is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
City Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello was not available for comment.
While the tunnel modifications aren't expected any time soon, Perron said that during the next school year the city will highlight the underpass regulations as part of an education campaign through the Safe Routes to Schools program.