Fix due for 'dangerous' El Camino intersection | January 15, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 15, 2010

Fix due for 'dangerous' El Camino intersection

Planning commission, local bicyclists endorse plan to redesign intersection of El Camino Real and Stanford Avenue

by Gennady Sheyner

A proposal to redesign one of Palo Alto's dangerous intersections earned a rave review from the city's Planning and Transportation Commission Wednesday night.

The commission voted 6-0 to support a proposed redesign of the busy intersection of El Camino Real and Stanford Avenue — a project that city and state officials hope to begin this fall.

The project, to be overseen by the state Department of Transportation, would significantly modify what Palo Alto staff called one of the most dangerous intersections in the city for bicyclists. The redesign includes new sidewalk bulbouts at all four corners of the intersection, a widened pedestrian median on El Camino, new trees and benches. All six through lanes on El Camino Real would be narrowed from 12 feet to 11 feet. The "porkchop" islands, which staff argued encourage cars to make speedy turns, would be removed.

Shahla Yazdy, the city's transportation planner, said the project would both make the intersection safer and support the city's goal of transforming El Camino from a vehicle-oriented highway to a "true multi-modal urban thoroughfare." New benches, streetlights and trees would give drivers visual cues to slow down, she said.

Pedestrians crossing the street would have a safe place to stop in the middle of the crosswalk.

The commission praised the project and voted to recommend approval. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the plan on Feb. 8.

"If we're going to be true to our Comprehensive Plan — where we talk about walkable streets and pedestrian improvements along El Camino Real — you can't get a much clearer example than this," Commissioner Eduardo Martinez said.

Commissioner Susan Fineberg agreed.

"I think the project is attempting to accomplish a great good," Fineberg said. "Getting this intersection more pedestrian friendly and more safe for bicyclists is a good thing that's supported by our Comprehensive Plan."

About a dozen neighborhood residents and bicyclists said they back the plan and argued that the proposed changes would make the intersection safer. A few residents said they were concerned the renovation would create too many distractions on the busy street — a common route for Escondido Elementary School students.

Several residents told how they or their children were nearly hit by turning vehicles while trying to cross El Camino.

"I didn't let my kids cross El Camino Real on their own until fifth grade," Evergreen Park resident David Shapiro said. "My last words to them in the morning would be, 'Be careful crossing El Camino.'

"I shouldn't be saying this every morning."

Commissioner Arthur Keller criticized the accelerated timeline for the redesign, which needs to be approved by this spring to qualify for federal funding. Keller said he was frustrated by what he felt was inadequate traffic analysis by Caltrans and the city. But even he ended up supporting the plan.

"I think on the whole this is a good project," he said. "It increases safety."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


Posted by Bill, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2010 at 8:44 am

This is a very dangerous intersection for pedestrians and bicyclists. The testimony in the text of the article demonstrates this. I do not know why Palo Alto Online is editorializing by putting "dangerous" in quotes in the title.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2010 at 9:11 am

"the project would both make the intersection safer and support the city's goal of transforming El Camino from a vehicle-oriented highway to a "true multi-modal urban thoroughfare."'
While I do not disagree with the concept of making the intersection safer, I do have to call into question another of PA's plans to deal with traffic. El Camino Real IS The main thoroughfare that runs through the city--it is a vehicle oriented road--this term "multi-modal urban thoroughfare" sounds like another one of the terms bandied about by the people in the city who spend their every waking hour whining about traffic.

"Commissioner Arthur Keller criticized the accelerated timeline for the redesign"
I love that comment--does everything have to be done in the city using the Palo Alto process timeline--where things sit for years while bureaucrats like Mr Keller nitpick? What he is calling an "accelerated timeline" is a normal timeframe for making decisions. I guess those that cannot do sit on the P&T and ARB commissions.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2010 at 9:40 am

El Camino may be a vehicle thoroughfare, but it also cuts the city in half. Lots of people live on one side of El Camino, but work or attend schools on the other side.

We need to provide safe routes for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross El Camino. Of the several streets crossing El Camino in this part of town (Stanford, California, Page Mill), Stanford Ave. has the least car traffic so it should be the safest for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Yet, the testimony in the original article demonstrates that this is not the case. Car drivers are showing reckless disregard for pedestrian safety. The changes proposed by the city seem relatively small to me, but hopefully will improve safety enough to avoid innocent deaths.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2010 at 10:22 am

Bill--Sounds to me like one of the solutions should be increased police presence and enforcement of existing laws.
Also from the testimony cited in the article, it sounds like the problem is those porkchop turn lanes. Not the actual portion that goes across El Camino Real

Posted by Tyler Hanley, digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Jan 14, 2010 at 10:55 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comments were moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by biker, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, 36 minutes ago

Yeah! I bicycle through this intersection one or two times a week and the "porkchop" turn lanes are really scary. Cars are willing to make turns (even though they are technically a yield for them) without even hesitating, let alone slowing down to the speed limit.

Just removing these turn lanes will make the intersection safer for me.......this must be a nightmare for the kids going to escondido grade school (this might actually reduce car trips of worried parents).


Posted by sally, a resident of the St. Claire Gardens neighborhood, 12 minutes ago

what is "pork chop"?


Posted by Bill, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, 1 minute ago

"Porkchop" lanes are places where car drivers run red lights and turn pedestrians into dead meat.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2010 at 10:56 am

Yes, a round-the-clock police presence would increase safety. I guess the city thinks that fixing the intersection is cheaper, though.

The porkchop lanes are part of the problem and removing them is the biggest change in the redesigned intersection.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2010 at 11:04 am

A good idea would be to prevent right turn drivers turning when the pedestrian "walk" signal was lit would be to have right turn green arrows. A sign saying "right turn on green arrow only" would be lit when the "don't walk" signal was lit. It is a strange system that allows cars to turn at the same time as the pedestrians are told to walk. A right turn on green arrow only would prevent this.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Putting up more signs and lights might stop some of the red light runners, but it only takes one to ruin your whole day. As the original article points out, cars are running the red lights even when there are pedestrians in the marked crosswalks. If the car drivers can't see pedestrians in crosswalks, many will not pay attention to signs and lights either.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2010 at 2:30 pm

"As the original article points out, cars are running the red lights even when there are pedestrians in the marked crosswalks."
Where does it say that in the article?

Posted by Richard, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2010 at 9:21 pm

A pork chop island is the island that separates the straight-through lane from the free-running right turn lane. When viewed from overhead they are shaped kind of like a pork chop. The island itself is not the problem; it is the lane that allows high-speed turns without stopping (or looking or yielding).

Also, the new vision for El Camino is not just Palo Alto's. Caltrans wants El Camino to become a "grand boulevard" in all cities. Federal and state transportation policies now require accommodations for all modes of use, not just cars, so this concept is something with which we should all become familiar.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Too Much Traffic:

I don't live near Escondido, so, I don't know about that crosswalk, but, I have seen cars drive straight through other red lights without stopping with kids in the crosswalk too many times to count. Practically every day at southbound El Camino turning right into Maybell, for example. Sometimes mothers driving minivans with their kids in the back, zooming past other people's kids who are walking to school. I'm guessing it would ruin their day if they hit a kid -- they would be late dropping their kids off at school. People are better behaved in Mountain View -- for some reason, Mtn. View can afford more traffic police.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2010 at 9:44 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

How about pedestrian overpasses? And isn't there an unused pedestrian tunnel North of Page Mill?

Posted by Carl, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2010 at 10:09 am

Part of the problem is lack of dedicated turn signals, cars are focusing on whether oncoming traffic is turning left in front of them, especially since many people don't signal their intent to turn, and lose focus on peds and cyclists. Hopefully they can work that out.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2010 at 11:09 am

In my experience, left-turning cars do not pay attention to pedestrians and bicycles even when there is no oncoming car traffic.

Posted by PAUSD Parent, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2010 at 11:28 am

To the writers who keep asking for more enforcement: Yes. That would help. We need more officers enforcing vehicle code, especially on school routes. Please note that the current list of proposed city budget cuts for 2010 prioritizes cuts to the PAPD Traffic Team. I am concerned about that. If you are too, I hope you will let our City Council know (politely, please...They are faced with some very difficult budget choices this year). There are better places to cut the budget.

Secondly, even with improved enforcement, it is important to engineer a street system in a way that encourages safe user behavior. This a project that does just that, reducing the need for enforcement (but not, of course, eliminating it). Let's work together to share the road safely...and support projects like this that make commuting as safe and efficient as possible for all modes of transportation.

Posted by katie, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I drive through that intersection twice a day and I have often thought that there should be a stop sign for cars exiting the Starbucks onto Stanford Ave. Drivers often turn into traffic as if they have the right of way and not the cars driving on Stanford Ave. (Maybe their caffeine has not kicked in yet?) This is, I think, the most hazardous aspect of the intersection, particularly in the morning when their are kids heading to Escondido. Slow down, Starbucks exit-ers!

Posted by Mike, a resident of University South
on Jan 15, 2010 at 12:53 pm

"the project would both make the intersection safer and support the city's goal of transforming El Camino from a vehicle-oriented highway to a 'true multi-modal urban thoroughfare.'"

Is this what El Camino through Menlo Park is called? Between Safeway & Atherton?

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

To Bill: I would imagine that the word 'dangerous' was put in quotes in the title to indicate that people have testified that it is so, and not to imply that it is a dubious qualifier.

To "Too Much Traffic" and Mike: the term "multi-modal urban thoroughfare" is simply a way to say that a road be designed to accommodate all users of the road, including cars, trucks, busses, bikes, and pedestrians, such that all users are able to use the road safely and effectively. "Complete Streets" is another version of this design practice.

I regularly use El Camino Real (ECR) as a driver, transit rider, cyclist, and pedestrian, and I do not "whine" about the traffic. However, El Camino is very unsafe for a cyclist, and while I usually try to avoid it by riding on Park Blvd or Hanover (from Barron Park to College Terrace/Stanford/Cal Ave), there are times when I have good reason to go on ECR, for instance to reach one of its many businesses. Crossing ECR as a pedestrian is also dangerous, and the crosswalk green cycles are often too short, especially for seniors or others who can't hussle through. Cyclists and Pedestrians have as much rights and reasons to use the roadways as drivers, and it is in everyone's best intereset to make them as safe and enjoyable as possible.

Increased police enforcement would be great, but we simply don't have enough officers to cover all these problem areas, particularly in the morning commute hours when they are also busy ensuring the safety of all our routes to school and dealing with increased traffic collisions. Some spot enforcement would be appreciated, to give reckless drivers a reminder to chill out, but we can't rely on police omnipresence, especially in this economic recession.

To Bill and Sally: "Pork Chop Islands are triangular islands [of raised pavement] placed adjacent to free-right [or in this case, yield-right] turn lanes. They separate right-turning vehicles from through lanes and they provide a refuge for pedestrians to cross the free-right lane before crossing the through lanes." (copied from Web Link, or for an image: Web Link)

Regarding the signal phasing, I believe the safest would be to have a split phase signal for Stanford Ave, meaning that first west-bound traffic would have the green, followed by east-bound traffic. However, this could add delays to El Camino traffic, at which CalTrans would likely balk. In my comments to the Planning and Transportation Commission, I recommended that they direct staff to try to work with CalTrans to do a split-phase signal, but I doubt it will happen.

Posted by rt, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Pedestrians also bear some responsibility. There are people that not only cross after the 'red stop hand' comes up - but on the red light! i ALMOST hit a guy last week walking across on a red. We need more police enforcement!

Posted by finally, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 22, 2011 at 10:07 pm

More than a year later, I am glad that work is finally starting on the badly need safety improvements to this intersection.

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