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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Guest Opinion: El Camino is broken and we have a chance to fix it Guest Opinion: El Camino is broken and we have a chance to fix it (September 25, 2002)

by Kathy Durham and Doug Moran

El Camino Real in Palo Alto suffers from schizophrenia -- it's a state highway designed back in the 1960s for speeding cars to their destinations, but it also serves the main street for the neighborhoods and businesses west of the train tracks.

We see El Camino as in need of fixing because it doesn't work well for anybody.

Sure, as a driver you can jackrabbit up to 50 mph in certain stretches, but you'll soon have to cool your heels at a long red light. Average travel speeds along Palo Alto's 4.3-mile segment are less than 20 mph because of all the red lights.

But this road doesn't work well for El Camino businesses either. They find it challenging to survive when walk-in customers are deterred by rushing traffic and narrow sidewalks. Many complain that drivers just don't see them.

Safety is a real concern for residents of El Camino neighborhoods. Elementary-age children in Evergreen Park and Ventura are almost all driven across El Camino to get to their "neighborhood" schools, because crossing El Camino is just too daunting.

And in the last 10 years we've seen a real decline in the number of students biking to middle and high school across El Camino. Even adults who are committed to reducing their dependence on a car can be intimidated by the experience of crossing El Camino on foot or by bike.

Questions facing us include:

* Can El Camino be revamped to improve safety and support a fuller range of uses -- without reducing its capacity to handle current and projected volumes of motor vehicles?

* Is there room to make El Camino's "strip commercial" corridor more attractive to business that would better serve the adjoining neighborhoods?

* Is it possible to fix this road functionally and still have room for trees and other aesthetic enhancements?

Since last January, we have been wrestling with these questions as members of the Advisory Group for the city's Caltrans-funded El Camino Real Design Study.

After months of collecting data and evaluating options for each segment of El Camino, the project's staff and consultants will be presenting their proposals at a community workshop next Saturday morning (9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Community Center -- for more information, visit the city's Web site:

No short article can possibly touch on the many issues involved in this study, much less do justice to them, but we believe that that the approach being taken gives Palo Alto a chance to make El Camino work better for everyone.

In documenting just how inefficiently El Camino currently handles traffic, the Design Study has shown how and where relatively simple measures could provide noticeable improvements. These include improving signal timing, reducing "friction" from entering and exiting side traffic, and improved pedestrian safety.

Some issues have turned out to be less thorny than anticipated. For example, adding two standard 5-foot-wide bike lanes increases the overall width of the street by only two feet, because the remaining space comes from the already existing 4-foot buffers required for each of the outer lanes. Hence, they have little effect on the space available for traffic lanes, sidewalks and medians.

If you were following local news this summer, you may have seen reports that the City was considering narrowing El Camino to four lanes. What was often missed was that this was simply exploring the feasibility of doing so in certain very limited sections -- an assessment that is not yet complete.

The requirements for a smooth transition from six to four lanes include: distance from the major congested intersections, lower levels of traffic from side-streets, and ability to engineer it without confusing drivers.

Hence experience with temporary lane reductions in construction zones is not a valid indicator of performance of a lane reduction designed to these criteria.

As controversial as this option might be, limited four-lane sections could provide some major advantages, such as (1) improved safety for pedestrians, (2) better visibility for businesses and (3) shorter red lights for motorists. We believe that the locations, costs and benefits of this option deserve careful consideration based on data rather than being rejected out of hand.

A final caution: Traffic behavior is often counter-intuitive and the standards for roadway design can be arcane. However, the proposals are based on a detailed evaluation of local conditions, down to a block-by-block level.

Saturday's workshop will be an excellent chance to get your questions clarified. It will also be a great opportunity to incorporate the collective experience of residents to strengthen the final recommendations that will be going forward to the city council later this fall.

Kathy Durham is president of the College Terrace Residents' Association and Doug Moran is president of the Barron Park Association. Both are members of the Advisory Group for the El Camino Real/Caltrans Demonstration Project.


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