3 Years After Fatal Crash, San Mateo County Adds Bike Lanes to Interchange

SVBC Deputy Director Colin Heyne checks for merging vehicles approaching from behind at the Alpine/280 interchange. Photo: Andrew Boone
SVBC Deputy Director Colin Heyne checks for merging vehicles while cycling north on Alpine Road towards Highway 280. Photo: Andrew Boone

Nearly three years after 47-year-old Los Altos Hills resident Lauren Ward was killed by a truck driver while cycling on Alpine Road at Highway 280 in southern San Mateo County, eye-catching green and buffered bike lanes, the first for a freeway crossing in California, were finally installed there in mid-October.

Local residents and street safety advocates organized and persistently lobbied county officials to install bike lanes at the interchange, failing twice to secure grants from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority in 2011 and 2012. Under increasing pressure from residents and county leaders, public works staff cobbled together funds from three different sources in late 2012 and re-designed the interchange to include bike lanes. Traffic lanes were narrowed to 11 feet and wide green and buffered bike lanes were incorporated into the design using input from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

An alternative design favored by bike advocates would have reduced the number of merge zones (where motorists need to cross the path of bicyclists to enter the highway) from three to two was also proposed. Caltrans rejected that option, saying it might cause delays for motorists. Nevertheless, the chosen design is still considered an enormous improvement over the previous complete lack of striping.

“Our goal is to create an environment on the road where people of all ages and skill levels feel comfortable riding a bike,” said SVBC Executive Director Corinne Winter. “Smart, visible infrastructure like this removes the ambiguity that plagued this intersection previously, and allows for all users in the road to feel confident while sharing the road.”

The buffers disappear and the bike lanes are dashed in sections where motorists need to merge across the bike lanes to enter Highway 280, making it obvious to everyone where the merging should take place. “If you ride south on Alpine Road, you’ll see the huge improvement,” said San Mateo County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee Chair Steve Schmidt. “It seems like a more relaxed situation because it’s clear where everyone should be.”

Menlo Park City Council Member Kirsten Keith enjoys the new green and buffered bike lane at Alpine Road and Highway 280. Photo: Andrew Boone
Menlo Park City Council Member Kirsten Keith enjoys the new green and buffered bike lane at Alpine Road and Highway 280. Photo: Andrew Boone

The 1,000-foot section of Alpine Road where it passes under Highway 280 was an unusual gap in the bike network. Continuous bike lanes had been installed long ago on Alpine Road between Menlo Park and Portola Valley, except for this short section.

Twice the SMCTA Board voted against funding the construction of bike lanes at the interchange, first in July 2011 then again in October 2012, when it distributed funds for other transportation projects using revenues generated by the Measure A half-cent sales tax, which generates roughly $60 million annually.

In the second funding attempt, the final cost of the bike lane project represented only 0.5 percent of the $104 million in total funds available from the SMCTA’s Highway Program, intended to reduce traffic congestion on the county’s highways and streets. Advocates for the project argued that a re-striped Alpine Road would add bike lanes and more clearly delineated travel lanes for motorists, which would reduce traffic congestion because both bicyclists and motorists would know where to expect each other on the roadway, and because some people would choose to bicycle instead of drive for some trips.

Lauren Ward was crushed by this big-rig truck while bicycling south on Alpine Road at Highway 280 on November 4, 2010. Photo: Kent Fields, Menlo Park Patch.

“Unlike the neighboring Sand Hill, Woodside, and Page Mill roads there is no clearly defined route for cyclists to cross through the intersection,” wrote Portola Valley Bicycle, Pedestrian & Traffic Safety Committee member Shandon Lloyd in a letter to the SMCTA Board. “The traffic lanes are not clearly defined, making it dangerous for cyclists and confusing for drivers.”

But the Transportation Authority’s staff recommended against funding the Alpine Road project, saying it didn’t qualify for the Highway Program. Project Manager Aiden Hughes said that “the program intent is to reduce congestion on commute corridors. There is no defined relationship to bicycles, pedestrians, or Complete Streets.” Belmont’s $120,000 Ralston Avenue Corridor Study, which proposed to study pedestrian and bicycle safety as well as ways to reduce traffic congestion on Ralston Avenue, was also disqualified because it “emphasized support for bicycle and pedestrian movement along with the overall improvement to the Ralston Corridor,” according to Hughes.

At the same time, however, several major projects to either design or construct freeway interchanges were approved as part of the Measure A Highway Program without regard to whether they include non-motorized transportation infrastructure such as sidewalks, bike lanes, and multi-use paths. The SMCTA Board approved $36 million to demolish and reconstruct the Broadway Avenue & Highway 101 interchange in Burlingame in order to widen Broadway from four to seven travel lanes and modify the shape of the on-ramps and off-ramps. Including sidewalks and bike lanes in the project’s design (none exist on the Broadway Avenue overpass today) didn’t disqualify it from highway funding. Highway 101 interchange reconstruction projects at Holly Street in San Carlos and at Willow Avenue in Menlo Park were also awarded funds for environmental review and design, and these projects will include bike lanes and multi-use paths over the highway.

Apparently, in order to get these “congestion reduction” funds, it helps a lot to widen a road.

Cyclists travel north on Alpine Road in the new green and buffered bike lanes at Highway 280. Photo: Andrew Boone
Cyclists travel north on Alpine Road in the new green and buffered bike lanes at Highway 280. Photo: Andrew Boone

The public outcry that resulted from the disqualification of projects deemed “too Complete Streets” finally put enough pressure on the county to allocate its own street resurfacing funds to pay for 70 percent of the project’s cost, with the SMCTA and Caltrans each pitching in 15 percent.

Alpine Road is now one of three Highway 280 interchanges in San Mateo County that include bike lanes. The others are Woodside Road and Sand Hill Road. A total of eight other Highway 280 interchanges and 15 Highway 101 interchanges in the county lack bike lanes or any other accommodations for cyclists and remain significant barriers that discourage both cycling and walking, resulting in more vehicle trips and greater traffic congestion.

“We need to re-do all of the interchanges in San Mateo County,” said Winter. “This is a pivotal moment because the new Alpine/280 bike lanes demonstrate that we can make highway interchanges much safer with more modern designs.”

  • Easy

    Personally I would be more comfortable staying all the way to the right until closer to the on ramp, and then having a left turn across the on ramp lane, with cars entering the on ramp required to yield.

  • murphstahoe

    You would be more comfortable but you would also be less safe. It’s an understandable conundrum but true nonetheless. Crossing the on ramp traffic while basically invisible is bad news.

  • Josh Handel

    Portland just did this to their Hawthorne Bridge, and lots of people are saying it’s more dangerous now. Article about a recent collision there: http://bikeportland.org/2013/11/20/crash-raises-questions-about-changes-on-hawthorne-bridge-97471

  • Josh Handel

    Looks great! Down South, Santa Clara County needs to get working on expanding the center-running sidewalk on El Monte Road into a wide bike-ped MUP. Right now getting to Foothill College via bicycle is dicey at best going under 280…

  • Gezellig

    This kind of problem is *easily* remedied by having a separate cycletrack + traffic lights for both cars and bikes which of course are green at different times.

    Once again, the Dutch prove the gold standard:

    This is entirely possible here in the US.

    Why we continue to put up with subpar, dangerous designs with terrible and frankly unconscionably unsafe angles of crossing–especially when spending so much time and effort to put in NEW infrastructure as pictured above–is *totally* beyond me.

  • Gezellig

    Yup!

    And even better cars should have a red light before the cycletrack crosses the onramp. Similarly, so should bikes.

    I drafted this up (forgive the crude design…I did this in like 5 minutes on a touchpad haha) about the kind of thing that they *could* have done to Alpine in 3 years of planning this.

    Obviously not to scale but you get the point. It’s a two-way cycletrack (white) with the red lines indicating traffic light masts.

    Done.

  • Gezellig

    That’s easily fixed, though, by implementing stoplights for both bikes and cars as a cycletrack crosses the onramp. (for a visual demonstration see my drawing of Alpine done up this way above)

  • This looks totally safe, now.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think having lights is a good idea since the bike traffic volume is relatively lower than say Golden Gate Park and that cyclists don’t comply with lights very well anyway.

  • Corey

    “Useless paint.”

  • aslevin

    There is evidence that when infrastructure is designed well for cyclists – rather than for cars and disadvantaging cyclists – that cyclist compliance goes up.

    http://denverurbanism.com/2013/08/bicycle-infrastructure-promotes-observance-of-bicycle-laws.html

  • Gezellig

    Agreed–I’ve noticed that, too!

    There seems to be enough space to widen that center-running walkway on El Monte under 280 into a cycletrack+sidewalk. In addition, some traffic calming measures there wouldn’t hurt–that whole stretch of El Monte to Foothill Expressway is currently designed as basically a surface freeway despite the fact that even right off of 280 it’s signed at 40mph and quickly drops to 30. Almost everyone goes way over that there.

    Actually, I’ve noticed relatively high (and seemingly growing) numbers of bikes in that whole Los Altos/Mountain View area. With its super-wide boulevards, flat land and a fairly high number of people already cycling (which probably means more are open to it with safer infrastructure) that whole area is ripe for cycletrack development.

    Portland’s Cully Blvd Cycletrack in a low-density suburban area (whose spatial layout in the video below could easily pass for much of the postwar development in Santa Clara County) shows that it’s not just exotic foreign places or crazy-dense urban environments where it’s possible to implement good separated infrastructure.

    http://youtu.be/xh3iSOh5kYY

    I wonder if anyone over there in Santa Clara County is advocating for this kind of development?

  • Gezellig

    Absolutely, Aslevin.

    When you design good infrastructure that makes sense for bikes, people mostly obey the rules.

    It’s only in our current Wild Wild West scenario of:

    -> bad infrastructure (e.g. Class II bike lanes a.k.a. “double-parking lanes”)

    -> nonexistent infrastructure (even those Class IIs all of a sudden end at many points leaving many to choose to ride on the sidewalk rather than risking it in a full lane even though they technically have the right to it. “You can be right but dead” is an understandable mentality)

    -> rules and infrastructure that make sense for cars yet not for bikes, yet are still applied to bikes as if they were the same exact thing as a 2-ton car that can go 100+mph.

    And honestly from an enforcement perspective it’s way easier when the bike-specific infrastructure is there. There’s a cycletrack and some guy is *still* riding his bike on the sidewalk? In that case, enforce away! It would actually remove a lot of the gray zone for police in terms of bike enforcement.

  • murphstahoe

    that cyclists don’t comply with lights very well anyway.

    I don’t think having speed limits is a good idea because…

  • murphstahoe

    I’ve actually seen LAPD citing cyclists for riding on that path.

  • Gezellig

    Wow, that’s really enraging. I’ve seen bikes on there and always wondered how the local enforcement treated that. How dare those arrogant cyclists try to choose a route where they’re somewhat less likely to be killed!

    I mean seriously? As far as I’ve ever seen there’s not even an obviously painted bike lane on that stretch.

  • Gezellig

    Yup. Succinct way to sum up the “why build it they don’t comply anyway” argument’s logical conclusion.

    Just like with cars, build the appropriate infrastructure for bikes and then if some people on bikes still aren’t obeying it *then* ticket them!

  • Gezellig

    Another basic rendering but couldn’t something like this happen? I only addressed one side of El Monte (SW bound) but even by doing that there seems to be enough room in that area to widen the middle area to create a cycletrack+keep the current sidewalk. Even more room if the NE-bound side is fixed.

    Even safer might be to put the car shoulder in the middle buffering the pedestrian/bike median area (so, as a driver the shoulder would be on the left side instead of the right) if that kind of thing is allowed. If a shoulder there even needs to exist in the first place.

  • Andy Chow

    A lot of cyclists are also car drivers too.

  • Andy Chow

    You want to install traffic control device (or install it in a way) that people aren’t likely to disobey them. People are more likely to disobey it if they think it is not justified or that somehow the device isn’t giving them a fair treatment currently.

    That’s why a lot of lighted intersections are sensor activated to cut down the wait time and the likelihood of someone running against the red light if they’re not seeing cross traffic. It is better to respond to usage and have them respect the device.

    The Alpine interchange is mostly used by recreational cyclists that don’t largely conflict with commute traffic, and when outside the commute times, auto traffic volume is low anyway. I don’t see how a traffic light is going to make both sides feel treated fairly (unnecessary wait).

    If all you rely on is enforcement, then don’t complain about the enforcement on the Wiggle.

  • aslevin

    For example, at the new protected bike lanes in downtown Chicago, signal compliance went from 31% to 81% after signals were installed for bikes. The Alpine location might not be the best place for stoplights. But the argument avoiding bike-specific lights because of noncompliance seems contra-indicated.

    http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/the-10-best-protected-bike-lanes-of-2013

  • IrvinDawid

    Great pix, Andrew. Thanks!

  • djconnel

    The argument against enforcement in the Wiggle is that laws are enforced in a way against cyclists they are not generally enforced against drivers. We expect safety violations of a given threshold to be treated comparably.

  • djconnel

    The key problem is stated in the article: Caltrains considered the delays caused by vehicles running down cyclists preferable to hypothetical delays caused by safely accommodating multiple modes. The state is extremely pro-car/truck.

  • Gezellig

    Yes, unfortunately that is very true.

    I wonder if the only language they would understand is legal action for many of these roadways. As in “much safer options than Class II lanes exist for certain roadways and are even endorsed now by FHWA/NACTO with hard data backing them up and you’re still ignoring them to the statistically demonstrable and direct detriment and death of people on bikes and pedestrians.”

    If anyone happens to be a legal scholar has any organization ever taken this kind of tactic? Now with increasing endorsement of separated facilities by bodies such as FHWA/NACTO (http://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/09/09/fhwa-to-transportation-engineers-use-the-nacto-bikeway-design-guide/) I’d hope that the inaction (or subpar action) on the part of agencies like Caltrans in creating these types of unacceptable designs can be challenged legally.

  • Gezellig

    “You want to install traffic control device (or install it in a way) that people aren’t likely to disobey them. People are more likely to disobey it if they think it is not justified or that somehow the device isn’t giving them a fair treatment currently.

    That’s why a lot of lighted intersections are sensor activated to cut down the wait time and the likelihood of someone running against the red light if they’re not seeing cross traffic. It is better to respond to usage and have them respect the device.”

    –> Agreed! Very true. So exactly in that grain smart timing/sensors (for both bikes and cars) can help here. For example, why not have a sensor on the cycletrack some distance before the light? You could fiddle with its timing and settings so that it would consistently turn green by the time, say, 95% of people on bikes reach the light. And the portion of the remainder 5% who were so fast (and presumably likelier to be impatient?) wouldn’t have to wait too long because the system did already know they were coming in advance.

    Of course another push-button sensor at the intersection could be installed, as well. This is not only a check on the system (to account for the small percentage of people who somehow didn’t trip the earlier sensor or were too fast/slow to reach the light but it’s also a psychological thing—when you press a button it feels like you’ve done something and you know that green’s coming = less chance to violate the light).

    In all other times if no one is in between the early sensor and intersection and/or no one is pushing the button at the intersection then it could default pretty heavily to green time for cars on the onramp. I mean, why not? Especially since it’d make the car-camp happy, too. And it’d dynamically account for changing volumes of bikes throughout the day or over time.

    I’m not an expert on this but I’m just saying these are the kinds of things where when you build good solid thoughtful infrastructure with all stakeholders (bikes, peds, cars) in mind you can really get some positive results in terms of both 1) throughput 2) reduced conflict incidents 3) reduced rule violations.

    The data show that the more you build this kind of stuff, the more people abide by it.

    “The Alpine interchange is mostly used by recreational cyclists that don’t largely conflict with commute traffic, and when outside the commute times, auto traffic volume is low anyway. I don’t see how a traffic light is going to make both sides feel treated fairly (unnecessary wait).”

    –> I don’t see why recreative biking is any less a reason for good infrastructure. I bike recreationally sometimes and my desire for safe/logical infrastructure is still there just like it is when I’m riding my bike to do errands. Anyway, in the case of Alpine advocates of true “vehicular cycling” already can’t practice that there because there *is* a bike lane, after all. My point is they just spent three years to design a bad one.

    Actually, I ironically tend to feel safer in places like that during crowded commute times because cars aren’t traveling at high speeds. On such roads it’s often when it’s sparse-moderate traffic and drivers are lulled into a complacent sense of comfort with their 50-mph speeds that their infrastructure-induced disregard for bikes is most dangerous.

    And my point too is that to some degree “if you build it they will come.” Arguing that current biking levels are low/recreative misses the point that often those levels are low because the average 8-80 crowd doesn’t feel safe there at all so would never consider it.

    In addition, the mere fact that that road goes directly to and from a major university campus–one that happens to be pretty bikey–is reason enough to consider a more robust infrastructure treatment than your average suburban road.

    “If all you rely on is enforcement, then don’t complain about the enforcement on the Wiggle.”

    –> Well I wasn’t complaining about the Wiggle–that seems like something for another time and place, but even that goes back to my point about the need to design better infrastructure with bikes in mind and enforce accordingly.

  • Andy Chow

    All the stuff that you talked about are expensive. If the conflict isn’t that much and can be managed without having to install lights, that should be pursued. If somehow we have that much money we might want to consider a bike/ped tunnel or underpass which will work better than lights because it completely eliminates conflicts and don’t require wait from anyone.

  • Andy Chow

    So if I drive a car and run a stop sign on the Wiggle, Would I get stopped by cops that stop stop sign running cyclists?

  • @acnetj:disqus – I passed the police sting intersection every evening during the week of their selective enforcement and I did indeed see them ignore motorists running through STOP signs. One night there was a cruiser stopped, with its lights off, a few car lengths back from the intersection and motorists pulled into the oncoming lane to get around it, headed directly into oncoming cyclists, and again, no citations.

    This same pattern was captured on video during a selective enforcement operation in 2007.

    Not that this has any relevance whatsoever to the article at hand, but whatever.

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