Another Death on El Camino, While Atherton Bike/Ped Plan Stays Tabled

The “enhanced crosswalk signing and striping” installed last year on El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue, where resident Shahriar Rahimzadeh was killed while crossing the street two weeks ago. Image: Google Maps

32-year-old Shahriar Rahimzadeh was struck and killed by the driver of a red 2000 Volvo S40 sedan while walking across El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue near his home in Atherton two weeks ago. It was exactly the type of high-speed, fatal collision that could have been prevented either by crosswalk improvements that Caltrans is dragging its feet on, or by the comprehensive redesign of El Camino proposed by the town’s draft bicycle and pedestrian plan. That plan still awaits approval from the Town Council, more than four months after its review in April.

“Mr. Rahimzadeh was struck hard enough to be thrown some distance from the site of the collision,” Atherton Police Sergeant Sherman Hall told The Almanac. Hall also noted that “we’re not able to place him in the crosswalk,” despite one eyewitness who described seeing both a puddle of blood in the crosswalk, and the Volvo stopped just a few feet past the crosswalk. Shahriar Rahimzadeh survived five hours before dying at Stanford Hospital at 8:40 p.m.

Shahriar Rahimzadeh (left) died on July 23, five hours after being struck by a car driver while walking across El Camino Real in Atherton. Photo: Reza Iranmanesh, via The Almanac

The 1.6-mile stretch of El Camino Real that cuts through the low-density residential town presents an ongoing hazard to residents walking or bicycling — especially for anyone crossing the six-lane arterial street anywhere other than at the sole traffic signal, at Atherton Avenue and Fair Oaks Lane. In October 2012, two women were seriously injured by an SUV driver while walking together across El Camino, in the crosswalk at Isabella Avenue. Two years earlier, 55-year-old Honofre Mendoza and 62-year-old Christopher Chandler were killed by drivers in separate crashes at the same intersection.

After the October 2012 injuries, Atherton officials began lobbying a reluctant California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to implement safety improvements, resulting in “enhanced crosswalk signing and striping” at the town’s five existing crosswalks on El Camino — including Almendral Avenue, where Shahriar Rahimzadeh was killed on July 23.

Caltrans also agreed to install pedestrian hybrid beacons on El Camino at Almendral Avenue and Isabella Avenue, but only after Atherton town staff insisted on a solution that would require drivers to come to a complete stop for pedestrians crossing the street. Pedestrian hybrid beacons are similar to standard traffic signals: They display yellow, then red, lights to stop vehicle traffic after being activated via a push-button by a person wishing to cross the street on foot or by bike. Caltrans agreed to pay for, and install, the beacons at a cost up to $150,000 for each intersection — but not until 2017. Caltrans engineers initially proposed using much cheaper rectangular rapid flashing beacons, which flash yellow lights from a roadside sign but do not require drivers to stop.

Chris Chandler (left), shown here with his wife and three daughters, was struck and killed by a car driver while bicycling across El Camino in Atherton in 2010. Photo: The Almanac

But the new signals are considered a short-term solution to save lives until a more effective major re-design of El Camino Real can be studied, funded, and constructed. Atherton’s first-ever bicycle and pedestrian plan strongly recommends reducing the number of travel lanes on El Camino Real from six to four, converting the right-most lanes in both directions to bike/ped paths separated from vehicle traffic with some type of barrier.

“The project would greatly improve safety for all modes, especially pedestrians, and encourage greater bicycle and transit travel,” states the draft plan. “Atherton is one of the last remaining segments of El Camino Real without any dedicated bicycle or pedestrian facilities.” The final draft version of the plan, submitted to town staff by consulting firm Alta Planning + Design in July, made few changes from the preliminary draft finished in March.

“The reduction of travel lanes from six lanes to four lanes would improve pedestrian safety by decreasing crossing distance and would also reduce vehicular speeds,” wrote Atherton Community Services Director Michael Kashiwagi of the concept. The reallocation of roadway space — a total of 24 feet, from the two travel lanes plus the roadway’s varied shoulders — would also allow the installation of pedestrian refuges within the existing medians, as well as separated paths for walking and bicycling on both sides of the street.

The town’s bike/ped plan also proposes to install 2.8 miles of new bike lanes, enhance 3.6 miles of existing bike lanes (mostly by widening), and add 7.8 miles of new signed bike routes. Those routes include two cross-town bicycle boulevards, one running north-south and the other east-west. It recommends a total of $13 million for 32 traffic safety projects, including $7 million for 15 “Priority Projects.”

Atherton’s proposed bicycle and pedestrian transportation network. Of the $13 million cost, over 70 percent could be paid for with grants. Image: Alta Planning + Design

But Atherton isn’t waiting for formal approval of the bike/ped plan to move ahead, since town staff and council members regard the serious injuries and fatalities resulting from car crashes as a public health crisis. Four people have been struck and killed by car drivers while walking or bicycling in Atherton since 2010, and 10 to 20 people are injured in car crashes every year on El Camino alone, according to data from the Atherton Police Department.

Atherton’s Town Council unanimously (4-0) approved a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) budget two months ago that included $500,000 to be spent by July 2015 on the most “shovel-ready” projects to save lives and avoid serious injuries. Those could include wider bike lanes, better crosswalks, and other traffic calming measures on Middlefield Road and Selby Lane, but exactly which projects hasn’t yet been decided.

“The highest priority projects are those where we can prevent the most traffic collisions that result in injuries and death,” said council member Bill Widmer, who has lobbied state legislators and Caltrans officials to help address the town’s ongoing traffic violence. ”That means El Camino, Middlefield, and all the Safe Routes to Schools projects. Those will save lives.”

The town council also allocated $100,000 to be spent on the El Camino Real Lane Conversion Study, the scope of which was reviewed by the council on June 4. It would include a traffic analysis, based on vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic counts and demand forecasts, to generate the automobile travel time and intersection level of service estimates that Caltrans requires before approving installation of separated bike/ped paths along the street. Atherton submitted an application for a Community-Based Transportation Planning Grant to Caltrans in April 2013 to fund this study, but the application was denied by Caltrans in September 2013.

Kashiwagi noted the upside of funding the study with the town’s own funds in his June 4 update, writing that it would allow Atherton to “control the scope and schedule of the operational/technical analysis required by Caltrans, as well as the community engagement and stakeholder outreach necessary to advocate and champion proposed changes to El Camino Real.”