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Widening El Camino Real in Menlo Park Won’t Cut Traffic, But Bike Lanes Will

El Camino Real facing south at Middle Avenue. Widening the street to six continuous lanes through downtown Menlo Park will attract more traffic and worsen congestion, according to a W-Trans study. Photo: Google Maps

Redesigning El Camino Real to squeeze in more cars will cause more cars to squeeze into El Camino Real, warned the consultant working on a redesign of the street in downtown Menlo Park last week. But creating a safe street for people to get around without a car can actually cut traffic.

At a community meeting last Thursday about the design options for Menlo Park’s stretch of El Camino Real W-Trans Principal Mark Spencer said that widening the street from four to six traffic lanes through downtown would increase traffic volumes dramatically and worsen congestion. Adding buffered or curb-protected bike lanes instead, as recommended by the city’s Transportation Commission in November, would reduce both traffic volumes and congestion slightly, according to the study.

With the six lane option, “traffic volumes on El Camino would go up because it would open up that pipeline to push more traffic through,” Spencer said. “Because of that induced demand, we’re seeing travel times [for car drivers] getting longer.”

A 2008 community-led Vision Plan for El Camino Real in Menlo Park set several goals that street safety advocates say should disqualify the four-to-six lane expansion from consideration. Among those objectives are “maintain a village character,” “provide greater east-west, town-wide connectivity,” and “provide an integrated, safe, and well-designed pedestrian and bicycle network.”

To help meet these community goals, planners recommended maintaining the existing four-lane cross-section for vehicle traffic while adding buffered or protected bike lanes. But with the adoption of the El Camino Real / Downtown Specific Plan in 2012, the City Council also ordered that a six-lane expansion of El Camino be analyzed as well, in the belief that the city might be able to build its way out of congestion.

W-Trans estimates that due to induced demand, widening El Camino Real to a continuous six lanes through downtown Menlo Park would add between 10 and 45 percent more traffic at Ravenswood Avenue, the city’s most congestion intersection. Most of that traffic would be pulled from parallel routes, including Highway 101 and Middlefield Road.

“This option worsens the pedestrian environment as it places fast moving traffic near pedestrians,” wrote Fehr & Peers Principal Jane Bierstedt in a March 2012 report [PDF]. Even without the effect of induced demand, which its preliminary traffic study did not account for, Fehr & Peers found that the maximum travel time savings for car drivers would be 17 seconds at Ravenswood Avenue.

“With induced demand, the delay reduction would be less and operations would likely mimic the four-lane alternative,” concluded Bierstedt.

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San Mateo Adopts Vision Zero and LOS Reform With Sustainable Streets Plan

A future four-lane El Camino Real through downtown San Mateo with wider sidewalks and raised bike lanes, as envisioned by the city’s new Sustainable Streets Plan. Image: City of San Mateo

With the adoption of its Sustainable Streets Plan on Tuesday, San Mateo’s City Council has embraced several major transportation policy reforms, including Vision Zero and reforming car-oriented street design and development practices.

The Sustainable Streets Plan lays out detailed design guidelines for complete streets, envisioning “a transportation system that is sustainable, safe, and healthy and supports a sense of community and active living, where walking, bicycling, and transit are integral parts of daily life.”

San Mateo is now the third city in California to adopt a Vision Zero policy (after San Francisco and Los Angeles), committing to eliminating traffic deaths in near future.

Typically, between two and four people are killed and 40 people are injured by car drivers while walking in San Mateo each year. Most collisions occur in “hot spots” at major intersections downtown and along El Camino Real.

“No loss of life is acceptable,” said City Council Member Joe Goethals. “We can do better, and this plan is the road to doing better… My biggest criticism is the talk about this taking decades and decades. It can happen faster than that.”

Under Vision Zero, San Mateo staff are instructed to review the locations and causes of traffic collisions every year, and propose street and/or sidewalk modifications “to improve walking and bicycling conditions at intersections with the highest rates of collisions.”

The plan also calls for some specific street redesigns, including a sweeping overhaul of El Camino Real from 2nd Avenue to 9th Avenue through downtown San Mateo.

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Daly City Votes to Continue Subsidizing Residential Parking Permits

Willits Street two blocks south of the Daly City BART Station. Only residents are allowed to park vehicles in the street on weekday mornings, and each residence may receive up to three free permits. Photo: Google Maps

Daly City’s City Council shot down a proposal last month to charge $40 a year for residential parking permits near the city’s BART station. The permits, which give resident car owners privileged access to on-street parking, are currently free.

The proposed fee, which amounts to 11 cents per day, elicited raucous opposition from public commenters at the council meeting. The fee would have applied only to a household’s third and fourth parking permits, leaving the first two permits free. The maximum number of permits each household could receive would be capped at four vehicles, up from the current three.

“The proposed fee would encourage driveway and off-street parking; reduce traffic congestion; create a safer pedestrian environment in the affected neighborhoods; recover the costs for processing parking permits and a small portion of the cost for parking permits enforcement,” wrote Daly City Director of Finance and Administrative Services Lawrence Chiu.

The argument to stop subsidizing parking quite so much didn’t get very far. City Council Member Judith Christensen called the proposal “outrageous.”

“That would be 1,039 people who will be paying $40 for something that for 20 years was free,” she noted, pointing to the city’s data on how many households are now parking a third or fourth vehicle in the street.

“I’m absolutely opposed to the raising of parking permit fees… we should disapprove any fee whatsoever,” said Council Member David Canepa.

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New Bike Lanes in Sunnyvale Could Be Just the Beginning for El Camino Real

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The first bike lanes installed on El Camino Real, in Sunnyvale, are six feet wide and run unprotected next to 14-foot wide traffic lanes. Photo: Andrew Boone

To build a bike network, you’ve gotta start somewhere, and on El Camino Real, it started in Sunnyvale last month. The first bike lanes on El Camino Real are six feet wide, striped along the curb with no protection from traffic, running half a mile from Sunnyvale Avenue to Fair Oaks Avenue/Remington Drive, near the city’s downtown.

While it may not be all-ages bike infrastructure, the new bike lanes still set an important precedent for the 43-mile-long street-level highway connecting San Francisco and San Jose. James Manitakos, former chair of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, has called the project “a good first step.”

Now several other towns on the Peninsula are considering safer, better bike infrastructure — including protected lanes — for key segments of El Camino.

Sunnyvale chose to replace car parking with bike lanes on this section of El Camino Real only after commissioning a study [PDF] to ensure that the parking was barely used, so as to not inconvenience drivers. This despite the city’s 2008 Policy for Allocation of Street Space [PDF], which states that “safe accommodation for all transport modes takes priority over non-transport uses,” and that parking “shall not be considered a transport use.”

According to the city’s study, only one of the roughly 134 parking spaces on El Camino’s curbs were used at peak hours on average, and city staff counted 3,337 spaces in the seven parking lots along the street.

Other sections of El Camino Real along the Peninsula could get bike lanes soon, though cities approve them on a piecemeal basis. Mountain View, to the north, approved six-foot wide buffered bike lanes on its 1.2-mile stretch from Calderon/Phyllis Avenue to the border with Sunnyvale at Knickerbocker Drive. That project was approved with the adoption of Mountain View’s El Camino Real Precise Plan in November.

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Atherton Joins HSR Opponents to Sue Caltrain; Menlo Park Drops Its Suit

The Town of Atherton alleges that the review of the Caltrain/High Speed Rail Blended System’s environmental impacts cannot be segmented into two separate environmental impact reports. Image: CAHSR

Last week, the Town of Atherton teamed up with opponents of California High-Speed Rail to file a lawsuit against Caltrain [PDF]. The City of Menlo Park, meanwhile, dropped threats to file a similar lawsuit, one week after listing five issues that the city wants Caltrain to resolve.

Caltrain must complete its electrification project before it starts sharing track, in what’s known as the blended system, with high-speed trains, which are scheduled to start running in 2029The lawsuit from Atherton and two groups opposed to CAHSR asserts that Caltrain violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by conducting environmental impact reports of electrification and the blended system separately, rather than a single project.

“If the project is truly a stand-alone project — independent of serving as a precursor to the blended system – it is hard to understand why providing electrical infrastructure compatible with the blended system should be a major project purpose,” states the lawsuit.

The suit argues that the impacts of several changes for the blended track system weren’t disclosed in the electrification EIR: The reconstruction of curved sections of track for 110 mph trains, the cumulative traffic impacts on at-grade crossings when high-speed trains overtake Caltrain trains, and how high-speed trains sharing the tracks could limit the expansion of Caltrain service in the future.

Caltrain officials said that because the electrification and CAHSR each have “independent utility,” the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows them to be analyzed in separate environmental documents.

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Pedestrian Access to South San Francisco Caltrain Station Gets a Boost

Passengers currently have to access the South San Francisco Caltrain station via the Grand Avenue overpass and walk across the tracks to board trains. Photo: Andrew Boone

The South San Francisco Caltrain station is set to get better walking connections to downtown and a more spacious boarding area after the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) Board awarded a grant for station reconstruction last Thursday.

The $59 million project will widen the center platform and build a pedestrian tunnel re-connecting the station directly to the east end of downtown’s Grand Avenue. Passengers will no longer need to climb an overpass to get to the station or walk across train tracks to board. Instead they will be able to get to the station’s center platform via ramps connecting to a tunnel underneath the tracks.

“This is a vast improvement in safety that will also increase connections to businesses nearby,” said SMCTA Board member and Burlingame City Council member Terry Nagel at the meeting.

Currently the only access to the Caltrain station is from the west side of the train tracks, via a Grand Avenue overpass that spans the tracks directly above the station itself. This overpass requires a long and uncomfortable detour for people walking and bicycling, who have to cross the highway-like, six-lane Grand Avenue and descend either a tall metal staircase or a long frontage road on-ramp.

The overpass and its retaining walls also create a gloomy and unwelcoming area for passengers to wait. With the Caltrain station wedged in between the tracks and Highway 101 and access only available from the west side, passengers arriving by bus or car must also follow circuitous routes to reach the platform.

Walking to the South San Francisco Caltrain requires passing under Highway 101 (upper left), up a long sidewalk on the Grand Avenue overpass (upper right), and down a tall metal staircase (bottom). Photos: Andrew Boone

“The current configuration is a major barrier for residents and employees since it hinders those who need to walk or bike from downtown or BART to our major biotech employers on the east side of the city,” wrote the South San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and representatives of several biotech and real estate companies in identical letters of support.

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New Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf: “Time to Re-Envision Our Roads”

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New Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf showed promise as an executive with a smart vision for her city’s streets at the annual kick-off party for Young Professionals in Transportation’s SF Bay chapter this week.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf: “Our roads were built to accommodate more cars than they need.” Photo: Cynthia Armour/Twitter

In an interview at the event with Sam Greenspan of the podcast 99% Invisible, Schaaf said “it’s time we re-envision how we use roads” and that “we need to create a physical environment that encourages active transportation.”

An Oakland native and former council member, Schaaf was endorsed by Transport Oakland, a group formed last year to advocate for safer streets and better options to get around the city.

Here are some highlights from Schaaf’s appearance this week:

  • “I think it’s time we re-envision how we use roads. It’s their public right-of-way. We’ve got a great story to tell at Lake Merritt… There used to be a freakin’ freeway on either end of the lake, and we removed multiple lanes of traffic, we put in a public plaza on one end, where there are free Salsa dance lessons — I mean, it is a party going on every weekend where there used to be roads… Nobody misses those lanes of traffic at all. Our roads were built to accommodate more cars than they need.”
  • Schaaf intends to hire Oakland’s first mayoral transportation advisor, whom she “plans to announce soon.”
  • When asked about how she sees Vision Zero, she said “twenty is plenty” (referring to the UK-based campaign for 20 mph speed limits), and noted two recent pedestrian fatalities within the past week. “I don’t think anybody supports traffic fatalities,” she said.
  • “Oakland is multi-modal… we need to create a physical environment that encourages active transportation. It’s good for our health, for our social interactions, for our humaneness.”
  • When asked about expanding Oakland’s bike network, Schaaf pointed to the city’s first protected bike lane going in on Telegraph Avenue this year. She also emphasized the need to re-pave the city’s roads since potholes “can be deadly” for people on bikes, and because the costs of road maintenance increase dramatically when neglected for too long.
  • Schaaf plans to campaign for a transportation bond measure in 2016 to add to Measure BB, the half-cent sales tax increase approved by Alameda County voters in November that will raise $7.8 billion in transportation funding over 30 years.
  • On the proposals for streetcars on Broadway and San Pablo Avenue, and the contrast with bus rapid transit improvements, she said “that’s going to be a big hot debate — one (bus transit) is more of a transportation solution, and the other is more of an economic development solution.”
  • “The issue about bus vs. rail is part of the gentrification and equity conversation… it’s incredibly important to educate our elected officials not to always just look at the shiny, pretty thing, because buses are what we need to actually get people to their jobs.” (No comment specifically on the Oakland Airport Connector, though it sounds like her take could apply to that project.)
  • Schaaf noted the blight caused by freeway underpasses, and suggested turning them into a “tunnel of wow” possibly with decorative features, shops, and amenities to make them feel safer and more attractive. “What about those freeways?” she asked, stopping short of mentioning freeway removal.
  • On the proposed second Transbay BART tube through Alameda and Mission Bay: “It will not be cheap… I think it will really reduce congestion. I hella love Oakland, but we do need to think regionally, and it would make a lot of sense for the region.”
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Redwood City Approves Farm Hill Road Diet, Complete Streets Committee

Photo: Andrew Boone

On Monday, the Redwood City Council unanimously approved a two-mile road diet with bike lanes for Farm Hill Boulevard. The City Council also approved the formation of a Complete Streets Committee, which will consist of volunteers (“daily users of the streets”) who will advise city staff and the council on street design issues.

The approvals are a sign of progress at the City Council, which had previously rejected both the committee (in 2009) and road diet (in 2012).

The five-member Complete Streets Committee “is the next step in ensuring the city considers the needs of all roadway users,” said Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Policy Manager Emma Shlaes.

Redwood City Management Analyst Susan Wheeler wrote in a report [PDF] that a Complete Streets Committee “will strengthen the city’s position when applying for bike/ped project grants, leading to potential financial savings and enabling bike/ped project opportunities and enhancements that would not otherwise be financially feasible.”

Back in 2009, the council decided that getting informed feedback about walking and biking accommodations in street design projects wasn’t worth an estimated 20 hours per month in additional staff time. Redwood City has 13 other advisory committees that weigh in on public policy ranging from housing to mosquito control.

In recent years, the SVBC had organized quarterly meetings with city staff in lieu of an official advisory committee. Participants agreed the meetings have helped the city implement safer street designs as roads are resurfaced. But the meetings have been focused primarily on bicycling issues, and advocates worry that more diverse opinions aren’t being voiced.

“It’s really much better to have publicly-noticed meetings so that people can find out about it — it’s very helpful for public participation,” said Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin at Monday’s City Council meeting.

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Momentum Builds to Eliminate Dangerous Gap in SF Bay Trail

Officials hope to secure funds from San Mateo County’s 2012 Measure A program to extend the San Francisco Bay Trail through Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, eliminating a stressful detour. Photo: Andrew Boone

Prospects for a safer and more convenient San Francisco Bay Trail are looking brighter as momentum builds for strengthening environmental protections along the bay in San Mateo County.

On Tuesday, Menlo Park planning staff reported that the city, in partnership with neighboring East Palo Alto and Palo Alto, as well as the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), will seek approval from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to designate their many San Francisco Bay shoreline parks and wildlife refuges as a new priority conservation area.

The designation was created by ABAG in 2007 “to attract funds to support the long-term protection of regionally significant open spaces about which there is broad consensus for long-term protection.” The conservation area would include Bedwell Bayfront Park, the Ravenswood Salt Pond Restoration Area, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the Ravenswood Open Space Preserve, Cooley Landing, and the Baylands Nature Preserve.

One upshot of this development could be a better Bay Trail. “The PCA designation would expand funding opportunities for enhancing the current Bay Trail around Bedwell Bayfront Park and connections from the Belle Haven neighborhood to the Park,” wrote Menlo Park Assistant Community Development Director Justin Murphy in a report presented to the City Council [PDF].

Murphy cited the long-planned $2.2 million Ravenswood Bay Trail, a missing 0.6-mile section of the San Francisco Bay Trail from University Avenue to the Ravenswood Regional Open Space Preserve in East Palo Alto, as a high-priority regional project more likely to receive county and regional grants with the PCA designation. This gap in the Bay Trail forces pedestrians and bicyclists on a detour along a section of busy, four-lane University Avenue that includes narrow bike lanes but no sidewalks.

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Redwood City Set to Approve 4-to-3 Lane Road Diet on Farm Hill Boulevard

Caption. Photo: Google Maps

Redwood City engineers have found adding white edge lines and sharrows to Farm Hill Boulevard in Summer 2013 hasn’t resulted in slower vehicle speeds or fewer collisions. Photo: Google Maps

After rejecting the idea as too ambitious in 2012, Redwood City transportation officials last week recommended a road diet on Farm Hill Boulevard as a one-year pilot project.

If the City Council approves the project on January 26, two miles of the street will get the road diet treatment in about six months.

Redwood City staff say going from four lanes to three “is one of the most effective engineering changes available to achieve the goals of enhancing safety and livability for residents, visitors, and commuters” in their report for Monday’s City Council meeting [PDF]. “It will reduce the existing, excess capacity during off-peak times which facilitates unsafe driving.”

City staff found that 60 to 90 percent of car drivers currently exceed the 35 mph speed limit on Farm Hill Boulevard, which crosses the southernmost extent of Redwood City from Alameda de las Pulgas to Highway 280 through neighborhoods of single-family homes. Speeding is the primary cause of more than 40 percent of crashes causing injury on the street, which occur roughly every other month on average.

“Farm Hill Boulevard is one area where the city is piloting a Complete Streets approach and has had a long history of community concerns,” wrote Redwood City spokesperson Meghan Horrigan in an email. “The city continues to receive complaints about safety and property damage due to speeding and reckless driving.”

Last May, two 19-year-olds seen speeding in a Mercedes on Farm Hill Boulevard crashed into a tree, sending them both to the hospital with serious injuries.

“The house at the corner of Glennan and Farm Hill has had cars ‘arrive’ several times and they now have large boulders on the corner to protect the house,” reported resident Rebecca Ratcliff. “Those boulders have been hit several times, including one last summer that woke the mother.” Ratcliff says she knows two families who moved away from Farm Hill due to the threat posed to their children by dangerous traffic.

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