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East Palo Alto Considers Options for Bike/Ped Bridge Over Highway 101

Photosims of EPA 101 Bike/Ped Bridge Landings

Alta Planning + Design's rendering of different options for a future bicycle/pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 in East Palo Alto. Images: Alta

The dream of reconnecting the two halves of East Palo Alto divided by Highway 101 with a bicycle/pedestrian bridge moved one step closer to reality last month with the release of the project’s draft feasibility study [PDF].

EPA 101 Bike/Ped Bridge Fives Alignments Map

Five alignments for the bicycle/pedestrian bridge were analyzed in the feasibility study.

Alta Planning + Design, which conducted the $300,000 study, examined five different possible alignments for the bridge, which are estimated to cost between $6.5 million and $9.5 million to design and construct. According to Alta’s estimates, the bridge would be used for 130,000 to 230,000 trips per year (350 to 630 per day) — an unusually high volume for bike/ped bridges due to the dense residential and commercial development on either side of the highway.

EPA City Council members who reviewed the study at a meeting last Tuesday didn’t indicate a preference for any of the bridge designs, though all four of those present voiced their support for the project (one, David Woods, was absent).

“The current overpass over the 101 freeway is not safe,” said Council Member Laura Martinez. “I see this project as a solution to get our residents across town. This is a major connection for our residents to get to schools, shopping, our grocery store. This overcrossing encourages walking and biking.”

When planners gathered input on the project at a series of community meetings last year, “issues of traffic safety rose immediately to the top,” said Alta’s Casey Hildreth.

As Mayor Ruben Abrica noted, East Palo Alto is one of the last Peninsula cities divided by Highway 101 to receive a bicycle/pedestrian bridge. “There has been a pedestrian bridge in Menlo Park, there has been a pedestrian bridge in Palo Alto, for many years. We are the only ones who don’t have one,” he said. “It’s good for business, it helps children get to school, it connects us more to the surrounding communities, and to the Bay.”

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In East Palo Alto, Meager Bike/Ped Funding Leads to Half-Baked Safety Fixes


The north side of the University Avenue overpass over Highway 101 has no bike lane and a four-foot sidewalk. Pictured: Brent Butler, East Palo Alto Planning Manager, leads Streetsblog on a tour of the area. Photo: Bryan Goebel.

East Palo Alto was recently awarded $5 million to build a freeway off-ramp designed a decade ago that even the city’s traffic engineer admits is no longer needed because traffic volumes are down. But as part of the project, the north section of the University Avenue overpass — a treacherous but often necessary route for East Palo Alto residents who bike and walk — would be widened to expand the skinny sidewalk to twelve feet and add a five-foot bike lane.

“I’m not crazy about the off-ramp, and I see little benefit, in my opinion, but it’s a package that we have to do together,” said Kamal Fallaha, East Palo Alto’s traffic engineer. “We need the widening for the pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Bike advocates not only take issue with the off-ramp, they say the proposed improvements for bike riders and pedestrians fall far short of what’s needed. They’re concerned the approaches to both sides of the bridge — which have no bike lanes and narrow sidewalks — would not be improved as part of the project. Nor would the south side of the overpass.

“We are about to spend $5 million for a tiny reduction in motorist travel times but cannot even provide decent pedestrian and bicycle accommodation at a place with very high ped and bike traffic volumes,” said Andrew Boone, a bicycle advocate who lives in East Palo Alto and helped start the Peninsula Transportation Alternatives blog.

Alex Fabrikant, a bike commuter who also lives in East Palo Alto, “avoids the bridge like the plague” and was disappointed the south side “would be just as terrible,” he said. “It feels like the kind of improvement that would be a small step forward but it won’t radically change the biking patterns until both directions are covered.”

The story of why this critical project treats safety as an afterthought highlights major shortcomings in the way regional and state agencies plan, fund, and build improvements for walking and biking. Stingy safety funds from the county’s transportation authority and the rigidness of Caltrans have conspired to stymie a common-sense approach to what should be a simple task: Providing a safe passage for people to walk and bike across Highway 101.

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Divided By a Highway, East Palo Alto Looks to Reconnect Its West Side

A highway overpass with a narrow sidewalk is the only connection for residents on the west side of East Palo Alto who need to walk or bike to access the east side. Photos: Bryan Goebel

This is the first in a series of stories on East Palo Alto’s proposed bicycle and pedestrian overcrossing.

It takes Maria del Socorro Macias about 40 minutes to walk from her neighborhood on the west side of East Palo Alto to her kids’ schools on the east side of Highway 101. To get there, she has to take a narrow sidewalk on the University Avenue overpass and walk through the city’s most congested intersection.

“It is very dangerous,” del Socorro Macias, 48, told Streetsblog through a Spanish interpreter. “There are numerous traffic lights to cross to get to the schools. It is especially dangerous walking at night, but I often do it because I attend school meetings and parent workshops.”

On foot and by bicycle, it’s a risky journey that countless East Palo Altans have been forced to take for decades, ever since the freeway sliced through their community. To visit friends, to get to church, to the library, or to Mi Pueblo — for now the city’s only grocery store — west side residents, many of whom have low incomes and don’t own cars, must contend with the freeway crossing and unforgiving street traffic.

“There’s a four-foot wide sidewalk that leads to the intersection with the highest traffic in the city,” said Brent Butler, the city’s planning manager. “It’s unsafe.”

A 2010 analysis noted that, among 97 California cities, East Palo Alto has the third-highest ratio of pedestrian collisions to the volume of driving.

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Bike Donation Program to Benefit East Palo Alto Elementary Students

Some East Palo Alto youngsters are escorted by a police officer as part of the FIT zone program, which encourages health and fitness activity in neighborhoods with high levels of crime and violence. Photo: EPAPD

Brent Butler was leading a bicycle rodeo in East Palo Alto for the city’s first Streets Alive event last year when he realized just how many children were there without bikes.

“What I decided to do is continue to teach the rules of the road even if we don’t have bicycles,” said Butler, the city’s planning manager and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. “We’re going to run the course and I’m going to demonstrate what you need to do with your arms. That was successful. The kids loved it.”

The 2011 event, timed with World Health Day and Cinco De Mayo, drew 1,000 kids from neighborhoods all over East Palo Alto. While there’s no shortage of children eager to ride, there is a lack of access to bicycles. Not a single bike shop exists in East Palo Alto, where 79 percent of families are low income.

“That’s a big obstacle because, you know, when you go to Palo Alto, the bike shops are expensive. For a low-income community, the prices can be prohibitive,” said Butler.

To help break some of the barriers to bicycle ownership in a youthful city where the average age is 28, the city has partnered with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.  The first step is a bicycle donation program called the East Palo Alto Low Income Mobility Initiative that will benefit elementary school children who complete a bicycle education class.

“We really need to get the youth educated,” said Butler. “A lot of the studies indicate that if you bicycle in your youth, it’s often something that will stay with you.”

Low-income families in East Palo Alto face a higher frequency of health and crime problems than any other city in San Mateo County. The Ravenswood Family Health Center estimates more than 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese by the age of 5.

“One of the focuses of our effort is to indicate how important (bicycling) is for your health. Rewarding households that have zero cars is one of my dream projects,” said Butler, who gets around the city by bicycle. “I’m trying to encourage others to do what I do.”

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