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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

camino_bike_lane

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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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 Interchange Could Get More Dangerous for Walking and Biking

Redwood City’s Woodside Road interchange at Highway 101 has no infrastructure for people to cross by bike or on foot. Photo: Google Maps

Redwood City has begun environmental review on a planned reconstruction of the Highway 101 interchange at Woodside Road, as well as two major intersections on either side of the highway — projects designed to move more cars. Some of the proposed designs would retain existing traffic ramps that are hazardous to people walking and bicycling, and Woodside and Broadway Street would both be widened.

“That’s where the fatalities are, especially with truck drivers,” said Redwood City resident Matthew Self. “These are the high-risk points where cars are speeding up to freeway speeds.”

Alternatively, a design favored by bicycle and pedestrian safety advocates would replace all the on-ramps and off-ramps with large signalized intersections. All of the proposed designs include two multi-use paths, one sidewalk, and bike lanes.

City and county transportation officials say the $60 to $90 million highway expansion project is needed to “alleviate existing and projected peak hour traffic congestion” in the area. If the project is approved, the interchange would carry more cars with new traffic lanes, intersections, bridges, and possibly a tunnel on Woodside.

“The project purpose is to alleviate existing and projected peak hour traffic congestion in the area, and to enhance mobility and safety,” said Scott Kelsey, Senior Transportation Manager for URS, the consulting firm hired by Redwood City to guide the project through the required environmental reviews. “There’s also the lack of adequate bicycle and pedestrian accommodations, we are going to fix that too.”

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Coming to Caltrain: Longer Trains With More Room for Bikes

Caltrain Bombarier Bike Car With Folding Bikes

Caltrain’s Bombardier trains currently only carry 48 bikes each. With trains receiving a third bike car, 72 bikes can fit on board. Photo: John Woodell/Twitter

Caltrain will add a third bike car to all six of its Bombardier trains, Executive Director Michael Scanlon announced at the transit agency’s monthly board of directors meeting last week. With the new cars, bike capacity will increase from 48 to 72 on each of the Bombardier trains. But it could take up to one year to place the six-car trains into service.

The new bike cars are part of a larger $15 million project to acquire and refurbish 16 used rail cars from Los Angeles Metrolink, adding about 2,000 seats across Caltrain’s fleet. The agency’s 15 older gallery-style trains already carry 80 bikes each, since seats are not placed in the center of the two bike cars on those trains, and will not receive more bike capacity.

Crowding on Caltrain is becoming increasingly severe during the morning and evening rush. A record 61,670 passengers packed into the agency’s five-car trains on an average weekday in October 2014, and “standing room only” is now the norm during peak hours. With ridership growing more than 10 percent each year since 2009, the trend shows no sign of stopping. New office space and housing construction in San Francisco, along El Camino Real in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and within walking distance of Caltrain stations are also quickly filling up any remaining passenger capacity even on trains running outside the traditional commute times.

The number of passengers bringing bicycles on Caltrain has grown four times faster than overall ridership since 2008. Strong growth in the Bay Area’s tech and finance economies continues to bring thousands more workers every year to suburban office developments located far from any practical rail or bus services — making train-plus-bike the only feasible alternative to commuting by car.

Caltrain officials were initially leaning toward adding refurbished rail cars to the Bombardier fleet with total seating for about 650 passengers but no spaces for bikes. That would have actually cut the share of passengers who can bring a bike on board compared to the status quo, even as bike-plus-train trips continue to outpace overall Caltrain ridership growth.

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