Despite pockets of new development, El Camino Real remains a dangerous, car-oriented urban highway along most of the San Francisco Peninsula. If it can ever transform into a great street, it will have to become safer for walking and biking. And while enhancing walkability is a key goal of the Grand Boulevard Initiative – the long-term planning effort to improve El Camino Real between San Francisco and San Jose — redesigning a state road to prioritize safety is always a tough lift, since Caltrans design standards create a thick barrier of red tape. In response, San Mateo County planners are working on four demonstration projects to show how a redesigned boulevard will function.
El Camino Real is the deadliest street in the San Francisco Bay Area for pedestrians, according to a review of traffic fatalities conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting in April. Of the 59 people killed in traffic collisions on the street between 2002 and 2011, 37 — about two-thirds — were pedestrians. In comparison, only 22 percent of the 2,791 people killed in car crashes statewide in 2011 were pedestrians, according to Caltrans data.
Car-oriented commercial retail centers currently dominate along El Camino Real, but residential and office development is gradually filling in the corridor. With more destinations clustered together, walking, bicycling, and transit become increasingly practical for residents and workers.
“Improved walkability and transit are critical to allow El Camino to become the kind of environment that can accept growth without generating additional traffic,” said Egon Terplan, regional planning director for SPUR.
But as a state highway, the street is built primarily to accommodate large volumes of automobile traffic, using the same design standards that apply to freeways. The street’s current design gives little thought to the safety of people walking, bicycling, or accessing transit.
“How a street is designed has a very tangible effect on the number of injuries and deaths that occur,” said ST Mayer, director of health policy and planning for the San Mateo County Health System. “And El Camino has a high rate of bicycle and pedestrian injury.”