Divided By a Highway, East Palo Alto Looks to Reconnect Its West Side
1:00 PM PDT on October 25, 2012
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.
Since East Palo Alto was incorporated in 1983, city leaders have envisioned building a bicycle and pedestrian overcrossing to reconnect the west side, according to vice mayor and longtime community activist Ruben Abrica. But over the 80s and 90s more pressing issues -- crime, a drug epidemic -- gripped the city, and talk of at least improving the University overpass never turned to action.
“We are the only city on the Peninsula without a bike and pedestrian overcrossing,” said Kamal Fallaha, East Palo Alto’s traffic engineer.
There have been missed opportunities to tie a path over the highway to redevelopment, said Abrica. In the past few years, however, the city has made the overcrossing its number one transportation project, and it recently won funding to improve the University overpass to make it friendlier for pedestrians and bike riders.
“Through the commitment and insistence of the City Council, we have made it a priority,” said Abrica, who lives on the west side. "Little by little we have been putting in place some of the things we felt were missing.”
For Maria del Socorro Macias, the new overcrossing would make her walking commute much easier, shortening the distance to get to school for three children, ages 8, 10, and 12.
“It would be a great time saver. I also wouldn't have to use the public bus as much, which would save money and time,” she said. “It would allow me to volunteer at the school more often. My family would feel safe and my children would not have to worry about getting to school late.”
Abrica said when the overcrossing is finally built, it will be a dream come true.
“I think in the next two or three years we're going to get it done. We have to. In fact, it would be a great birthday present to the community, to the city, on its 30th anniversary, which is next year.”
Next: What should East Palo Alto’s new bike and pedestrian overcrossing look like? We’ll delve into the proposed design, and what it will take to build it.
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