Atherton’s Bike/Ped Plan Calls for Safer El Camino Real and Bike Boulevard

A proposed plan for El Camino Real in Atherton would reduce six traffic lanes to four and add a bike/ped path and bike lanes. Image: Alta Planning + Design

The Atherton Town Council this afternoon will review a draft of its first ever bicycle and pedestrian plan, which it crafted over the past eight months with resident input. The plan has attracted little notice, even though it calls for safety redesigns on major streets like El Camino Real, Middlefield Road, and Marsh Road.

The plan’s primary goals are to improve safety for people walking and bicycling on Atherton’s streets, and to reduce school-related traffic congestion by removing barriers that keep children from accessing key destinations on foot or by bike.

Atherton paid for the $40,000 bike/ped plan using a $350,000 settlement that it won from Facebook in 2012, for declining litigation after claiming that the environmental impact report for Facebook’s Menlo Park Campus inadequately assessed traffic impacts.

El Camino Real, whose six lanes slice through the center of Atherton, is by far the town’s most dangerous street. In October 2010, 55-year-old Honofre Mendoza and 62-year-old Christopher Chandler were killed by drivers in separate crashes while crossing El Camino at Isabella Avenue. Exactly two years later at the same intersection, two women were seriously injured by an SUV while walking together in a crosswalk.

Middlefield Road has also seen its share of serious collisions. A man was killed in September 2013 after being struck by a hit-and-run driver near Glenwood Avenue. Several students are also typically injured each year while walking along or crossing Middlefield near Menlo-Atherton High School.

Alta Planning + Design, the consultant crafting Atherton’s new bicycle and pedestrian plan, recommends $13 million in safety projects, including nearly $7 million of “priority projects.” These include pedestrian safety improvements at key intersections, new walking and biking paths, and new crosstown bike routes — including an overhaul of El Camino Real that would add bike lanes and reduce auto lanes from six to four.

El Camino Real at Isabella Avenue in Atherton, the site of multiple fatalities and serious injuries since 2010. Atherton’s draft bike/ped plan recommends removing a traffic lane in both directions and adding separated multi-use paths or buffered bike lanes. Photo: Google Maps

“For us, the issue is that many residents can’t get to the schools, the parks, to the library, post office, or city hall without crossing El Camino,” said Atherton Town Council Member Bill Widmer. “So kids can’t ride their bikes to school, and it’s very difficult for them to walk. Their parents won’t let them.”

Reducing El Camino Real to four lanes would reduce unsafe speeding, and free up space for shared bike/ped paths on either side of the street. But the design would have to be approved by Caltrans, and Alta estimates its cost at nearly $6 million. Bike advocates say there are far cheaper ways to construct such paths, like a trial phase that simply stripes protected bike lanes.

“We don’t believe it will have a major impact on the traffic, because it’s two lanes in each direction through both Menlo Park and Redwood City, and you don’t have a lot of people turning within Atherton,” said Widmer. “The bottlenecks aren’t going to be here. There’s just not that big an impact.”

Atherton’s proposed bike/ped plan also includes a similarly ambitious, but less expensive ($900,000), east-west crosstown bike route. This “Bay to Ridge Greenway” would include shared bike/ped paths alongside Marsh Road, Middlefield Road, and Watkins Avenue, connecting west of El Camino Real to a bicycle route along Alejandra Avenue, Park Lane, and Camino Al Lago, all the way up to Alameda de las Pulgas.

A north-south bicycle boulevard, modeled on Palo Alto’s popular Bryant Street, could transform Selby Lane and Elena Avenue with traffic calming measures and bike navigation signs providing a low-stress alternative to El Camino Real. The plan also calls for new walkways along streets where pedestrians must currently walk in the street.

Many of Atherton’s streets have no sidewalks but many provide wide, unpaved shoulders. Photo: Alta Planning + Design

Since “preserving the scenic, rural character of Atherton is extremely important to town residents,” the town’s General Plan and Municipal Code prohibit sidewalks and vertical curbs. The plan recommends streetscape elements in that vein, such as logs, rocks, and vegetation that separate road shoulders from walking paths.

Many people who bike between Redwood City and Menlo Park are frustrated navigating Atherton’s challenging suburban street grid — facing either fast car traffic on El Camino Real or Middlefield, or winding through a tangle of confusing residential streets.

“Atherton’s lack of low-volume residential streets that cross the whole town is a major barrier to regional travel by bicycle,” said Menlo Park Transportation Commissioner Adina Levin. “This plan could provide a big opportunity to improve regional routes and make both walking and biking across the town safer.”

But some residents feel that the plan emphasizes complex projects that are unrealistic for a small town with an annual budget of just over $10 million. Although many Atherton residents are very wealthy, the town government itself isn’t, and it lacks sufficient city planning and engineering staff to analyze and apply for the many competitive grants that could fund recommended safety improvements.

“I think a big-vision long-term plan is fine, but we need to move ahead with the most cost effective and least intrusive projects we can do,” said Valerie Gardner, who served on the bike/ped plan’s Stakeholder Advisory Group. “The Town Council should prioritize things we can afford and can get done quickly to keep everyone who walks and bikes in Atherton safe.”

At the study session at 4 p.m. today, the Atherton Town Council will hold a public hearing and provide feedback to Alta Planning on the bike/ped plan. The final version of the plan is expected to be approved at the council’s meeting on May 7.

  • jd_x

    “Although many Atherton residents are very wealthy, the town government itself isn’t, and it lacks sufficient city planning and engineering staff to analyze and apply for the many competitive grants that could fund recommended safety improvements.”

    Wow, how *ever* could we possibly come up with a solution for this type of terrible first-world problem?! Rich residents but a poor government?! Hmmmm …. I don’t know, how about raising taxes a tiny bit to raise some money for these worthy causes? Because better pedestrian and cyclists infrastructure is desperately needed here. I agree with Adina’s points in the article that Atherton is like a black hole when riding a bike through this area (and Redwood City and Menlo Park aren’t much better).

    Looking at the plan for El Camino, I’m confused: why not put the 4-foot bike lane on the *other* side of the planters and adjacent to the two-way shared trail to actually give cyclists the safety they deserve? It seems so easy to do this ….

  • aslevin

    Also, Atherton doesn’t do development so there are grants they don’t qualify for. But, the routes through Atherton also serve Redwood City, North Fair Oaks, and Menlo Park, which do qualify for grants and have residents who’d rather bike and walk safely.

  • Wow, how *ever* could we possibly come up with a solution for this type of terrible first-world problem?! Rich residents but a poor government?!

    Atherton is all housing, so with prop 13 they’re basically fucked.

  • Easy

    The closing point was good though – the bike lane on the right hand side should be next to the sidewalk.

  • saimin

    I’m all for adding bike lanes to El Camino in Atherton. However, can’t all the cities along the route coordinate to build bike lanes at the same time? I believe that Sunnyvale is also adding bike lanes to El Camino. Having bike lanes in only some cities is very confusing and dangerous. What are bicyclists supposed to do when they get to the city line? Are they all of a sudden stuck in highway traffic?

    I would love to have a direct and easy to remember bicycle route from San Jose to San Francisco. Cars can just take Hwy 101 or I-280. I bet none of you could tell me a detailed, reasonably direct bicycle route from San Jose to San Francisco.

  • jd_x

    Great point. Caltrans is officially responsible for El Camino (it’s officially state highway 82), so it seems like this road is perfectly amenable to having a unified approach to pedestrian and bicycle safety since one body technically is in charge of the whole thing.

  • Eva Markiewicz

    I agree with one of the previous comments – the planters and bike lanes should be switched to provide bikers with the safety they need. In fact, I’ve heard that in many top bikeabiltiy cities – they put organize the street like this: bike, pedestrian, trees, car lane 1, car lane opposite, trees, pedestrian, bike.

  • Eva Markiewicz

    Just found this article with a very compelling quote:

    If you’re riding down a busy city street on your bike, you’re as much as 90% more likely to get hit by a car than if you’re in a protected bike lane–a lane that actually has a curb or some other physical barrier rather than just a simple white stripe.

    Its a great article, and links to these resources:

  • Tom

    If Atherton has no money, then how was the road built in the first place. If the original road was funded city by city, I would assume it would just stop at the Atherton city limit for lack of funds. I assume it was not funded originally like that, so neither should its improvements be.

  • p_chazz

    Imposing new taxes require a 2/3 majority vote. Good luck with that!

  • p_chazz

    Highways 101 and 280 weren’t built all at once. They were built in discontiguous stretches over several years as funding became available. The same goes for bike lanes.

  • Casey

    Thanks for the article Andrew.

    Couple of points on the bike lane:

    1. Bike lane is curbside for Caltrans approval, as it acts as a shoulder (a required element per Highway Design Manual). Presence and width of shoulders is usually flexible to a degree, but outside lane will likely need it for approval.
    2. It is not logical to put it next to a two-way, shared use pathway (where bicyclists are already allowed). The protection that bicyclists do indeed deserve is already there.
    3. While not serving the “interested but concerned”, the bike lane would be attractive to many cyclists that already use the corridor or similar on-street facilities. Have your cake and eat it too I say!

    The concept needs much more study, including more thought on transit operations and interactions (along with LOS or VMT) since SamTrans is pursuing BRT-like improvements, so it’s a great time to throw out other ideas and concerns if you have them.


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