Viewpoint - October 26, 2011

Guest opinion: Make a people-friendly El Camino Real

by Adina Levin

The Menlo Park Downtown Plan has built on four years of community feedback. Residents wanted to preserve and enhance Menlo Park's village character, while filling ugly vacant lots along El Camino. Residents wanted to improve east-west connectivity across the city and make it safer to cross on foot or by bike.

The draft plan addressed these goals with wider sidewalks, enhanced crosswalks and improved intersections with sidewalk curb extensions. The curb extensions improve pedestrian safety without reducing safety or convenience for drivers or cyclists by making pedestrians more visible to approaching cars, and reducing the time and distance to cross the street.

These improvements would transform El Camino into a boulevard where residents and visitors want to walk, talk, shop, and enjoy life. People would feel safe walking or biking for short trips to and from downtown, the train station area, grocery stores, and schools. Instead of dividing the city, El Camino would connect it.

But during the review process, the clear vision in the original draft got muddied.

Much in the plan was improved. The City Council recommendations to include a north-south path through the Stanford property, from Roble to the Middle under-crossing, and from the Middle trail through Cambridge. This would help pedestrians and cyclists travel north and south on El Camino, off the road. For experienced cyclists, the Planning and Bike commissions recommended, and council approved, the option of bike lanes along El Camino, just as Palo Alto and Atherton had done before.

Some parts of the plan got worse. Near midnight at a Planning Commission meeting, a commissioner raised an alarm that the curb extensions would block bike lanes. But according to federal design guidelines, curb extensions cannot extend into bike lanes. Another objection to curb extensions was that they would prevent the widening of El Camino to three lanes in each direction. A recommendation to remove the curb extensions and consider a 6-lane El Camino was unfortunately approved 4-3.

This violates key goals of the plan, including maintaining a unique village character and making El Camino safer to cross. A 6-lane highway through the heart of Menlo Park is unsafe, uninviting, and definitely unvillage-like.

Fixing the mistake

Fortunately, council members at their Oct. 4 meeting expressed that they'd changed their minds after being presented with additional information, and wanted to keep the curb extensions for pedestrian safety. But they didn't vote on this item because the meeting ran until 1 a.m. The vision for El Camino in the plan is now at odds with the will of a majority of council members. Council should fix this mistake, and now.

To fulfill the community's vision, the council should move forward with the original people-friendly design for El Camino, with wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and bike lanes. A 6-lane El Camino does not leave space for these safety features that residents have long desired.

Adina Levin lives on Fremont Street in Menlo Park.


Posted by Jarrett M, a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Down in Mountain View, El Camino Real is 6 lanes wide and it's more freeway than street. The multiple lanes encourage people to drive faster which makes walking and biking along the street very unpleasant. When I first visited to Menlo Park, I marveled at how easy it was to cross El Camino and how inviting the wide sidewalks were in front of Kepler's. The 6 lane El Camino freeway in Mountain View is more of a barrier. Nobody wants to walk near it, or across it, and it doesn't sound like that's the environment Menlo Park wants for its downtown. Sure, traffic may be slower, but I'd take the few minutes of "delay" for a more attractive and livable village experience that can't be found anywhere else on the peninsula.

Posted by Keith Davis, a resident of another community
on Oct 30, 2011 at 10:15 pm

I used to live about 100 feet from El Camino Real in Mountain View. It very much felt like living next to a wall - crossing the street was an event.

There are several studies linking an increase in the number of traffic lanes to decreases in social capital, increasing in pedestrian accidents, and a decreased feeling of safety. They need to be a part of the Council's discussion. Here are a few:
- Foltete, J.C., & Piombini, A. (2007). "Urban layout, landscape features and pedestrian usage. Landscape and Urban Planning, 81(3), 225-234.
-Zeeger, C.V., et. al.(2002). Pedestrian Facilities users guide: Providing safety and mobility. Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. Highway Safety Research Center - McLean, VA.
-British Medical Assocation (1997). Road Transportation and Health. London: British Medical Association.

Posted by Andrew Boone, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 31, 2011 at 11:48 am

The idea that sidewalk curb extensions ("bulb-outs") would be removed from the Downtown Specific Plan so that El Camino Real can be widened to a 6-lane highway through downtown Menlo Park is bizarre.

Curb extensions are a proven pedestrian safety design feature that would reduce the distance and therefore the time required to cross El Camino. They increase safety by allowing motorists to see pedestrians waiting on the corner, who would otherwise be blocked from view by parked cars. They would also allow more time for cars driving on El Camino to get through each intersection because the green light phase for cars could be slightly longer because the pedestrian crossing phase could be slightly shorter.

Curb extensions have been installed on both Santa Cruz Ave in Menlo Park and University Ave in Palo Alto and contribute to the pedestrian-friendly nature of those streets. Because those streets are safe for walking, people take their time visiting and spend more money in the stores than they would otherwise.

A 6-lane El Camino without curb extensions would be counter-productive to the most important goals of the Downtown Specific Plan, which include "maintain a village character", "provide greater east-west connectivity", "improve streetscape conditions on El Camino", and "provide a safe pedestrian and bicycle network".

Widening El Camino to 6 lanes so that more cars can be crammed through it is unsafe, unhealthy, and unnecessary. We have so many better choices for reducing traffic congestion by using alternative modes of transportation that given residents more choices, and result in safer streets and cleaner air. 8% of Palo Altans bike to work - we can do that too by installing new bike lanes or widening existing bike lanes. 40 to 50% of Palo Alto public school children walk or bike to school - we can do that too with improved Safe Routes to School safety education programs. Caltrain and Samtrans ridership continue to increase despite CUTS in service - what would happen if service where IMPROVED? And new large employers, including Stanford Hospitals and Facebook are required to get 50% of their employees to work without driving. Stanford University already exceeds this.

City Council: Please fix the mistake of removing sidewalk curb extensions and the BIG mistake of considering a 6-lane highway for El Camino Real in the Downtown Specific Plan. Thank You.

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