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Addressing Pedestrian and Bike Safety in Embarcadero Underpass

Original post made by Bob Wenzlau on Sep 11, 2007

This post is out of exasperation after the city's and school's failure to address the persistent bike and safety hazards in this underpass.

This is a very high traffic area for bikes, cars and people. Given Town & Country's development plans, more hazards are on the way.

Today I witnessed a bike crash on the underpass between three student bikers. It occurred on the ramp near the crosswalk to Palo Alto High by the shopping center. The collision nearly threw one of the riders into the fast moving automobile traffic on Embarcadero. It was very very close. As a regular bike commuter, previously I had observed a similar event when a child scooter rider lost control going down the ramp.

These hazards have been presented to city staff, city council members, the school/bike safety committee, and the former Paly principal. I have presented them across several years. Seeing these hazards lead for several proposals including:
- extending the railing along the side of the ramps.
- improving access and egress routing from the underpasses at the north and east sides
- inviting striping to allow for more organized passing

As a former PTA traffic representative, I felt reasonably qualified in my observations, and seemed to gain some acknowledgment from city planning. When presented to the Mayor, she indicated that perhaps some money from paving Embarcadero could be diverted to this. (Staff did based on recommendations remove the one-way restrictions in the underpass that were implausible, and had been a basis of ticketing several years ago)

Nothing has happened based on these recommendations! Today's incident invited me to try another route of communication--our town forum. I believe this type of situation is a litmus test for the city's commitment to a bicycle / pedestrian friendly city. I have grown cynical after publicizing this hazard, seeing inaction, yet observing numerous photos of bike riding officials. I want our cycling safer in this town to compliment our bike riding pledges.

Perhaps it is time for someone with a different tact to pick up on this hazard, and ask for a modest sum to be spent to improve the pedestrian access through this most traveled corridor. At a minimum, I hope for extension of safety rails along the underpass. For those masters of city politics, please offer any thoughts.

Comments (29)

Posted by PA mom, a resident of Addison School
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:24 pm


If you have ever walked or biked that path, the sidewalk is shared by bikes and pedestrians, with the bikes to one side, walkers to the other. Unless a bike has a bell, the traffic noise covers the sound of an approaching bike. About 800-1000 kids rushing not to be late for school (plus teachers) enter Paly at Embarcadero - all in about 15-20 minutes. Add to that, lots of commuter traffic, student drivers, parents who don't remember to take turns, people who ignore the keep clear signs, a really odd (I'm being polite) set up for the crosswalk and the entrances and exits from Town and Country. There's not much infrastructure to misuse.

Posted by Vin Blanc, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:25 pm

Bob, Thank you for your continued support on this measure. I have also tried to get the Paly bicycle committee to take action on this to no avail. I hope this message goes farther than our efforts. I don't know what planet the comment from Logical is on, but apparently, not ours.

Thanks again!

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:26 pm


Your comments don't help.

This sounds like a serious issue. I have a son in Paly who rides his bike daily, but uses Churchill. This scares me. Only last week I saw an accident between two adult cyclists right outside an elementary school.

We must make the commute routes to school a priority in traffic safety. I am not very familiar with the dangers here as I seldom drive the underpass, but I know that the main entrance/t & c entrances are both places I avoid as much as I can as a driver.

Good luck Bob in your endeavour.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:37 pm

To clarify one aspect of the hazard. Bikes and pedestrians necessarily share the "sidewalks" on the underpass. The collision that I witnessed occurred on the sidewalk area, not in the roadway. My hoped for improvement is to extend and improve the railing between the roadway and the sidewalk to better protect the pedestrians and cyclists on the sidewalk area. If bikes or pedestrians do collide, the collision ought to be limited to the sidewalk area, and not spill into Embarcadero. We likely have to accept the constraints of the basic infrastructure we have such as the widths of the roadway and shared bike/pedestrian sidewalk. Thanks for the comments.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:48 pm

Bob, good for you, thanks for fighting the good fight. Have you emailed the City Councilors directly? Where is a City Councilor who can spend time on this instead of green buildings, FTTH, and campaign spending limits??

Posted by logical, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2007 at 9:18 pm

PA Mom and Bob,

You get my point, and you miss my point. Bicycles need their own infrastructure. PA city council did it for the homer tunnel that only services the PAMF campus (though it has many safety issues). Why won't they do it (and hopefully something better) for the children's bicycle route to Paly? Much more bicycle use there.....

"Share the Road", "Share the Sidewalk", "Share the anything" doesn't work.... Just ask CalTrain how well sharing with motor vehicles has worked, or ask the dead cyclists on Sand Hill Road how well sharing with motor vehicles has worked....

Please don't deny the laws of physics. Train vs car, car loses. Car vs bicycle, bicycle loses. Bicycle vs pedestrian, pedestrian loses.

Our ancestors had the common sense to provide separate infrastructure for motor vehicles and pedestrians when motor vehicles were coming of age.

So, why don't you, as bicycle advocates, lobby for a separate infrastructure now? After all, Palo Alto is a "bicycle friendly" city.....

Posted by RS, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 11, 2007 at 9:31 pm


bicycles preceded cars historically. Some of these roads preceded cars. Now the bicyclists then were kind enough to share the roads with those new fangled cars. Learn from your elders.

and yes, you are right most bicyclists are possessed with a youthful spirit, so you might want to give it a try.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2007 at 9:54 pm

The type of infrastructure you invite is not in the foreseeable budget. We are essentially stuck with the underpass the way it is for the next ten years.

Some simple improvements will help protect the students and others until and if a new underpass would be constructed. I certainly would not discourage a major improvement -- I just don't want it to become the proxy for some of the shorter term "patches" I have invited.

We could improve the safety in the underpass with modest expenditure (less that $50K as a city spends money).

We should challenge ourselves to see if these improvements can be made within next several months, perhaps out of a maintenance budget, or left over capital allocations from the Embarcadero improvements.

Logic may dictate pursuing in parallel a short-term and long-term solution for this area.

Posted by bill daul, member of the human race, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Perhaps we could take some of the hundreds of billions our mentally challenged government is spending in no-where-land and apply it in helping us with REAL issues...nah, that would establish a bad precedence!

Posted by look for leverage, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2007 at 11:39 pm

Bob and friends --
Here's another tack to consider: bring up the need for bike and pedestrian safety improvements in the public process related to the redevelopment of Town and Country, esp. Trader Joe's. Your point about the access and egress routing from the underpass needing improvement is well taken. But remember that when the plans for the new Trader Joe's go up for approval, increased traffic volume will almost certainly be a major issue.

So why not use this venue to push for some mitigation funding from this new traffic-generating development that could pay for improving the safety of those using the underpass (as well as the new path by the train tracks) to access Town and Country? This is likely to get more action towards your goal than just complaining to the City Council would do.

Last I heard, the Trader Joe's plan will be going before the Architectural Review Board (ARB) soon. Heard through the grapevine that the developers are proposing to run a new driveway right near the pedestrian signal. This would make the current complicated jockeying of cars, bikes and those on foot at peak periods *much* worse at this Embarcadero pinch point.

So first, generate some heat to make sure that the city does _not_ approve any new driveway that would route cars through the area where all the kids cross Embarcadero in the morning. But also urge the ARB to put some teeth in getting the Town and Country management and Trader Joe's to encourage more residents to come to their shopping center by walking or biking.

Two ways to do this would be to do update this 1930's underpass to make it safer for higher volume bike and pedestrian use and to convert the current abandoned wasteland between the bike/ped path by the train tracks so that it's an inviting entrance to this shopping center.

Does anyone know the timetable for the Trader Joe's project approvals?

Posted by Persistent, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 8:54 am

Look for Leverage has an excellent idea. Speaking to an agenda item nearly always gets attention. Speak to the issue at the Architectural Review Board, then when it goes to the Planning and Transportation Commission and then before the City Council you will make your point. If possible give them a solution to the problem that they can work with.

Unfortunately, this takes time and organization but it is the way that those who want something get it done. Two residents fought for and got the Charleston corridor reduced from four to two lanes by speaking out at every meeting and every public hearing on the issue over a two years period but they got it done. Be persistent.

Posted by k, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 12, 2007 at 11:25 am

Bob, thanks for bringing this to our attention. I wasn't quite aware how bad this is. It's hard for us to understand if we have never ridden a bike through there. We have some sense of the problem.

I do know Palo Alto claims to be a bike-friendly/supportive city and the major supports cycling, and we should improve this transportation sector.

Can some students tell us what they find it to be like riding through there? Have they had close calls?

I have a student cyclist who occasionally rides through there to school. I drive through there and see the obvious bottleneck and terrible extrance/exit to T & Country, BUT I didn't really know the perspective of a student bicyclist or an adult bicyclist OR the day-to-day risks you are describing. If there are real risks in such a high-traffic spot then something must be done about it. The Paly student population is supposed to be rising.

I support action from the city in the way of some sort of improvement really soon. I recommend working towards incremental improvements. If you put together a petition to request the extension of the railing, I will sign it. Perhaps the new Paly principal and Paly PTSA will endorse a direct proposal of that nature and that will help to get action from the city. Surely something can be done. Paly is in session now and the bikers, pedestrians, cars are out there and I'm sure Stanford will be back to school soon, with a commensurate rise in cars streaming through that underpass.

Posted by Donald, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 12, 2007 at 6:25 pm

Although this may seem like a school issue, it is beyond the school district's boundaries and must be solved by the City. Any project to substantially modify this undercrossing will be VERY expensive. Remember when the City was building the Homer undercrossing and was mercilessly hammered over the cost? Many people said it was unnecessary because the Embarcadero and University underpasses were so close. Obviously, those people never biked through either. The sidewalks are way too narrow for safe cycling, and the outcome that Bob saw was predictable. Extending the railing is putting makeup on a **#$$. People should NOT be riding their bikes on that sidewalk when it is congested. There are other routes to Paly, and there is always the option of walking for a bit. I know it is hard to convince teens in a hurry to take a longer route or walk their bikes, but until someone comes up with $5 million - $10 million to re-do the underpass, that is the safest advice.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 12, 2007 at 8:54 pm


While Donald would hope that there are alternative routes to Paly, the Embarcadero underpass is the only practical route for families that live in much of the Duveneck, Walter Hayes and Addison school districts. If one views the albeit unfortunate orientation of streets like Kingsley and Lincoln -- they all point to Embarcadero at the underpass. Embarcadero feeds not only Paly, but also Stanford and Town & Country. All of us are reasonably encouraged to bike, and and cyclist will take the most expedient route. Neither Churchill nor the Homer underpass will serve this, resulting in 25 to 50% greater travel distance.

Donald asserts the District holds no interest. Whether the District has authority or not over this issue, they have and maintain an interest in safety of our students on their routes to and from school. The District, my own experience attesting to this, will advise on safe routes, and therefore involves itself in off-campus safety. The route I seek improvement of is designated a "safe route" to school. I can assure you that in the event of a traffic accident that involves a student occurs, it will deeply affect our school community whether it is technically in their jurisdiction or not.

A typical and unfortunate feature of Donald's argument is that we much wait for the re-do of the underpass for safety to be improved. I disagree. Any improvement that keeps students from spilling into Embarcadero as a result of a collision could be made safer by a barrier or fence -- it is simple. While it will hurt to crash into a pedestrian or bike on the ramp; the outcome is far better than hitting a car exiting at 45 miles per hour.

While the "Donalds" of this town have largely prevented any modest improvements, I had hoped by raising the the hazard might spur the district and city to action. Lets hope the city and school are listening.

Posted by Rye Druzin, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 13, 2007 at 7:23 am

I have frequently used that underpass, and am also a long boarder. I have seen many boarders fall on that underpass because of huge cracks in the concrete, and have myself been one of those unfortunates. I have also heard stories of boards flying into the auto lanes and nearly hitting cars. I think that for the amount of pedestrian, bike, and board traffic that underpass gets that there should be some more protection for all.

Posted by Richard, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2007 at 8:44 am

I can understand Bob's frustration. I know he brought this issue to the attention of school and city staff several times. Everybody in those meetings agreed that the situation was bad and several spot improvements were supposed to happen, including fixing the railing. Somehow that hasn't happened yet. I don't know what it takes to get action on something like this.

Posted by Donald, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 13, 2007 at 8:57 am

It is illegal to bike there. Paly students should get off and walk through the underpass. Here is the Palo Alto Municipal Code section (Embarcadero is not designated as a bike route):

10.64.130 Riding bicycles on sidewalks.

(a)No person shall ride or operate a bicycle upon any sidewalk in a business district, any sidewalk in or on any pedestrian underpass or overpass, or any sidewalk on the Embarcadero Road Overpass across Bayshore Freeway unless such sidewalk is officially designated as a bicycle route.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 13, 2007 at 9:29 am

While I believe that the city and police have previously resolved that bike traffic is acceptable, for the sake of your argument I will remove bikes from the this response. (The underpass is a designated bike route - hence your citation is irrelevant)

I have, and other posts have testified to, the hazards posed by scooters and skateboards that also use the ramps. They are likely permitted uses, and their protection should be provided for as well. Some protection between the roadway and ramp would benefit the boarders and scooters.

Ultimately, your commentary may be just dismissed as perverse if you then say we ought to try to ban scooters and skateboards. If cars on Embarcadero drove 25 miles per hour, we also would have not issues. Try slowing them down?!

My addictive attention is to cause practical improvements working with the situation we have, and not trying to work with use scenarios that are impractical or unrealistic.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2007 at 9:36 am

How about this from another angle

I believe there are signs saying "walk your bike" on the approach to the underpass. I know that at Churchill entrance to Paly there are often police ticketing kids on bikes for doing things like riding on the sidewalk, not wearing helmets, etc. My question is why are there no police on Embarcadero doing the same thing to people riding their bikes and not walking them under the underpass. A few tickets would make a huge difference, I am sure.

Posted by Go Bob!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2007 at 9:48 am

"he brought this issue to the attention of school and city staff several times. Everybody in those meetings agreed that the situation was bad and several spot improvements were supposed to happen, including fixing the railing."
What if you were to document their admittance that the situation is dangerous and that spot improvements were recommended and/or approved. Send that document to ALL the powers that be, cc it to the local newspapers, and post it here, too. Basically, out them. Do you think that might work?

Aside to Bob - thank you for pushing this issue on behalf of our children.

Posted by RS, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 13, 2007 at 3:07 pm

"Neither Churchill nor the Homer underpass will serve this, resulting in 25 to 50% greater travel distance."

I think this statement is in error, see

main entrance
Web Link
churchill entrance
Web Link

that example is 6% difference.

so I'll offer them up in case their is a parent or kid that would be interested in using an alternate path.

However I believe in what you are trying to do which is keep a small accident in the underpass from spilling onto the roadbed underneath and becoming a fatal accident. Makes sense to me if it can be done by increasing the height of the barrier.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 16, 2007 at 5:48 am

Perhaps it is time to report some of the responses I received outside of this forum. As such, it might represent the "conclusion" part of this posting.

- Some said it is a pathetic choice when as safe route we can only offer a choice between an unsafe pedestrian/bike ramp at Embarcadero or an equally unsafe rail crossing at Churchill. The expect better.

- A school official commented that the high school does not believe that the bike / pedestrian issues off of the campus are within their jurisdiction. Now at least it is stated, and it tracks their painfully low interest in the issue across at least two years.

- One traffic advocate said people with bike and traffic concerns are expected to work through the process, and my concerns about this area are out of step with the improvements the city has made. One must be patient, and await improvements that can be made only across the term of years. If you want to get the improvements, you must invest the time, and compromise your solutions. (As a small business owner, this is a high burden, and I also felt I had done 3 years of this approach to no avail.)

- City staff has indicated that consideration of some of these improvements may be part of mitigation measures for upcoming Town & County improvements, and that in November we will see some presentation possibly at the Architectural Review Board.

- Others indicated that there are likely residual funds left over in some related capital improvements (like Embarcadero paving) -- enough funds to put up a modest protective fence or rail between traffic on Embarcadero and the pedestrians and bikes that use it. The question is how much is left, and how much would a temporary fence cost until the "ultimate" improvement could be made?

- Others advised that these efforts work better if the "students" show up at council, and generate a public event to motivate our officials to direct their attention to this problem. I hesitate to become a behind the scenes player to generate more attention to the issue.

- Yet again others reminded me that they hold other issues with this underpass, and that the underpass is part of a bike/pedetrian route. For example, cars heading toward Stanford exit at high speed from Embarcadero making a blind right turn onto Emerson. In the opposite direction, cars use Emerson to access Embarcadero. Across this part of Emerson we send our students without a cross walk or warning sign -- no basis of establishing a right-of-way.

My recommendation would be that the city undertake a short term "emergency" improvement to put fencing along the Embarcadero ramp. The fencing succeeds by improving safety (including stopping the morning drop-off jaywalkers), and would not impact the more delicate traffic discussions on Embarcadero. Over the course of the next several months, I would encourage planning to look into the broader corridor, and point some spending from "car" related improvements like paving, to some pedestrian / bike improvements. Furthermore, it would be great to see more school "interest" in this from our high school, district and city. The council could ask for staff to report on the topic.

Questions of tactic will remain as to how to elevate the topic, and gain attention. However, I appreciate this forum as a venue to hold a civil discussion, and the give and take felt superior to that gained in the venues that the city establishes to deliberate these topics.

Ultimately, it would be wonderful to find this area as safer, and celebrate how our community can enact simple fixes in the short term, when they are possible and affordable.

Posted by Stephen, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 16, 2007 at 11:43 am

As someone who commutes to Stanford on his bicycle through this underpass pretty much every day (and also a parent of a Paly cyclist), I would think something that might help improve safety (besides asking people - pedestrians and cyclists alike - to use common sense, caution and care) would be to create a second point at which one can leave the sidewalk further away from the crossing - now the curb cut is right at the point where people wait to cross. Striping the underpass to mark bike and pedestrian lanes (per the signs at the entrances) might be useful as well.

Of course, something that would help this area far more would be to clean up the intersection overall by moving the traffic light such that it lines up with the entrances/exits to T&C and Paly. Is there a reason for the strange offset?

Posted by Palo alto mom, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 16, 2007 at 12:01 pm

Bob - thank you for all your thoughtful comments and research. Since we have both a new Superintendent (who appears to be open minded and approachable) and a new principal at Paly, may I suggest you forward your information and thoughts to both of them.

Stephen - If I had to guess about the light placement, it is probably farther down to keep traffic from backing up onto El Camino, although since tons of pedestrians and cars go directly from T&C into the Paly lot anyway, it would make sense to make it a safer crossing.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 16, 2007 at 1:36 pm


Based on a long ago conversation with city staff, I understand that one reason for the odd location of the light on Embarcadero near Town&Country was to provide for car "storage" between El Camino and the pedestrian light. I agree that would seem intuitive to have placed the light at the outlet of Town&Country, and coordinated signal timing to control backup at the light on Embarcadero from El Camino.

The link below is to the presentation given to the City School Traffic Committee in March 2007. It includes a larger punch list, maps, and photos -- and includes your suggestion to allow bikes to pass around the ramp.

Web Link

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2007 at 2:12 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

For those that have tracked efforts to try to improve the safety around the underpass, I wanted to share some recent progress. While not in this area, last week's pedestrian accident on Embarcadero should inspire these improvements.

The need has been recognized by the Palo Alto High School students, and they have appealed to the City Council to make it safe. Please see the editorial they wrote:

Web Link

- The problem was brought to the attention of City Council at their public forum before council starts. The Council was silent -- I remain confused as to why one goes there.
- The issue was again brought to the Palo Alto High School administration, and they continue to see that they have not standing in this issue. Again, I think they have this wrong.
- The issue was presented at the Oct 1 meeting of the Palo Alto Bike Commission. They agreed for the need for railings, and hold an interest in studying the larger pedestrian and bike issues around this area.
- The Town & Country Trader Joe's project, if it proceeds, would have a major impact on this area. They propose the addition of a signal at the Embarcadero entrance. This would also allow the high school to turn with a signal. Pedestrians would not be permitted to cross here. They also propose a new exit using the "old Embarcadero" frontage road. Here the city staff has an improvement where the exit would occur after the cross walk (toward Stanford), and would permit an expanded bike/pedestrian standing zone that we have now. (I was very impressed at the innovative solution they created) They also have requested that railing be introduced as a mitigation measure. This was presented at the Bike Commission, and it was apparent how complicated an improvement this is, and more design work will be required. My quick view was that while the Trader Joe's project would increase the traffic, the car, pedestrian and bike situation might actually improve. These improvements have still not been finalized, and will be part of an ARB discussion in November.
- Staff is looking into ways that an interim railing can be installed in the short term. This is great, and hopefully can be completed in the next month or so.

Still, we don't have ANY improvements yet, and I hope for vigilance in supporting and encouraging city staff to get railings in, and ultimately addressing the other urgent safety needs in this area.

Posted by RS, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 5, 2007 at 2:54 pm

"last week's pedestrian accident on Embarcadero should inspire these improvements."

Were you trying to do more than increase the railing height? I dont get the connection other than they occurred on the same road. I assume you are talking about the prius vs 84 year old gentleman.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2007 at 4:37 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Below is a link to a picture showing where the railing would go. There are 4 sections like this when you consider all approaches to the underpass. The existing railing is not all that great, but it is better than no railing at all.

Web Link

Posted by RS, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 5, 2007 at 4:47 pm

I am familiar with the railing, I think extending it is a good thing. That was not really my question.

I dont get your statement

"last week's pedestrian accident on Embarcadero should inspire these improvements."

How so?

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