El Camino: Another scheme to increase congestion? | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

El Camino: Another scheme to increase congestion?

Uploaded: Nov 12, 2018

The risk that either alternative will actually be implemented is minimal: Both call for substantial widening of El Camino, which requires taking private property on the SW side. However, there are some very real risks.
(1) Approval of either alternative may be taken to approve implementation of individual components without regard to the effects on traffic of those fragments.
(2) Approval may block implementation of improvements that actually work.
(3) Creating yet another zombie/living-dead program:City Hall has a history of letting non-starters linger--sometimes for decades-- soaking up time from Staff, commissions and the Council,plus associated costs.(foot#1)Plus increasing the frustration of residents with City Hall because they have to show up repeatedly to argue against something that has already be shown to be impractical, counterproductive or otherwise stupid.

The area studied is between Stanford and Lambert Avenues (^Google map^). This portion was selected for improvement because of accident data (^Staff Report^ (PDF)). The conceptual design (early stage) has two alternatives, both of which involve adding bus lanes. The first would provide protected bike lanes, that is, they would be separated from traffic by concrete barriers. They would replace space currently used for on-street parking. The second would not encourage bicycling on El Camino, but rather on the existing and envisioned parallel bike routes. Advocates for the second would prefer the money being spent on improving safety and connectivity be invested in the parallel routes, especially the one on Park Boulevard. The Embarcadero Bike Path runs along the train tracks from University Avenue to Churchill Avenue, and there has been a desire to extend it much further south. However, this will likely be on hold until after all the construction for the Caltrain electrification.

On attendee at the Open House was an avid cyclist who commutes from Barron Park northward. He is sort of person that the protected bike lanes of the first alternate is intended to benefit. His comments to the consultants was that he wouldn't cycle on El Camino, and very strongly supported putting money into improving the parallel paths.
However, the way that State and regional government operated -- funding dogma and fads -- there may not be funding available for this alternative.

This study was partially funded by a grant under the regional El Camino Grand Boulevard Initiative (^Palo Alto web page^). It is being fast-tracked. The Open House (^flyer^) was last Thursday (Nov 8) and it is on this ^Wednesday's agenda^ for the Planning and Transportation Commission as a study session (^Staff Report^ (PDF)). At its meeting, PABAC (Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee) had time to consider only the first alternative (Protected Bike Lanes) and recommended it.

----From the Open House----

I found the Open House frustrating. First, the consultants' computer simulation of traffic flow supposedly represented near-time peak times, but vehicles were sparse and free-flowing. All the vehicles that queue up at a red light cleared through on the green with plenty of time to spare. Several of us commented that, at best, the simulation represented mid-morning and early evening troughs.

In talking to the consultants, several of us brought up the long backups that occur during morning peak times for NW-bound traffic -- often stretching back three blocks (Acacia Ave) or more. They were unaware of this. We pointed out that one part of the design would likely encourage even more cut-through traffic: on Lambert and Olive to Park, which is an important bike route, and on Olive and Pepper to Ash.
Similar concerns about increasing cut-through traffic in College Terrace were expressed by those residents.

The designs also eliminated the right-turn "slip lanes" -- from NE-bound Page Mill and Hansen Way onto SE-bound El Camino. The usual rationale for replacing these curved lanes with squared-off turns is to slow traffic (safer for pedestrians). I asked if this wouldn't increase congestion, and was told that it wouldn't, but without a satisfactory explanation.

The computer simulation of traffic at the El Camino/Page Mill intersection was for the alternative with protected bike lane. It was a long video on a loop, so it was hard to ask questions. Bicyclists now had their own stage in the traffic light cycle. I was told that this wouldn't reduce the vehicle throughput of the intersection, but didn't understand how. I saw a massive reduction of right-turn-on-red opportunities. However, since this was a conceptual design, I couldn't tell whether this was inherent in the design or a simplified simulation.

The current City Council majority has targeted El Camino south of Page Mill for substantial redevelopment, and there are multiple proposals at various stages. The construction for each of these projects can be expected to block a traffic lane for an extended period. Adding lanes and re-configuring the lanes will also add to the disruption. There needs to be a consideration of the effects of this on existing businesses.
Aside: I participated in an earlier redesign effort for El Camino. The biggest complaint from the merchants was that their customers couldn't find them because of City rules that made their signage effectively invisible, and the absence of signage for parking lots behind the stores. The City agreed that improving signage was a high priority, and then spent five years resisting attempts to do anything about it (at which point I finally got the message).

On-street parking: One of the alternatives requires removal of on-street parking. It is unknown how much this would affect the businesses. At the portion close to Stanford Avenue, residents have observed bunches of people parking and then catching the shuttle to Stanford. Where these displaced vehicles would go is open to speculation. Similarly in other portions of this study area, there seems to be little information about how the spaces are being use.

The Consultant firm for this study -- is Fehr & Peers -- is frequently used by City Hall, and have produced various problematic reports. For example, they did a parking study for a multi-unit housing project that was meant to justify it having reduced parking requirements. That study was rejected by the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC). One of the flaws being a lack of understanding of on-street parking, which is relevant to the El Camino Study.

The methodology used for the El Camino Study is not part of the released documents. There can be very different patterns of parking for different mixes of businesses. For example, restaurants will see a peak demand when office workers come for lunch. If the consultant were to take a snapshot of parking only at one time in the day, or at the wrong times, the recommendations about the practicality of removing parking could be very wrong.

^Maps of Alternatives^ (PDF, 14MB).
At the Open House, the hard copy of each map spanned at least two tables. On my computer, I had to zoom in to the maximum to be able to see the details. And I expanded the window all the way across the two displays on my computer, and even then I was doing a fair amount of scrolling.
Warning: There is only a partial legend, and most of the features I was interested in weren't included, requiring me to make inferences. It may have been that this explanation wasn't included because it wasn't needed if the audience had been only traffic engineers. Me not being one, this was part of my frustration and may have led to miscommunications at the Open House.

1. Zombie programs: an example for the overly curious:
My blog: "^Nonstarter killed after 2 decades^", 2016-06-28.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

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