From Homer Avenue in the north to Charleston Road in the south, Palo Alto's elaborate system of bike boulevards continues to morph and expand, at times in ways not previously foreseen.
New bike paths were recently created near Palo Alto and Gunn high schools -- at Embarcadero Road and Georgia Avenue, respectively -- as part of a collaboration between the city and the Palo Alto Unified School District. And ambitious new "concept plans" were recently approved for popular bike routes such as Park Boulevard, Maybell Avenue, Churchill Avenue and Arastradero Road. In just about every quarter of the city, green lanes, "sharrow" markings and new traffic circles are the order of the day.
Yet as the city furiously pedals ahead with implementing its ambitious 2012 bicycle master plan, officials are also reconsidering several high-profile improvements. In his update to the City Council on Monday night, Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello acknowledged that "some of the planning efforts have moved more smoothly than others" and that a few projects faced "assorted challenges."
"We're recommending rethinking some of those projects as we move forward," Mello said.
Among the projects now being rethought is a proposal to extend the nation's first "bike boulevard" on Bryant Street further north, toward Lytton Avenue. This proposal, which has faced opposition, is now being revised as residents voice concerns about hazardous traffic conditions, changes to on-street parking and expressed distaste for bright green lanes running through Bryant's quieter residential sections.
Another downtown project that is now heading into a new direction is the proposal to create an "enhanced bikeway" on Homer and Channing avenues, between the Homer tunnel and the eastern section of downtown. The dramatic proposal would turn the right lane on both Homer and Channing into right-turn only lanes at intersections, exempting bicycles. This, according to planning staff, would create a "semi-dedicated east-west bikeway from the tunnel at Alma Street to Guinda Street."
Yet despite the magnitude of the changes, staff has not received much input from residents and property owners. Now, city officials are looking to explore other less dramatic proposals to make it easier for bicyclists to get around downtown.
"We're proposing some pretty significant changes," Senior Transportation Planner Sarah Syed said of the Homer Street concept. "Before we move forward with this type of plan, we'd like to look at some less drastic concepts that still meet the project goals.
"We want to focus more on the issue of connectivity between the Homer tunnel and downtown, really facilitating the north-south movements that are needed in the downtown area for cyclists."
At the same time, transportation planners are still planning to move forward with a host of other projects, including speed humps and shared-lane markings on Greer Road and widened bike lanes on Fabian Way, which would be transformed from four lanes to three lanes to support a new two-way left turn. Staff is also considering a slew of traffic-calming measures for the city's most heavily traveled route, along Park Avenue. Though the details are yet to be hashed out, staff is recommending exploring a physical separation between driving and bike lanes on Park "due to the heavy traffic and large number of turning conflicts in the vicinity of Page Mill Road."
As the planning process for the bike projects advances, staff is also rethinking the ways in which it is engaging the public. One method that is coming into vogue now is what's known as "tactical urbanism" the quick implementation of a project on a temporary basis to solicit immediate feedback.
Mello said staff is considering bringing such tactics to Palo Alto streets, particularly as the city moves ahead with changes downtown.
"It's hard to ignore, you get valuable feedback and you get feedback in real time," Mello said, in reference to the method.
City Manager James Keene said tactical urbanism allows cities to "try something and, if it doesn't work out, move away from it."
"Rather than having to go out with a full-blown process, (it's) to test things out in a short period of time and see what happens," Keene added.
Council members enthusiastically supported staff's work and lauded all the recent progress on the various bike projects. They also offered their own suggestions and posed several broad questions about the bike improvements. One question that emerged: Is the city over-sharrowing?
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said some bicyclists have indicated to her that they don't feel comfortable with all the new sharrows road markings that encourage cars to share the road with bikers. In response, Mello acknowledged that one of the takeaways for staff from the planning process is that the city "needs to be more deliberative about where we use sharrows." The plan, he said, is to restrict them to the most heavily used areas.
"Using them on every corridor doesn't make sense," Mello said. "There's aesthetic issues around that. Also, people would start to ignore them and they would blend into the background. I think we have to be more strategic about where to use sharrows going forward."
Councilman Tom DuBois suggested that the city focus bike improvements on streets that run parallel to the city's main arterials and avoid removing driving lanes from these prominent streets.
"We need parallel routes for Oregon and Embarcadero and University," DuBois said. "We do hear about it when cars start cutting through on local streets. I think that's what we want to avoid."
Councilman Greg Scharff concurred and said that riding a bike on streets like Alma, Middlefield Road and El Camino is "not fun" and that the city should, where possible, keep the cars and the bikes separated.
"We should as much as possible try to separate the cars from the bikes," Scharff said. "We want to keep our arterials for the cars."