After a brief interlude, Palo Alto is preparing to resume its effort to expand the citywide bikeway network, with a particular eye toward the city's south end.
The City Council voted on Monday night to kickstart three new bike projects when it endorsed a community engagement process for improvements on segments of East Meadow Drive, Fabian Way and the Waverley path. The improvements include reconfiguring Fabian Way to create a bike path in each direction, possibly by removing a car lane between East Meadow Drive and East Charleston Road, and installing a protected bike lane on East Meadow Drive by potentially removing some parking spots.
The city also plans to widen and smoothen the Waverley bike path, which is located on Palo Alto Unified School District property between East Meadow and East Charleston.
The three projects are the city's first major effort to boost its bike facilities since its contentious revamp of Ross Road in 2017, a project that included a new traffic circle on East Meadow Drive as a central component. While some lauded this project for giving bicyclists more space, others criticized the city for inadequate outreach and slammed the design for pitting cars against bikes at the new roundabout.
Staff hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls of the Ross Road misadventure with its new suite of projects, which were boosted by a $919,000 Santa Clara County grant through the Vehicle Emission Reductions Based at Schools program. The city expecting to kick in another $781,000 toward the project.
By focusing on the East Meadow Drive and Fabian Way area, the council is shifting its plans for a dynamic neighborhood long known for hazardous biking conditions. The projects also seek to link the neighborhood to the city's bike bridge at Adobe Creek, currently under construction, and the recently enhanced Charleston-Arastradero corridor.
"The project will capitalize on our investment in the bridge and on our investment on the nearby Charleston corridor," Sylvia Star-Lack, the city's transportation planning manager, said Monday.
It is also expected to benefit the students who bike to various schools in this area — including Gunn High, JLS Middle, Fairmeadow Elementary, Hoover Elementary, The Girls' Middle School and Kehillah Jewish High — as well as visitors to the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center on Fabian Way.
Star-Lack noted that East Meadow is a popular bicycle route and that upgrades to this roadway and others in the project needed to accommodate the spike in traffic at the start and close of school days. Currently, bike lanes are immediately adjacent to car lanes, with no buffer between them. On Fabian Way, some people refuse to bike at all.
"Given large crossing distances, the big volumes of traffic and the current lane configuration … riding on or crossing Fabian Way as part of a walking or biking school commute for children was a challenge," Star-Lack said. "Parents have told us that they wouldn't bike to school from here because of poor bicycle facilities."
The council strongly supported the grant-funded effort, with Vice Mayor Pat Burt pointing to Fabian Way's proximity to San Antonio Road and citing the difficulty of commuting by bike in the area. Council member Greg Tanaka, a frequent bicyclist, concurred that the area poses a challenge for people trying to get around without a car.
"I think the idea of a protected bike lane makes a lot of sense," Tanaka said. "I think the process of trying to get community engagement and buy-in is really important."
With the council's support, transportation staff is now preparing for months of community meetings, online surveys, public notices and virtual tours to solicit feedback about the details of the new bike-improvement plan. The initial round of outreach will stretch through the spring, with the city planning to release initial designs by September. The city would then commission engineering plans in spring 2022 and conduct further outreach before moving into the construction phase in early 2023.
"What we want to do is present different options to the public, and talk with them and find out what they react well to," said Philip Kamhi, the city's chief transportation official.
Concurrently, the city plans to commission an update to its Bicycle and Pedestrian master plan, a broad document that the council approved in 2012 and that paved the way for recent bike improvements on Bryant Street, Louis and Greer roads and Amarillo and Moreno avenues.
Some council members suggested that staff continue to explore other parts of the city for bike improvements, including El Camino Real and Park Boulevard. The reason staff is recommending moving ahead with the south Palo Alto projects is because, unlike other proposals, it has the grant funding in place to actually proceed with construction.
Tanaka underscored the importance of improving El Camino and strengthening the city's connections to Menlo Park and Mountain View, a project that the city hopes to pursue in the near future, Kamhi said. Adding multimodal improvements to the city's existing plans for El Camino would likely make the project potentially eligible for future grants from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, he said.
Kamhi noted that other neighboring cities are now exploring El Camino improvements and that Palo Alto will likely do the same.
"Biking along El Camino Real is a pretty scary thing to do," Tanaka said. "Even for someone who bikes a lot, it's pretty scary."