Seeking to thread the needle between residents’ wishes and grant requirements, Palo Alto cautiously advanced on Monday a plan to install bike improvements, including protected bikeways, along sections of East Meadow Drive, Fabian Way and Waverley Street.
But in a nod to the dozens of East Meadow residents who have opposed any plan that would take away street parking near their homes, the City Council steered clear of the city’s prior plan to install a protected bikeway along the entirety of the proposed route. Instead, council members unanimously agreed to a more modest — and far less contentious — set of improvements for the stretch of East Meadow between Middlefield Road and East Meadow Circle.
Instead of removing parking spaces and installing protected bikeways, as initially proposed, the city is now proposing to narrow the driving lanes on this section of East Meadow, taking them from 11 feet to 10 feet in width. The city also plans to add green paint to the bike lanes and to include stencils designating the area as a bike lane.
The revision in the project followed an outpouring of opposition from residents concerned about parking loss. Dozens had submitted letters opposing the project or attended a Planning and Transportation Commission meeting on the project on July 14 to lobby against protected bike lanes east of Middlefield Road. Some argued that eliminating parking spaces near Ramos Park would force families and children to walk across the street to enter the park.
Patricia Gibbs was one of many area residents who complained about being left out of the process. She urged the council and the planning commission to reject what she called an “dishonest, poorly executed plan” that the claimed ignored empirical evidence – namely, that the current configuration is perfectly safe. She suggested in a July letter that the proposal for protected lanes would “needlessly endanger cyclists and pedestrians / residents.”
Gibbs and her neighbors were far more sanguine about the new plan, which would preserve parking spaces. She submitted a letter of support for the latest version of the plan. And while some area residents said Monday they had issues with the outreach process, most spoke in favor of the new project.
Robert Neff, who serves on the Palo Alto Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PABAC), said planning staff have “done a strong job of negotiating the path between the limitation of the original grant, which probably did have insufficient community input and where we are today.”
“I’m glad to see the transportation staff outreach is seeking to improve that and to get better community feedback as they go forward and incorporate that community feedback in what they’re doing here,” Neff said.
The rest of the south Palo Alto bike plan consists of broadly popular components: the widening of the Waverley Street path, which current stretches along a chain-link fence near Mitchell Park, and the installation of protected bike lanes on the Fabian Way, a car-heavy and notoriously hazardous stretch for bikers. Penny Ellson, a long-time advocate for bike improvements, was among those who lauded the proposed improvements to this stretch of south Palo Alto.
“Bike volumes are low on Fabian right now mainly because at this moment, it is a very awful environment to bicycle, even for someone like me, who is very comfortable in traffic … This road is an excellent candidate for a road diet and protected bike lanes,” Ellson said.
In revising their proposal for the East Meadow segment, planning staff followed the direction from the planning commission, which recommended approving the south Palo Alto bike project but recommended that the city consider alternative designs for the segment of East Meadow Drive to minimize the loss of parking spaces.
The revision is not without risk. The bike project is being funded through a $919,000 grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. When the city applied for the grant, it had indicated that the funding would be used to create protected bike lanes throughout the entire south Palo Alto segment. In July, transportation planners warned the planning commission that revising that scope and maintaining the status quo on a portion of Middlefield could prompt the VTA to withdraw the funding.
On Monday, the staff issued a far more hopeful assessment. Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said that based on recent discussions with the VTA, staff now believes that it can consider other alternatives for that segment.
“We believe through our discussion with them that we’d be able to get them to allow us to not do that in that segment if we were to put in traffic calming,” Kamhi said.
Council members welcomed the compromise. Council member Alison Cormack lauded the project for improving public access from south Palo Alto to the city’s new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101. The structure at Adobe Creek is tentatively scheduled to open in late October.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt called the new bikeway “a missing link” in commute routes to the many schools in the area, including JLS Middle School, Fairmeadow Elementary School and, further west, Gunn High School. Sylvia Star-Lack, the city’s transportation manager, noted that biking has become increasingly popular for local students. The percentage of JLA students biking went up from 48% to 70% between 2009 and 2019. At Gunn High, the percentage went up from 33% to 50% over the same period.
“For this coming school year, later start times for JLS, Gunn and all our secondary schools could result in an even higher rate in biking and walking as parents’ working schedules may no longer align with morning school drop-off which is now later,” Stark-Lack said.
Burt suggested that the new project will benefit not just students but also south Palo Alto residents and employees in the North Bayshore area of Mountain View.
“I think it’s going to really shift people even more to bicycling – for commuting and riding to school, and make it safer for both them and current riders,” Burt said. “It’s not about forcing anyone to ride. It’s about making it attractive, safe and easy for people who would choose to ride.”