Caltrans wants bike lanes on El Camino in Palo Alto, but city bike committee has got concerns

This story was originally published July 7 in the Daily Post. After we printed it, other publications rewrote this story as if it was original reporting on their part. To get important local stories first, pick up the Post in the mornings at 1,000 Mid-Peninsula locations.

By Braden Cartwright
Daily Post Staff Writer

Members of the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee say that they wouldn’t feel safe nor comfortable using a bike lane on El Camino Real, and they want Caltrans to justify and improve the project before repaving later this year.

Cyclists on El Camino would deal with noise, driveways, car exhaust, frequent stops and fast-moving traffic, committee members said.

Residents and business owners would likely oppose the loss of street parking, and cars would move into neighborhoods instead, committee members said.

“I don’t see a solution, but expect a brouhaha when property owners get wind of it,” committee member Penny Ellson said in a comment to Caltrans.

Caltrans sent plans for repaving and repainting El Camino to the bicycle committee before a meeting on May 2, and committee members responded in writing afterwards. It’s the first and only time that the change has been discussed at a public meeting in Palo Alto. Many of the committee members couldn’t decipher the plans, and Caltrans representatives won’t respond to requests for more information.

Unclear drawings from Caltrans

It’s unclear whether the bike lanes would be separated from traffic by a painted line or a physical barrier, like a curb or bollards.

“The drawings are hard to read and understand,” committee member Alan Wachtel said. “They are small, many lines are faint (especially driveways), and their conventions, abbreviations and symbols are mostly unexplained.” Committee member Bill Courington said it’s “impossible” for him to evaluate the plans without knowing the motivation behind them.

The repaving of El Camino throughout northern Santa Clara County is meant to last for 30 years, and Caltrans originally gave cities the choice between parking and bike lanes.

Mountain View City Council voted in September 2021 in favor of bike lanes, and Los Altos City Council did the same in March 2022.

Palo Alto is working on a citywide pedestrian and bike plan that didn’t line up with Caltrans’ timeline, Chief Planning Official Philip Kamhi previously told the Post.

But in January, Caltrans officials told city planners they were moving forward anyways.

Emails between Caltrans and city officials were obtained by the Post using the California Public Records Act.

Is there a need for bike lanes?

Transportation Planning Manager Sylvia Star-Lack asked Caltrans to provide a study that shows the need for adding bike lanes.

“When we bring this forward, our council will want to see (the) data and understand the rationale,” she said.

Committee chair Art Liberman asked for the same in his comments.

“Has a study been made of who would use these bike lines or any community outreach done to see if this makes sense?” he said.

Liberman said bike lanes on El Camino make sense only if the speed limit is lowered to 30 mph, lanes in each direction are reduced to two lanes, large trucks are banned and all driveways are eliminated.

Liberman suggested converting all of the sidewalks on El Camino into bike and pedestrian paths.

Previous Daily Post stories on this topic:

• May 11, 2023 — Caltrans holds private meeting with Palo Alto officials to tell them they plan to put down bike lanes on El Camino

• March 25, 2022 — In Los Altos, City Council approves El Camino bike lanes, eliminates parking

• June 3, 2023 — Opinion: Before adding bike lanes to El Camino, we should answer these questions