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Why El Camino Should Have Bike Lanes

Original post made by Andrew Boone on Jun 5, 2012

Many residents have legitimate concerns about bicycle safety on El Camino. Bicycling on El Camino is not suitable for everyone, simply because traffic volumes and speeds are relatively high. If you don't feel safe bicycling on El Camino, then don't do it!

But El Camino is suitable for experienced, confident bicyclists who ride predictably and safely. Many people bike on El Camino every day, everywhere on the Peninsula, not because it's the most fun to bike on, but because it's a very practical route.

A higher percentage of residents bike to work in Menlo Park (9%) than any other Bay Area city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Bikes are used even more frequently to reach school, shopping, and entertainment destinations. The time has come to provide for residents' desires to improve El Camino so that it supports new transportation preferences - to make it safe for everyone - pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists.

Some residents feel that bicycling on El Camino is inherently dangerous and that alternative north-south routes should be improved instead. El Camino was designed only for driving cars, some say, and it should stay that way. Others are concerned that bike lanes would require removing vehicle parking or vehicle lanes, thus worsening already bad traffic congestion.

Not installing bike lanes on El Camino and only improving alternative north-south routes is a bad idea. Alternate north-south routes include Alma/Mills, University Dr, Laurel St, Middlefield Rd, and Alameda de las Pulgas. These routes help many bicyclists avoid El Camino and indeed they should be further improved with signage, bike lanes, and sharrows.

However, none of these alternative routes allows bicyclists to access the many businesses located along El Camino Real. It is not possible to get to most businesses by bicycle without riding on El Camino. Some businesses (Safeway, for example) can be accessed via alternative routes, but these routes require long (for bicyclists) and inconvenient detours. To get to Safeway from the Caltrain Station, for example, it's just 0.3 miles using El Camino, but 1.3 miles using the shortest alternative route (Santa Cruz + University Dr + Middle Ave). And that alternative route doesn't have any bike lanes either!

The same is true for most destinations in Menlo Park and other cities - it's simply more convenient to drive than to bike, because unsafe street designs force bicyclists to choose longer routes. The negative consequences of having safe, convenient routes for driving but not for bicycling are many: unnecessary traffic congestion, more air pollution, unhealthy sedentary lifestyles, higher health care costs, higher transportation costs, and more traffic-related injuries and deaths.

Any street with bike lanes is safer, for everyone, than without bike lanes (except low-speed, low-volume residential streets) as long as the bike lanes are designed according to state guidelines. Bike lanes clearly indicate to both bicyclists and motorists where on the street bicyclists must ride for maximum safety. Without bike lanes, the bicyclist has to figure out it on their own, and the result is often unpredictable, unsafe behavior - riding too close to parked cars and swerving in and out of the vehicle lane.

Bike lanes improve safety for motorists. Bike lanes slow vehicle traffic slightly because the right-hand vehicle lane is narrower with them - on El Camino, this lane would be 11 ft wide instead of 16 ft wide. Also, bike lanes increase the number of bicyclists on the street because more people feel that the street is safe enough to bike on, which further reduces vehicle speeds because motorists naturally drive more slowly and more carefully. The result is fewer vehicle crashes and fewer motorist injuries.

Bike lanes also improve convenience for motorists, because more people decide to bike for some trips when their route includes bike lanes. This means fewer vehicles on the street, and less traffic congestion. "But there are so few bicyclists - can it really make a difference?", you might say. Yes, of course it can, and it already does - 9% of Menlo Park residents bike to work every day. That's about 1,500 people. Imagine if there were even 1,000 more cars on our streets every work day - traffic congestion would be even worse than it is.

Some residents believe that it's simply impossible to make El Camino safe for bicycling, and that placing bike lanes there would endanger bicyclists. This is simply false. There are many 4-lane and even 6-lane streets with bike lanes in the Bay Area, including on Willow Rd and University Ave east of Highway 101.

Bike lanes are only one way of making El Camino safer - other possible design features include sidewalk curb extensions, wider sidewalks, narrower vehicle lanes, more visible crosswalks, more street trees, higher numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians, more buildings located along the street, and smoother pavement.

Palo Alto recently modified the intersection of El Camino & Stanford Ave to include some of these features - curb extensions, narrower vehicle lanes (11 ft instead of 12 ft), high-visibility crosswalks with faux red-brick surfaces, and pedestrian refuges in the middle of the street. Santa Clara has already approved a new design for El Camino to accommodate bus rapid transit, and this design includes bike lanes. El Camino CAN BE and IS being improved for safety.

Bicycling on El Camino is not suitable for everyone, simply because traffic volumes and speeds are relatively high. It's appropriate for experienced, confident bicyclists. This would not change with bike lanes - less experienced, less confident bicyclists, and children should still not ride on El Camino. Everyone who rides a bike decides where they feel comfortable bicycling - that's true now for El Camino and it will still be true when El Camino has bike lanes. Children are smart enough to realize that bicycling on El Camino isn't safe for them, just as they know they shouldn't bike on Willow Rd (east of Highway 101). Bike lanes do not force anyone to bicycle where they don't feel safe and comfortable.

People have always ridden bikes on El Camino (since bikes were invented, of course!) because it's fast, direct, and convenient. No amount of improving alternative routes is going to change this. Bicycling is an increasingly popular mode of transportation (especially in Menlo Park), and more and more people are bicycling on El Camino - because it's useful. And since there is enough space on El Camino to add bike lanes without removing vehicle parking or vehicle lanes (Fehr & Peers concluded this in their recent analysis - see Web Link), adding bike lanes won't inconvenience anyone.

El Camino bike lanes would not only improve safety for everyone, they would also reduce traffic congestion while allowing more residents to safely bike for more trips and save money at the same time. Bike lanes are a long-overdue improvement that's supported by the Bicycle Commission, Planning Commission, Caltrans, and Fehr & Peers (the consultant hired by Menlo Park to analyze the feasibility of bike lanes on El Camino and other streets).

The sooner bike lanes are installed on El Camino, the sooner Menlo Park residents and visitors alike can enjoy the many benefits they'll provide.

- Andrew Boone

Comments (12)

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 5, 2012 at 6:48 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"El Camino is suitable for experienced, confident bicyclists who ride predictably and safely."
Bicycling on El Camino is not suitable for everyone, simply because traffic volumes and speeds are relatively high. It's appropriate for experienced, confident bicyclists.

Would bicyclists who use El Camino be required to be tested for their skill level, licensed, identified and insured in order to meet these standards? What State law permits requiring such testing, licensing, identification and insurance?

Posted by Traffic Jam, a resident of another community
on Jun 5, 2012 at 8:25 am

Placing bike lanes on El Camino Real will require elimination of parking and vehicle lanes.

Web Link

With Posted Speeds between 35 and 40 mph
The optimal width for a bike lane on an arterial/collector with no onstreet parking with posted speeds of 35 mph to 40 mph, is six feet. The
optimal minimum width to the longitudinal joint with the gutter pan is
five feet. If there is on-street parallel parking, an additional eight feet
should be provided.

El Camino Real is not currently safe for bike traffic because the shoulder is too narrow.

The shoulder width should increase with the 85th percentile speed,
similar to bike lane widths. The shoulder width should be 6 feet for
speeds of 40 mph or less, and 8 feet for speeds greater than or equal to
45 mph. For low-volume highways, (under 2,000 vpd) lane/shoulder
widths should comply with the guidelines set forth in Table 4-1 on pp.
54 of AASHTO's Highway Safety Design and Operations Guide, 1997

By law, cities can't place bike lanes on El Camino Real, as it is a state highway.

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 5, 2012 at 10:28 am

Why not just make El Camino Real a pedestrian mall and get this over with?

All of those cars that bring your friends, family and neighbors to their jobs and shopping, trucks that supply your stores and homes, and buses that transport your workers can simply filter through the back roads of your neighborhoods.

Posted by Andrew Boone, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Peter Carpenter,

No, California does not require residents to be licensed or carry insurance in order to ride a bicycle, nor tested for their skill level in order to ride on more challenging streets such as El Camino.

Safe Bicycling Skills classes, such as those taught to Stanford students and Palo Alto public school children, should be made available to both children and adults in Menlo Park to help bicyclists learn the traffic laws that apply to them and master safe riding techniques. Then more residents would be able to ride on challenging streets such as El Camino Real and Willow Rd.

But in the end, bicyclists must use their own discretion in order to decide if a street is safe enough for them. Most bicyclists don't feel comfortable riding on El Camino, so they use alternate routes, or walk or drive for some trips. The same is true for every other street. Bike lanes on El Camino will do what they're designed to do everywhere else - help more residents bike more safely, and for more trips.

Posted by Andrew Boone, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Traffic Jam,

Placing bike lanes on El Camino will not require the removal of any vehicle parking spaces nor vehicle lanes. On the 4-lane sections of El Camino, the curb-to-curb width on each side of the street is 35 ft and contains two 11-ft vehicle lanes and a 13-ft parking lane. A single 6-in stripe on the right edge of the right-hand vehicle lane would create a shared parking/bike lane - the same type of bike lane that already exist on many other streets in Menlo Park and other cities.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) design guidelines are not used by Menlo Park nor most California cities. The California Highway Design Manual (HDM) is followed instead (and is required by state law to be followed). The HDM states that a shared parallel-parking/bike-lane must be at least 12 ft wide. There is enough space on the 4-lane sections of El Camino to place 13-ft wide shared parking/bike lanes. See Web Link for cross-section drawings of El Camino that show this.

Correct, cities cannot make changes to El Camino because it's a state highway. Caltrans supports placing bike lanes on El Camino and has stated so in their comment letter on the Downtown Specific Plan EIR.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Bike lanes on El Camino will do what they're designed to do everywhere else - help more residents bike more safely, and for more trips."


"El Camino is suitable for experienced, confident bicyclists who ride predictably and safely."

Bicycling on El Camino is not suitable for everyone, simply because traffic volumes and speeds are relatively high. It's appropriate for experienced, confident bicyclists."

Regardless of what is legal I believe that mixing 35 MPH traffic with bicycles will have deadly consequences for someone on a bicycle.

Posted by Andrew Boone, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm


El Camino isn't appropriate for conversion to a pedestrian mall because traffic volumes are far too high, there are currently not enough retail businesses located on the street, and it's much wider than needed to serve as a pedestrian mall.

But pedestrian-only streets are a great idea, and have proven in many locations to be great places for the community and great for the businesses located along them. Santa Cruz Avenue would probably function very well as a pedestrian mall, but of course the idea should be studied carefully before being implemented.

Posted by Jim Long, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Common sense says bike lanes on ECR are a bad idea. Confident riders can use it now for the block or two they need to get to specific retail spots. Most MP residents spend more time going east-west than north-south anyway so it would help outsiders more than locals. It will also guarantee longer traffic jams for residents crossing town trying to get across ECR. IMHO, it's obviously a lose lose idea.

Posted by Andrew Boone, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Peter Carpenter,

35 MPH vehicle traffic and bicycles are CURRENTLY mixed on El Camino Real because there are no bike lanes to clearly indicate where on the street bicyclists should ride. Some ride too far to the right, some too far to the left. Some suddenly swerve out from behind parked cars into the path of vehicles. It's the least safe design possible!

With bike lanes, vehicles and bicycles would become more physically separated because the bike lanes would delineate the proper place to drive (in the car lane) and the proper place to bike (in the bike lane). Right now, vehicles and bicycles share the same very wide right-hand lane, and it's unclear where each should be in that lane.

Hundreds of bicyclists use El Camino Real in Menlo Park every day, and the number is increasing every year. The street should be made safer for them. When streets are safer for bicycling, they're safer for everyone else too.

Posted by cyclist, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Jim Long - your "common sense" doesn't seem common to me, because bike lanes always make roads safer for all road-users. Also I just love your "it wouldn't help locals so who cares" attitude. I'm a local and I travel outside of Menlo Park all the time, and I would love it if riding my bike on El Camino were safer. I do ride on ECR on occasion (I used to ride it for 4 miles of my commute twice every day), and a bike lane would make it substantially safer. There are very few other North-South through roads, so making them bike-friendly should be a priority. How does adding bike lanes guarantee traffic jams crossing ECR?

Posted by get creative!, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm

There are no alternatives offered in the El Camino plan for a bike boulevard. The consultant and staff rejected options that might go along the train tracks like Palo Alto has done successfully from University to California. That would be safer than El Camino but a bike lane on El Camino also would be safer than what exists today.
Even San Francisco has added major new bike lanes.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Six lanes of automobile traffic would carry far more people per day than four lanes of automobiles and two lanes of bicycle traffic - the social opportunity cost of bicycle lanes on ECR is simply too great.

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