One thing is inevitable in an area filled with well-educated, bright and articulate people they will have opinions.
And when it comes to a topic that touches the lives of nearly everyone in the community, the future of El Camino Real, another inevitability is that there will be lots of those opinions.
The city recently released a lengthy report on a study of the 1.3 miles of El Camino Real that runs through Menlo Park and carries as many as 45,000 vehicles a day. The report looks at the current conditions of the state highway, the city's main north/south corridor, and examines what might happen if certain changes were made to the road.
Since the 62-page report, with an accompanying 567 pages of appendices and a 15-page tree report, was released on Aug. 3, the City Council has received at least 80 emails on the topic at their official town email addresses.
Not quite that many people spoke at an Aug. 25 study session for the council to discuss the report, but at least 26 of them did present the council members with a wide range of opinions, many of them heartfelt and sometimes in complete opposition to those of other speakers.
In the end, however, the opinions of the five elected City Council members will decide what to do about El Camino. What the council members seemed to agree on was that rather than making any permanent changes to El Camino, the city should conduct a trial of some kind of bike lanes to see how they work.
Nicole Nagaya, the city's transportation manager, said the meeting gave her and W-Trans, the consultants working on the $459,713 study, a long list of tasks, including:
● Discussions with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District about the effect of bike lanes on emergency vehicle response.
● Discussions with Palo Alto, Atherton and Redwood City to gauge interest in a multi-city bike-lane trial.
● Discussions with the California Department of Transportation (which has jurisdiction over El Camino) about a trial bike lane, including timelines for designs, permits and construction.
● Discussions with local businesses on El Camino between Live Oak and Ravenswood avenues about alternatives for parking if on-street parking is removed.
● A closer look at the trees on El Camino near Ravenswood Avenue and how to protect them.
Ms. Nagaya said the council will get a progress report in October before deciding what it wants to do.
The study lists a number of changes that could make El Camino Real safer, and considers four alternatives: doing nothing; six continuous vehicle lanes; the current number of lanes (4-6 vehicle lanes depending on location) with bike lanes buffered by painted lines; and the current number of lanes with bike lanes protected by 3-foot-wide curbs or planters.
How the alternatives would affect traffic and the time it takes to get through Menlo Park, as well as the length of vehicle backups at nine intersections, are all part of the study. How each alternative would affect bicyclists, pedestrians, aesthetics, parking and trees is also considered.
Visit tinyurl.com/ECR-DOCS to see the project page on the city's website.
W-Trans was told not to alter sidewalks, center medians or newly planted trees, and not to use grade separations or tunnels in its design.
None of the options reduce the current number of through vehicle lanes; but some right-turn lanes are eliminated. Two of the options, the one with six through lanes and one with paint-buffered bicycle lanes, add an additional through lane at Ravenswood Avenue.
All of the options would affect some trees on the corner of El Camino and Ravenswood Avenue, although one of the consultants has suggested more trees might be saved by shifting the sidewalk that now runs in front of the trees to run behind them.
Adding a third vehicle lane in each direction between Live Oak and Valparaiso avenues would be accomplished by removing on-street parking. Both the bicycle lane configurations would remove all on-street parking on El Camino, while bikes lanes with a physical separation would remove most right-turn lanes.
Among those the council heard from on Aug. 25 was Sharon Delly, a Menlo Park resident whose family owns Menlo Clockworks on El Camino. Ms. Delly said that removing the parking, and its use as a loading zone, on El Camino could be a real hardship for businesses and elderly customers.
"Many merchants on El Camino depend on that parking for their livelihood," she said. "By taking away the parking, the city will lose revenue from these businesses because they may have to close."
Ms. Delly said a petition signed by 240 people opposes parking removal.
Sean Mulcahy, who owns the Leather Leather Furniture Gallery on El Camino, said parking is crucial. His customers "can't walk for blocks" to get to the store, he said.
Others argued that, rather than a hardship, replacing parking with bike lanes could draw more customers. Dale Hall, who works in Menlo Park and is part of the new environmental organization Menlo Spark, said other communities, including San Francisco and Oakland, have seen more business for nearby retailers after improving bike lanes.
"If you're in a car on El Camino, you're either flying by or you're at a stoplight," he said. "This just isn't a proposal to help out a small group of die-hard bicyclists," he added, but something that "will benefit the entire Menlo Park community."
Adding bike lanes and other safety improvements suggested in the report will also make El Camino safer for pedestrians, he said.
Ellen Barton, the active transportation coordinator for San Mateo County, said bicycle lanes bring new patrons to businesses. Making El Camino safer could help older people who "eventually do not usually drive in the later years," she said, and could make room for innovative ideas "such as pedal taxis."
Others, including former Planning Commission member Henry Riggs, advocated for more through traffic lanes, despite the fact that the report showed that would actually slow traffic by drawing in drivers who don't now use El Camino.
"We do need bike routes in Menlo Park. We also need to improve auto circulation for the 30,000 or so of us who have to drive daily on El Camino Real," Mr. Riggs said. "I am looking forward to an El Camino that handles real-life traffic."
John Duhig, an Allied Arts resident who calls himself "a septuagenarian cyclist," also liked the additional traffic lanes, because if traffic "isn't going to come down El Camino, it's going somewhere else," he said. "It will all be coming down the road where I live."
As for bike lanes on El Camino, Mr. Duhig said: "There's lots of other ways" to get where one wants to go on a bicycle. "I never go on El Camino," he said. "It's not necessary."
Others said the bike lanes would help students and families.
"I bike to school every day," said Stella Kaval, who lives on Willow Road. "I go to Hillview School and I'm in 7th grade." Bike lanes "would make me feel safer about biking and encourage more of my friends to bike."
Lydia Lee, a bike commission member who said she maintains a Facebook page called "Bike Menlo Park," said she lives on the north end of town off El Camino, about where people start driving faster as it opens up into three lanes in each direction. "My kids bike to school anyway, and we figure it out, we manage," she said. But adding bike lanes would make biking something to look forward to, she said.
Jon Johnston, the fire marshal for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said the fire district worries that the plan did not take into consideration what changing El Camino would do to the time it takes for a fire truck or ambulance to respond to an emergency. "In no aspect (of the report) did they include emergency response," he said.
Steve Weinberger of W-Trans said that option 1, allowing 6 vehicle lanes in each direction by removing parking, "probably has the greatest impact to emergency vehicles and the response time" because it leaves cars no place to pull over.
With the bike lane alternatives, cars can pull into the bike lanes, he said. Even with a physically separated bike lane, the separation can be a curb that can be driven over, he said.
The idea of a trial was popular with speakers and with the council.
A trial of bike lanes could "actually let people see the proof ... so a pilot makes sense to me," said Councilman Ray Mueller. "I would like a pilot, but I'd like Atherton and either Redwood City or Palo Alto to also take part."
A trial could also help the city see exactly what is needed on El Camino. "It's hard sometimes when you're planning for things, to plan for the people who can't do it yet," said Councilwoman Kirsten Keith.