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Improved bike lanes the result of long but diligent effort

Sand Hill Road bicyclists now have a safer route crossing the freeway

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An eastbound bicyclist travels the improved Sand Hill Road route across Interstate 280. (Photo courtesy Dave Gildea)

By Dave Gildea

Special to The Almanac

There are new bike lanes across the overpasses where Sand Hill Road crosses Interstate 280. The heroes for this are Don Horsley, San Mateo County supervisor, and Joe Lo Coco of the county's Department of Public Works.

Several previous efforts for improved bike lanes for this intersection had failed because the designs were not acceptable to Caltrans, or funds for the projects depended on grants from Caltrans and the agency did not approve the grants. Horsley solved the second problem by successfully pushing for a $120,000 allocation from the county budget for the project. Lo Coco resolved the first problem by working with bike advocates for a design that was acceptable to Caltrans.

The zone where Sand Hill Road crosses I-280 has long been known to be dangerous for bicyclists. The overpass in the westbound direction had a center bike lane with a substandard narrow width that was only semi-visible with white dashes. Bicyclists were passed on both sides by cars traveling at high speeds within a few feet of them. Cars changed lanes across the bike lane at any point.

The eastbound direction overpass was even worse. High-speed drivers mixed with bicyclists in the same traffic lane. Cars from southbound 280 would come around the cloverleaf at near freeway speeds to immediately merge into the same lane as the eastbound bikes.

San Mateo County Transportation Information Management System (TIMS) data from 2005 to 2013 showed that there were more car-bike collisions at the Sand Hill-280 intersection than at the Woodside-280 and Alpine-280 intersections combined, even before the Alpine intersection was improved in 2013 after there was a fatal truck-bike collision.

Several thousand recreational bicyclists ride Sand Hill Road across the I-280 intersection each week as a part of the nationally known Portola "loop." Bike riders from the Midpeninsula cross this intersection to ride up to Skyline and the coast. Bike commuters who live west of I-280 cross this intersection for jobs in Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Stanford.

The project to improve bike safety at the Sand Hill Road-280 intersection started with a chance encounter between me and Supervisor Horsley at an April 2016 fundraiser for Marc Berman, who was running for state Assembly. Horsley was immediately responsive and sensitive to the general issue of bike safety, and following this meeting, Bill Kirsch, Cindy Welton and I formed an ad hoc group to work with Horsley for bike safety improvements at several sites in south San Mateo County.

The Sand Hill Road crossing of I-280 was one of the most hazardous of these sites. Although both Bill and Cindy were members of the Menlo Park Bike Commission, and Menlo Park City Council members Ray Mueller and Kirsten Keith supported the effort, the ad hoc group had no official ties to any official government organization or even to any other bike group. The ad hoc group organized several site visits, many meetings and hundreds of communications with government officials. Many other bike advocates, especially John Langbein, contributed. The goal was to achieve greater bike safety while maintaining the same level of automobile throughput.

The eastbound and westbound directions for Sand Hill/280 had different challenges. For the eastbound direction, Caltrans had previously stated that the overpass would not accommodate a bike lane unless the overpass was widened. This would require a cantilever construction which would certainly exceed the county's funds. We didn't understand Caltrans' reasoning, but decided to live with it and focus on the westbound direction.

Lo Coco worked with Nikki Nagaya of the Menlo Park Department of Public Works and the ad hoc group for a design for a complete continuous westbound bike lane that included sharrows for a crossover from right to center for the westbound approach, a regulation-width center bike lane for the overpass and a continuation past the clover leaf after the overpass.

By August 2016 (only four months from start!), the county and Menlo Park had a design for a joint proposal to Caltrans. Then, the first setback occurred. The county's Bike and Pedestrian Commission (BPAC) was reconstituted after having been quiescent, and the county decided to put the project on hold for BPAC review. Six months later, BPAC passed a resolution to approve the design.

During the interim there was discussion from some bike advocates that the eastbound direction would be a better use for the funds. Emma Shlaes of the highly regarded Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and Bruce Hildenbrand, a respected bike advocate, effectively joined the ad hoc group for reviewing the issues.

After some debate it was collectively decided to continue the focus on the westbound direction design. The primary reasoning was that Caltrans had previously rejected an eastbound overpass bike lane. The westbound design had already crossed several design and advocate hurdles, it was within budget and the existing road markings made it very likely that Caltrans would permit the design improvements. The key was "doing the doable."

The group hoped that relationships from a success for the westbound direction would form a platform to tackle the more controversial issues for the eastbound direction. In June 2017, Lo Coco submitted the county and city's joint proposal to Caltrans to apply for an encroachment permit that would allow the county to implement the design.

Then, in September 2017, there was a second setback when Caltrans unexpectedly scraped all the existing road markings for both eastbound and westbound overpasses. Apparently, the Caltrans department that eliminated the markings was not coordinating with the Caltrans department that was reviewing the encroachment permit that included the westbound overpass.

Lo Coco took a proactive approach, reasoning that Caltrans' scraping of both overpasses might be an opportunity to get bike lanes for both. He submitted a new design proposal to Caltrans for center green bike lanes for the overpasses in both directions. This effectively replaced our prior request of the westbound direction bike lane for the approach, overpass and continuation. Lo Coco politicked with Caltrans that since the overpasses needed new markings anyway, the agency could use the county funds for green bike lanes for markings for both overpasses.

Meanwhile, the Sand Hill Road overpasses were even more dangerous with no markings at all. Many people tried to communicate with Caltrans staff directly or through Supervisor Horsley or state Assemblyman Marc Berman to tell them that the overpasses with no markings were extremely dangerous for both cars and bikes. It is hard to know whether Caltrans received any of these communications. The overpasses remained in this exceedingly dangerous state with no road markings for five months until last February, when Caltrans unexpectedly renewed the prior old markings.

Then sometime in early 2018 Caltrans accepted Lo Coco's proposal for bike lanes for both overpasses. In June (26 months from start) Caltrans installed the new green bike lanes.

Bicyclists are generally thrilled with this result. We are not sure why Caltrans changed its position to allow the bike lane on the eastbound overpass, but we are very happy with the result. The next project is to improve the bike lane for the westbound approach to the intersection where the bike lane and car traffic for northbound I-280 toward San Francisco cross each other.

Bicycle riders want to express their appreciation to Supervisor Horsley and Joe Lo Coco of the county public works department for their proactive work for the success of this project.

The writer of this article, Dave Gildea, is a local bicyclist and bike-safety advocate.

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Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 2, 2018 at 7:28 pm

They could have made the bike lanes wider and safer by making the shoulder on the left side of the road narrower.

5 people like this
Posted by Cyclissimo
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Nov 2, 2018 at 10:30 pm

Very insightful write-up on how frustrating and bureaucratic the process is to get anything changed at all.
And a big "Thank You" for all the effort in getting at least something done at that very difficult and dangerous location.

However, this is in no way making this overpass "safe".

The paint is invisible from 280 Eastbound until cars are directly on it....and as evident from the photo, cars still cross it as they please.

In fact, I experienced on several occasions drivers appearing to confused and acting more unpredictable than before markings went down (when I would just claim the right lane on the bridge once there was a gap).

There needs to be at least some sort of signage implemented (e.g. "cyclists crossing"), and more important, a mandatory speed limit before the overpass and on the ramps.
Also, the traffic light at the WB off ramp (Golf Club) doing a nice job slowing traffic down, which significantly increases safety going WB.

I always feel that I take my life in my hands when riding across that overpass, particularly with the sun low on the horizon.

15 people like this
Posted by wondering in woodside
a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 3, 2018 at 12:02 pm

I'm glad to have more visible bike lanes here, but I am confused by the dashed and solid lines. In the EB direction, there is a very short dashed section, immediately before the exit to 280 N. (Image here: Web Link).

My general understanding of dashed and solid lines is that one may cross dashed lines as long as it's safe, but that one may not cross solid lines unless absolutely necessary. If this is the case with the solid and dashed green bicycle lanes, then the dashed section isn't nearly long enough—or far enough in advance of the 280 exit—to allow vehicles coming from PV/Woodside to be able to get into the right lane and then exit to 280 N.

Is there a different rule applicable to dashed/solid green lanes than to other dashed/solid lines? I researched this question but wasn't able to find anything definitive. Based on the varied and unpredictable behavior I see when I commute down Sand Hill Road, it seems I'm not the only one who is confused by the new striping.

I hope someone can let us all know how we are supposed to drive through/around dashed/solid green lines. We need to make the streets safe for bicyclists, but this will only happen if drivers understand how they are supposed to behave!

6 people like this
Posted by Menlo Cyclist
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 5, 2018 at 12:22 pm

I have been riding there for many years, and I think the changes are fantastic. It is much safer for everyone. Kudos to Don, Joe and the cyclist advocates that made this happen! Now if they could work on Page Mill....

4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 5, 2018 at 12:45 pm

@Menlo Cyclist - according to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, a safer Page Mill Road & I-280 bicycle route has been designed and funded, but the project has stalled because of a dispute between Caltrans and Santa Clara County. They have a petition to get it started again: Web Link

6 people like this
Posted by Also wondering
a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 5, 2018 at 2:11 pm

Anyone know the definitive answer to "wondering in woodside"'s question? I, and I am sure many others, am also confused as to when I can cross the bike path to get onto 280N. If it is only at the dashed line, then that is far to narrow for the automobile traffic to safely cross over to the 280N entrance. I believe that you can cross the double line any time it is safe, but you cannot come back over the double line until you come to the dashed line. Is that correct?

6 people like this
Posted by diesel
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2018 at 2:13 pm

diesel is a registered user.

This is great news and I appreciate the clear explanation of the "chutes and ladders" involved in reaching the goal. May I ask if the same people could perhaps help to solve the Marsh Road/101 overcrossing? Many people from nearby neighborhoods (including me) would love to be able to bike safely to and from Bedwell Bayfront Park. Thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert Cronin
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 5, 2018 at 9:54 pm

What's missing: Connection from eastbound Sand Hill before the southbound onramp, to the bike lane leading to the overpass.

9 people like this
Posted by Donald
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 6, 2018 at 4:57 am

Having well marked bike lanes is very good

HOWEVER, as other people have commented, the dashed line section on the EB side is ridiculously short -- and creates a very dangerous car/bike situation

The dashed line section needs to be MUCH longer

8 people like this
Posted by Pete Heller
a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2018 at 12:14 am

As a bicycle pedestrian commissioner in Cupertino I know exactly how difficult making such changes is. The new markings are far superior and safer relative to what existed before. Kudos to all those involved in making this much needed improvement.

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