Caltrans pioneers friendlier new street designs for El Camino

If you talk to experienced community members, elected officials and staff about opportunities for pedestrian safety improvements along El Camino Real (or other roads and highways managed by California’s department of transportation), you are likely to hear a resigned sigh.   “That’s up to Caltrans, and they only care about cars.”  But Caltrans is turning over a new leaf.   In a pilot project coordinated by the Grand Boulevard initiative, and funded by a federal grant, four cities  - Daly City, South San Francisco, San Bruno and San Carlos – worked with Caltrans to create new designs for pedestrian  improvements, and the start of bicycle improvements, for El Camino Real.

The first step is to free up space for pedestrians, and encourage safer vehicle speeds, by narrowing travel lanes from wide 12-14 foot lanes to 11 foot lanes.   The space can then be used for curb extensions to shorten pedestrian crossing distance, and median refuges for pedestrians who are waiting in the middle of a light cycle.

Narrower lanes provide more room for pedestrians





The new designs also allow for more landscaping to separate pedestrians from moving cars.  The landscape pattern includes tall canopy trees providing shade, and low shrubs allowing visibility.  There are design alternatives without on-street parking, and with some onstreet parking.

Landscaping to protect pedestriansThe new designs make more progress for walking than bicycling.


The designs call for a 4′ to 5′ shoulder for cyclists. (The typical recommended minimum width for a bike lane is 5′. )  And the designs do not yet include options for protected bike lanes, which would help make bicycling less stressful on high-traffic roads like El Camino Real.   Riding next to large numbers of fast-moving cars is so disconcerting for most people that the intuitive response is for cyclists avoid El Camino, and for decision-makers to be reluctant to provide accommodations for cycling.

But as the development plans for El Camino start to add more housing and more pedestrian-friendly retail and office buildings, there will be more people who will want to access homes and businesses on El Camino without driving.  Designs with protected bike lanes will make more sense for residents, customers, and merchants.  Emma Schlaes of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition reports that the City of Santa Clara is considering its plans for The Alameda (the continuation of El Camino Real) in two phases.  In the first phase, narrower vehicle lanes and improved pedestrian accommodations will calm vehicle traffic. Then, in a second phase, bicycle lanes will be added.

Presenting to the Grand Boulevard Initiative Working Committee, Megan Wessel, Senior Planner at SamTrans (consultant) said that the pilot designs were intended to be helpful for future segments of El Camino, but not mandatory. Hopefully future segments will be designed with more consideration for bike accommodation in the future.

The “Complete Streets” designs also included “sustainable streets” features such as “rain garden” planter strips and pervious pavement in parking areas, allowing stormwater to percolate into the ground instead of rushing to the bay. These natural stormwater management features reduce pollution, and can reduce the cost of infrastructure needed to handle flooding and treat polluted runoff.  For example, a high school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana spent $110,000 on a rain garden and bioswales to reduce flooding rather than the $500,000 it would have cost to re-pipe the site.

Sustainable Streets for El Camino Real


In Daly City, South San Francisco, San Bruno, and San Carlos, the pilot projects are moving toward implementation.   The first 3 projects the projects are funded through the the creation of a Caltrans “Project Initiation Document”, which will provide Caltrans approval of the project schedule, scope and budget, allowing them to move on to detailed design and construction. The San Carlos project has used a different Caltrans review process since it is a smaller project.   The South San Francisco project has funding to construct part of the design (Kaiser Way to McLellan Drive) – the South City project is expected to start construction in 2016.

Progress toward implementation

The segments are relatively short – about a third of a mile in San Carlos, half a mile in Daly City and San Bruno, and about a mile in South San Francisco.  The pilots represent a small fraction of the 25 miles of El Camino Real/Mission Street in San Mateo County.  But the new designs are great progress toward creating a more people-friendly El Camino Real over time.

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5 Responses to Caltrans pioneers friendlier new street designs for El Camino

  1. Robert says:

    Seems crazy, why put the bike lane next to the street instead of having the plants separate the bike lane from the street, and the bike lane adjacent to the pedestrian walkway.

    Also I’m not quite sure why they need parking on El Camino anyway, 95% of businesses have a parking lot or access to one.

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  3. midpeninsulan says:

    Re. the ‘Frontage Imrovements’ picture, I would prefer to have landscaping separating the bike lane from the car lane; it would be safer to ride that way and easier to stop and park a bike without having to climb over the landscaping to the sidewalk!

  4. Easy says:

    I’m with Robert & midp – we need to quit building bike lanes right next to car traffic if we expect anyone but intrepid bicycle riders to use them. Put them next to the sidewalk, like the Dutch have figured out, and then you’ll have every-day folks riding.

    • Adina Levin says:

      Strongly agree. With El Camino there is a major shortage of imagination. People look at the way things are today and have a hard time envisioning the street being used for purposes in addition to moving cars.

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