Proposed Willow/101 staff preferred design has separated bike lanes, squared intersections

Following clear feedback from public comments, and City Councils in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, Caltrans staff has returned with a proposed design for the rebuilt Willow/101 interchange that has sidewalks, bike lanes separated from traffic, additional continuous bike lanes next to vehicles for the brave, squared intersections to improve safety, and minimal impacts on neighboring properties.

The designs were presented at a public meeting on Wednesday March 6 at the Menlo Park Senior Center. There will be more chances to review the designs at the Menlo Park Bicycle Commission on Monday March 12, at the Transportation Commission on Wednesday March 14, and later at Menlo Park City Council. There will also be public meetings in East Palo Alto which have not yet been scheduled.

Caltrains’ goal for the long-planned replacement of the 50 year old interchange is to remove weaving movements that cause traffic backups. The “condensed partial cloverleaf” did the best job of reducing traffic backups without needing to demolish buildings, which East Palo Alto adamantly opposed.

An earlier set of designs, drawn up over 15 years ago, did not show provisions for pedestrian and bike crossing. But Willow Road is used by children walking to school, and bike commuters traveling to and from Facebook and other employees in East Menlo Park.

Given the community feedback, staff took a second look at the design. They realized that in order to keep traffic moving while rebuilding the busy interchange over a two year period, they would need a wider footprint. That space could be used to provide a sidewalk, bike lane protected from car traffic next to the sidewalk, and continuous bike lane next to the vehicle lanes, with a pocket lane keeping cyclists to the left of cars entering the freeway.

The design also squares off the intersections where vehicles exit the freeway. This has become a new “best practice” for Caltrans, since it improves safety without reducing vehicle capacity.

 

The Compact Diamond, which had been the favorite of some bike advocates prior to the most recent design review, did not make the staff’s recommendation. It performed much worse in traffic simulations in addressing traffic congestion at intersections of local streets with Willow, where local residents have trouble turning at rush hour.  And it does has the same amount of conflict with vehicle traffic – in both designs, cyclists need to merge with vehicle traffic at the on-ramps.

Caltrans staff considered the suggestion from Menlo Park’s Council Member Kirsten Keith to look at the center bike/pedestrian path at the intersection of 101 and 3rd in San Mateo. But the design and location are sufficiently different that the center bike lane would not work for this intersection. Because of the cloverleaf of the San Mateo intersection, pedestrians and cyclists in the center lane do not intersect with cars, but in the Menlo Park partial cloverleaf, there would be two crossing points, removing the benefit of keeping people away from cars. In San Mateo, there is a crosswalk that provides easy access for pedestrians and cyclists to the center lane. In Menlo Park, pedestrians and cyclists would need extra crossings of busy streets to access a center lane.

After additional review, a set of alternatives will be chosen for environmental analysis. Construction could begin in 2016, and the new interchange could be complete in 2018. More review is needed, but the new design looks like a big improvement.

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