El Camino Real, the historic roadway that runs through more than a dozen Peninsula cities, has its share of problems as well as opportunities. It is considered dangerous for cyclists, unpleasant for pedestrians, slow for drivers and inconvenient for bus riders. Despite that, El Camino is bustling with activity, and developers seem to be falling over each other for the chance to rebuild properties lining the avenue.
A potential win-win solution has been obvious for a long time. More than 15 years ago, the nonprofit think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley urged Peninsula cities to seize a "golden opportunity" by harnessing the demand for redevelopment to transform El Camino Real into an urban neighborhood corridor.
Slow but steady, that plan reached a major milestone in Mountain View last week, as the City Council approved a new set of guidelines for redesigning El Camino to meet its current needs. This so-called "streetscape" plan lays out $81 million in future improvements along the roadway with much of that funding expected to come from future developers.
In particular, the road map for El Camino Real calls for a series of new protected bikeways that would be built out over the next three years. At this stage, these new bike lanes would be built along about a 1.5 mile stretch from Sylvan Avenue to Castro Street. In addition, El Camino Real would be built out with three new bike and pedestrian crossings at Pettis Avenue, Bonita Avenue and Crestview Drive.
More bike improvements could come in future years as part of street repaving performed by Caltrans or through new development projects that are submitted to the city.
To make room for those bike improvements, city officials would not take away any of the six traffic lanes. Instead, Public Works officials say they intend to gradually remove on-street parking along El Camino Real, which would free up space for bike lanes, wider sidewalks and other upgrades. In total, city officials identified 556 parking spaces along El Camino Real that could eventually be removed.
One challenge flagged by City Council members is how bike lanes will coordinate with bus stops. This can be dangerous because bike lanes can often overlap with where bus drivers need to pull over for a passenger stop. In this situation, a bicyclist can either stop and wait for the bus, or risk trying to ride around it in traffic.
To fix this, Public Works staff say that they want to build special bus "islands" on the roadside to separate bus stops from bike lanes, but it would depend on the available space along the curbs.
"The bus-bike conflict has always been a challenge," said Councilman Lucas Ramirez. "This bus island concept is a way to mitigate that, and it sounds like we're going to do that to the greatest extent possible."
While those safety improvements were important, council members also prodded city staff to make the roadway a pleasant place to be. Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she took a stroll with a friend along the El Camino Real, an experience they "did not enjoy," she said. For pedestrians, she recommended the street could benefit from wider sidewalks, more trees, pocket parks and covered walkways.
"I have concerns that we're not doing enough in these cases," Hicks said. "I think there's much more potential on El Camino Real than just safety on crosswalks."
Like so many other issues in Mountain View, plans to upgrade El Camino Real were limited by land constraints. Along with the extra space from removing street parking, developers will also have to contribute land as they build along the street according to the rules laid out in the 2014 El Camino precise plan.
It still likely wouldn't be enough room to incorporate everything on the city's wish list, said Assistant Public Works Director Dawn Cameron. At a minimum, the city has to provide 4 feet for sidewalk access, and in many cases the city would have little space for more than a tree. As developers began submitting new projects, there may be opportunities to nudge them to do more, she said.
In one last amendment, the City Council added language to encourage private developers to improve the aesthetics of El Camino Real.
The streetscape plan was approved by the City Council in a 5-0 vote with council members Chris Clark and John McAlister recused.