UPDATED: October 2016
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Menlo Park is responsible for building and maintaining a community bike network that enables most bicyclists safe, convenient and comfortable (“stress-free”) …
(1) access to all popular destinations within our city and
(2) connections to neighboring ones.
A best-in-class bike network can be in-place within the next five years (2021-2022) with key elements installed within the next two. (Note: this is ambitious given that no major additions have been made during the past 15 years.)
So how well is Menlo Park carrying out its responsibilities?
Read my assessment (and recommendations) …
and make up your own mind.
What Bicyclists Need & Want
Bicyclists generally prefer the most direct route to a destination but will take alternatives to avoid streets perceived as either unsafe or too stressful (uncomfortable). However, bicyclists have a limited willingness to go out of their way to find more acceptable riding conditions. If the shortest route that avoids high-stress links involves too much of a detour, cyclists generally either take the higher stress more direct street or simply choose to ride in a vehicle rather than on a bike. Bike riders who commute, do chores, shop, and travel to destinations such as schools and parks are very sensitive to detours. They will accept detours, but only if short and necessary to avoid unsafe and stressful streets. Bicyclists who ride for fun and exercise have different preferences and expectations. They value the features of individual bike routes, are usually less time-constrained, enjoy a variety of different routes, and therefore, more tolerant of detours.
Contemporary bike network designers (1) classify bike riders according to their capabilities and willingness to ride in different types of environments and (2) classify riding environments according to three primary factors – convenient, safety, and comfort (stress). A bike network can include streets with different types of facilities, e.g bike lanes, signage and street markings, separate bike paths, and suitable neighborhood streets that lack bike facilities. The overall goal is to enable most bicyclists to ride to popular destinations and encourage them to do so.
General Assessment of The Menlo Park Bike Network
Despite the popularity of local bike riding Menlo Park has NOT demonstrated a strong commitment to building a first-class community bike network.
- The city lacks the most basic north-south and east-west bike corridors most bicyclists need to ride to popular destinations.
- On many streets popular with bicyclists, riders must share vehicle lanes with much faster motorists, e.g., University, Menlo, section of Ravenswood near El Camino. This is situation is stressful and unsafe for both and negatively impacts vehicle circulation. Painting “sharrows” is a poor substitute for suitable bike lanes.
- Critical existing bike network problems were identified in the Menlo Park Comprehensive Bike Plan (2005) and again in the more recent in city Specific Plan (2012). Unfortunately, the city bike network plans have not been updated to reflect current needs, planned commercial developments on El Camino and the major advances in U.S. bike network design during the past five years.
- Menlo Park significantly lags more bike-friendly Peninsula cities like Palo Alto. For example, “new bikeways“ would roll out alongside one of the busiest stretches of Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto as part of a road-improvement project that the city’s Planning and Transportation Commission heartily endorsed Wednesday night.” In contrast, no new streets have been added to the Menlo Park bike network for over a decade.
- There appears to be a lack of strong bike advocacy on the city council and commitment to greatly improving the quality of the Menlo Park biking environment
- The city evaluates individual bike improvement projects in a piecemeal fashion, e.g., El Camino Corridor Study and the Oak Grove bike corridor, rather than with the “systems” approach preferred by bike-friendly cities.
- Too often the city makes decisions without the assistance of bike network design professionals who could provide needed advice and analysis. City staff and the bike commission lack the experience and expertise that is essential to design complex bike networks and evaluate potential impacts on motorists, pedestrians, property owners and businesses.
Recent City Bike Planning Activity
- In early 2015 a transportation consultant determined the technical feasibility of adding bike lanes to El Camino Real and the City Council directed city staff to investigate specific issues relating to a possible year-long field trial. In May 2016 the City Council to proceed with a trial and re-allocated resources to other city projects.
- In 2016 the city bike commission proposed a field trial of new bike lanes on University between Middle and Live Oak and on Oak Grove between Crane and Middlefield and in July launched a study of the feasibility of a permanent installation. As of October the next City Council review is now expected in December 2016.
- In the spring of 2016 the bike commission recommended that the current plan to add bike lanes to Middle between University and Alma be scrapped and replaced by a bike route that would require bicyclists to cross this highway several blocks south at Cambridge. The original route would serve Nealon Park and the Safeway Plaza, cross El Camino at Middle, cross Middle Plaza (500 ECR) on the east side and then continue under the train tracks to Alma. As of October the City Council had not reviewed , the city had not yet taken any action on this recommendation.
- In January 2016 the city announced it had received a commitment from OneBayArea to fund most of the $500, 000 needed to improve the Valparaiso-Glenwood bike corridor between Elder (west side) and Laurel (east side). This work will be completed in 2016.
- In May the City Council decided not to pursue the idea of adding bike lanes along El Camino, a subject of the multi-year, El Camino Real Corridor Study. Read my letter to the City Council.
- In July the City Council approved a study of the desirability and feasibility of building an Oak Grove bike corridor between University and Laurel. It agreed that the City should use the services of Alta Planning & Design, a highly respected bike network consulting firm that worked on Menlo Park’s Comprehensive Bike Network Plan in 2005. A needs assessment will be conducted in August and September and reviewed by the City Council in October.
=> View City Bike Network Planning History (Past Decade) and Current Bike Commission Perspectives.
My General Perspectives
Menlo Park needs to greatly accelerate its investments in it community bike network.
- Create clear strategic policies that demonstrate its commitment to building a first-class bike network that provides convenient, safe and “stress-free” routes to ALL popular destinations.
- ALWAYS utilize a systematic approach to designing its bike network, one based on contemporary methodologies for evaluating needs and solutions.
- ALWAYS Leverage the expertise of bike network design professionals whenever planning and designing new improvements.
- ALWAYS perform a sound impact analysis when evaluating proposed major improvements.
- ALWAYS establish reasonable success criteria when performing field trials and making actual bike network improvements.
- ALWAYS conduct a rigorous public outreach program to educate residents and genuinely solicit feedback.
Strategic Priorities Recommendation
Menlo Park should establish two primary strategic priorities for its bike network.
- Eliminate the unsafe and stressful conditions that currently exist on streets already popular with bicyclists AND motorists, ones where bikes must share lanes with heavy and faster vehicle traffic because there currently are no bike lanes. Examples: Menlo , University, and Ravenswood Avenues.
- Complete the creation of a core bike network grid that provides convenient east-west and north-south connectivity that is safe and comfortable (stress-free).
The preferred new bike facilities should be “protected bike lanes” (also now called “cycle tracks”) which consist of dedicated bike space separated from vehicle lanes by buffers and physical visual guides, e.g., flexible posts between intersections and driveways.
(Fortunately, the two strategic objectives can be accomplished by adding protected bike lanes to an overlapping set of streets.)
Priority 1: Eliminate Existing Unsafe and Uncomfortable Bike Conditions
Menlo Park has a number of streets popular where bicyclists and motorists legally enjoy equal rights regarding the use of a single vehicle lane. Most streets are marked with “sharrows”, large symbols that combine a chevron and bike rider. Unfortunately, sharrows offer no protection and little comfort for either bicyclists or motorists.
Many motorists and bicyclists do not understand what sharrows mean so these bicyclists still ride too close to parked cars rather than in the center of the vehicle lane and these motorists expect the bicyclists to move out of their way.
Given the prevailing shortage of patience and prevalence of distractions these situations encourage frequent motorist-bicyclist conflicts.
The following streets are heavily used by motorists who regularly travels much faster (25+ mph) than bikes (10 to 15 mph). This large speed differential makes most bicyclists uncomfortable, and the vehicle traffic flow is significantly reduced when there is not sufficient space to pass bikes. (Note: motorists are required by law to allow at least three feet.)
- University Avenue between Middle and Santa Cruz Avenue. (sharrows)
- Menlo Avenue between University and El Camino Real. (sharrows)
- Ravenswood Avenue between El Camino Real and Noel. (sharrows)
- Middle Avenue between University and the Safeway shopping plaza. (no sharrows)
Priority 2: Build A Core Bike Network Grid
Most bicyclists want “good options” for our families and ourselves to ride to ALL popular destinations within Menlo Park and in neighboring communities. Good options means the available routes are convenient, safe and stress-free (comfortable). Given the popularity of biking in our area our city government should view our expectations reasonable and understand why so many residents are disappointed by our city’s failure to eliminate the most glaring and long recognized problem in our community bike network, the lack of “good” east-west bike corridors that enable us to cross El Camino without unacceptable detours. Until this is provided we will continue to drive our families and ourselves to local schools, offices, stores, parks, paling fields, restaurants, residential complexes and the gym, swimming pools, library, train station, and civic center. (Note: most elementary school students attend neighborhood schools on their own side of El Camino. The following places attract large numbers of users, e.g., students, employees, customers.
Elementary Schools: Oak Knoll, Encinal, Laurel (Upper & Lower Campuses), Nativity, Peninsula, St Joseph’s, Menlo School, Sacred Heart Schools=> young riders with and without adult companions
Middle Schools: Hillview, Nativity, Peninsula, Menlo School, Sacred Heart Schools=> Young riders without adult companions
High School: Menlo-Atherton, Menlo School, Sacred Heart => teens/young adults
Retail Businesses: Safeway Plaza, Draeger’s, Trader Joes, Walgreen’s, Cafe Barrone, Pete’s and Starbuck’s (Downtown), Le Boulangerie, Victoria Station, Wells Fargo
Bank Branches: Wells Fargo, Republic, BOA, Union Bank
Residential Complexes: Station 1300 (ECR), Middle Plaza (500 ECR), Sharon Heights,
Parks & Recreational Facilities: Burgess, Nealon, Flood, Gym, Swimming Pools, Tennis Courts
Government Services: Library, Civic Services, Train Station, Post Offices, VA Menlo Park Division
Offices: Cornerstone, 800 ECR (Schwab), SRI, Alma Station, Facebook, East Menlo Industrial Parks
Neighboring Communities: large residential apartments, downtown shopping districts, office parks, Stanford University, Stanford Shopping Center
Most Popular Menlo Park Destinations – Maps
The bike infrastructure information on the first map comes from the San Mateo County Bike Map.
Blue = Bike lanes Yellow = Bike Routes (lines separate bikes and vehicles) Orange = Recommended routes (no separation of bikes and vehicles)
Poor Bike Access To Popular Menlo Park Destinations
Gaps in the existing bike network force bicyclists to either accept long detours, ride on streets that cause discomfort, or simply abandon bikes for cars. The table rated how well the existing bike network serves bicyclists who want to travel to popular destinations. Good means existing bike facilities are acceptable. Fair means they are acceptable but with undesirable detours. Poor means that unacceptably long detours are required. A more comprehensive analysis would consider actual detour distances, intersections, traffic controls and vehicle cross traffic and could be performed by a bike network design professional.
In the chart above…
- North refers to neighborhoods located between Valparaiso and Santa Cruz on the west side and between Encinal and Oak Grove on the east side.
- Central refers to neighborhoods located between Santa Cruz and Middle on the west side and between Oak Grove and Ravenswood on the east side
- South refers to neighborhoods located between Middle and Creek on the west side and between Ravenswood and Willow on the east side.
A Natural Menlo Park Bike Network Grid
In July 2008 Menlo Park adopted a Vision Plan for Downtown and El Camino Real that includes “greater east-west connectivity, town-wide” and “an integrated, safe and well-designed pedestrian and bicycle network” as primary city objectives.
The two main problems are:
- The lack of convenient, safe and comfortable routes for crossing El Camino.
- The lack of convenient, safe and comfortable access to Downtown from both sides of El Camino Real.
Menlo Park has a small number of streets that are natural places to build a bike network grid with convenient, comfortable and safe east-west and north-south bike corridors. These would enable access to schools, downtown, and all popular destinations on either side of El Camino Real. Many of the elements are already in place but significant “gaps” now exist.
Blue lines => Existing bike lanes Orange = Existing bike routes
Green and purple lines =>either new bike lanes, cycle tracks or cycle paths
North-South Travel (Existing)
- The Alameda de Las Pulgas has bike lanes and is a popular bike connector between Stanford, Sand Hill Road, Valparaiso, and points beyond.
- The San Mateo -Wallea is a bike route and is a popular connector between Stanford, Bay Laurel, Middle, Santa Cruz and Valparaiso.
- University has only “shadow” street markings and is a popular bike connector between Creek, Middle, and Menlo.It has no bike lanes.
- Alma has bike lanes and is a popular connector between Palo Alto, Willow and Ravenswood.
- Laurel has bike lanes and is popular bike connector between Palo Alto, Willow, Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood and Encinal.
- Middlefield has bike lanes and is popular connector between Palo Alto, Willow, Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood, Encinal and Redwood City.
North-South Travel Gaps
- University should have bike lanes to protect current bicyclists and encourage more usage.
- Bike lanes on Garwood Way, 1300 ECR and Oak Grove between ECR and Alma are needed to create a Alma-Garwood bike corridor between Willow, Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood and Encinal that parallels El Camino and Laurel.
East-West Travel (Existing)
- Valparaiso has bike lanes between The Alameda and Laurel
- Encinal has bike lanes between Laurel and Middlefield.
- Santa Cruz has bike lanes between Avy and University.
- Ravenswood has bike lanes between Laurel and Middlefield.
- Willow has bike lanes between Alma, Laurel, Middlefield and part way to Highway 101.
East-West Travel Gaps
- Menlo and Ravenswood should have a combination of bike lanes and bike paths to protect current bicyclists and encourage more usage. Together this connector would become the central east-west bike corridor between University, El Camino., Alma, Laurel and Middlefield.
- Middle should have bike lanes from Olive to the Safeway shopping center and eventually to Alma (via a bike tunnel under the tracks).
- Oak Grove should have bike lanes between El Camino and Laurel.
Universal Bike Access To Popular Destinations
The recommendations that follow would improve the convenience of riding to every popular destination.
Students could travel to ALL schools located either across El Camino Real or on the same sides as their homes – safely, conveniently and comfortably.
My Specific Recommendations
- Do NOT invest in bike lanes on El Camino Real. A small percentage of bicyclists will use them, the “confident and courageous” along with inexperienced ones who should not ride on this busy highway. The majority of bicyclists would view riding in these bike lanes as unsafe and too stressful especially given convenient alternatives.
- DO invest in a much improved bike corridor on Menlo and Ravenswood Avenues and on street approaches like University Avenue between Middle and Menlo. This corridor would include a separate bike path on City property that runs roughly parallel to Ravenswood between Alma and Laurel Streets. And in the future this cycle path might be extended to Middlefield Road if SRI supported this improvement.
- Add bike lanes on Garwood Way between Encinal and Oak Grove and on Oak Grove between El Camino Real and Laurel. Most of these improvements will be funded by Greenheart as part of the Station 1300 development project.
- Add bike route signs on Alma between Ravenswood and Oak Grove and bike crosswalks at the Ravenswood-Alma intersection.
- Add bike route signage to Middle between Olive and University; possibly upgrade to buffered bike lanes in the future after Middle Plaza is completed.
- Do NOT invest in an Oak Grove Corridor between University and Middlefield. Bike lanes already exist on Valparaiso, and Menlo Park has received funding for improvements on Valparaiso and on Glenwood Avenues between El Camino and Laurel. Valparaiso and Glenwood are the natural place for a bike corridor at the north end of the city.
Specific Network Design Challenges
One reason Menlo Park does not have a first-class bike network is the existence of places where adding bike facilities is not simple. That means good solutions are not obvious to most people. However, professional network planners and designers encounter difficult situations on a regular basis and know how to deal with them. They can tailor solutions that optimize the Menlo Park bike network. I believe the following ideas warrant careful consideration.
Challenge 1 – University Avenue Cycle Tracks
These bike facilities (formerly called protected bike lanes) would run from Middle to the intersection with Menlo Avenue and provide a better approach to downtown AND crossing El Camino. Street parking spaces would be eliminated and the vehicle lanes narrowed.
Challenge 2 – Menlo Avenue Cycle Tracks
Ideally these would be two-way bike facilities installed only on the south side of Menlo Avenue. This would minimize the loss of street parking spaces, and bike riders would cross paths with vehicles only when entering side streets when riding in the direction of Santa Cruz Avenue. Signage and street markings could encourage bicyclists to enter and exit Menlo only at stop signs, e.g., at Crane and Doyle.
Challenge 3 – University Cycle Path (Santa Cruz to Menlo)
A cycle path would separate bikes and vehicle and enable bike riders to travel between Santa Cruz Avenue and Menlo Avenue. This could be a two-way bike path along the sidewalk in Fremont Park and bike riders could share the short section of sidewalk between Fremont Park and the Menlo intersection.
Challenge 4 – El Camino Real Crossing At Ravenswood
Continue the two-way bike lanes on Menlo across the south side of the intersection. Include signage and green lane markings. This would bicyclists riding west on Ravenswood to avoid encounters with motorists making right turns. The bike lanes would terminate near the sidewalk on the south side of Ravenswood.
Challenge 5 – Ravenswood Bike Lanes Between El Camino and Alma
Continue the two-way bike lanes along the Ravenswood sidewalk until reaching the pedestrian gate for the train. Allow bicyclists to share the short section of sidewalk between the gate and Alma. Provide yield-to-pedestrian and 5 mph max speed limit signage. Mark this section of the sidewalk with green paint.
Challenge 6 – Ravenswood Cycle Path
Transition to a two-way cycle path that starts near the library, crosses under the oaks on City property, passes behind the X, and reconnect with Ravenswood at Laurel. This enables a complete separation of bike and vehicle on a beautiful path. (Note: Perhaps SRI would enable this cycle path to be extended to Middlefield in the future.) Ravenswood already has bike lanes between Laurel and Middlefield Road.
Challenge 7 – Potential Impact of High Speed Rail
The implementation of high speed rail would require the reconfiguration of Ravenswood between El Camino and Laurel to accommodate an underpass. However, this event should only impact the bike lanes between El Camino and Alma as any underpass should include bike access to a cycle path between Alma and Laurel. Therefore, the uncertainty surrounding the timing of high speed rail and the design of an underpass should NOT impede the installation of bike facilities the other section of a Menlo-Ravenswood bike corridor. Their value will NOT change.
Contemporary Bike Network Design
In 2012 a new approach to designing bike networks was introduced with the publishing of Low Stress Bicycling And Network Connectivity and this methodology is now widely used by professional designers of urban and suburban bike networks in the United States. The central philosophy and approach leverages the extensive experience of the Dutch who are recognized as world leaders in bike network design.
The new design methodologies make a number of key assumptions about bicyclist behavior and best design principles.