The challenge of making El Camino pedestrian-friendly

City and county officials are hoping to transform El Camino Real into a bustling shoppers’ paradise, but it remains a challenge to secure the pedestrian safety improvements considered an essential first step toward making that happen.

The Grand Boulevard Initiative, a collaborative project among cities, other government agencies and economic groups, aims to coordinate planning efforts and make the wide, busy state highway — considered by many to be unattractive and unsafe — into a better place to stroll, shop, live and use public transit.

The initiative is still mostly a concept at this point, with work planned for the near future focusing on pedestrian walkways and aesthetic features, like planter strips, to make the street more attractive. The long-term goal is to attract more business and new development on El Camino, while also making public transportation there easier.

Because El Camino runs through so many cities, however, there is a multitude of opinions on how it should be managed, Weiss said. One city might want to prevent traffic back-ups, while another might want to slow traffic down as much as possible to attract shoppers, for example. Part of the challenge, Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss said, is bringing all those desires and agencies together.

Local officials are taking the lead on projects within their cities, but Caltrans still has the final say on the installation of pedestrian safety devices or even many aesthetic changes such as tree and shrubbery plantings.

If Caltrans gives the OK, the agency issues an encroachment permit so the city can do work on their property, Weiss said.

The permitting process went smoothly for Millbrae, which has two projects underway — one at Victoria Avenue and another at Millwood Drive — to create safer pedestrian crossings, Public Works Director Ron Popp said. The city bore the brunt of the funding for both projects — totaling $825,000.

“I don’t know that it’s a problem,” Popp said of the Caltrans approval process. “But it can be a challenge.”

Weiss said safety is the number one priority for Caltrans, followed by preserving the user friendliness of the highway. He noted, however, that pedestrian-friendly enhancements to the road aren’t always warranted.

Accidents involving two cars accounted for 87 percent of accidents on El Camino in San Mateo County between 2003 and 2005, according to Caltrans data. Accidents involving a car and a pedestrian accounted for less than five percent in the same time period.

Though there were just a handful of fatal collisions of any kind on El Camino between John Daly Boulevard in Daly City and Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park between 2002 and 2005, there were between 355 and 428 injury collisions in the same time period, according to data from the California Highway Patrol.

“We will put in lighted crosswalks or whatever is being proposed, but we have to be convinced that it would improve safety,” Weiss said. “Even if a local agency wants to fund something, we don’t always approve it if it doesn’t address a need.”

tramroop@examiner.com

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