East Palo Alto Raises $15 M for University Avenue Pedestrian/Bicycle Overcrossing

On December 7, 2021, East Palo Alto City Council announced it had raised $15 million for the University Avenue pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing.

Drone video of site of future pedestrian bicycle overcrossing.

East Palo Alto City Council announced at their December 7, 2021 meeting that the City has raised 100% of the funds for the ~$15 million University Ave pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing. I am personally very excited for this project because I enjoy biking and I like the idea of having a bridge to safely bike across the Highway 101 to get to the Palo Alto Caltrain station.

The drone video at the top of this article shows the current state of the University Avenue bridge over Highway 101, with 2 lanes for vehicles going each way and a sidewalk on the northern half of the bridge (the section on the right in the drone video). For context, in this video the drone is flying west and the cars going towards the left of the screen on the highway are driving on Highway 101 southbound towards San Jose. The building on the right side of the screen is University Circle, known for its Four Seasons Hotel development.

Why the Current Sidewalk is Dangerous

The current sidewalk on the bridge intersects with cars, creating a potential collision zone. Apple Maps.

The current configuration is dangerous because pedestrians and cyclists currently have to cross the northbound exit that goes onto westbound University Ave. The annotated figure above highlights this potential collision zone. Cars that are exiting Highway 101 N are more worried about not colliding with cars driving south on University Ave than they are about pedestrians who may be crossing while they are merging onto the two lane road. Besides bicycle-car collisions, the current system is also prone to bicycle-pedestrian collisions. The sidewalk on the bridge is narrow, and it is difficult for a cyclist to pass by pedestrians walking in the opposite direction. Imagine if you were biking and a mom and child were walking towards you on the sidewalk closer to the road. If you accidentally lose control while biking past them causing them to take one slip off the sidewalk, and a car happens to be passing close to the sidewalk going at 35 miles per hour, yikes!

Furthermore, this overcrossing is the missing link in completing a regional bike trail network. Stanford conducted a bicycle study in 2017 and on page 21 it shows the bike routes in East Palo Alto along University Ave: notice how there is a gap where the proposed bridge is.

Results from page 21 of 2017 Stanford bicycle study. Note that this is 4 years old, so the new bike overcrossing along Willow Rd over Highway 101 is not reflected. Note the gap in the bike trail along University Ave over Highway 101.

Bridge Details

I have not been able to find a written city announcement about the funds raised, and there is no summary from the December 7, 2021 City Council meeting writing down what was said. The only written announcement of this milestone that I have been able to find is this LinkedIn update from Patrick Heisinger, Assistant City Manager. Thank you Patrick for sharing these details! In case Patrick's LinkedIn post is no longer available at your time of reading, here is what he had to say:

Exciting news for the City of East Palo Alto!!

On December 2, 2021, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority Board of Directions allocated $8 M towards the City of East Palo Alto’s latest pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing along the north side of the US 101/University Avenue overcrossing. The estimated total project cost is $15 M, however, the City was desperately looking for a funding source to close the funding gap – thank you SMCTA!

The project will relieve an interchange bottleneck at University Avenue and US 101. The project will also reduce intersection delay along University Avenue at both Donohoe Street and Woodland Avenue. The southbound ramp improvements will reduce queue lengths in both the AM and PM peak periods. Bicycle and pedestrian safety will be improved with a dedicated overcrossing that will eliminate bicycle and vehicle weaving conflicts on University Avenue. Combined, these improvements will create separated, comfortable facilities for people walking and biking to access nearby schools, business centers, retail areas, and transit stops.

Special thank you to the City's Acting Public Works Director Humza Javed, P.E., ENV SP and his team for pushing aggressively seeking this funding!

Here are the 2 photos Patrick posted of early-stage renderings of how the bridge can look. Notice how it is a separate bridge from the highway bridge.

Photo of a conceptual design rendering for the University Ave Highway 101 pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing. These designs are not finalized.
Bird's eye view of conceptual overcrossing. Note that I'm not sure how the bridge as designed will alleviate the bicycle and wearing conflict on University Ave.

The separated pedestrian bridge design from Patrick's LinkedIn post is a departure from earlier renderings of the project currently listed on the City's website, where the vision was to widen the existing bridge in order to add bicycle lanes.

As a side note, I think our City needs to do a better job of updating their public works project pages because the page linked above still says, "The design completion is anticipated in Spring 2022. City staff is seeking construction funds prior to project advertisement for construction bids." The City's primary written source of exciting milestone achievements should not be made solely via the Assistant City Manager's LinkedIn.

Nearby Pedestrian/Bicycle Overcrossings

The idea of spending tens of millions of dollars to build pedestrian/bicycle overcrossings over Highway 101 is not new. Here is my annotated map of four other existing overcrossings/bike lanes in relation to the proposed University Avenue overcrossing. I will go into detail on these overcrossings starting from the south  (Adobe Creek) and ending at the north (Willow Road).

Four other existing overcrossings in relation to the proposed University Avenue overcrossing

Adobe Creek Highway 101 Pedestrian / Bike Bridge

Palo Alto recently completed a $22.9 million pedestrian/bike bridge over the Highway 101 at Adobe Creek. I have biked over this bridge. It is beautiful at night when driving under it on the freeway because every single vertical steel beam lights up. I am surprised I cannot find any photos of the bridge at night.

Source: Palo Alto Online

The Adobe Creek overcrossing is 2.73 miles south of the proposed University Ave bridge.

Oregon Expressway Overcrossing

Of the 4 overcrossings nearby, this is the only one not built in the last 3 years. It even has a Yelp page! I did a quick Google and could not pull up the exact year when the Oregon Expressway overcrossing was built, but trust me it looks old, like at least 20 years old.

Source: Yelp

The Oregon Expressway overcrossing is 1.42 miles south of the proposed University Ave bridge.

Clarke Avenue Pedestrian Overcrossing

The Clarke Avenue pedestrian overcrossing opened on May 19, 2019, around two and a half years ago. I love this bridge: I've ran, biked, or electric scootered on this bridge at least a dozen times this year. One of my favorite uses of this bridge is to electric scooter or bike to the Palo Alto Caltrain station. I feel very safe when I am on this bridge, and I like how the platform is very wide. If this bridge did not exist, my best alternative would be to bike across University Avenue to get to the Palo Alto Caltrain, which is not safe for the reasons mentioned above, hence I probably would not bike in the first place and would have to drive.

I took this drone photo on 5/24/21 of the Clarke Avenue pedestrian overcrossing.

In case you're wondering why the residents of Palo Alto would allow this bridge to be built - connecting a historically underprivileged neighborhood with a very privileged neighborhood - the answer is that East Palo Alto owns land on boths sides of the freeway. In the drone picture above, the apartment buildings on the other (west) side of the freeway are in East Palo Alto and the the mansions hidden inside the tall, lush trees behind are in Palo Alto. Mark Zuckerberg and other wealthy Palo Alto residents live inside that canopy. Speaking of Mark, another thing I love to do is bike across the the Clarke Avenue bridge to go say hi to Mark Zuckerberg's house (or should I say houses since he bought out all his neighbors).

The Clarke Avenue overcrossing is 0.42 miles south of the proposed University Ave bridge.

Willow Road Interchange

The Willow Road Interchange which completed in September 2019 does not have an overcrossing; instead, it has "two bicycles lanes in each directions." I could not find any drone photos of this project and Google Maps imagery is still backdated to its construction photos, so maybe I will go take some drone photos of it at some point.

The Willow Road Interchange is 0.98 miles north of the proposed University Ave project.

Embarcadero Road Bridge Sidewalk

All of the examples listed above are good examples of walkable, bike-able bridges proximate to the proposed University Avenue overcrossing. The Embarcadero Road Bridge Sidewalk is an example of what not to do, as it has a sidewalk on the vehicular bridge that has not one (like University Ave) but four potential collision zones.

The sidewalk on the north side of Embarcadero Rd has 4 potential collision zones with 2 highway on-ramps and 2 off-ramps.

The first time I took the Embarcadero Road bridge sidewalk, I had to be hyper-alert. Cars exited and entered the freeway fast, and their main concern were other cars when  merging, not pedestrians or cyclists like me. I felt angry after finally making it across and I vowed to always use the Clarke Avenue bridge in the future. Luckily, a neighbor taught me that there is a pedestrian bridge that I can use instead (highlighted in blue in the photo), and I've been using that one ever since. That bridge happens to be the Oregon Expressway overcrossing that I described earlier, and it is 833 feet south of Embarcadero Road. Unfortunately, it is old, caged, and not a joy to bike through, as I mentioned earlier.

The Embarcadero Road bridge is located 1.25 miles south of the proposed University Ave overcrossing.

University Ave Overcrossing Construction Timeline

According to City Council members on the December 7, 2021 meeting, a major reason why the City was able to close the funding gap with an $8 million allocation from the San Mateo County Trapsortation Authority Board of Directors is that the bridge can be "shovel ready" in 12 months. But given that the bridge does not even have a RFP (request for proposals) yet for a design, engineering, and permits, I am not sure how the bridge can break ground in 12 months. If I am wrong about this, please correct me by emailing me; I would love to be wrong about this. One thing that helps the University Avenue overcrossing timeline is that Columbia Property Trust, the owner of University Circle, is allowing an easement for the pedestrian bridge to go through their land as evidenced on their University Circle Phase II Courbanize FAQ:

"The City of EPA is planning to construct a dedicated bike/pedestrian lane along University Avenue and University Circle is providing an easement along the South side of its property to facilitate that construction."

I would love to see the University Avenue pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing come to fruition. For one, I see myself biking across University Ave so that I can bike south on the University Avenue bicycle lane to get to the Palo Alto Caltrain station. Second, I would like both parts of East Palo Alto to be more connected so as to be less divided. There are over 2,000 apartment units on the west portion of East Palo Alto (e.g. Woodland Apartments) and with this bridge they would be able to more easily walk over to shop at Target, Nordstrom Rack, Home Depot, Ikea, etc. Third, many proposed real estate developments in East Palo Alto have a TDM (traffic demand management) requirement to reduce 40% of vehicle trips in order for their project to be considered. Having a bridge so that cyclists can bike from the Palo Alto Caltrain to work in East Palo Alto helps to reach these TDM goals and to help the environment. Of course, there are other options to reduce vehicle trips, such as proposing real estate development that caters to the lower educated workforce, or not developing at all, but that is a topic for a much longer blog post.

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