You’ve probably seen construction starting anew on Foothill Expressway between San Antonio Road and El Monte Avenue. It’s the result of several meetings between the city of Los Altos, concerned cyclists and the Santa Clara County Roads & Airports Department to address the dangerous intersections southbound at El Monte and northbound at San Antonio.

I want to thank Jon Blum, Jim Fenton and Tom Shoup for working with me to prepare a proposal for the county on a design based on the county’s “Alternative 2” that also addresses concerns expressed by local bicyclists and Complete Streets Commission members, who sought modifications to that design.

About two months after the last meeting, we were all surprised by the county announcement that the redesign plan was final and construction was beginning. Although most of the discussion had been about the southbound El Monte intersection, the county is also making a similar design change to the northbound San Antonio intersection.

The good news is that the county took our concerns to heart; the design takes into account feedback from two public meetings. It’s also close to the proposal the four of us submitted. The design drawing is available at tinyurl.com/yshpcbn4.

The design creates visible green-striped areas 250 feet long in the rightmost lane (northbound and southbound), indicating a merge area where bicycles going straight on Foothill and motor vehicles turning right on San Antonio or El Monte must cross each other’s paths. Given the hard-to-miss alert, I’m hopeful motorists and cyclists will treat each other with courtesy and use common sense, with motorists allowing cyclists to continue straight without overtaking them and cutting them off within the merge zone.

This is a major change from the original county position that bikes had to cross the motor vehicle right-of-way and yield to motorists, and were given only 100 feet to cross – even in traffic conditions where that clearly would not be possible.

As far as state law goes, I believe the person (cyclist or motorist) who has the right-of-way is ambiguous because two lanes are crossing each other at a diagonal; all of the rules for merging traffic I’ve found address only what happens when one of two lanes ends.

Perhaps this new design will work well and maybe someday the rules will be codified, but the merge or conflict zone is well marked and should serve to notify everyone to be cautious. Analogies to long-established boating right-of-way rules are appropriate: First, an overtaking boat must yield to the boat that it is overtaking, and second, sailboats have the right-of-way over powerboats because they are less maneuverable (by analogy, bicycles should have the right-of-way over motor vehicles because they are less maneuverable).

I’d like to thank the county for taking seriously our concern that this work be completed before the end of daylight saving time. To address the evening commute in the dark, they are also adding lighting at both intersections so that this complicated dance will not have to be done in the dark.

Room for improvement

However, there is still room for improvement for county communications, which did not address other community feedback.

This includes a request for street markings to aid cyclists who want to turn right onto El Monte or San Antonio. And what about a provision for cyclists who wish to dismount and cross like a pedestrian at El Monte? In heavy traffic, I don’t think it will be possible to do this safely and find a protected landing spot on the sidewalk; instead, cyclists will have to stop in the lane halfway through the right-hand turn.

Similarly, nothing is being done to address the many motorists who continue to make right turns on El Monte against the red right-turn arrows and multiple signs. That could be because 50% of motorists in Los Altos are scofflaws, but I think a better explanation is that the lights and turn signals are a long distance away and not in their line of sight the way the lanes are aligned.

The county also did not address the requests from multiple people to provide markings addressing bicycle traffic on the shoulders (aka bike lanes) for the entire quarter-mile stretch. Such a consideration is being pushed to sometime in the future when the county’s Expressway Bicycle Accommodation Guidelines are revised (optimistically, by the end of 2022). The county will be evaluating the potential use of green bike lanes in additional areas on the expressway as part of its future Active Transportation Plan activities.

The county’s press release has the headline: “Construction Underway for Foothill Expressway Bicycle Lane Improvements in Los Altos,” which is amusing given that the county’s current position is that the shoulder is not really a bike lane – despite the fact that thousands of cyclists use it. I am disappointed in the Los Altos City Council for not taking this opportunity to request such designation now (within the rules in the current Bicycle Accommodation Guidelines).

Chris Hoeber is a local resident, avid cyclist and founder of a cycling club. Email questions and comments to chris@cfhengineering.com.