News A Better Blithedale – Update on the Ongoing Project

Photo Credit: WTB-TAM

There’s been a lot of news on E. Blithedale Avenue in the last year, so we wanted to give an end-of-the-year roundup on where we stand, and what is still left to be done. 

The project is being done in three phases, and they will all look fairly different, so I’m going to break them up as such.

Phase 1 (US-101 to Camino Alto)

This phase is actually under construction now. Thanks to our advocacy, and that of our supporters, this segment is being constructed with separated bike lanes (instead of the paint-only bike lanes originally planned). In the eastbound direction (toward Tiburon) the separated lane will go between the Mill Valley-Sausalito Pathway and Tower/Kipling, at which point the road is owned by Caltrans, and will be improved via a separate project a couple years in the future. Westbound riders will have a separated lane between Tower/Kiping and the Chevron station. At that point, they can either ride down E. Blithedale in a narrow shoulder or continue east on Ashford to the Mill Valley-Sausalito Path.

Phase 2 (Camino Alto to Elm Avenue) and Phase 3 (Elm Avenue to Sunnyside Avenue)

The Street Today

After authorizing construction of Phase 1 in May, the city turned to Phases 2 and 3. As anyone who has ever ridden, walked, or driven here knows, E. Blithedale Avenue is a challenging street. It is both very narrow and extremely busy, seeing close to 20,000 daily car and bus trips. Though many people also travel on the street by foot and by bicycle, there are impediments there too. The sidewalk is narrow and is constrained by utility poles and cars illegally parked on the sidewalk. Riders must choose between the busy street or the narrow sidewalk, the latter of which violates Mill Valley municipal code.

In several meetings this summer and fall, MCBC has pressed city staff to include improved accommodation for people walking or riding along the street. However, despite the city having a Complete Streets Policy (passed by the City Council in 2013 and requiring projects to “provide for safe, comfortable, and convenient travel along and across streets… for all users”), representatives at the Public Works Department have insisted from the outset that this is “a repaving project only.” In their minds, a repaving project is largely meant to preserve the status quo, with relatively minor improvements for pedestrian safety, including some new crossing signals. It does not involve an opportunity for the community to reimagine the street. 

Existing Cross Section (facing west toward downtown)

MCBC believes that this demonstrates a lack of vision and a missed opportunity for improving a key transportation corridor in the city. Substantial projects like this are only planned once in a generation, and we should not wait until the 2040s to improve E. Blithedale for people traveling outside of cars. 

What the Street Could Be – A Long-Range Vision of E. Blithedale

In spite of substantial public input on the matter, City staff have decided that maintaining private curbside parking for the three dozen homeowners on the north side of the street (many of whom presently park on the sidewalk) is more important than transportation purposes for the street, and have said that “no consideration” would be given to repurposing the street space currently used for storing cars. This summer MCBC and WTB-TAM (another local advocacy organization) proposed a long-term vision for E. Blithedale that would have represented a marked improvement, requesting essentially that the sidewalks be widened to 8’ on both sides and that slow bike riding be permitted there. The proposal was rejected as “infeasible” and “out of scope.”

WTB-TAM & MCBC Long-Term Vision (photo credit: WTB-TAM)

After the failure of this proposal, we scaled back our recommendations to something that could be accomplished largely with paint and policy rather than curbs and concrete. The section below describes those minor but impactful changes.

What Can Still Happen

Our friends at WTB-TAM have developed a clever, light-touch approach that would improve the biking experience on E. Blithedale between Elm Avenue (at Park School) and Millwood Street (e.g. most of Phase 3). This section of the street is a very narrow 28’. Without moving the curb, there is not sufficient width for a bicycle lane in both directions. There is, however, space for a westbound buffered bike lane without removing substantial on-street parking. 

Proposed Cross Section (facing west toward downtown)

While it is less than ideal to have a bike lane only in one direction, it is the better direction because riding west here involves somewhat more climbing, and a lane allows drivers to pass riders traveling uphill.

Conceptual design of westbound bike lane between Elm Ave and Millwood St

This configuration has several benefits. 

  • Connecting the neighborhoods near Boyle Park with Downtown Mill Valley and the Lumber Yard, removing the need for uphill or out-of-direction travel. 

  • It provides westbound bicyclists on E. Blithedale Avenue with a place to ride outside of the path of vehicles. 

  • The narrower auto lanes discourage speeding, increasing safety for drivers and improving yield rates for pedestrians trying to cross the street. 

  • Westbound riders, rather than having to use the sidewalk, would have a place to ride on the street, freeing up the sidewalk for pedestrians. 

There would be essentially no cost to this proposal, other than the need to remove several on-street parking spaces on the north side of E. Blithedale Avenue between Millwood Street and Dell Street to facilitate a safe westbound left turn from E. Blithedale to Millwood. 

Phase 2 of the street, between Camino Alto and Elm Avenue, would remain unchanged, as adding a bicycle lane in that segment would require repurposing street parking.

The City’s Reaction

At the Mill Valley City Council meeting on Monday, December 6th, the council voted to approve the plans, which at present lack bicycle accommodations described above. However, thanks to advocacy from MCBC, WTB-TAM, and members of the community, the council clearly directed staff to further develop the proposal above.

What You Can Do

While the council is supportive of our proposal, it is by no means a guarantee. Stay tuned for future opportunities to weigh in, and sign up below to get updates specifically about E. Blithedale Avenue. While we’re disappointed that the city was unwilling to explore a greater vision for the whole Phase 2-3 corridor, we do believe that we can improve the riding experience between Park School and Downtown. But we’ll need your help to do it. 

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We’re fighting for a more bike-friendly future in Marin. Are you with us? Join Marin County Bicycle Coalition today.

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