City eyes big changes along El Camino Real


Encinitas can make El Camino Real more pedestrian-friendly by widening the sidewalks, improving the crosswalks and adding more trees, according to recommendations from an expert the city hired to study the thoroughfare.

Consultant Dan Burden presented his recommendations to the City Council on Tuesday night, June 27, after leading a several-mile walk down the roadway earlier that afternoon, pointing out specific trouble spots and opportunities to do better.

His list of “easy” fixes included:

  • Planting trees in the roadway medians
  • Widening the sidewalks
  • Encouraging neighboring shopping center owners to link their properties with pathways when they remodel.
  • Narrowing some of the vehicle traffic lanes
  • Reducing El Camino’s vehicle speeds to 35 mph

Burden also had long-term proposals for the El Camino corridor, such as developing public/private partnerships with shopping centers along the roadway to create pedestrian improvements. He also encouraged the city to create a theme for the area and use it as a decorative embellishment along the corridor.
The council plans to set aside $250,000 in the coming fiscal year for improvements to El Camino and will use Burden’s advice as it explores how to spend that money, Mayor Catherine Blakespear said.

One of Burden’s short-term suggestions — colorizing the bike lanes with a coat of paint to make them stand out from the rest of the roadway — concerned her. She told Burden that cyclists say paint can be slippery and she worried it would be a safety hazard. Burden told her that depended on the type of paint the city used.

During his Tuesday afternoon “walking audit” of the area, Burden said it wasn’t hard to understand why pedestrians are such a rare commodity along the vehicle-congested El Camino Real route.

The sidewalks aren’t very inviting; the adjacent strip mall shopping centers aren’t connected to each other; and getting across the busy, six-lane roadway, even when using the designated crosswalks, can seem downright scary, he told the some 35 elected officials, city employees, business leaders and area residents who accompanied him on his journey.

He began at the northwest corner of El Camino Real and Encinitas Boulevard, and headed northward along El Camino to Garden View Road where the city’s main post office is. Along the way, he took photographs, questioned city employees about the timing of crosswalk signals, assessed the placement of bus stop benches and even jumped into the roadway to measure the width of the vehicle lanes.

Burden, who has done roadway assessments for 40 years and was honored by former President Barack Obama in 2014 as one of 10 Champions of Change in Transportation, took particular note of the ways that pedestrians were trying to cope with conditions along El Camino.

He said that there were “goat paths” — unofficial trails — winding through vegetation between adjacent shopping centers. People make these paths because no one has thought to link the shopping centers via staircases or sidewalks, he said.

At El Camino and Via Molena, he noted the lack of a crosswalk for people who wanted to go directly across El Camino from the roadway’s southwestern corner to the southeastern corner. Someone hoping to get cash at U.S. Bank and then spend it at Chick-fil-A would need to cross three intersections — the two side streets, plus the north side of El Camino — to just get a chicken sandwich, he said.

City traffic engineer Rob Blough said the intersection’s condition was the result of poor planning before Encinitas incorporated in 1986. A fire hydrant stuck right on the southeast corner makes it impossible to put in a crosswalk that would meet handicapped accessibility requirements, he said.

A block farther north at the Mountain Vista Drive intersection, Burden discovered another missing south side crosswalk, and several people on the walking tour told him it was an even more critical need than the one at Via Molena because it was in a prime pedestrian area. Hundreds of homes are just east of the intersection and people like to walk to the shops nearby.

As they stopped to talk, two moms with three little kids pushed the walk button and then, clutching two of the kids’ hands and carrying one, they dashed across the multi-lane roadway after the walk signal lit up. They all cheered when they made it across the street with six seconds to spare.

Before they crossed, the mayor told them that making improvements to the area would be a “top priority” for the city in the coming year and the moms said they were thrilled to hear it.

– Barbara Henry is a freelance writer in Encinitas for The San Diego Union-Tribune.