San Mateo, pedestrian friendly El Camino Real, and drive through coffee

The city of San Mateo, California is centrally located between Silicon Valley and San Francisco on the San Francisco Peninsula. Over half a million vehicles cross through the city daily on US Highway 101. Another 300,000 vehicles pass through San Mateo on Highway 92, while about 50,000 vehicles travel through on El Camino Real (ECR).

Much of ECR today is a six lane traffic sewer with mixed development on either side of the road.

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In 2010, the city of San Mateo, California adopted “Vision 2030” as their General Plan. The city adopted a plan to help create a vibrant and pedestrian friendly El Camino Real in line with the principles of the Grand Boulevard Initiative, of which the city of San Mateo is a member.

The city of San Mateo expects and plans for growth, but there’s very little room to expand the road network to accommodate this growth. City planners recognize future congestion of San Mateo roads necessitates a fundamental shift away from automobile travel to transit services. The city are also on board — on paper, anyway –with planning for pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly spaces to create an vibrant, economically sustainable downtown and ECR corridor.

A business owner recently asked the zoning commission about putting a drive through coffee business at a very high traffic corner where a shuttered gas station now lies. Although a drive through business is “not a perfect fit with the city’s long term plan for El Camino Real,” the planning commission still gave their preliminary thumbs up for the plan. According to the Mercury News:

The drive-through is not a perfect fit with the city’s long-term plan for El Camino Real, which envisions a pedestrian-friendly corridor lined with multistory buildings that combine retail and housing. Still, the project received a mostly favorable response from the commission at a preliminary review Jan. 23.

“Does it really do what we’re hoping to see in the grand picture of the El Camino?” asked Commissioner Rick Bonilla. “Not exactly. But I don’t think that all of El Camino, every single lot, is really going to conform to that anyway, maybe not for 100 years.”

Espresso Lane drive through proposal San Mateo California

The reality is that our businesses and cities are still dominated by traffic. Is there a way for San Mateo to have their cake and eat it too?

Pedestrian and bike advocates often dislike drive-thru services because they are designed to the complete exclusion of any other mode of transportation. Drive-thru only services usually prohibit service to anybody on foot or bike for “safety” or liability reasons, making car ownership a requirement to purchase anything. For stores with inside service, people on foot must cross driveways and drive through lanes for access to the store from a sidewalk. An expanse of parking lot in front of the store

Drive through restaurants can be designed to be somewhat pedestrian friendly. Make indoor or walkup ordering available. Don’t force pedestrians to cross a huge expanse of parking lot, but put your building as close to the sidewalk as the city’s setback requirements allow. Make a path connecting the sidewalk to a door or walk up window.

I’ve copied these slides on pedestrian issues for drive-thrus from this this presentation on designing for pedestrian safety from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. Since it appears San Mateo’s planning commission will need to provide a special use exemption for this coffee shop to move forward, they can place additional requirements for pedestrian friendliness on the business.

Drive thru and pedestrian safety examples

Drive thru and pedestrian safety examples

Drive thru and pedestrian safety examples

Drive thru and pedestrian safety examples


  1. The only argument I can offer, being a one leg amputee, I can get in and out of a car with out, much trouble, however I know those are bound by there wheelchair, a Herculean task to simple get out car go inside and come out and then reload in there transportation.

    In looking at the pictures, the second one down is a nightmare, a danger of tipping over, for those who need to get around under there own power, in development of El Camino Real a two to three foot space on the sidewalk for the ADA crowd, this would also give a save place for older American get around on three-wheeler if they chose to give up driving.

  2. I really appreciate your insight on this from your perspective.

    The flip side: those wheelchair users who cannot or do not drive need access to restaurants. As I point out, it’s possible to design a fast food drive through that also accommodates pedestrians.

  3. I am one of the planning commissioners who reviewed the project you’ve described. I would ask that you have a look at the plan. I think you’ll see that pedestrians, bicyclists and the disabled have all been thought of in the design.
    Rick Bonilla

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