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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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El Camino/Page Mill intersection needs more pedestrians?

Uploaded: Apr 8, 2015
The intersection of El Camino and Page Mill is one of the most congested in the city, but no improvements are expected in the foreseeable future.(foot#1) Those familiar with this intersection likely have seen the substantial impacts of even a few pedestrians.(foot#2)

I attended a talk Tuesday on Tactical Urbanism?"faster, cheaper, better ways of prototyping small community driven projects that are effective and delightful ways that improve streets and neighborhoods"?sponsored by the advocacy group Palo Alto Forward. After the talk, there were five break-out groups. I was assigned to the one addressing this intersection (#5). Our task, as provided by PA Forward:
"Design Problem/Goal: Could this intersection be a more social place and be recognized as the geographic center of the city?"
with the first "Metric for Success" being
"More people than cars at noon."
One of the major suggestions was to put a cafe on the southeast corner, in parking lot of Palo Alto Square, to encourage children to cross over from the playing fields, which are on the southwest corner (satellite view). Remember, the whole idea was changes that could implemented quickly and cheaply. Except for me, the group ranged from dismissive to hostile to having the intersection efficiently serve vehicles. Two members of the City's Planning Department, in unofficial roles, actively participated in this group, often taking the lead.

Another group, #1, was tasked with the "problem" of pedestrians being barred from crossing at every position of a few exceptional intersections:
"Design Problem/Goal: Signs to direct people to cross at one side of busy intersections are hostile and inconvenient."
Two examples were cited, with one being in my neighborhood on the northeast corner where El Camino is intersected by Wilton, which is a quiet residential street. This section of El Camino has multiple "messy" intersections because the streets on the north side don't line up with those on the south side
? satellite view
? street view, toward Page Mill: The "hostile" sign with the graphic for "No pedestrian crossing" isn't itself visible here. It is mounted the other side of the low support in front of the door for 3703.
? street view, toward Mountain View: showing the tangle of turn lanes.
In that satellite view you will notice two nearby crosswalks: one less than 80 feet northwest (toward Page Mill, visible in both street views above) and one less than 120 feet south. Recognize that neither of these crosswalks requires the slightest actual detour, unless the pedestrian is going to that one building directly across the street (cleaners, Marine Corps recruiting, 2 salons). But crossing at that spot would be highly dangerous.

Was deciding that this situation needed to be eliminated a triumph of ideology and orthodoxy over safety? Or is it an example of a group of Palo Altans who feel the need to be protected from even an erroneous perception that they are being asked to walk but a few more feet in order to avoid worsening traffic for tens of thousands?

Palo Alto purports to have a policy of creating "Complete Streets", that is, ones "designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities." My experience from workshops and other City Hall processes is that the process is better described as "Conspicuous Consumption", with the various special interest and advocacy groups trying to grab disproportionate and unwarranted shares of scarce resources, and some seemingly intent on depriving others of their fair share (out of a sense of moral superiority). This talk and sessions were but another example of why these issues are so contentious.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Congestion at El Camino/Page Mill: Improvements being considered for the intersections on Foothill Expressway at Arastradero and Page Mill and widening of Page Mill between El Camino between El Camino and Foothill might provide some reduction of congestion at ECR/PM as a side-effect. See County Looks to Revamp Palo Alto's Expressways, Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-04-03.

2. Effect of pedestrians: On north-bound El Camino there is no right-turn lane?there was supposed to be, but City Hall "forgot". I have seen a single pedestrian crossing Page Mill reduce the throughput of the right lane in half?a car turning right will block all the cars behind it that are going straight through. Three pedestrians spread out can reduce the throughput of the right lane to 2-3 cars during a light cycle. During the Caltrans/El Camino Design Study in the early 2000s, I stood on the corner counting vehicles during evening peak hours. Cut-through traffic on Olive and Pepper (residential streets) was essential to the functioning of the intersection, with Olive and Pepper often each handling roughly the same number of vehicles as the intended lane on El Camino.
On south-bound El Camino, there is a right-turn lane, but the volume of right turning traffic often exceeds its holding capacity, so pedestrians can cause it to back up enough to impede the right-most through lane.
I have not observed the throughput of the southbound left-turn lane being impacted by pedestrians on the far side: Vehicles use the intersection itself as a holding area while pedestrians cross, and any delays are indistinguishable from the routine running of the red light (which seems to play a role in keeping the intersection functioning).

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

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Posted by sunshine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 7:16 am

This corner is an abomination! I travel it every weekday to visit my husband and have dinner in downtown PA.
Earlier in the day or on weekends I will cut through the Ventura neighborhood to get onto Page Mill/Oregon towards the Bay as it is possible to use the cut from Park Blvd onto eastbound Oregon. In the afternoon this is impossible to do safely.
There should be a "Right Turn ONLY" designation to the right lane northbound on El Camino at this corner. All it takes is one car to want to go straight or a bus to block 10 or more who want to turn right. Add in a pedestrian or 2 and it freezes solid. (Why can't pedestrians get together and all cross at once? They amble and straggle along so that you can miss the entire green light for your direction.) Sometimes it takes me three light changes to get through this intersection.
This intersection would be helped by a traffic officer to ticket those who do not stop when the left turn signal from El Camino southbound turns red. Often there are 10 cars, sometimes more, who come through the intersection when northbound El Camino light is fully green, many having passed the stop line after the light has changed.
I am surprised that there have not been more serious accidents involving red light runners and/or pedestrians at this corner. Perhaps that is because it is perhaps the ONLY intersection or street area in PA where pedestrians and cyclists actually look at the light and traffic BEFORE they step off the curb and proceed to cross.

Posted by resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 8:55 am

Palo Alto is becoming increasingly hostile to pedestrians, especially the southern part of the city. The recent redesign of Oregon Expressway removed several crosswalks and increased the delay for pedestrian lights at other crosswalks. The same is happening along El Camino Real.

I agree that the Page Mill & El Camino intersection is especially bad for pedestrians because so many cars run red lights to turn right without checking for pedestrians at most corners of that intersection. Also, the pedestrian lights are so unresponsive that you have to wait for several minutes watching cars running the red lights before the pedestrian lights actually turn on.

Posted by benefit, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 11:54 am

If car drivers want to experience less traffic, then they should support measures which turn more drivers into pedestrians. If walking and crossing major intersections was safer and more appealing more of us would walk our shirts trips rather than driving. This is a terrific thought exercise that Palo Alto Forward has engaged in and it's great that they're bringing this conversation to the neighbors. Seems like most of the neighbors DID find value in thinking not just of cars, but of pedestrians, too.

[[Blogger: This comment is a very good representation of the dominant view of the attendees at the meeting.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 12:03 pm

In fear of being told I am off topic, once again, what about the pedestrian tunnel? It is, as far as I can see, still there outside Chipotle and near the soccer fields.

Using a tunnel would keep pedestrians much safer than any traffic light.

[[Blogger: I have been told that the official reason the tunnel was closed was that it was not ADA-compliant: it had stairs, but not a wheelchair ramp. But there were also major concerns about crime. The very narrow tunnel left potential victims little room to maneuver and escape. The stairs limited visibility of what was going on in the tunnel, both for people entering and passers-by who might provide assistance in the case of trouble. And the ambient noise of El Camino would obscure cries for help. The improvements in surveillance tech over the intervening decades may have reduced some of these problems.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 12:07 pm

BTW, when the soccer fields were built, there was a place for a snack shop. I have been there for soccer games on many occasions, but not recently, and there was no snack shop open. It makes sense that if there was a means of buying a lunch while watching a game, there would be less need for pedestrians to cross the street there.

[[Blogger: Clarification: The discussion at the meeting was not about how best to provide snacks to the soccer players, but about how to encourage them to make additional pedestrian crossing of Page Mill or El Camino. Thus, putting a cafe/snack shop on the corner with the playing fields would have been contrary to the goal of the group.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Palo Alto is becoming increasingly hostile to pedestrians, especially the southern part of the city." (comment #2)

I would encourage commenters to distinguish between problems of choice and those of necessity. "Choice" is a matter of bad design, whether inadvertent, negligent, or representing bias. "Necessity" is what arises from addressing tradeoffs.

I am not familiar enough with the situation cited by the commenter (Oregon Expressway) to make a judgment on it, but it offers an example of "necessity". Palo Alto has chosen to pursue development that was reasonably expected to increase traffic on Oregon Expressway, and thus some of those changes might have been necessitated by the increased volume of traffic. It is unhelpful to lump legitimate adjustments to accommodate those increases with situations that unnecessarily impede pedestrians.

Aside: Example: The Stanford Hospital Expansion project acknowledged that the housing pattern of the additional employees would largely be in the East Bay and would not be served by existing or anticipated public transit. The project approval was conditioned on Stanford providing some transit to serve those areas, similar to what companies such as Google and Facebook are doing with private buses. However, much Palo Alto's development had no such remediation.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On red-light running:

There are two basic categories of rule-breaking:
1. to gain individual advantage
2. to cope with a malfunctioning/dysfunctional/broken system.

In designing and maintaining a system, you want to avoid creating circumstances where the user is encourage, even obligated, to break/ignore the rules. It has frequently been observed that one of the easiest ways for a bureaucrat to stop anything from getting done is to insist upon strict observance of the rules.

For example, at an intersection, you don't want to effectively force motorists to give pedestrians less of a cushion than that motorist would normally choose. Yet when you reach certain levels of congestion, this is what inevitably, and predictably, happens.

Yet the speaker advocated, to the approval of most of those still present, that pedestrians engage in highly visible obstruction of intersections such as El Camino/Page Mill. His example was pedestrians with shopping carts forming a line across the length of the crosswalk, thereby preventing turns (from the street with the green light and right-turn-on-red).

Posted by Walker, a resident of Midtown,
on Apr 8, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Doug, thanks for being part of event brainstorming session this week. Page Mill and El Camino is a complex and busy intersection. I think there were at least three separate issues (possibly more) being discussed about this one intersection in this group/event, including safe, accessible ways for pedestrians to cross. Great to hear all views though.

I've never felt safe riding a bicycle along the major streets in Palo Alto. And separated bikeways may be difficult to implement if we don't plan for them. I do walk whenever possible. With more dense housing and businesses being added along El Camino (and more people who will (and won't) have cars), it's great we're looking at pedestrian-friendly elements that include safety. I think other cities have found ways to have both safe and engaged areas; they don't need to be mutually exclusive. Thanks again.

Posted by Planet Hugger, a resident of Professorville,
on Apr 9, 2015 at 11:38 am

Did anyone mention the carbon footprint implications of piling up traffic?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 9, 2015 at 1:42 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Did anyone mention the carbon footprint implications of piling up traffic?"

No. The advocates of measures that would create more congestion reject this argument because they believe that more congestion will force people to switch to mass transit. Don't ask whether transit is a viable option for many of these advocates--that is, would driving still be their best option--because they believe that this will cause viable transit options to be created (no implementation path: timescale, steps, details, funding).

And the advocates reject the possibility that increasing congestion on major streets diverts traffic onto neighborhood streets (I did raise this problem). This despite Palo Alto's experience: Cut-through traffic was so bad in multiple neighborhoods that streets were barricaded to make it impractical (College Terrace, Evergreen Park and Ventura are primary examples).

Posted by Interesting (again), a resident of Menlo Park,
on Apr 9, 2015 at 5:58 pm

A question: was part of the consideration for this intersection the housing units going up on El Camino/California Ave? Last I heard there were to be ~250 housing units built, which might greatly increase pedestrian traffic in the area.

I personally think the El Camino/Page Mill/Oregon intersection is terrible enough already and unsafe for pedestrians with a big red light running problem. In my opinion foot traffic ought to be encouraged to use Park, and/or build a footpath on the back side of the soccer fields, right by where the new housing will be.

Posted by Curious, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Apr 9, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Who were the staff that were present? And why were these quick changes?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 10, 2015 at 12:03 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE "Interesting (again)"

The focus was on what on the card (image above), that is, what the attendees thought "geographic center of the city" should be and attracting "more people". That brief discussion did not include the actual and projected needs of the various classes of people (Why did the pedestrian cross the street? and How many?).

RE: "Curious"

I am not identifying individual staff members who said they were participating in an unofficial manner to honor that distinction. However, since the attitudes displayed would have an influence on how staff approached these issues, I decided that a summary would be legitimate public information.

"Why ... quick change?" That was the approach advocated by the talk: Quick & cheap implementation followed by a short test and evaluation that leads to another cycle (analogous to a methodology often used in software development).

Many of the examples of "quick" involved a small group, or individual, implementing changes that they thought appropriate without consideration/involvement of other community stakeholders. Sometimes done in the dead of night. The philosophy was that if the experiment didn't work or got opposition, it could easily be undone (little money having been spent on implementation).

Aside: One member of the audience raised concerns about liability should the City encourage this approach. Some of the examples presented involved individuals making their own changes to intersections. Others involved converting parking spaces along the street to "community use". There didn't seem to be an awareness that on major streets that curb-side parking provides protection for pedestrians (separation space plus the parked cars themselves are barriers).

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