• Watch "Behind the Headlines" for a discussion on this issue with City Senior Transportation Planner Chris Corrao.
The city of Palo Alto's effort to turn a south Palo Alto street into a bicycle-friendly boulevard is encountering a chorus of complaints from residents who say that the changes are making the road more dangerous.
The first phase of the $8.6 million Neighborhood Traffic Safety and Bicycle Boulevard Project commenced this fall and is ongoing. City contractors are adding speed humps, traffic islands, curb extensions and other modifications designed to slow speeders along Ross Road, a major route to local schools. The project involves 7.1 miles of local streets, including Ross, Moreno Avenue, Amarillo Avenue, Louis Road, Montrose Avenue and Bryant Street. In addition to the street fixtures, the plan calls for 11 roundabouts, three raised crosswalks, five raised intersections and the reconfiguration of four intersections.
Todd Koumrian, a resident of Stelling Drive, walked the area on a recent afternoon, pointing to four traffic islands at the intersection of Ross and Loma Verde Avenue that he said now force cars into the existing bike lanes, which in turn push bicyclists off the road.
"Cars making a left onto Ross now have a very narrow spot to turn. It's a danger zone," he said.
Speed humps flanked by concrete landscape boxes that extend out into the street have narrowed the road into pinch points. Koumrian said he has seen drivers speed up to get through the narrowed space with the intent of passing bicyclists.
Palo Verde neighborhood resident Maryann Hinden, an occasional bicyclist, said she's continually looking over her shoulder now for approaching cars, especially as she cycles through the narrow spots.
As a car driver, Hinden said she also finds the new configurations "pretty aggravating." The bike lane, when permanently marked, will be in the middle of lane, and cars and bikes will be expected to share the road.
"All I can see is a recipe for drivers getting frustrated and having road rage," she said.
Annette Glanckopf, co-chair of the Midtown Residents Association, said in an email that she had a near miss this week on the newly configured road.
"I drove it the other night and almost hit a biker. Two cars can barely pass each other; I do not know how two cars and a biker can pass. It is an accident waiting to happen. Although something is technically feasible and seems very logical, it doesn't take into consideration human behavior," she wrote.
But Palo Verde resident Mark Pietrofesa said he approves of the project, which will slow down drivers. He cycles about 10,000 miles annually and has a 10-year-old who rides a bike to school.
"Traffic has gotten worse around here," he said, noting that every day he gets "buzzed" by drivers who get too close while he rides in dedicated bike lanes.
He expects traffic on Ross will lessen because the more aggressive drivers will take another route, just as many have to avoid Bryant, which was the city's first bicycle boulevard.
"I don't think it can hurt the cycling or the driving communities. We just need for everyone to be patient," he said.
Regarding his neighbors' concerns about the new configuration, Pietrofesa believes that putting the bike lane in the middle of the road might force drivers to go a little slower. It also makes bicyclists more visible. Kids will be better off because drivers will be able to see them, he said. Also, cyclists won't have to swerve around parked cars and into the road.
The center bike lane will eliminate another problem: drivers passing cyclists and making right turns in front of them, imperiling the riders who end up in the drivers' blind spots, he added.
But Sunita Verma, who lives on Ross Road, has concerns. She's observed that bicyclists and drivers do not know what to do, especially when they come upon a narrowed roadway. She's seen cars force students from Palo Verde Elementary and Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle schools to stop at the new concrete curb extensions and wait for the cars to go through, she said.
"I wish they had just put a bike lane in. There's no space. Kids have to go on the sidewalk or in the middle of the road," she said.
City Senior Transportation Planner Chris Corrao defended the project in an interview with the Weekly. He maintained the project will be much safer once it's completed and the road markings are in place. The narrower lanes are still legally wide enough for two cars to go through — at least 10 feet — and double-yellow markings will mark the road's center.
The combination of speed humps and curb extensions, which will be installed throughout the length of Ross Road, have been shown to be the most effective method for slowing traffic, he said.
City staff is working on a campaign for the schools on how to safely use traffic circles and the other street structures. They also are developing a user's guide for residents regarding the new corridor. A FAQ will be posted on the project website at cityofpaloalto.org/bikepedsafety.
The road project has lit up the Palo Verde neighborhood, whose residents have posted more than 200 comments ranging from dismay to approval on the website Nextdoor.com. Residents also claimed they didn't receive notification from the city about the project, which led to surprise when the street fixtures started to appear.
Ross Road resident Alison Cormack said neighbors got only a postcard about a workshop in March 2016, a notification of a pre-construction meeting in January and a door hanger this fall as construction began with pictures of what was happening.
"I'm not a traffic engineer or a bicycle commuter. When I heard 'bike boulevard,' I thought bike lanes, like Louis Road. When I heard 'traffic calming,' I thought speed bumps, like the rest of Ross Road," she said.
The planning department should have mailed a FAQ "in plain English, not traffic jargon" and a document with a map on one side with pictures on the other.
"The city requires other projects to provide physical visual notice before final approval — cell towers, home additions, construction, etc. But this significant change to our street did not do that," she said.
The project might turn out well, she added, "but I promise you that if you aren't a traffic engineer or a bicycle commuter, it doesn't look that way when it shows up unannounced in front of your house."
Penny Ellson, a Greenmeadow resident who bikes and drives on Ross and has been a leader in creating safe bicycle routes to schools, supports taking a wait-and-see perspective until the work is completed. The project's effectiveness can't be fairly assessed by conflicts created in part by ongoing construction, she said.
She also implored for people not to divide into "us" and "them" camps of motorists and bicyclists but to work together and see the project as a benefit for all users.
The greatest danger to pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists is speed, she said, and this project addresses that. A pedestrian struck by a vehicle at 35 mph has a 68 percent chance of survival; at 25 mph, the survival rate is 85 percent, according to the California State Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.
Corrao said that city staff has heard "loud and clear" residents' concerns about the lack of outreach about the project. The city did hold multiple bike-along events, conduct outreach at a farmers market and hold four rounds of community meetings regarding the city's planned bike and pedestrian boulevards (not specifically for Ross Road, though it was included) between 2014 and 2016. Staff held a public meeting regarding the final Ross Road draft concept plans at Ohlone Elementary School on March 29, 2016, and 61 people attended. The City Council approved the plans in May 2016, and the contract was awarded by the council on June 27.
Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada said in an email that the public can contact the construction contractor's public-information officer through the project website. The city is now making sure that person contacts residents living near soon-to-be-added fixtures prior to the construction. The city is also asking the contractor to add project information signs earlier as construction proceeds.
For future projects, Shikada said, city staff and consultants will do more door-to-door outreach during the concept-planning stage, in addition to posting public notices and holding workshops. The outreach will include posting signs along the route and making direct contact with residents who live adjacent to proposed traffic features prior to project approval.