Palo Alto's experimental "road diet" on a particularly hazardous segment of Middlefield Road has so far netted mixed results, with the collision rate staying steady and the number of bicyclists and pedestrians using the street increasing markedly, according to a status report released by the city's consultants on the project.
The redesign of Middlefield in the northern section of the city entailed removing one of two lanes in each direction and created a center turning lane along with barriers preventing eastbound drivers on Everett Avenue from turning left on Middlefield. The council unanimously voted to approve the redesign in response to neighbors who argued that the speeding cars outside their homes create a traffic hazard and make it unsafe -- and at times, impossible -- for them to get out of their driveways.
The redesign was implemented as a one-year pilot project over the summer (it is scheduled to end in June) and, according to the consulting firm Alta Planning + Design, is has been gradually receiving more support from the public. Surveys from Alta showed the number of respondents favoring the project went up from 33.3 percent before the redesign to 56.7 percent in the "mid-pilot period."
In addition, the percentage of respondents with safety concerns went down from 71.8 percent to 52 percent, even though residents have expressed a "lingering anxiety about safety issues." Many remain concerned about the lack of attention given by motorists turning onto Middlefield and avoiding turn-restriction barriers, according to Alta.
The firm also found that while overall traffic at the 12 locations where it surveyed traffic dropped by 6.8 percent, streets parallel to Middlefield saw an increase of 30 percent. And during the evening commute hours, drivers are increasingly waiting longer to pass through the Middlefield and Lytton Avenue intersection, from 60 seconds to 92 seconds.
To address this increase, the report states, the city will "re-time traffic signals along the study corridor and coordinate signals during peak periods."
Alta also found that the number of reported collisions remained flat, with 0.07 collisions per day being reported both before and during the pilot period. However, the number of observed near-misses went up significantly during the peak commute hours, going from four before the pilot project to seven after the redesign was implemented.
The firm observed traffic conditions on Oct. 4 and 5 and saw two near-collisions between vehicles at the intersection of Middlefield and Hawthorne Avenue. Five others were observed on Middlefield and Everett. Three of these were between cars; one involved a vehicle and a bicyclist and another involved a vehicle and a pedestrian.
The increase in near-misses, Alta's report states, "was representative of an increase in hazardous driving behavior observed during review of traffic camera video and reported by residents through the mid-pilot survey."
"This increase in hazardous behavior may be the result of temporary frustration with the new roadway configuration and may dissipate by the end of the evaluation period as motorists become familiar with the change, or it may require modification of the configuration or additional enforcement after the end-pilot evaluation period."
Alta also found that the number of bicyclists and pedestrians traveling through the four Middlefield Road intersections during assumed morning, midday and evening peak periods went up by 29 percent between the pre-pilot and mid-pilot periods, going from 746 before the redesign (292 bicyclists and 454 pedestrians) to 963 (444 and 519, respectively).
"This increase may be the result of undocumented seasonal fluctuations or an increase in bicyclist and pedestrian comfort along the project corridor," the report states.
Not everyone, however, is happy about the redesign. Residents of two nearby senior-housing complexes Webster House and Lytton Gardens have submitted letters to the city voicing concerns about worsening congestion outside their complexes.
Judy Creek, writing on behalf of the Webster House Residents' Association, wrote a letter to the council arguing that the project has "created serious traffic and pedestrian safety problems on Lytton Avenue from Webster Street to Middlefield Road." The elimination of lanes, Creek wrote, has greatly reduced the space cars having to wait in queue to travel north on Middlefield.
Because of loss of capacity, cars now queue up on Lytton and stretch for more than a block, well past Webster Street, Creek wrote. She also wrote that vehicles trying to turn onto Lytton from Webster "ignore pedestrians in their concentration to get into the queue," which creates a serious safety issue.
There are other unwanted side effects as well, Creek wrote.
"With the changed traffic pattern on Lytton, our residents now suffer the problem of vehicles idling right outside our windows for extended periods during the day," Creek wrote. "With this ongoing traffic jam come vehicle fumes, horns honking and radios turned up loud.
"The quality of life of our residents has deteriorated dramatically in the months since this Pilot Program was started."