Chastened by the outpouring of residents' complaints about the city's new "bike boulevard" on Ross Road and recent collisions involving cars and bicyclists, Palo Alto's transportation planners are preparing to make some major changes to the controversial corridor, as well as to the city's process for redesigning roadways.
The new approach, which the City Council plans to discuss on Monday night, aims to regain the community's trust and restore some momentum to Palo Alto's multiyear effort to enhance its bike facilities. While the city has no plans to remove the most contentious feature of the redesign — a roundabout at the intersection Ross Road and East Meadow Drive — planners are now proposing to modify it by removing the island's river stones and filling that space with concrete.
On the Ross and East Meadow street corners, they're thinking of adding red to the curbs to prevent cars from parking and interfering with traffic flow. And to minimize collisions between cars and bicyclists, planners are also proposing new stop signs on East Meadow.
The city's effort to build more bike boulevards kicked off in earnest in 2014, when the City Council signed a contract to enhance biking amenities on Ross, Greer Road, Amarillo Avenue and Moreno Avenue. But it began to veer off tracks in late 2017, when construction crews began adding new features to Ross, including speed humps, road markings and the roundabout on East Meadow.
The features, most notably the roundabout, divided neighborhood residents and local bicyclists. While some lauded the new biking amenities, many others have argued in letters to the council and in public comments at community meetings that these features made biking more dangerous and driving more confusing. Facing a flurry of concerns, the council halted construction in the fall of 2018, having completed five of the nine planned phases and spending $6.4 million in the process.
Since then, the city's newly created Office of Transportation has been gathering data, surveying residents and considering ways to address residents' concerns. The collected data, which the office released last week, offers both sides some ammunition. On the one hand, weekday bicycle traffic has gone up from about 150 per day before the project to about 230 after the project, a 50% increase. A new report from the transportation office notes that more commuters are using the Ross Road Bicycle Boulevard than before, though it's not clear whether these are new bicyclists or people who used to bike on other streets. The ratio of bicycles to total vehicle volume grew from 6.7% before the project to 11% after, a rate that the report described as "remarkable."
But just as the number of bicyclists has increased, so has the rate of collisions. According to the report, Ross Road has averaged about 3.6 collisions per year before the construction and 5.3 after the project was implemented. The main cause, according to the report, is the intersection of Ross and East Meadow, which has seen four collisions after the project was implemented. Three of them involved bicyclists. In all cases, the collisions were broadsides in which a motorist did not yield to a bicyclist (or, in one case, to another vehicle) at the roundabout.
Given the collision history, staff had determined that clearer traffic control needed to be added at the intersection. This includes installation of a two-way stop on East Meadow, even though the street actually has more car traffic than Ross (typically, stop signs are reserved for roads with fewer vehicles). The report notes that over a 12-hour period, there were 4,086 vehicles on Ross and 5,406 on East Meadow.
"Another stop on Ross Road, however, would negatively impact the attractiveness of the street as a bicycle boulevard," the report states. "For that reason, adding stop signs on East Meadow Drive is proposed."
The city's decision to modify the intersection was informed by recent surveys of residents. Results from those whose homes front onto the bike boulevards showed 47% of the respondents saying that they believe the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians has decreased, while 31% said it had increased (the remainder said they saw no change or weren't sure). And 53% of the 83 respondents said they would like to see modifications to the recently redesigned streets, while only 24% said "keep as is" (of those, half said they would like the city to build even more bike boulevards).
The skepticism about the recent modifications isn't limited to those living next to the new bike boulevards. When other road users were asked about the modifications, 41% if the 255 respondents said they believed that safety has decreased for bicyclists and pedestrians, while 31% said it had increased.
Many concerns were also aired during a July 2018 community meeting, which was focused on the Ross Road bike boulevard and which brought more than 100 people to sound off on the recent modifications. Some, like Louis Road resident Bill Higgins, lauded the improvements on Ross and urged the city to extend these improvements to other parts of the city. Others, like neighbor Terry Martin, claimed the changes made conditions less safe. Martin called the Ross Road project "an epitome of incompetence."
In addition to modifying the roundabout, the new plan suggests adding a speed hump on Ross, south of Mayview Avenue (which is parallel to East Meadow, one block over), to account for the relatively high volume of traffic and proximity to Ramos Park. It also proposes restoring signage on three T-shaped intersections on Louis Road (at Amarillo Avenue, Fielding Drive and Moreno Avenue) to the way it was before the roads in this area were equipped with raised intersections, widened sidewalks and decorative paving.
This means shifting the Louis and Amarilllo crossing from a two-way stop to a three-way stop and changing the intersections of Louis with Fielding and Moreno to one-way stops. In each case, the intersection would require eastbound cars to stop when approaching Louis while letting cars on Louis to go without stopping. Today, Louis has a stop sign for just one of two directions.
The changes were based on concerns from residents and other roadway users, including the Ohlone Elementary School administration, that the new intersection controls "are unclear as to who has the right-of-way," according to the report.
The city's Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi, who heads the Office of Transportation, is also proposing that the city proceed with four undertakings for future bike-boulevard projects: clearly defining the performance metrics for new projects; creating guidelines for installation of various design features (including roundabouts, speed humps, stop signs and crosswalks); improving the community-engagement process; and developing the "technical capacity" of the Office of Transportation, an effort that is currently underway, according to the report.
Kamhi, who was hired last year, is also holding "Word on the Street" events -- open-house style discussions aimed at gathering residents' ideas about traffic improvements. The next two are planned for March 19 (6 p.m. at JLS Middle School) and for April 16 (3 p.m. at Gunn High School).
Kamhi also told the Weekly in an October 2019 episode of the "Behind the Headlines" webcast that his department is also considering installing "temporary treatments" for future projects to give residents a chance to react before the changes are made permanent.
"By putting it out there and letting them react to it, as opposed to installing something permanent and having it be there and having them react to it, I see as an opportunity to have discussions," Kamhi said. "And, more broadly, I want to go out to the community, not just when we have projects that are resident-driven, but go out and hear about potential issues that may be unreported or undiscussed or have not come to the point of a petition yet."
Editor's Note: The story initially misstated the name of the park in close proximity to the Ross Road and Mayview Avenue intersection. We regret the error.