After a rocky start and a sudden stop, Palo Alto is preparing to resume its ambitious plan to build a network of bike boulevards, which includes modifications to the recently added amenities on Ross Road.
The City Council directed staff on Monday to make a series of changes to the first phase of the bike plan, which the city began implementing in 2017 and which was abruptly halted in 2018, in the face of community opposition. By the time the work stopped, the city had completed the first five segments of the nine-segment plan, which focused on Ross Road and the Amarillo Avenue-Moreno Avenue corridor.
The biggest bone of contention was the new roundabout on Ross Road and East Meadow Circle, which aimed to slow down traffic and create a smoother passage for bicyclists. While some residents spoke in favor of the traffic circle, others argued that it makes the segment more dangerous and confusing.
On Monday, the council agreed to take two actions to address what Mayor Adrian Fine called "one of the most contentious pieces of street furniture we have in entire city." First, the city will install two stop signs on East Meadow Street. In addition, the city directed its Planning and Transportation Commission to take a closer look at this intersection and consider further changes.
The decision was informed by recent analysis by the transportation staff, which showed mixed results. On the one hand, the number of bicyclists on Ross Road had gone up since the changes were made, with bicyclists making up 11% of the total traffic volume on weekdays, compared to 6.7% before the project. At the same time, there have been four collisions at the roundabout on East Meadow, three of which involved bicyclists. In each case, the collision was caused by motorists who did not yield to a vehicle or a bicyclist at the roundabout, according to staff.
Staff also found that about one in every 30 bicyclists does not yield the right-of-way, rides on the wrong side of the street or goes in a clockwise direction on the roundabout, notwithstanding the street markings directing them to the counterclockwise direction.
The council largely supported the recommendations from transportation staff, including the new stop signs on East Meadow. Staff also plans to consider installing a speed hump on Ross Road, just south of Mayview Avenue, in close proximity to Ramos Park. Staff also plans to enhance its community outreach efforts before implementing the next phase of improvements, including the completion of the work that was approved in 2017. This includes the extension of the Bryant Street bike boulevard and new bike amenities at the Louis Road-Montrose Avenue segment in south Palo Alto.
A future phase of improvements, known as Phase II, focuses on segments on Maybell Avenue, Stanford Avenue and Wilkie Way.
The council unanimously agreed that the city should move ahead with its bike projects, which are based on a master plan the city adopted in 2012. Council members offered different views, however, about the best approach toward improving biking in Palo Alto. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois pointed to the mixed results on Ross Road and questioned whether it's advisable for the city to encourage bicyclists and drivers to share roads, as opposed to having dedicated streets focused on bicycling.
"I don't think it was an overwhelmingly positive result. ... a lot of people are saying they don't feel safer either in bikes or cars on Ross Road," DuBois said.
But Councilwoman Liz Kniss said part of the problem with roundabouts is that Palo Alto residents are simply not used to them yet. Kniss pointed to her home state of Massachusetts, where roundabouts are common and where "someone will let you know loud and clear" if you fail to yield to them at a roundabout.
"It's such a shock when you see it that people watch and look at it strangely before they realize what they do," Kniss said. "I can't imagine you approach a roundabout and think of going clockwise."
Community members also had a range of opinions about roundabouts, with some arguing that the stop signs are unnecessary and counterproductive. At the same time, the roughly two dozen bicyclists who spoke at the meeting had a unified message for the council: Get on with it!
Paul Goldstein, a member of the city's Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Commission, was one of the bicyclists who urged the council Monday to move ahead with the bike plan.
"We're at this point where all the bicycle boulevards have been on hold because the Ross Road projects has aroused a chorus of community complaints," Goldstein said. "I'm not saying all decisions on the project were ideal, but in fact bike traffic has increased and it looks like the only problematic place from a safety standpoint is the Ross-East Meadow Circle. We should take the lessons learned and move on."
Art Lieberman, a Barron Park resident, also supported moving ahead with bike boulevards but asked the council to make sure that the new improvements create a "low stress" environment, as seen on Bryant Street. By contrast, the Ross Road bike boulevard often requires bicyclists entering the roundabout to be closely trailed by cars traveling at higher speeds.
"The vast majority of adult riders want to ride on low-stress streets," Liberman said.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who routinely bikes to meetings, wholeheartedly agreed and made the motion to move ahead with the next phase of bike improvements, along with enhanced community outreach for future improvements. He noted that 80% of the city's greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and offered bicycling as an important part of the solution.
"I think it's important for us — not just ourselves but for the sake of our children and grandchildren ... — to do our part to help the global warming problem," Tanaka said.