Few road segments in Palo Alto flummox commuters and traffic engineers like the short but bustling stretch of Embarcadero Road between the train tracks and El Camino Real.
Sandwiched between Palo Alto High School and Town & Country Village, the road attracts more than 12,000 cars per day, with drivers heading to the shopping center, the high school and Stanford University all adding to the usual rush of regional commuters. The traffic signals only compound the frustration, with three adjacent lights slowing cars to a crawl and routinely causing traffic backups.
On Wednesday, Palo Alto officials presented a suite of options for tackling what they characterized as one of the city's most challenging traffic puzzles. Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez called the segment of Embarcadero a rare place in the city "where many things converge."
"This is probably one of the biggest areas where a lot of things happen at one time," Rodriguez told the Planning and Transportation Commission, which considered a list of near- and long-term improvements to Embarcadero.
Among the most imminent changes will be consolidation of two non-synchronized traffic signals, which currently march to their own rhythms. The change means there will now be one signal coordinating cars as they pass the Town & Country driveway and the pedestrian crossing into Paly just to the east. The new signal will be placed on the high school side of the street, near the intersection with the Town & Country driveway.
The change will improve movement along Embarcadero and entering and exiting Town & Country, Rodriguez wrote in a report.
Staff also plans to modify the intersection to make it easier for cars leaving Paly to make a right onto Embarcadero. Currently, given the sharp angle at the corner, "vehicles must clearly exit the driveway before beginning a right turn" to go east on Embarcadero, the report states. This, in turn, means that motorists wait for long-enough gaps in eastbound traffic before turning.
Another change would include adding one or two lanes to the Town & Country driveway, which is currently a single lane.
More substantial improvements will be explored later, after the city conducts a full study. The city plans to release a request for proposals this fall for a study on increasing the capacity of the roadway and improving the streetscape. This could include widening Embarcadero, a design that would allow the city to install two left-turn lanes from Embarcadero onto El Camino Real.
The commission didn't take a formal vote on the proposed improvements but generally endorsed them before offering their own suggestions for more substantive changes. Commissioner Eric Rosenblum suggested adding a new bike and pedestrian overpass, thus separating the students and the bike commuters from Embarcadero traffic. This, however, would be a significant infrastructure project with a price tag of $6 million to $7 million, Rodriguez said.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck recommended removing the pedestrian crossing between Paly and the shopping center, which would require students who want to visit Town & Country to use the Caltrain overpass east of the crossing. Though this would take pedestrians more time, Alcheck said the school district can accommodate this problem by increasing lunch time for Paly students by 10 minutes.
"That seems like a smaller sacrifice than getting an F rating on this intersection at peak hour," Alcheck said.
Though residents have been clamoring for years about the traffic mess near Town & Country, few attended Wednesday's meeting to discuss solutions. Several members of the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Commission (PABAC) submitted letters urging the city to consider how its proposed changes would affect bicyclists. Paul Goldstein, a member of PABAC, noted in an email to the commission that Embarcadero Road is a "major bicycle commute route from Palo Alto onto the Stanford campus."
"I commuted by bicycle every day through this area," Goldstein wrote. "It is currently challenging for a bicyclist, but it is definitely practicable and is heavily used by both Stanford students and employees. I am concerned that the proposed changes may make matters worse for bicyclists."
Bob Wenzlau, who works at Town & Country, made a similar observation in his comments to the commission Wednesday.
"I think we're focusing pretty strongly on the automobile situation, the vehicle situation," Wenzlau said. "In this broader discussion, there's not very much standing for the bike and pedestrian traffic that passes through there."
The broader study, which the city plans to launch later this year, will also look at a "complete reconfiguration" of the El Camino and Embarcadero intersection; wider sidewalks east of the Paly pedestrian crossing; and a host of new bike lanes and pedestrian enhancements.