Charleston 'safer, better' after lane changes

Arastradero Road phase of project next, including major Gunn High School driveway widening

Charleston Road's slim-down "diet" was a success, the Palo Alto City Council agreed Monday night — giving a green light to a slew of other improvements designed to make the road safer, more attractive and more functional for bikers, pedestrians and drivers.

Between Fabian Way and Alma Street in south Palo Alto, Charleston slimmed from four to three lanes in 2006 on a trial basis as part of the community-based Charleston-Arastradero Corridor project.

Two years later, neighborhood and school groups, a team of traffic consultants, city planners, and now the council have endorsed the trial, calling for its extension west of El Camino Real and the addition of long-term safety features and landscaping.

The extra features had been delayed to see if the traffic-flow worked with the fewer lanes.

The council unanimously approved the ongoing project Monday, with Councilman John Barton abstaining because he lives on Charleston.

"I just want to let you know how happy I am," Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto said. "I think it's really going to be a transformation of south Palo Alto from a 1960s auto-based layout to a much more walkable, bikable area."

At least seven supporters of the project waited until past 11 p.m. Monday to encourage the council to approve the project.

Philip Melese, an Arastradero Road resident, said he commutes by bike to Menlo Park each day and his children traveled to Terman Middle School and now to Gunn High School.

"I see Arastradero Road every day. I'm here to support the plan," Melese said. "I'm really glad Palo Alto is going in this direction."

The council action makes the current three-lane configuration from Fabian to Alma permanent with medians and small turning "pockets" at intersections.

The road broadens to four lanes between Alma and El Camino Real.

The changes increased the amount of time to travel between Fabian Way and Alma Road by 11 percent in the morning, but shaved seconds from the evening commute, TJKM Transportation Consultants found.

Improvements to Arastradero were planned for 2008, but were pushed back to 2009 to coincide with utilities work in the area, according to a staff report.

Yet a similar three-lane strategy — which is intended to slow vehicles, improve biking safety and make it easier to cross the street — won't work on Arastradero unless the morning traffic jam at Gunn High School is resolved, the consultants reported.

Currently, Gunn-bound drivers clog up westbound Arastradero every weekday morning. The jam, already up to a half-mile some days, would reach all the way to El Camino Real if the roadway were reduced to one lane each direction, TJKM found.

The problem is Gunn's entrance driveway, which loses its second lane only 150 feet into the campus, according to a city report.

If two lanes were extended 500 feet, Arastradero could be converted into a three-lane road, TJKM concluded.

Gunn administrators agreed to make the change this summer. Traffic planners will review the campus and roadway traffic this fall, before making a final recommendation whether to proceed with three or four lanes on Arastradero, according to a city staff report.

The city also plans to add a crosswalk near Briones Park and continue to finesse the timing and coordination of signals, which can improve the efficiency of the road by as much as 30 percent, according to the report.

The Charleston-Arastradero Corridor extends about 2.5 miles, from San Antonio Road to Foothill Expressway. It carries as many as 18,300 vehicles a day and connects 11 schools and several community, residential and commercial areas.

Residents expressed concerns about traffic speeds, unsafe crossing and other issues, leading to the launch of the corridor study in 2003.

City staff members pledged to return with a report on the roadway's functioning in December.

View the Charleston-Arastradero Corridor Plan


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