Fewer traffic lanes, more bike routes, colorful sidewalks along El Camino Real and road signs all over the city pointing bicyclists toward popular local landmarks could soon become some of the most visible features on Palo Alto's traffic landscape.
The city is speeding ahead on a myriad of projects aimed at calming traffic at dangerous intersections, promoting bicycle use and providing students with safe passages to school.
The projects include reducing lanes in the California Avenue Business District from four to two; adding intersection improvements at El Camino Real and Stanford Avenue; shifting Arastradero Road near Gunn High School from four lanes to three; and aggressively promoting walking and biking to schools through new literature, events and a new website to help school-bound parents find carpooling opportunities.
Most of these projects are funded by county grants, with smaller contributions from the city. Some, including those at Arastradero Road and El Camino Real, have already begun. The strip of Arastradero was restriped in August -- to a mixed reception -- and the city's traffic engineers are now monitoring the traffic impacts of the new lane configuration. Construction on El Camino and Stanford is scheduled to begin in the coming weeks and be completed by the middle of 2011.
Other projects are looking further ahead. The city has just kicked off work on a new Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, geared toward making Palo Alto a national leader in bike infrastructure. Once in place, the plan is expected to recommend new bike boulevard projects, added signage and more intersection improvements.
Members of the Planning and Transportation Commission, which reviews and issues recommendations on new traffic programs, discussed the wide array of new traffic initiatives on Wednesday night and gave projects a rave review.
"I'm not sure if I'm amazed or overwhelmed," Commissioner Susan Fineberg said just after the city's Chief Transportation Officer Jaime Rodriguez completed his presentation.
Of the new projects, the Arastradero project has so far generated the most debate. Though the project aims to calm traffic, it has had the opposite effect on some drivers.
Brian Steen, a Greater Miranda resident, wrote a scathing post about the new lane configuration on PaloAltoOnline's Town Square forum in September, giving the new lane configuration what he called a "failing grade." He described a morning scene in which cars honk, students jump out of cars to take the sidewalk and "trapped commuters (are) making illegal U-turns to get out of this mess."
"This chaos happens daily and was unnecessarily created with the City's re-striping Arastradero late this August in the name of safety," Steen wrote.
Philip Green, who also lives in the Greater Miranda, brought a list of concerns from other neighborhood residents about the new striping on Arastradero, which went from four lanes to three -- with one lane going each way and a center turning lane into residential streets and commercial properties.
Green said neighbors are concerned about traffic congestion near El Camino Real and worried that the new lane setup could force traffic to spill over to residential streets north of Arastradero.
Rodriguez acknowledged that the project has received community criticism, but stressed that the new lane configuration is a pilot project that is scheduled to end next summer.
Meanwhile, traffic engineers are preparing for construction at the intersection of El Camino Real and Stanford Avenue, which is considered by many to be one of the most dangerous crossings in the city. The project is funded through a grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), Rodriguez wrote in a report, and would be a "demonstration project with Caltrans to show the creative types of street improvements that can be built along the corridor."
"We're looking at ways to convert El Camino Real from an expressway to a more pedestrian-oriented and business-friendly corridor," Rodriguez said Wednesday night. "We're fortunate enough to serve as a demonstration project for that."
The California Avenue project, which the city hopes to implement in 2012, has met some resistance from local businesses, who argued at recent community meetings that reducing lanes in the city's "Arts District" would increase traffic congestion. The project also includes new street furniture and a shift to diagonal parking spaces.
The city expects the $1.7 million project to be largely funded by a VTA grant, which is expected to total about $1.2 million.
"The goal of the project is to tie in the street with the existing land uses," Rodriguez said. "The (lane) reduction does that."
Rodriguez also cited an array of less divisive projects, including new maps for students and parents showing good walking and bike routes to schools; signals on Alma Street warning of trains approaching; and new markers for bicyclists, directing them to popular destinations such as Caltrain stations or downtown Palo Alto.
These markers are expected to be included in the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. If they prove popular, the city could install more markers leading residents to local trails and other pedestrian-oriented destinations.
"One of the reasons we like it is it has a lot of different uses," Rodriguez said. "If it's successful in the streets, we can use the markers for trails."