For a glance at Palo Alto's transportation future, drive up and down Arastradero Road during the morning rush hour.
The busy thoroughfare, which stretches between highways 280 and 101, has undergone a complete makeover over the past year as part of the city's robust effort to make life easier for bicyclists and pedestrians. Once a simple four-lane stretch favored by drivers bound for Stanford Research Park and by parents dropping off their kids at school, the road was transformed last year into a parade of signals, road markings and left-turn lanes. Most significantly, the number of lanes has been reduced from four to three throughout most of the stretch from El Camino Real to Gunn High School.
Earlier this month, Palo Alto's planning director, Curtis Williams, called the Arastradero project "a precursor to our whole 'complete streets' effort that we have as an ongoing goal in the city." The plan, which the City Council is scheduled to discuss on Monday (Aug. 1), is to make busy roads near schools more accommodating to non-drivers.
But the project has also polarized the community. Bicyclists and school parents praise the new signals, bike lanes and crosswalks for providing welcome relief from speeding drivers. Others argue, equally convincingly, that to calm traffic is to enrage drivers. Some residents are also complaining that their previously quiet side streets are now becoming detours for frustrated four-wheel commuters.
At a July 13 hearing on the trial project Planning and Transportation Commissioner Eduardo Martinez said he didn't think he had ever "heard such disparate positions on an issue" as in reading emails and hearing comments from the public about the Arastradero Road re-striping project.
The debate is almost certain to become more common and more vehement in the coming months as Palo Alto's multi-pronged effort to slow down traffic and turn the city into a bicycling Mecca expands to just about every section of the city. Earlier this year, Mayor Sid Espinosa and City Manager James Keene declared 2011 the "Year of the Bike" and, since then, they've been putting the city's (as well as the state's and county's) money where their mouths are. Construction is already proceeding at the dangerous intersection of Stanford Avenue and El Camino Real, a traffic-calming project aimed at helping students cross the street and making El Camino a more bikeable, walkable boulevard. Deer Creek Road in the Stanford Research Park is now in the process of losing a driving lane and picking up a bike lane. And design work is proceeding on the California Avenue lane-reduction plan despite a lawsuit from two residents concerned about the impact on businesses.
Further down the road, city officials are eying more ambitious projects, including four new bike boulevards that would complement the existing bike boulevard on Bryant Street. The bike-friendly throughways would include Park Boulevard, Greer Road, Moreno Avenue and Ross Road. The city is also looking forward to a $3 million payment from Stanford University Medical Center to improve pedestrian and bicycle connections between the hospitals and downtown Palo Alto. These big-ticket items would complement a score of smaller projects on the city's radar, including installing color-coded signs guiding bicyclists to popular destinations and creating easy-to-identify, green bicycle lanes of the sort already in place in San Francisco. One such lane is proposed for Channing Avenue, between Newell Road and Lincoln Avenue, as part of a traffic-calming project that also includes a cornucopia of traffic-slowing signs, road markings and speed banks.
Ambitious bike projects are far from new to Palo Alto, a city that introduced the concept of the "bike boulevard" in 1982 and that currently carries a "Gold Level" designation from the League of American Bicyclists. But even by the city's historically lofty standards, the efforts have accelerated over the past year and will likely continue their pace in the months ahead, as the city proceeds with the implementation of its new Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. Palo Alto officials point to a series of trends for the sharp increase in transportation projects on city streets: the slew of transportation grants aimed at encouraging environmentally sustainable commuting habits; staffing changes in the city's Transportation Division, including a new Chief Transportation Officer position; a City Council and a city manager who are passionate about biking; and a realization by a growing number of Palo Altans, particularly in the school community, that when it comes to wheels, more isn't always better.
Daniel Garber, a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, alluded to Palo Alto's zeitgeist during the July 13 discussion of the Arastradero Road projects, at which time the commission recommended extending the trial project for another year. The road, he said, reflects the way Palo Alto's transportation culture has changed over the past decade, as walking and biking have grown in stature.
"It's not that driving has been disregarded or lowered in value, it's that the pedestrian involvement and bicycle involvement in our community has risen," Garber said. "As a result, you end up with streets like Arastradero that historically have been more cut-through.
"It's not the freeway experience that some of the residents have described. It is mixed, and it really is the street of our future, which requires us to be able to slow down, requires us to think what this is and accept slower drive-through times as a result of things that I think are now valued by our community."
His view is supported by the daily scenes of spandex-clad bikers streaking down Arastradero, Foothill Expressway and other popular throughways; of families and errand-runners cruising down Bryant Street while drivers are negotiating their way around the speed bumps and roundabouts; and of students increasingly eschewing cars in favor of biking or walking (at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, more than a third of students now walk or bike to school, compared to fewer than 15 percent about a decade ago).
The Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee continues to be a robust lobbying force for new bike lanes and other amenities, though they are preaching to a council that increasingly agrees with their views. In May, council members began their meeting with a bike tour along the city's next bike boulevard on Park Boulevard and Wilkie Way -- a tour that involved at least 40 residents and a score of department heads from City Hall. And it's not just the city leaders and students who are rediscovering their bikes. Close to 1,400 cyclists took to the streets between 6:30 and 9 a.m. during the city's annual Bike to Work Day in May -- a 2.5 percent increase over 2010.
These numbers have given council members plenty to boast about.
"We have reversed a national trend and set new records, contrary to most everywhere else," Councilman Pat Burt said at a May meeting, referring to successful "Safe Routes to School" program.
Councilman Greg Scharff said he'd like to see Palo Alto surpass other bike-friendly cities in national prominence. For Palo Alto, being merely one of the best is clearly not enough.
"I'd like us to be more bold and aggressive," Scharff said. "I'd like to be a first-class bicycle city where everyone calls us instead of calling Portland."
Keene shares this ambition. Last year, when he and then-Mayor Burt met officials from various companies at Stanford Research Park, the subject of bike-sharing programs popped up on more than one occasion. Keene called the "Year of the Bike" concept a "good convergence between our sustainability initiatives and our focus on infrastructure."
"Bicycling seems to be in character with the geography and values of Palo Alto," Keene told the Weekly. "We're in good shape, but there's no reason why we can't be the best bicycling city in the nation."
Such enthusiasm hasn't always born fruit. In 2003, the city approved a bicycle master plan only to see it languish on a shelf. But city -- the draft of which was released last week -- will be different.
"We have a combination of the council that's in place right now, particularly the last two mayors (Pat Burt and Sid Espinosa), as well as with Jim Keene, where there's some real political commitment to making this happen," Williams told the Weekly. "And we're realizing that in order for the community to stay at the forefront in terms of bicycling in the national way, and as far as finding alternatives to the automobile -- which we have to do to live in a sustainable way -- we need to focus more on implementing these projects."
Burt shared Williams' optimism. At the May council meeting, he called the city's failure to implement the 2003 bike plan a "great disappointment" but predicted that the new plan would be more promising.
"We now have a commitment within the planning and transportation departments and the city manager's office that I think is one that's going to move this plan toward implementation," Burt said.
Such words ring like music to the ears of Palo Alto's passionate and politically savvy bicycling community. Ellen Fletcher, a former council member and a trailblazer on bike issues (the Bryant Street is also known as the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard), called the resurgence of pro-bike projects "heartwarming."
For Fletcher, making Palo Alto a more bike-friendly city has been a labor of love stretching back to the early 1970s, when her son was a student at Fairmeadow Elementary School and she served as the safety chair for the school. At 82, she continues to get around the city on her bicycle.
A Berlin native, Fletcher discovered bicycling shortly after she moved to London in December 1938, during the onset World War II.
"In England, everybody rode bikes during the war," Fletcher said. "It was natural to ride a bicycle."
In 1946, she immigrated to New York, where a biking culture was almost nonexistent. Frustrated with traffic congestion and the city's subway system, Fletcher -- then a 17-year-old student at Hunter College -- became the "only one in college who had a bike on campus," she said. She rode it year round.
After college, Fletcher moved to Menlo Park and, later, Palo Alto, where she rediscovered bicycling during the energy crisis of the late 1970s ("I decided I wasn't going to stand in line for gasoline").
Fletcher maintains that the slew of traffic-calming projects on the city's agenda will benefit everyone, not just bicyclists. If residents and commuters switch from cars to bikes, the roads will become less congested for drivers, she said. The city, she said, is finally realizing that policies that prioritize drivers don't always net the best results.
"That's really been the national philosophy all these years -- we've always put concentration on moving more cars faster," Fletcher said. "It's really the wrong policy."
The philosophical shift spreads far beyond Palo Alto. Cities like San Francisco and Portland have been gradually building up their bike infrastructures and adding restrictions and fees for drivers.
But even their efforts pale when compared to what's happening in Europe. A recent story in The New York Times, descriptively headlined "Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy," lists various European cities, including Copenhagen, Vienna and Zurich, where officials are trying to create environments that are "openly hostile to cars." This includes closing some of their busiest areas to traffic and adding tolls. The Times quotes Zurich's chief traffic planner, who said the city's goal is to "reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers."
Palo Alto officials aren't going that far -- at least, not yet. The fact that the city is a job magnet with a population that more than doubles during the day time suggests that it's not feasible to get everyone to shrug off their cars. But at the same time, city planners and at least one council member are looking ahead to a time when the city will do more to discourage driving. This could include new parking fees and zoning requirements that set a "maximum" rather than a "minimum" number of parking spots for new developments.
Espinosa acknowledged at a May meeting that removing parking spaces would be a "struggle in this community." But he also said he wondered if "that's what it takes to get us to the next level."
Such policies, however, remain far out on the city's horizon. Williams said officials are currently focusing their parking strategies on "making more efficient use of parking areas" by creating new signs directing drivers toward local garages and providing automated counts of cars in garages. Over time, however, they may have to consider alternate parking strategies, he said.
"I don't see limiting parking spaces as something that would be high on our agenda within the next couple of years," Williams said. "I'd image that within five years or so, we'll need to have serious discussions about that because we'll see more and more cities try to adopt that."
So are Palo Alto drivers headed for gridlock and parking shortages? The verdict on that score is still out, but some residents are panning the early results.
Earlier this month, several public speakers asserted at a planning commission meeting that the traffic-calming measures on Arastradero have slowed traffic down to a crawl during the morning-commute hours. John Elman, who lives on Hubbartt Drive off Arastradero, said it now takes him an extra 16 minutes to travel from his home to the gym at the Campus for Jewish Life, which is about 2 miles away. The project drastically reduced speeds, prompting drivers to switch to residential side streets, he said.
Elman invited commissioners to come to his house in September, when school resumes, and survey the impacts of the Arastradero project for themselves. He even sweetened the offer by saying he would provide fresh-brewed coffee, fresh orange juice and ricotta-blueberry pancakes.
"Then we'll go out and wander into traffic and you tell me if it improved things in the city of Palo Alto," Elman said.
Barron Park resident Doug Moran told the commission that at public hearings on the project "there's been an impression that the needs of drivers have been disregarded." The reconfiguration of the road and the abrupt shift in the number of lanes has created what he called a "problem of poor predictability" for drivers.
The city's effort to remodel California Avenue, which also involves lane reductions, has also come under fire from a small but vocal group of merchants and residents, who earlier this year convinced the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to delay a grant award for this project. Resident Joy Ogawa and Terry Shuchat from the California Avenue camera store Keeble & Shuchat filed a lawsuit against the city in April, claiming officials failed to follow California's environmental laws in approving the streetscape project. Former Vice Mayor Jack Morton, whose accounting practice is located on California Avenue, publicly criticized the lane-reduction plan at last week's council meeting.
"For most businesses at California Avenue there will be a disastrous impact on their cash flow," Morton said. "For sure, it is the case that the majority of businesses on California Avenue find the proposal to reduce lanes on California Avenue completely unacceptable."
Palo Alto is nevertheless proceeding with the lane-reduction plan, which officials say will make the street more attractive and more welcoming to bikers and pedestrians. The City Council approved a contract for design last week.
The flurries of protest come as no surprise to traffic experts. Last year, the city hosted a special presentation by Jeffrey Tumlin, a transportation planner and principal in the San Francisco firm Nelson/Nygaard. Tumlin, who had worked extensively in Palo Alto and Stanford and who received Palo Alto's now-defunct "Consultant of the Year" award in 2000, described the city as "almost the perfection of the California lifestyle" and as one of the few places he's ever been to that "really captures the potential of the suburban dream in California."
"For those reasons, change is really scary because things are good," Tumlin said during his presentation. "Any kind of change to the deal that you've got threatens this extraordinary thing that you've got."
But both he and Palo Alto officials acknowledged that change is inevitable and that cities must do their part to meet shifting conditions. The Arastradero Road project, after all, was undertaken only after a series of large, dense developments went up in south Palo Alto in the past decade, forcing city planners to address the need for traffic improvements.
For now, Williams told the Weekly, the city is focusing its bike boulevards and traffic-calming efforts around schools and parks. The goal is more equitable sharing of streets, even if that means it might take drivers longer to get where they're going.
"There may be improvements on those roads over time that do slow the traffic somewhat because we're trying to balance the needs of all users," Williams said. "Most of the roads have been heavily used by cars. We're trying to get some more balance into some of the roads."