Palo Alto's two-year experiment with lane reductions, traffic-signal modifications and median islands on a busy stretch of Arastradero Road was officially deemed a success Monday night by the City Council, which voted to make the recent changes permanent.
Spurred by a swell of community support for the new configuration, the council voted 8-0, with Gail Price absent, to retain the recent modification to the Arastradero Road stretch in perpetuity. The corridor, which extends from El Camino Real to Gunn High School, is the second phase of a major road-redesign project along Charleston and Arastradero roads that the city launched roughly a decade ago.
The changes that the council agreed to keep include a reduction of lanes from four to three at certain stretches of the corridor, along with two-way left-turn lanes, a flashing-beacon crosswalk with a raised median at Arastradero and Clemo Drive; a left-turn signal at Coulombe Drive for eastbound traffic on Arastradero; and a median island at Arastradero and Hubbart Street.
The council's vote followed testimony from about 30 residents, most of whom urged retention of the new configuration. The city approved changes to the corridor in 2009 and has been monitoring the traffic conditions since. According to the city's Transportation Division, there has not been a significant change in traffic volumes as a result of the change. Nor was there the significant diversion of traffic onto adjacent streets, as some opponents of the new configuration had feared. But there was a bump in bicycling on the corridor. During the morning peak hour, bikes comprise 19 percent of the vehicles in the westbound direction of Arastradero, exceeding the 7.1 percent rate citywide.
"We're seeing much more bicycle usage both on Arastradero Road and on Maybell Avenue," Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez told the council, noting that Maybell is a "bicycle boulevard" that is well-suited to the increased ridership.
Planning Director Curtis Williams said the corridor was targeted for changes because of the high number of schools, community centers and parks in the area. Furthermore, the area's proximity to Stanford Research Park and a slew of dense residential developments that have recently gone up near the corridor have increased congestion, prompting frustration and occasional episodes of road rage from drivers.
The council acknowledged Monday that slow traffic near El Camino Real during peak hours was a fact of life before the trial and will likely remain so going into the future. But Councilman Larry Klein, while acknowledging that "traffic is not going away," argued that the new configuration is the best solution that the city can implement at this time. He called the retention of the new configuration an "easy decision" by the council and a good compromise.
"We all criticize and make fun of the 'Palo Alto Process' from time to time but this is an example of where the 'Palo Alto Process' really worked," Klein said.
Councilman Sid Espinosa agreed and stressed the importance of the data-gathering efforts that informed the staff recommendation to retain the reconfiguration of lanes.
"We stepped back from an emotional issue and took the time to really look at the issues ... and whether the studies were working or not," Espinosa said. "By my read, all the indications are that it is working and that this is a program and a process that we should make permanent."
The council reached its decision after hearing from a crowd of residents, the vast majority of whom advocated retaining the new configuration.
"We've worked patiently and diligently with the city very constructively over the last nine or 10 years," said Rich Ellson, a resident of the Greenmeadow Neighborhood who advocates for bicycle improvements with his wife, Penny. "It's time to realize the plan, put in permanent landscaping and medians, and make it easier and more beautiful for the rest of us to travel."
Betty Lum, who lives along the corridor, also implored the council to keep the changes in place.
"It seems that things have proven that this corridor is working," Lum said. "We live on the corridor. We see the traffic. It is quite encouraging to see the traffic flowing the way it does."
But some residents argued that the new signs, lane-changes and medians have made the conditions more confusing and have made driving during busy commute hours an even more miserable experience.
John Elman, who has lived in the area for 47 years, called the new configuration a "circus" and disputed staff's data about traffic flow. If there is an increase in bicycling, Elman said, it's only because children "love the excitement" of all the new traffic signs on Arastradero. Another resident, Shirley Nathan, said she can walk faster than the cars and bikes on Arastradero and Charleston. Nathan said the council should give equal weight to "all modes of transport," rather than favoring bikes over cars.
"The emphasis on bikes and pedestrians is great, but not at the expense of cars, which is also the main means of transport for most people."
Ultimately, however, the council sided with the majority and agreed to keep the recent changes in place for good. Councilman Pat Burt said the new configuration, by encouraging bicycle use, helps support the city's recently adopted Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan and helps bolster the city's already strong image as a biking community.
"This is a great achievement and it fits in what is becoming a new social norm," Burt said. "For the students, it's now normal to ride a bike to school. It's abnormal not to ride to school. That's a great tipping point."