No traffic-calming project has caused as much road rage in Palo Alto as the city's decade-long experiment with the Chareston-Arastradero corridor, a 2.3-mile artery that passes through 11 schools, eight neighborhoods and five city parks.
Since 2004, the city has been implementing an ambitious, two-phase trial on the bustling strip. In some segments, four driving lanes had been cut to two and new turning lanes added. Other areas have received new bike lanes and traffic signals.
The reaction from the community has been mixed. Some say the effort has been a great success because it makes conditions safer for the more than 800 students who use the corridor to get to school. Others argue that it has turned an already frustrating commute into an absolute nightmare and has driven cars into residential streets.
On Monday night, the City Council enthusiastically sided with the former camp and agreed to implement on a permanent basis a broad set of changes, some of which have been implemented on a trial basis using striping and marking. The new amenities, which focus on the area between El Camino Real and Gunn High School, are expected to cost close to $9 million, and will affect almost every block of this critical route.
Councilman Pat Burt was one of several council members who commented Monday on the city's long history with the Charleston-Arastradero project.
It has already had an "exhaustive trial," he said, longer than any other proposal he could think of either in the city or in neighboring jurisdictions. The fact that the number of bicyclists on the corridor has been steadily rising makes the project all the more pertinent from a safety standpoint, Burt said.
"It's a project well worth doing," he said. "As in all beneficial projects, there are some trade-offs but I think in the end it's a very clear positive, and I look forward to seeing it landscaped and in its final version."
The long list of improvements includes the elimination of "pork chop" islands near Gunn and a new multiuse pathway on the east side of Arastradero, leading from Gunn to an existing trail to Los Altos. There would also be a new bicycle cross-walk from the trail to Gunn. The westbound bike lane would be painted green as it approaches the high school.
Terman Middle School would also be adorned with new bike amenities, including a dedicated right-turn lane into Terman from eastbound Arastradero. There would also be a green bike lane between the through lane and the right-turn lane, as well as a bike ramp leading to the sidewalk, allowing bikers to get to the sidewalk without weaving through traffic.
The new design also calls for a bus bay and a larger sidewalk area on the corner amenities that would be accomplished by shifting the eastbound lane merge and removing 19 parking spots on westbound Arastradero, between Georgia Avenue and Wilmar Drive.
On Coulombe Drive, there would be a wider sidewalk and, as a result, a shorter crosswalk. The sidewalk would also be widened on both sides of the street near Clemo Avenue and Suzanne Drive and on the eastbound side of the street near Juana Briones Park.
The redesign would also include a host of changes to Charleston's interactions with the city's two primary north-south arteries: El Camino and Alma Street. Near El Camino, there would be new bike lanes going in each direction, while the pork-chop island on the intersection's southeast corner would be eliminated. Meanwhile, a crosswalk would be raised near this corner to slow down speeding cars trying to turn right.
On the west side of Alma, leading up to the train tracks, there would be a new concrete median preventing left-turn lanes from and onto Park Boulevard, which is one of the city's emerging bike boulevards. The goal is to improve flow of traffic on Charleston, according to a report from the planning department. The median may, however, have an opening for bicyclists to cross. There would also be four "quadrant gates" and other safety improvements at the railroad crossing, according to staff.
The project has already secured $1.45 million in grant funding, according to planning staff. The city's infrastructure plan also budgets $7.5 million for the improvements.
Though past changes to the corridor have been extremely controversial, the latest slate of traffic amenities received a mostly warm community reception, with dozens of residents, parents of students, bike advocates and PTA officials attending Monday's hearing and dozens more sending emails in support of the changes.
Robert Neff, chair of the Palo Alto Bicycle Coalition, wrote to the council that his group supports the improvements and suggested that the changes at the El Camino intersection will "improve safety and reduce stress for cyclists and pedestrians with a bike lane and thoughtful redesign of the corners on the south side of Arastradero, and by making space for a full bike lane on the north."
PTA chairs from several schools along the corridor have likewise submitted letters in support of the project.
Penny Ellson, a leading advocate for biking improvements in school corridors, noted in her letter that the groundwork for the project was set in 1994-95, when south Palo Alto neighborhoods became alarmed about increasing traffic and requested a study.
Though it's controversial and "not perfect," the plan is "the best solution to accommodate increasing auto traffic volumes while creating safer conditions for the people who must drive, walk and bike on this street, especially large numbers of school-bound children," Ellson wrote.
On Monday night, she attended the meeting to thank staff for a "robust and wonderful outreach process," which led to various design refinements.
"It's exciting to see this important project a central piece of South Palo Alto's transportation system and especially our bicycle and pedestrian network moving toward construction," Ellson said.
While the school community overwhelmingly supports the changes, the reaction from residents in nearby neighborhood has been more mixed.
Ronald Pyszka, who has lived on East Charleston Road for more than four decades, attested to the fact that the re-striping "has reduced excessive speed very significantly" and said he strongly supports the new proposal.
"I think safety has improved," Pyszka said. "I think the final implementation of the plan will improve the safety even more."
Others were less thrilled. John Elman said the traffic-calming project has created dangerous conditions in the neighborhood, sending cars that wish to avoid Arastradero into once-quiet residential streets.
Lydia Kou, a resident of Barron Park, said there is a "large majority" of neighbors who aren't OK with being "barricaded" and are "concerned about how emergency vehicles would access their neighborhoods."
For the council, it wasn't much of a debate. Vice Mayor Greg Schmid noted that the project has been "15 years in the making" and enthusiastically backed it.
Councilman Marc Berman added his own endorsement and cited the high number of emails the council had received from residents favoring the permanent switch.
"There's no doubt in anybody's mind that it makes it so much safer for the kids in the 11 schools in the corridor, and I'm a big supporter," Berman said.
Councilman Eric Filseth, meanwhile, cast his vote with a measure of reluctance. By approving housing insSouth Palo Alto, the city effectively chooses to bring more traffic to Arastradero, he said.
At the same time, Filseth said, the city is acting to restrict this traffic, which seems inconsistent. He urged his colleagues to consider traffic issues on Arastradero in a more "system-oriented" way.
"We need to understand and address it that way and not just hope that the TMA (Transportation Management Association) and technology will make it all go away for us," Filseth said.