For John Guislin and his neighbors on Middlefield Road, screeching tires and clanging metal have become increasingly familiar sounds in recent years.
Drivers making their way downtown or to Stanford University routinely use Middlefield as a thoroughfare. As they pass this residential area, many go beyond the speed limit, taking sharp right turns and, every once in a while, crashing into each other.
"Middlefield Road, from University to Menlo Park border, is four continuous blocks of driver mayhem," Guislin told the council on May 9. "We have a history of having serious accidents and dangerous conditions -- speeding, congestion, et cetera -- on Middlefield."
The neighbors have been lobbying city leaders for years to do something about the problem, with some success. Last June, the city added time-of-day turn restriction signs, which prohibit left turns onto Middlefield Road from Everett Avenue and Hawthorne Avenue during peak commuting hours. The city also restriped the street so that cars would no longer merge near the intersection of Middlefield and Hawthorne, where cars are often lined up to turn left. Now, the merging happens a few hundred feet south of the intersection.
But as Guislin and his neighbors testified earlier this month, the traffic woes have not abated. Andrea Lichter, who has lived on Middlefield for the past 30 years, said she has seen conditions devolve in dangerous ways.
"I'm in my home every night, and I hear near-crashes and I just cringe," Lichter said at the meeting. "I get so concerned and so upset, waiting to hear the impact. And quite often there is an impact."
She recalled an incident several years ago when a young man speeding north on Middlefield crashed his sports-utility vehicle through her fence and drove into her front yard. There was also the fatal accident that occurred in 2011, when a 25-year-old Stanford University scholar speeding south on Middlefield crashed his Saab into a tree and then a parked vehicle near Hawthorne.
Now, residents are proposing a more dramatic solution: reducing the number of lanes on Middlefield from four to two. They believe this solution, commonly known as a "road diet," will offer them the best shot at calming the traffic conditions. Earlier this month, 90 percent of the Middlefield Road homeowners along that stretch submitted a petition requesting the change.
According to the petition, the residents are requesting the change to "reduce the number of accidents, increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, increase traffic compliance with speed limit, improve traffic flow, improve safety of driveway access, and improve quality of life for residents." The petition states that more than 90 percent of cars go faster than the posted 25 mph speed limit and that, in some cases, they exceed 50 mph. In April alone there were six accidents, the petition states.
On May 13, four days after Guislin's presentation to the council, two more accidents occurred on Middlefield within an hour. Guislin followed up with an email to the council, with the photos of both accidents attached.
"It is bad enough hearing the crunch of frequent crashes and wondering if any of our family members were near the road or on the sidewalk at that moment," Guislin said. "We dread the day when a bicyclist or pedestrian is run over on the sidewalk by crashing cars."
Since then, at least two more accidents took place Willow Road in Menlo Park and University Avenue, according to crimereports.com. The site shows three accidents occurring on this stretch of Middlefield between May 11 and May 23, three of them involving minor injuries (there were no injuries in the two crashes that Guislin reported).
While the residents are calling for a road diet, the city is exploring other options to calm traffic. These include eliminating left turns entirely (rather than just during limited hours) by installing signage, adding a narrow median on Middlefield or installing a traffic signal. But as city officials warn on a special page dedicated to the project, any of these projects "could add traffic or increase congestion on other streets and will require careful analysis and input from residents on both sides of Middlefield."
That's not to say, however, that the road diet idea won't be explored. Joshuah Mello, the city's chief transportation official, said that right now the plan is to complete the pilot program with the left-turn restrictions (it ends next month), evaluate the data from the program and see what changes to make.
"We're going to look at the the results of the turn-restriction signage and see if it led to any kind of reduction in the number of collision and safety concerns out there," Mello said.
He noted that a road diet of the sort being proposed by the residents has been shown to be a "proven safety measure" for certain types of collisions. Once the pilot study is complete, it will be one of several solutions that will be evaluated.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, road diets are effective in addressing four-lane highways where crashes occur with high frequency, "resulting in conflicts between high-speed through traffic, left-turning vehicles and other road users." The administration, according to its website, promotes road diets "as a safety-focused alternative to a traditional four-lane undivided highway."
"The resulting benefits include a crash reduction of 19 to 47 percent, reduced vehicle speed differential, improved mobility and access by all road users, and integration of the roadway into surrounding uses that results in an enhanced quality of life," the administration's website states.