Residents along Middlefield Road in north Palo Alto are well accustomed to extreme conditions, whether it's severe traffic jams during commute hours or cars that speed past their homes and, every now and then, end up in their yards or front lawns.
On Monday night, the City Council took a step toward promoting safety along the busy stretch between University Avenue and the Menlo Park border by approving a "road diet" on Middlefield -- a design that will eliminate one driving lane in each direction, create a center turning lane, add buffer zones near the curb for bicyclists and create new barriers that would prevent eastbound drivers who approach Middlefield from Everett Avenue from turning left.
In voting 8-0 to approve the redesign on a one-year trial basis, with Councilwoman Karen Holman recusing herself, the council chose a design (known as 7A) that was favored by many of the residents along Middlefield. But by reducing lanes, the approved design would also further reduce capacity for cars on a busy road that carries about 18,000 motor vehicles on a typical weekday, according to transportation staff.
The council also rejected an alternate proposal, known as 7B, which would have reduced Middlefield to one lane in the northbound direction while maintaining two southbound lanes. Unlike the first design, this one would not leave room for buffer zones such as bike lanes. It would, however, have allowed for more traffic capacity.
The winning design followed more than a year of studies, surveys and community meetings: an effort that netted nine different options, which were ultimately winnowed down to two. John Guislin, a Middlefield Road resident who has been leading the charge to improve safety, told the council that the street regularly experiences "mini-Carmageddons" and argued that 7A is the only design option that addresses both the safety concerns and the quality-of-life issues in the neighborhood. Having four lanes on Middlefield encourages drivers to race down the street, he said.
Narrow lanes and poor sight lines for turning vehicles -- exacerbated by trees on the west side of Middlefield -- make the situation particularly hazardous. Chief Transportation Official Josh Mello told the council Monday that the bulk of the collisions on this stretch involve cars that go east on Everett and then try to either make a left turn on Middlefield or go straight. The approved design will feature a "left-over treatment" -- an S-shaped median -- that would prevent left turns.
While most residents spoke in favor of the safety features, Annie Ashton praised another aspect of the project: the 5-foot shoulders on each side of Middlefield that will function as bike lanes. Ashton said she is "excited" about the addition.
"I'll be using it everyday and I won't have to ride on the sidewalk anymore, where I'm constantly running into pedestrians or other cyclists who are afraid to ride on Middlefield," Ashton said.
In approving 7A as the preferred option, the council signaled its strong preference for safety over traffic capacity. But in a nod to the latter, the approved design also includes two southbound lanes between Everett and Lytton avenues.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who made the motion to approve the road diet, was one of several council members to point to the growing traffic volumes and the high number of accidents on Middlefield.
"This is a particularly bad stretch of road," Kniss said. "They haven't been severe, but what they have been is a constant interruption in the flow of traffic. And at some point, one will be severe."
Road diets in Palo Alto haven't always been met with widespread acclaim. The city's lane-reduction effort on Arastradero and Charleston roads was blamed by many for creating traffic backups and diverting traffic to neighborhood streets. Councilwoman Lydia Kou cited that controversial project acknowledged Monday that there remain philosophical differences about the virtues of road diets.
But she had no problem supporting the Middlefield plan.
"What it does is emphasize safety," Kou said. "I want it to be clear. It's about safety."