As traffic increases, dangers multiply. The question we really should be asking is: "How can the city help the community find alternatives to driving?"
As a former Safe Routes to School assistant coordinator in the City of Palo Alto's Transportation Division, a PTA Safe Routes to School champion, and a bicycling member of the community, I have seen firsthand what our city has done to improve safety -- and can suggest some concrete traffic solutions that build on this work.
The Bike Plan
The Bike Plan was adopted by the city in 2012. Currently 14 bike boulevard projects and neighborhood improvements are in the pipeline. Design plans approved by the City Council on 19 street segments displayed at the Neighborhood Traffic Safety and Bicycle Boulevard Projects open house will increase safety and connectivity through the town and entice residents and commuters to try bicycling and public transit.
City action: While continuing aggressive progress on the bike plan, the city needs to educate road users about the new facilities. For example, explanation of the safety and navigation of Middlefield Road and N. California Avenue, where a two-way protected bike lane was installed, will help all road users understand and appreciate the new road treatments.
Safe Routes to School
The Safe Routes program is a result of the strong partnership among the City of Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs. Safe Routes to School aims to reduce risk to students and encourage more students to walk, bike and use other alternatives to driving more often. Safe Routes activities include: fall and spring Walk and Roll days, pedestrian safety lessons, the third-grade bike-safety program that culminates with the "Third Grade Bike Rodeo" and a fifth-grade bike-safety refresher assembly at all district elementary schools. Sixth-grade orientation programs at JLS, Jordan and Terman include a "Drive that Bike" safety assembly, and summer Middle School Bicycle Skills classes are offered for students and their parents through a collaboration between Wheel Kids and Safe Routes to School. A "Getting to High School" program organized by the JLS PTA was piloted in April 2016 and will be offered at all middle schools this spring.
City action: Unsafe riding behaviors such as ignoring stop signs, riding on the wrong side of the street, and not using lights at night cannot be changed without parent cooperation and support. The city needs to effectively engage parents in the programs for students and encourage them to practice pedestrian and bicycle safety skills with their children. Furthermore, the police need to engage as partners by patrolling key intersections to educate and enforce safety.
Walk and Roll maps
A VERBS (Vehicle Emission Reductions Based in Schools) grant was awarded to Palo Alto's Safe Routes program in 2012 to develop "Walk and Roll" maps and school zone improvements for all K-12 campuses. This fall, the Palo Alto Library installed bike repair stations and developed a "Walk and Roll to Libraries" map so residents can successfully navigate to all five library branches by foot or bike. Greendell School, which houses the district's pre-K programs, PreSchool Family and the Adult School's ESL classes, begins its Walk and Roll map development process this month.
City action: The city needs to monitor and enforce safety in designated school commute routes identified on the Walk and Roll maps, and as future bikeways are constructed, maps need to be updated. The city should develop a comprehensive Walk and Roll map by compiling data from all 18 schools and make it available at all community centers, schools and community events and make it accessible online. The Palo Alto 311 app should include an option for reporting obstructions in these designated routes during school commute times.
To relieve traffic congestion, more people need to choose transit. The Palo Alto Shuttle and VTA bus run through a few corridors in town, serving mainly senior and student riders. VTA is undergoing route and service changes and has proposed to eliminate route 89 and replace the 88, 88L and 88M lines serving Gunn High School students with minimal service on the proposed lines 288A/B, only at school bell times so students with later start times or after-school activities will not be able to ride VTA.
City action: The City Council needs to put pressure on VTA to serve the tax-paying residents in Palo Alto or subsidize the Palo Alto Shuttle to fill the gaps in service due to cuts. The Palo Alto Shuttle improvements were put on hold pending VTA's updates. The shuttle needs to update routes, frequency, hours, and marketing to increase and diversify ridership.
Bicycle Friendly Community status
Palo Alto has earned and maintained (since 2003) Gold status as a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. A report card issued by the league offered "Key Steps to Platinum," outlining specific ways Palo Alto can work towards Platinum, the highest level of bicycle friendliness awarded by the league.
==City action:== To increase bicycle friendliness and achieve platinum status in 2020, Palo Alto needs to follow the recommendations from the report card, such as:
• Increase parking space for bicycles.
• Host "Open Streets" events where main corridors are temporarily closed.
• Complete the Bike Plan adopted in 2012.
• Work with local employers to promote alternatives to driving solo.
• Offer retraining for cyclists who get traffic citations for poor safety behaviors.
Platinum isn't just a "status" symbol; it will alleviate traffic congestion.
With the city government's support and community involvement, these concrete and achievable changes will make streets safer. We are the safety problem, and we can solve it together.
Maria Abilock is a Palo Alto PTA Safe Routes to School champion and former Safe Routes to School assistant coordinator for the City of Palo Alto. She can be reached at email@example.com.