Residents of the Downtown North and Crescent Park neighborhoods in Palo Alto are calling on the city to better enforce 24/7 no-left-turn restrictions that went into effect in June and prohibit drivers from turning north onto Middlefield Road from Hawthorne and Everett avenues.
The prohibitions are part of a one-year pilot program that the City Council approved in January. The trial is itself the latest step in an ongoing initiative to address safety concerns, the Middlefield Road North Traffic Safety Project, which began in July 2016 after residents relayed alarm over traffic conditions to the city. Chief among their concerns was the large number of collisions along their stretch of Middlefield as well as the number of commuters cutting through Downtown North and turning left onto Middlefield to bypass signal lights on Lytton Avenue.
The project analyzed traffic volume, speed and collision data and concluded, among other findings, that existing left-turn restrictions onto Middlefield from Hawthorne and Everett — which applied during rush hour — were not effective. To address these inadequacies, city staff extended the no-left-turn restriction to all hours in the pilot program.
Roadside signs and barriers at Middlefield intersections were put in place last month, but according to resident John Guislin, drivers are still ignoring the ban.
"The day the barriers went up: five, six, eight cars coming out and all turning left (onto Middlefield)," he said. "People basically don't seem to care about traffic signs, and maybe it's because they knew we don't have a strong police enforcement in Palo Alto."
The city first began prohibiting rush-hour left turns from Hawthorne and Everett onto Middlefield in 2015, but Guislin said in 12 months he only saw the police enforce the restrictions thrice, even as accidents occurred almost every week at the intersection.
"People got used to not having to obey traffic signs," he said.
Resident Janine Bisharat along with other neighbors began sitting on the street corners, taking photos of lawbreaking drivers and asking no-left-turn violators why they were turning illegally. The most common reasons, she said, were "I didn't see the sign" or "Google (Maps) told me I could turn left here."
Guislin said he has seen drivers maneuver to the left of intersection barriers, pulling into a lane of oncoming traffic before cutting to the right hand lane. Drivers also legally turn right from Hawthorne onto Middlefield but pull into a resident's driveway to do a three-point-turn so they can drive north. A new left-turn lane on Middlefield has added concerns about traffic accidents caused by other drivers still illegally turning left from Hawthorne or Everett onto Middlefield.
Bisharat compared Hawthorne to a highway. She'll often have to block traffic on the street in order to safely cross the street with her father, who is elderly and needs to walk slowly.
"I think the city needs to take responsibility," Bisharat said.
The Palo Alto Police Department has not employed a traffic-enforcement team since June 2016. The team, which consisted of seven officers in 2000, decreased to two in 2012 due to budget cuts before the department decided not to continue staffing it. According to Capt. Zach Perron, a full-time team dedicated to traffic enforcement is not currently possible due to staffing shortages.
"Staffing at any police department are constantly in flux," he said. "I am optimistic that as our staffing improves, we'll be able to dedicate more resources to traffic enforcement."
Currently, field officers have to balance enforcement duties with regular calls for service, 911 calls and other quality-of-life complaints that require police response. Perron asks residents with reports of traffic violations to call the Police Department's traffic complaint hotline at 650-329-2388 and include specific details: violation, time of day, day of week, type of violation.
A report of "people speeding through Palo Alto" is often too general for officers to act on.
"But if people say hey, folks are speeding on Ross Road at the 400 block during the afternoon at 4 o'clock, that's very specific and we'll try to have an officer out there writing tickets," Perron said. "For now, anywhere in town, there isn't a single traffic complaint that we receive that we don't do something about."
As more officers graduate from the training program, one of the options that the police is exploring is a utility team devoted to various purposes such as traffic enforcement. This team would primarily work to address "whatever problems we need to dedicate more cops to," said Perron — for example, concentrating on a given street to enforce traffic laws in the morning and responding to burglaries in the afternoon.
"We're well aware of the residents' concerns," Perron said. "We're well aware of the efforts the city has gone to prevent traffic violations. As staffing allows, we're still out there enforcing the law. We've been out there this week, we were out there this morning, we were out there yesterday writing tickets."
Part of the problem is that navigation apps such as Google Maps and Waze direct users to drive through suburban neighborhoods. Earlier this year when Los Altos Hills faced a similar influx of commuters on its residential streets, the city asked Waze to remove three roads from its map. When Waze refused to, Los Altos Hills closed the streets to people who don't live there, putting up "No Thru Traffic" signs on three roads. Waze then complied and no longer directs users to drive on the roads.
According to City of Palo Alto spokesperson Claudia Keith, the Planning and Transportation Division is not considering following Los Altos Hills' example or signing "No Thru Traffic," thus the roads would still be included on Waze.
"The objective of (Middlefield Road North Traffic Safety Project) is to manage traffic better and ensure safe speeds and turning movements," she said in an email.
Both Bisharat and Guislin said that even though drivers are still turning illegally, the Downtown North and Crescent Park neighborhoods have grown more quiet with the addition of barriers on Middlefield, and the transition from four lanes across Middlefield to three under the pilot program has slowed down traffic and decreased the number of T-bone accidents.
Bisharat, however, is not hopeful this will last. Already, she's heard complaints of inconvenience and is looking to broader solutions to the city's traffic and parking problems.
"The only thing we can control are the commuters," she said. "We've got to have parking garages and buses bring people in because we don't have the infrastructure to support all the people who come in now. There has to be planning, and I don't see that currently with the council."