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Changes to a traffic signal and curbs at a busy intersection near Walter Hays Elementary School in Palo Alto have prompted parents to bring concerns for their children's safety to city and school officials.
The parents, who noticed the changes on April 23, delivered a petition with nearly 100 signatures to the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night claiming the Embarcadero Road and Middlefield Road intersection has become dangerous.
Children waiting to cross the street either on foot or by bike now find themselves crowded at the corners and on the narrow sidewalks or spilling out onto the roadway, parents said.
As one of Palo Alto's traffic-operations projects, the city added dedicated left-turn lanes in both directions on Middlefield Road as well as new traffic signals to accommodate them. In addition, new concrete structures on the corners, designed to prevent traffic from cutting into the pedestrian waiting area, were installed.
Previously, the intersection was governed by a four-way, all-stop signal, which allowed children to cross the intersection diagonally if they needed to. Now they must cross two streets, waiting on a street corner mid-journey.
"Our students are not safe crossing the streets with this change. It's only a matter of time with the current set up before a child is harmed," parent Amy Darling, who started the petition, wrote last week to the Safe Routes to School staff, city planners and Palo Alto Unified School District administration.
The petition asks city officials to return to the single four-way signal during school drop-off times and after school. Alternatively, the city should provide crossing guards at each corner to ensure the elementary students' safety, the petition states.
City officials said they were initially caught off guard by the magnitude of concern, but they plan to address the issue. The signal light was changed so that traffic won't back up on Middlefield or Embarcadero Road, according to information Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello provided to a resident. The intersection remodel, part of the city's Middlefield Road Resurfacing Project, also added space for pedestrians and bikes while they wait for the light.
But parents on the online social network Nextdoor.com said they've personally had to shield young children from passing cars. One saw a driver swerve to avoid a child who was on the side of the street.
"The other day when I walked my daughter to school, I noticed that cars on Embarcadero waiting to turn right onto Middlefield were behaving terribly. Some would try to beat the kids by turning right while they could before the kids got to the middle, others would try to squeeze through any gap they could find or make," parent Tim Roper said in an email to the Weekly. "I literally had to stand in front of the cars trying to turn right to stop them from inching forward towards the kids."
Parent David Shen submitted an analysis of the problem to the City Council on Monday. Previously, the intersection's four-way light stopped all cars and allowed the students to cross diagonally between Walter Hays and the end of Coleridge Avenue, at the southwest corner at Middlefield (a popular route for students living in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood).
The new bike and pedestrian spaces where they wait are actually narrowed by a low concrete island, he said. He has seen trucks drive over the island onto the bike/pedestrian waiting area as drivers make right turns.
"Given that the corners in the northwest and southeast are smaller in size than the Coleridge and Hays corners, it is very bad that the lights now force large groups of cyclists and pedestrians onto those tiny spaces. When there are many, we often see them spilling onto the road when they wait for the lights to change," he said.
And although the northeast corner of the intersection, in front of the school, is wide, the new curbs there funnel the foot and bike traffic in such a way that it is harder to get in and out, he said.
Darling said parents want to work collaboratively with the city. Shen told the Weekly he doesn't want to skewer city staff over the project.
"The best laid plans are only (plans). You look at them on paper and then you need to try them. However, we also need to realize when ... the results are not what we wanted," Shen said. "We need to be OK with that and make the appropriate changes to remedy whatever is not working, even when we thought they would."
City Manager James Keene, in his remarks to the council, said the intersection changes are designed to "offer protection to cyclists at intersections, regardless of whether they're turning left, right or continuing straight."
But "while the new signal timing has resulted in much less delay for motorists traveling along both streets, we have heard a significant number of concerns from parents and students. ... While there is now less delay for everyone, during the heaviest 30-minute period, the corners of the intersection fill up with bikers and walkers and can be uncomfortable."
He said the city would add a second crossing guard and monitor the situation for the next two weeks, as the construction on the project is completed.
"We will reintroduce the all-red pedestrian-scramble phase during the busiest hours if needed, but knowing that it will substantially increase the total delay at the intersection during the peak periods," Keene said.
Shen urged the city to come up with a speedy solution.
"Given that children use that intersection every day, and twice daily, we need to make that change as soon as possible because every day we wait is another day we put our children, cyclists and pedestrians at risk," he said.