The frustration being felt by many Palo Alto residents over a flurry of confusing changes to streets and traffic patterns is approaching a boil, fueled by what feels like a lack of accountability or effective problem-solving at City Hall.
The latest outcry is from parents of children attending Walter Hays Elementary School at the corner of Embarcadero and Middlefield roads, one of Palo Alto's busiest and most dangerous intersections.
As part of major modifications to this intersection in recent weeks, apparently with little or no outreach to the Walter Hays school community or the neighborhood, the city implemented changes that have had a cascading negative effect on all users — drivers, bikers and pedestrians — including the elimination of the universally valued "all-walk" signal.
For as long as anyone can remember, the traffic signals at this intersection have been set to provide a special "all-walk" cycle during about 20 minutes before school starts and after school lets out. Unlike normal signaling during other times of the day, this stops traffic in all directions and enables hundreds of students and their parents to safely cross the intersection diagonally under the watchful eye of a crossing guard while no car movement is permitted.
The city has just made this intersection much more complicated. It added left turn signals in both directions on Middlefield that not only add another cycle to the signals at the intersection, extending the time for a full cycle to occur, but has reduced through traffic to a single lane. Because of the new turn lane onto westbound Embarcadero, the intersection becomes completely blocked whenever a bus stops at the bus stop on Middlefield just south of the intersection and a new curb "bulb-out" squeezes cars into a narrow traffic lane. A lane that allowed northbound cars to turn east onto Embarcadero was eliminated, causing long back-ups on Middlefield and giving cars incentive to take shortcuts through the neighborhood. And without warning, the once safe all-walk diagonal traffic cycle has been eliminated, meaning many young children must now cross the busy intersection in two steps, while traffic is moving parallel to them instead of being stopped in all directions.
Ironically, the city says reinstating the all-walk signal will significantly delay traffic trying to get through the intersection because of the other changes it has made to the street and traffic patterns. In short, every single recent change has made this intersection less safe, more complicated and less efficient.
Does this all sound all-too-familiar?
Residents of south Palo Alto have been objecting for months as they have seen Ross Road re-made into a virtual obstacle course, with so many street markings, speed humps, signs, bulb-outs, traffic circles and other devices in the name of increasing bike and pedestrian safety that citizens have undertaken a petition to have it stopped and re-evaluated.
So far, response from city staff and the City Council has been muted, adding to residents' frustration.
And similar makeovers are in progress or will soon be on Louis, Moreno, Amarillo, Montrose and on the existing Bryant Street bike route. These projects are part of an $8.6 million first phase of changes to more than 7 miles of local streets scheduled to be completed by this fall. Contracts for the work were approved long ago by the council, so it's not even clear what can be done to stop them even if there were agreement to pause the projects.
Residents are justified in their concerns and objections to what they see taking place, and the city's response — increasing its outreach efforts to explain the projects — is too-little, too-late.
One lesson coming out of this is that a demonstration project should precede a large-scale roll-out so that the community and its leaders have a chance to react. Another is that the city must be more effective at creating visual explanations of its plans and publishing them in the newspapers and in city libraries and directly sending them to residents prior to adoption of those plans.
But the problem now is the growing community uprising in reaction to these projects and the increasing animosity between citizens and the city's transportation staff. The council and city manager need to determine what options are available to suspend or modify these projects and engage in collaborative problem-solving with residents. And they need to ask themselves why these avoidable communication breakdowns keep occurring.
While intentions are undoubtedly good all around, and not all mistakes can be prevented, these kinds of problems need to be better anticipated and quickly addressed when they surface. Without immediate action by city leaders, residents' frustration and loss of confidence in city government will grow, making future important initiatives all that more difficult to successfully achieve.