News

Synchronized green lights in University Avenue's future

Transportation officials lay out proposal to calm, divert traffic from Crescent Park streets while speeding up flow on University Avenue

A strategy to get traffic moving on University Avenue and off Crescent Park residential streets in Palo Alto could include traffic-light upgrades along the Dumbarton Bridge corridor and green-light synchronization.

Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello laid out potential traffic-mitigation strategies on Tuesday night during a community meeting for Crescent Park residents at the Palo Alto Art Center Auditorium. Traffic Safety Engineer Ruchika Aggarwal, Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus and police Capt. Zach Perron also attended.

Neighborhood-based Crescent Park Traffic Committee members previously met with city officials on March 26 to flesh out proposals for speed management and traffic-volume management.

Tuesday night's meeting defined the proposed strategies, which included synchronizing green traffic lights; prioritizing passage through traffic lights for buses; eliminating the incentive for drivers to cut around backed-up traffic; adding dedicated left-turn lanes and signals at some locations; adding speed bumps along some residential streets; and partially closing some streets in one direction to force traffic out of the neighborhood.

View maps, statistics and photos showing examples of the potential strategies discussed Tuesday in a presentation provided by the city of Palo Alto's Transportation Division here.

Get traffic flowing on University Avenue

Palo Alto, along with Union City, Fremont, Menlo Park and Stanford have received an Innovative Deployments to Enhance Arterials (IDEA) grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to upgrade 36 traffic signals from Union City to Stanford, including the Dumbarton Bridge corridor that runs along state Highway 84 and Willow Road. The signals would also have a green-light priority for buses that would allow SamTrans buses to communicate with the signals if bus-route traffic starts falling behind schedule. If buses move faster than other traffic, it could encourage more mass-transit ridership, Mello said.

East Palo Alto and Palo Alto are also applying for a Program for Arterial System Synchronization (PASS) grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to study synchronizing 18 signals along the University Avenue corridor from Middlefield Road to O'Brien Drive in Menlo Park, and including along sections of Donohoe Street and East Bayshore Road. The California Department of Transportation, which also has a signal in East Palo Alto, would also participate in the study.

Eliminate the incentive to 'cut the line'

Traffic snarls in part on University Avenue because motorists turning right on neighborhood streets -- particularly on East Crescent Drive -- and others along University Avenue use the bike lane to cut around eastbound traffic, effectively creating a second lane. The city could add curb extensions and bollards at the corners of Crescent, East Crescent, West Crescent and Center drives to keep traffic from entering the bike lane while still allowing for bicyclists to pass through, Mello said.

Adding left-turn lanes at the traffic signals along University at Guinda and Chaucer streets and Lincoln Avenue would help keep traffic flowing. The turning lanes would require eliminating about five to six parking spots along University at each intersection, however, Mello noted.

The city could also improve directional signage to U.S. Highway 101 from downtown to help people find their way to the freeway along University Avenue.

Redesign local streets to reduce cut-through traffic

The city could add gateway signage at the entrances of Hamilton and Forest avenues at Middlefield Road that would say "Welcome to Crescent Park" or "entering a residential area" to define for motorists that they are not on a commuter route. The city would add temporary rubber speed humps on Hamilton Avenue between Middlefield Road and Fulton Street to test if traffic slows down.

To redirect traffic from going onto the residential streets, the city could split the light signal phasing for the Hamilton Avenue at Middlefield Road intersection to make left turns easier and give drivers heading east two lanes to turn left onto Middlefield, provided there is enough room to turn.

The city could also partially close Hamilton Avenue by blocking the eastbound lane at Middlefield. The city would have a short pilot project to test the effectiveness of the closure, he said. A similar set of measures could be used at Hamilton and Lincoln.

Mello said the five-way intersection at Hamilton, Center and Southwood Drive should be reconfigured. In the short term, it could be accomplished with lane striping, curb extensions and planters. The curb extensions would redirect the entrance of Southwood to intersect Center at a right angle. Traffic wanting to drive eastward from Hamilton to Southwood would need to first make a left onto Center and then a right onto Southwood. The intersection of East Crescent and Southwood would also need similar reconfiguration.

Traffic volume reduction

The city could add diagonal diverters on Hamilton at Guinda and Lincoln to discourage through-traffic flow. Some segments of Hamilton between Fulton and Middlefield might turn into one-way traffic traveling west, he said.

Mello said that adding enforcement measures such as "no left turn" signs and additional stop signs are ineffective in reducing traffic flow. Such signage at a certain point might contribute to speeding by frustrated drivers and rolling through stop signs. Street and lane closures are proven and effective ways to reduce through traffic with minimal inconvenience to the neighborhood's residents, he said.

The city will now create a pilot program based on the feedback it received at Tuesday's meeting. Staff will collect traffic data prior to the pilot program to create a baseline and will present the plan to the City Council.

Mello said the pilot traffic-calming program could begin this fall. After six months, the city would collect additional traffic data in the middle of the pilot program to see whether the changes have an impact. The city would make necessary tweaks based on the mid-pilot data and would continue the pilot until fall 2019. A final report would be presented to the City Council for approval before any changes are made permanent.

Related content:

North Palo Alto residents ramp up traffic battle

In Crescent Park, a push to end traffic gridlock

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Comments

12 people like this
Posted by lew
a resident of Stanford
on May 17, 2018 at 10:50 am

lew is a registered user.

Has the City of Palo Alto reconsidered using its right of Eminent Domain to purchase the land where the old Sunset Publishing is located in order to complete a road that connects Willow and Sand Hill Road? This will alleviate through traffic from the Stanford shopping center and points west that has no interest in traversing University Ave. or Lytton in order to get to US101 and the Dumbarton Bridge. It is the natural connector between US101 and I-280 on Palo Alto’s northern border just as Page Mill/Oregon Expressway serve as a connector through the center of Palo Alto. It was shortsighted not to have constructed this route when I-280 was built, serving commercial interests rather than obvious traffic requirements.


4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2018 at 11:25 am

Traffic engineers showed a long time ago that the best strategy for light synchronization depends on traffic conditions. Specifically, when traffic is jammed, an optimal strategy is leading from the front slightly with most lights in the same direction green at the same time. Conversely, when traffic is light, a wave of lights moving at the speed limit is best. And, when there is a specific jam at a location due to an accident or construction, additional changes will help.

The point being, if big money to re-engineer the lights, (and, traffic lights are actually quite expensive), please do it in such a way that allows complete flexibility in the future regarding controlling the flow with regard to time of day and traffic conditions with controlling each light individually. And, since some external signalling (e.g. by buses) may affect the lights, please, please, please include rock-solid security end-to-end! (!!!) Anything that can easily be hacked, will be.


30 people like this
Posted by Woodland and University Bottleneck
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2018 at 11:39 am

One of the big reasons that eastbound traffic backs up on University Avenue in Palo Alto is from the traffic and signals at the intersection that is just over the bridge in the City of East Palo Alto (University x Woodland & University just before the 101 overpass). These two signals (and the one on the other side of the overpass) are the ones most in need of synchronization.

Also vehicles turning right and left from Woodland onto University heading in the eastbound direction almost always block the intersection with every light cycle. Then when eastbound traffic on University out of Palo Alto gets the green, traffic is already backed up into the intersection so there is no space to proceed until the green light has already been on for quite awhile. There is a serious lack of enforcement at this intersection by East Palo Alto PD. Has any outreach been done to East Palo Alto to partner on solutions for this corridor in addition to the willow Rd corridor?

I fear that the traffic calming under consideration is just going to increase the delay for commuters trying to get out of Palo Alto and home to their families. Has any outreach or comments been collected from the countless commuters (workers of Palo Alto) who use these corridors everyday or is this whole project being driven by a few homeowners who don't like seeing people in cars on the streets in front of their houses?


7 people like this
Posted by Carl Jones
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 17, 2018 at 11:39 am

Carl Jones is a registered user.

NO - don't mess with the lights on University.

Time the lights on Hamilton to let traffic flow (at 23-24 mph) from High Street to Webster (or Middlefield).
Time the lights on Lytton to let the traffic flow (at 23-24 mph) from Webster to High Street.
We could make Hamilton/Lytton one-way streets, but that has become a dirty word in Palo Alto. So let's just time the lights.

Fix/time the lights so that:
1. flow from Stanford/El Camino comes under the railroad, turns right onto High (already one way) and then left onto Hamilton. Through synchronized lights to Webster (or Middlefield) where the traffic turns left, then right to continue on University.
2. flow from US101 comes across Middlefield, then turns right onto Webster (could be made one way) and left onto Lyton. Through synchronized lights to High Street where it turns left (onto existing one way street) and then right on University to go under the railroad.

Discourage 'through traffic' on University.
Give priority to the flow on Hamilton and Lytton.


5 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 17, 2018 at 11:54 am

> Has the City of Palo Alto reconsidered using its right of Eminent Domain to purchase the land where the old Sunset Publishing is located in order to complete a road that connects Willow and Sand Hill Road?

The Sunset property in Menlo Park, so I expect Palo Alto doesn't have the power to do this.

> It was shortsighted not to have constructed this route when I-280 was built, serving commercial interests rather than obvious traffic requirements.

Unsurprisingly, Menlo Park residents shot down a proposal to do this in the early '70s. IIRC the proposal would have made Willow 2 lanes in each direction.


11 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2018 at 4:08 pm

Prioritizing east-west traffic through town (coming off Hwy 101 and heading to Stanford) makes north-south traffic much worse. This has already happened at Oregon Expressway, where the signals were changed a couple of years ago. The delays are especially bad for pedestrians and bicyclists who now have no alternative routes and have to wait several minutes for the next crossing light. The waiting zones are minimally protected, so they risk being hit by reckless drivers during the extended waiting period.


24 people like this
Posted by cres park
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 17, 2018 at 7:51 pm

There is no point on synchronizing traffic lights in a parking lot. All the problems are at 101, until traffic flows through those intersections the lights on the rest of University are in no way slowing traffic. People are cutting through neighborhoods because University Ave is a parking lot not because the light at Chaucer turns red at the wrong moment.


6 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 18, 2018 at 12:54 am

cred park - thank you! And after the 101 overpass, the Univ Ave parking lot continues because the Dumbarton is often a parking lot.


7 people like this
Posted by Reduce car quantity
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 18, 2018 at 6:24 am

Which idea resulted in a reduction of over all cars using the finite space of roads?
Traffic = too may cars for a finite space. Anything that does not address this fact is simply puffing smoke into the faces of hopeful people.
Until then, yah...good luck.


4 people like this
Posted by MenloJim
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 18, 2018 at 8:58 am

The history of efforts to connect Willow Road to Sand Hill Road is complex. For reference, here is one summary:

Web Link

Wednesday Jan 29, 1997

The bumpy history of Sand Hill

The origins of Sand Hill Road can be traced, humbly enough, to a cow path running from San Francisco Bay to Middlefield Road. In the late 1800s, it was paved and named Willow Road.

Debates over its future began not long after the introduction of the Model T Ford.

"The road issue goes all the way back to 1927," said Andy Coe, Stanford's director of community relations, when a connection was proposed from the old Willow Road (now known as Sand Hill) to El Camino Real, the Bay Area's major thoroughfare at the time.

"In the 1930s, the State Highway Division proposed a highway from the Central Valley to the Pacific that would have run right through the Sand Hill corridor area," Coe said.

But the highway was delayed by the Depression, World War II, and Stanford officials who objected to a highway through campus.

The shopping center was built in 1955 and bills were introduced in the Legislature to expand Willow Road into a state freeway. Friction arose between Palo Alto and Menlo Park, with each city recommending that the new freeway run through the neighboring city.

In 1961, the state Highway Department recommended a $33 million freeway requiring the demolition of 585 houses in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Palo Alto officials approved the highway, but 1,758 Menlo Park residents signed a petition to stop it. In 1963, the Menlo Park City Council refused to sign the freeway agreement with the state.

In 1966, an alternative plan for the Willow Expressway was devised. The plan, which would result in the removal of 433 houses, was accepted by both cities and counties. But the plan stalled, and in 1971, Menlo Park citizens voted 4,750 to 1,987 to defeat the expressway plan.

Undeterred, in 1974 CalTrans proposed a Willow Expressway from Highway 101 to Highway 280. The expressway was targeted to run from Willow Road in Menlo Park, into Palo Alto along San Francisquito Creek at Ruthven Avenue in the Downtown North neighborhood, and across El Camino to Sand Hill Road (at that time still called Willow Road). Palo Alto rejected the plan and asked CalTrans to delete the expressway from its maps and change the name of Willow Road. In 1975, the road's name was changed to Sand Hill from Arboretum Road to 280.

In 1977, Menlo Park agreed to a four-lane extension. In 1978, Stanford applied to extend Sand Hill to El Camino and widen it to four lanes. The Palo Alto City Council approved the plan 4-2, but could not gather enough votes to form an assessment district to pay for it.


7 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 19, 2018 at 1:12 am

Traffic congestion is one byproduct of Office/R&D over-development. Housing shortage is another. And yet the new comp plan calls for the addition of 1.7 million more sf Office/R&D space over the next 12 years. To put that in perspective, that growth rate is about double what the city's growth rate has been. There's a petition going around for a ballot initiative that would amend the Comp Plan so that the Office/R&D growth rate would remain at what it has been in recent years rather than doubling it.

This is the last weekend of signature gathering. If you are concerned about traffic and housing go to the Farmer's Markets or the midtown Safeway or Bill's Cafe tomorrow and sign the petition. And bring your friends!


16 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 19, 2018 at 5:38 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Annette, excellent point about traffic congestion, over-development and the petition to cut office growth. One of the easiest signatures was from a woman who lives on Hamilton who was absolutely livid when she read this article, noting that her neighborhood is already over-run and now the city's planning to waste more money to make her life and that of her neighbors even worse.

While I feel for the Crescent Park residents, it's worth remembering that MOST of our neighborhoods are already congested with cut-through traffic. Pushing the commuters from one neighborhood to another solves nothing.

Adding more offices with to produce more congestion is nuts. Asking us to fund more signs, road furniture, planters, barriers etc. WHILE our city's begging us for more money is illogical and maddening,

PS: Isn't University Ave supposed to be under construction for the next few years? The timing of this rush to waste more money raises red flags, esp. since I just got another call from a city pollsters asking me which argument was the most convincing for raising taxes to fund "infrastucture" projects like this!


5 people like this
Posted by Bruce McCaul
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 21, 2018 at 10:06 am

Too bad the Newell Clark pedestrian bridge being built over 101 near Home Depot doesn't have a couple of lanes for cars. Such a project could have been coordinated with the Newell bridge project over San Franscisquito Creek and provided Dumbarton traffic with an alternate route. Newell is alredy one of the desginated arterials for Palo Alto, although Clark Avenue in East Palo Alto would need some repurposing.


6 people like this
Posted by Jake
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jun 4, 2018 at 5:31 am

Oh my word. All these myopic, delusional ideas will make traffic on University ave. unspeakably worse.
This is the pattern: severely congested areas modified with more Bollards???? to "force" traffic out of neighboring streets? will turn severe congestion into something out of a nightmare.

[Portion removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Dave Hoffman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 4, 2018 at 10:37 am

"The city could add diagonal diverters on Hamilton at Guinda and Lincoln to discourage through-traffic flow. Some segments of Hamilton between Fulton and Middlefield might turn into one-way traffic traveling west, he said."

I'm not a civil engineer, but help me understand how "some segments of Hamilton between Fulton and Middlefield" might turn into one-way traffic? How would you turn a one-block stretch of Hamilton between Fulton and Middlefield into a road where "some segments" are one-way?

I live on Fulton between Hamilton and University, and our block is used as a high-speed cut-through for cars trying to avoid the intersection of University and Middlefield -- turning Hamilton between Fulton and Middlefield into a one-way segment might help with that, as it would probably eliminate the cars turning left onto Fulton to avoid the light at University and Middlefield, but we'd still get all the cars cutting down Fulton to get to University.


8 people like this
Posted by Jake
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jun 4, 2018 at 11:38 am

" If buses move faster than other traffic, it could encourage more mass-transit ridership, Mello said."

This line is really important. Mello is using this as justification for bollards, etc. He is not the only one, this is the myopic groupthink that dominates transportation executives all over the bay area, but it is hopelessly incorrect.
For the past 2 decades there's been a region-wide trend to increase investments in mass transit, but people never make the switch.
Yet the city planners in the Bay Area seem to never give up on it and they keep banging their heads against the wall thinking that people will stop solo-commuting and happily get on a bus. It never happens. When will they learn?


8 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 4, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Mr. Mello should do his homework and follow the research. Recent articles report that bus ridership is down dramatically because gridlock is delaying buses so much people are missing their connections. No wonder bus windows are blacked out so you can't see how empty.

Stop the insane spending on bollards and road furniture. Stop the "road diets" while expanding the number of commuters to PA and Stanford. Stop preaching fairy tales.


9 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2018 at 12:23 pm

"The city could add curb extensions and bollards at the corners of Crescent, East Crescent, West Crescent and Center drives to keep traffic from entering the bike lane while still allowing for bicyclists to pass through, Mello said."

This is exactly what Mr. Mello did on Middlefield Road between Embarcadero and Oregon Expressway. I live in Old Palo Alto near Middlefield and I travel this portion of Middlefield at least twice a day. I can reliably testify that since the changes were made to Middlefield, traffic has become immeasurably worse backing up cars onto the Oregon and Embarcadero intersections with Middlefield and greatly increasing cut-through traffic on neighborhood streets by drivers desperate to avoid the "Mello Morass" on Middlefield.

Why would anyone think that trying the same thing on another heavily trafficked artery would lead to different results?! If you think University is a mess now, just wait until Mello works his magic on University Avenue.

The fact is that Palo Alto has allowed too much office development and too many new residential units. All of these projects add more cars to an already overburdened infrastructure. We're never going back to the level of traffic we had 20 years ago before all this development and as experience has shown, nothing the planners have done has done anything at all to reduce car travel.

It is magical thinking to hope that by putting roadblocks on major through streets, drivers will get frustrated enough to find alternative ways of getting around. They haven't and they won't.

The proper way to approach this is to facilitate - to the degree possible - all of the new vehicle travel that our unrestrained development policies have produced......and most importantly, to stop producing more traffic generating development.


10 people like this
Posted by Jake
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jun 4, 2018 at 12:57 pm

"The city could add curb extensions and bollards at the corners of Crescent, East Crescent, West Crescent and Center drives to keep traffic from entering the bike lane while still allowing for bicyclists to pass through, Mello said."
This quote is a perfect example of why Mello is 100 percent incompetent.
I worked in this area for many years and honestly, being able to form a second lane out of E. Crescent was a godsend.

They should re-stripe it to allow cars through. Add lanes wherever possible. Bicyclists and cars can share the lanes! Imagine that. Instead of having this sacred, unused space that is badly needed by cars.

Such a glaring, obvious solution [portion removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Follow the Money
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 4, 2018 at 1:28 pm

Who makes those bollards? company name or person?
and who installs them?


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 4, 2018 at 4:24 pm

Nice concept, but unworkable unless:

1) Dedicated left turn lanes exist at every intersection, or left turns are totally prohibited;

2) Dedicated right turn lanes exist at every intersection, or right turns are totally prohibited.


3 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 5, 2018 at 9:09 pm

Menlo Jim's history of Willow Road parallels the whole problem with Palo Alto. Thanks, it was an interesting read.

>> In 1961, the state Highway Department recommended a $33 million freeway requiring the demolition of 585 houses in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Palo Alto officials approved the highway, but 1,758 Menlo Park residents signed a petition to stop it. In 1963, the Menlo Park City Council refused to sign the freeway agreement with the state.

The scale and number of Palo Alto neighborhood are so small that any major transportation improvement would disrupt and remove so many people from their houses the whole nature of the city would disappear. Alma and Middlefield both would be great arteries but cannot really expand to the scale needed without completely gutting the whole city.


5 people like this
Posted by Bicycle Mafia
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 6, 2018 at 8:06 pm

"As a down town resident I feel we should block off the whole downtown area. Only allowing Bicyclists, and bicyclists that own Tesla's. Only allowing Uber/ Lyft drivers that own Tesla's. It is so simple , I really do not know why this has not been implemented earlier."

What is scary, is that there are many folks in downtown PA that think like this.


3 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 6, 2018 at 8:12 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

They're the same folks who claim Uber/Lyft reduce car trips when in fact they increased them by 200,000 in a single day. They're the same folks lauding bus transit when recent articles note that bus ridership has dropped dramatically all across the Bay Area because buses get caught in the same gridlock as cars and too many people were missing their bus connections.

But why let reality get in the way of your fairy tales.


Like this comment
Posted by Cathy Fisher
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 7, 2018 at 1:30 pm

Why install left turn lanes at Guinda and Chaucer if the whole point is to keep traffic off of neighborhood streets? As a resident of University near Guinda these proposals affect me directly - but as a resident of University near Guinda I really don't understand them. Heading up from 101 into Palo Alto the issue is not people turning left on Guinda, it is people turning right on Guinda to cut out downtown. Heading out of Palo Alto, again it is cars turning into University from Guinda on their way back. Hardly anyone driving into Palo Alto turns left from University into Guinda - or, heading out of Palo Alto, turns left into Guinda. For the one or two people, like me, who do like this turn, maybe a staggered light would be a much cheaper option - give an extra 4-5 seconds for the one or two cars (max) who want to do this, and you are good.


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