Don't call it a bike project.
Yes, Palo Alto is full of bike projects, from the unfolding reconstruction of Ross Road to the extension of the famous Bryant Street Bike Boulevard. And yes, bicyclists will see plenty of improvement when the city completes the latest upgrades on the Charleston-Arastradero corridor, a 2.3-mile south Palo Alto artery (the conjoined Charleston and Arastradero roads) that passes by 11 schools, eight residential enclaves and a smattering of shopping centers, parks and senior facilities.
But as city officials will quickly tell you, the latest stage of the project — which an exhausted but enthusiastic City Council approved just before the stroke of midnight Tuesday — will have much to offer motorists, pedestrians and everyone else who uses the busy commuter route. Drivers will get a new traffic light to help them make the difficult left turn from Louis Road onto Charleston; additional lanes to give cars more room at the often-congested Alma Street intersection; new dedicated right-turn lanes at Middlefield Road; and SynchroGreen traffic signals throughout the corridor that will track "cohorts" of cars and adjust green lights to facilitate a smoother traffic flow (a similar system has been installed at Sand Hill Road and, more recently, at San Antonio Road).
Pedestrians will find new "refuge islands" as well as widened sidewalks and crosswalks at current danger spots. And everyone will see new trees, shrubs and "bioretention" areas — landscaped islands that both slow down traffic and treat stormwater.
Which is exactly why city officials balk at any suggestion that the latest phase of the Charleston-Arastradero transformation will further slow down traffic for the sake of bicyclists — a criticism that has haunted the streetscape project ever since 2008, when the city's reduction in the number of lanes along a portion of Charleston-Arastradero sparked outrage in Barron Park and beyond.
"This is a multi-modal, complete-streets safety project," Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello told the Weekly during a recent interview. "It's a wholesale improvement of the entire corridor."
It is also the only project that the City Council deemed important enough to include on its 2014 list of infrastructure priorities — a nod to the project's critical importance, its high cost and its long, rocky history. And coming in the wake of waves created by the ongoing Ross Road project, which triggered an angry petition calling for it to be reversed, the Charleston-Arastradero streetscape plan is also a chance for the city to restore its credibility with a public that has grown increasingly skeptical about "traffic-calming" proposals.
Minutes before the council voted to approve more than $9 million in construction contracts, Councilman Greg Scharff told the small crowd that stuck it out to the end of the seven-hour-long meeting that the lesson of Charleston-Arastradero is simple: Perseverance pays off. Mayor Liz Kniss predicted that it will make a "dramatic difference" for all users of the busy street. And Councilman Cory Wolbach, who used the road to get to school in the 1990s, said the proposed improvements will "save lives."
"When I was going to Gunn — by bus, by car and by bike, occasionally even walking — back in the 1990s, it was a nightmare going up and down Charleston-Arastradero," Wolbach said.
The city's controversial 2008 switch from four- to two-lanes on Arastradero made things safer — and more sane, he said. The next phase of reconfigurations will further these goals, he said.
"My regret is we weren't able to do this sooner," Wolbach said.
Yet for all of its purported benefits, Charleston-Arastradero is also the only project that requires a trigger warning for certain crowds. In 2013, more than four years after the city implemented its lane-reducing "road diet," a large number of Barron Park residents complained about the change and argued that it has slowed traffic to a crawl, making it all but impossible for them to exit homes during school-commute periods. Many pointed to increasingly congested traffic on Charleston-Arastradero as the basis for their opposition to a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue, which was overturned in a referendum in November 2013.
The current project — which is being undertaken in three phases — is notable for not including any reductions in the number of lanes on the road. Its aim is to "moderate" car traffic, not slow it down. Mello said.
"And when I say 'moderation' I don't mean creating congestion," Mello said, correctly anticipating the next question. "I mean designing a roadway so that people can travel in continuous speed along the corridor. We're actually going to be improving operations."
The new streetscape project includes a list of improvements geared to improve traffic flow, Mello said. Near the rail crossing, a westbound lane on Charleston at Alma Street will be lengthened to create more room for cars and help them get through the rail crossing faster. And the "adaptive" signals, he said, will track cohorts of cars and respond in real-time to traffic conditions to facilitate a smoother and more comfortable drive.
Holly Boyd, a senior engineer at Public Works who is managing the streetscape project, said staff had reached out to residents around the corridor and solicited their ideas before formulating the final design. As a result, the city made a few dozen tweaks to the design, including a change to striping and readjustment of median islands so that residents would not lose their ability to turn into their driveways.
"We tried to listen to people and accommodate them," Boyd said.
Given the city's rocky Ross Road experience, public outreach has been a priority for this project, Boyd and Mello both said. Mounted poster-boards along the corridor describe the changes to come, as do the temporary markings at places where new bulbouts will be installed. Residents who live along the corridor will receive up to three separate notices before work commences, the earliest of which would start next month. In many cases, they will also get a knock on their door from staff, just to make sure they are aware of the work to come.
"I think it's safe to say the majority of people in Palo Alto know about this project," Mello said.
Even so, many residents remain skeptical or downright opposed to the latest slate of changes. Becky Sanders, a Ventura neighborhood resident and co-chair of the umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, urged the council in a letter last month not to move ahead with a grant application to fund the project. She said there's a "growing rumble in south Palo Alto regarding the contemplated transformation of the Arastradero corridor."
"Residents deserve more time to weigh in on the design, based on the fact that the original plans are quite old and the city has changed so much in the intervening years," Sanders wrote. "Circumstances have changed. Plus, we don't want another Ross Road situation."
Avivit Katzir, whose five children have been biking to Palo Alto's schools since third grade (two of them still bike to JLS) said she believes the latest changes are counter-intuitive and "odd."
"I always felt that biking to school was safe and that the community is aware of young bikers and the bike lane. ... Seeing the changes at Ross Road, (the) Louis Road and Amarillo intersection, and the proposed plan of Charleston-Arastradero Corridor looks wrong to me," Katzir told the Weekly in an email. "I felt that my kids biking ... are becoming less safe due to the implemented and suggested 'improvements.'"
She specifically criticized the proposal to expand sidewalks, which she noted would narrow the road and "force motorized vehicles and bikers to merge into a narrow lane."
Art Liberman, the former president of the neighborhood group Barron Park Association, said he continues to see polarization in his neighborhood about the corridor's recent changes. Some see them as a boon to bicyclists; others view them as a disaster for drivers during busy commute times. A traffic analysis released earlier this year indicated a delay of 51 seconds at the intersection of Arastradero and El Camino Real during the peak afternoon commute, the third longest wait citywide.
"There are people who are still infuriated that they can't get out of Barron Park and use Arastradero to go to Foothill," Liberman said. "There are people close to Arastradero, on Georgia and Donald and Coulombe, who have a difficult time getting out. But there are also people who have kids and who recognize that the street was very dangerous, and so they say, 'Let's go on with this.'"
For Liberman, the biggest problem with the project is its cost. The city continues to grapple with an estimated shortfall of $76 million in its infrastructure plan, a list that also includes a new public-safety building, two new garages, two rebuilt fire stations and a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101. Given the scarcity of resources, the city should have re-evaluated the Charleston-Arastradero project and reconsidered whether the latest set of improvements is really necessary.
"It makes no sense to approve one project in isolation without viewing it as just one of a collection of projects approved years ago but for which there isn't sufficient funds for all of them now," Liberman wrote to the council last month.
Liberman also noted that the main objective of the project — slowing down traffic and making biking safer — has already been achieved with the lane reduction.
"I just don't understand why staff is pushing ahead right now on this one project, when there's been no discussion of (infrastructure) priorities," Liberman told the Weekly.
Some on the council share his view. Councilwoman Karen Holman chided staff on Monday night for not presenting the project in the context of the broader infrastructure picture, though she ultimately voted along with her colleagues in approving more than $9 million for the first two phases of the three-phase project. (Phase 1 extends from Miranda Avenue to Clemo Avenue, while Phase 2 covers Charleston between Alma and Middlefield.)
Kou raised similar concerns and voted against the two contracts with O'Grady Paving, Inc.
But for project proponents, the waiting game has gone on long enough for improvements that are not cosmetic but critical.
Among the project's biggest benefits, Mello said, is the creation of a continuous east-west bikeway along the corridor. One of the most significant gaps in the bikeway, he said, is along El Camino Real, technically a state highway that currently doesn't have bike lanes crossing it. As such, El Camino creates a key deterrent for potential bikers, Mello said.
"The theory is that someone's trip on a bike is defined by the most stressful moment on their trip," Mello said. "Ninety percent of your trip can be comfortable but if 10 percent is uncomfortable, you're less likely to make the trip at all."
Penny Ellson, a pioneer of the city's hugely successful Safe Routes to School Program and a long-time proponent of the Charleston-Arastradero project, believes the time is more than ripe for moving forward. A resident of the Greenmeadow neighborhood southeast of the corridor, Ellson has been watching the transformation of Charleston-Arastradero since about 2000, when a slew of new developments began cropping up along the corridor, including the Arbor Real housing development that replaced the Hyatt Rickey's hotel; the new Elks Club; and the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life.
Alarmed by the potential traffic increase from these projects, Ellson and a group of concerned residents reached out to the city to raise their concerns. The effort resulted in a temporary construction moratorium and the adoption of a new "traffic impact fee" that developers must pay the city to fund street improvements, she said.
Since then, the street has undergone two reconfigurations that were initially tested on a trial basis and later permanently adopted. The first one, finalized in 2008, boosted the road's traffic capacity and created a right-turn lane into Gunn. The second one, which was made permanent in 2012, reduced the number of lanes on Arastradero, added bike amenities and made many people angry.
Ellson said she understands the critics' concerns. Drivers, like bikers and pedestrians, often go into "autopilot mode" when they use a street on a consistent basis.
"There's a lot of motor memory that works when you're driving or bicycling," Ellson said. "Overriding the motor memory is not just a matter of changing behavior, it's a matter of rewiring your brain. It takes people time, and it's uncomfortable."
But for all the criticism, Ellson is heartened by the results so far. During a recent interview, Ellson watched a video that was taken at the intersection of Arastradero and Donald Drive during a busy school commute. A large group of students crowded inside a green "bike box," waiting for the light to turn green. To their right is a stationary car, awaiting its turn. The light switches and the bicyclists take off in an exuberant but orderly wave, while the driver awaits her turn on the four-way stop.
"What used to happen on the intersection was there was a blind curve down the street and the kids would be on the right side of the road and they'd cross on the wrong side of the road and they would ride the wrong way, approaching the intersection from Arastradero into traffic that was turning the corner."
The bike box had initially created a "brouhaha" because of the green marking, which could be unsettling for the driver next to the youthful mob, she said. But behaviors have changed; people have gotten used to it; and, from her point of view, things are now far safer.
Ellson said she expects some people to be unhappy with this project, just as with Ross Road and almost any other traffic project. But she pointed to a variety of features that will make a big difference for students, including a new ramp for Terman students that will allow them to enter the school without needing to weave through vehicles. A new multi-use pathway near Gunn High School will make it safer for kids using all forms of transportation, from bikes to scooters.
The improvements at Gunn and Terman will be among the first features implemented in the next stage of the project. With the contracts approved this week, contractors plan to start construction on Phase 1 and Phase 2 in the coming month and to complete them within a year. After that, work will kick off on Phase 3, which includes the segments between Clemo Avenue and Alma, and between Middlefield and San Antonio Road (the segmentation of the project was driven by grant deadlines that required the city to prioritize sections of the corridor closest to schools).
If things go as planned, the final phase of the project will conclude in 2020. For project proponents, the hope is that residents will adapt to — and embrace — these changes.
"We may be in a situation five years from now where Ross Road is ancient history and people are saying, 'This is a great thing,'" City Manager James Keene said. "We've had people trying to stop the California Avenue improvements. It was decried as if it was going to create the worst situation ever. Now, it's a jewel."