After installing a host of "traffic calming" measures aimed at promoting bicycling on Ross Road, Palo Alto officials are now facing an equally tough task: calming the residents who are frustrated and enraged by the rapid transformation of their streets.
And if the Tuesday City Council meeting is any indication, they have plenty of work to do on that front.
More than 100 residents packed into the Mitchell Park Community Center on Tuesday evening to hear a presentation on the recent changes, which some have called a welcome boost for the city's bike-boulevard network and which others characterized as an accident waiting to happen. About 50 sounded off on the new changes, with opinions ranging from applause to anger.
For the City Council, the new bike projects are a point of pride and the culmination of years of planning and significant investment. In 2012, the council unanimously approved the Bike and Pedestrian Transportation Plan, which aims to transform Palo Alto into one of the nation's most bike-friendly cities. It also approved $20 million toward implementing the plan, which includes projects on Bryant Street, along Greer Road, Homer Avenue, Moreno Avenue and other segments.
No project, however, has generated the kind of outpouring of concern like the changes recently made on Ross Road as part of a $9.6-million project known as the Neighborhood Traffic Safety and Bicycle Boulevard. The 7.1-mile project includes medians, curb extensions, slotted speed humps, three raised crosswalks, five raised intersections and 11 roundabouts, including a prominent one on Ross and East Meadow Drive.
As the Tuesday meeting demonstrated, the project defies neutrality. More than 1,000 people had signed a petition started by resident George Jacquette, calling the improvements "unsafe and unhelpful."
"In pursuit of traffic calming, the changes have created dangerous interactions between cars and bikes," the petition states.
Many residents who attended the Tuesday meeting channeled that sentiment and blasted the project for forcing drivers and cyclists to share space in the roundabout area, often to the detriment of the latter's safety. One resident, Rita Gold, called the changes on Ross Road "traffic stressing" measures and described the project as the worst decision the council had made in the past 35 years. Another resident, Laurie Mandel, questioned the city's definition of "success" in designing these projects, which she said don't appear to make conditions safer.
Terry Martin, an engineer, was blunter. He said he considers the project "an incredible waste of money" and "an epitome of incompetence."
"It's made my neighborhood less livable and has negatively impacted the safety of friends and family and so forth," Martin said.
For many others, the Ross Road project is a welcome boost to the city's transportation network. Bruce and Christine Moision, who live in the area and who frequently bike, both said they welcome the recent changes. Bruce Moision called the Ross Road project "an improvement to safety." Bill Higgins, who lives on Louis Road, agreed and applauded city leaders for their work on the project.
"My biggest regret about the Ross Road project is that it's not the Louis Road bicycle boulevard," Higgins said. "I'd like those traffic-calming elements on my street."
Yesh Galon, who lives on Ross Road, encouraged others in the audience – including the council – to keep an open mind.
"One of my biggest concerns was that there would be a knee-jerk reaction to rip this out," Yesh Galon said. "Let's wait and see."
For the council, the Tuesday meeting was largely an opportunity to listen to their constituents. Early in the meeting, city leaders gave an overview of the city's bike program and acknowledged that they could've done a better job in conducting outreach and getting people used to the new changes.
"We certainly can improve the process of how we acclimate the community to a new set of conditions," Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus told the standing-room-only crowd. "But as we implement these changes, the main thing we want to share is that we're listening and adapting as we go."
Some changes have already been made. In March, the council hit the brakes on those phases on the bike project that are not already under construction (contractors proceeded with several pending projects, including a roundabout on Ross and Moreno roads; raised intersections on Louis Road at Moreno and Amarillo avenues; and a new crosswalk at Colorado Avenue and Sandra Place). And in April and May, the city's contractor made a series of temporary markings and mock-ups to give residents a sense of planned changes, including a planned roundabout on Greer Road and Amarillo.
Yet a new report from the office of City Manager James Keene makes the case that the best way to win support for projects like the one on Ross Road is to give them more time. It typically takes about six months to a year, the report states, for residents to adapt to significant street changes.
"Recently, as construction has wrapped up along Ross Road, staff has heard more community members expressing support for the Project and bike boulevards," the report states.
Now, officials hope that they can apply the lessons learned on Ross Road to future components of the ambitious project. Early next year, the city plans to extend the Bryant Street bike boulevard to San Antonio Road and pursue various improvements on Stanford Avenue, between El Camino Real and Park Boulevard; on Park Boulevard, between Castilleja Avenue and West Meadow Drive; and on Donald Drive and Maybell Avenue, between Georgia Avenue and El Camino.
"I think it's really important that we are attempting to knit and connect together some sort of network that allows for travel across our city," Keene told the assembled crowd Tuesday. "Of course, it's not something that can be done in one point in time, or even within a one-decade period."
After hearing all the comments, council members readily acknowledged that the project had some shortcomings. Councilwoman Karen Holman criticized the quality of the work on some parts of the corridor, while Councilman Greg Scharff urged staff to make sure that improving bike safety does not entail making conditions more stressful for drivers.
And just about everyone agreed that the city needs to do a better job communicating. Mayor Liz Kniss said the city has a "PR problem" with the project, while Councilman Tom DuBois conceded that this was an area where the city "clearly got this wrong in communication, design and execution."
"We heard you tonight," DuBois said. "We can do better. We will."
As a result of feedback from Tuesday's meeting, city officials announced on Friday plans to speed up work on Louis Road, which will be closed between Marshall and Bruce drives for crews to complete the roadwork between June 21-29, before they slow down construction work.
Crews will mill, pave and install art during the nine-day closure, according to the city.
On Friday, city staff went door-to-door to inform residents of the planned closure and potential traffic diversion on neighboring Ross Road and Greer Road, which are both south of Oregon Expressway.
City staff will be available to answer questions or discuss the project this Monday, June 18, from 6-8 p.m. at the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, 2751 Louis Road.