A south Palo Alto intersection where 25 crashes occurred between 2012 and 2016 could receive a makeover within 12 to 18 months, according to city of Palo Alto transportation staff. City transportation staff unveiled proposed changes for the juncture of San Antonio and East Charleston roads at a community meeting on Sept. 5.
Residents have been raising concerns to the city about safety along the busy thoroughfares, particularly the corner where the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life is located. Pedestrians and bikes on East Charleston Road crossing San Antonio toward the campus are endangered by cars turning right onto East Charleston in two lanes from San Antonio. Cars in the second right-turn lane don't always yield to bicyclists, staff noted.
A consultant's traffic data from 2017 found this is particularly problematic during the afternoon commute. Between 4-5:45 p.m., 58.8 percent of bicycle traffic at the intersection rides west on Charleston Road across San Antonio.
In addition, the intersection as a whole saw 25 collisions between 2012 and 2016, according to the city. Of those, 36 percent were rear-end collisions, with the highest number on Charleston in the westbound lanes; 28 percent were sideswipes, with the most on San Antonio's southbound lanes and Charleston's eastbound lanes and were related to bikes and turns.
Another 24 percent were broadsides, with most by people violating right-of-way rules. About 8 percent were head-on crashes. Another 4 percent involved cars hitting an object, according to the data.
In addition to crashes, problems with traffic flow are being caused by signal lights that cause motorists to wait through more than one signal cycle.
City staff initially received community feedback in April, and on Sept. 5 they presented two revised concepts.
One proposal, called Idea C, removes one right-turn lane on southbound San Antonio at East Charleston and changes the traffic signal. A southbound bike lane on San Antonio would be added between the right-turn lane and the through lanes. The bike lane would cross East Charleston and direct bicyclists into an existing parking lot abutting the San Antonio. The parking lot would lose three spaces.
The pedestrian crosswalk across East Charleston, between the Taube Koret corner and a gas station, would be replaced. It's currently diagonal; the new crosswalk would be at a 90-degree angle, providing a shorter distance for pedestrians to walk as well as increased visibility to cars.
The plan would also add a second left-turn lane to southbound San Antonio for cars heading east on East Charleston.
Ruchika Aggarwal, the city's assistant engineer for the project, said the bike lane is unlikely to end up in the project because one of the main goals is to ease traffic congestion. The staff is committed to doing further evaluation, but they didn't do a traffic signal analysis regarding how adding right-turning light would work if a bike lane is added.
But "if the community really wants to push for the concept, we will be happy to take it to the City Council to decide," if it doesn't impede traffic movement significantly, she said.
The second concept, called Idea D, would also add the second left-turn lane to southbound San Antonio Road as well as the straightened crosswalk across East Charleston. It would evaluate the right-turn signal operations along southbound San Antonio, but it would not add a bike lane on San Antonio.
Residents who attended the meeting voiced several concerns while praising transportation staff efforts.
Robert Neff, a member of the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, stated in an email: "I am really glad to see the pedestrian improvement proposed by city staff. The existing dual right-turn lanes are very dangerous for crossing pedestrians leaving the JCC/Moldaw Residences and crossing Charleston. We have had three pedestrian fatalities from crossing the street in the past few years (at other locations), and I'm glad to see this proactive safety project from the city."
But he urged the city to improve the bike route along San Antonio.
"San Antonio is a marked bike route from Middlefield to 101, and it is one of the most difficult, challenging, and stressful bike routes in the entire Santa Clara Valley. I think we should either fix the corridor by removing the parking, adding bike lanes and configure the intersections for safety, or take down all bike-route markings and sharrows. This bike route is an embarrassment to our city."
City Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who attended the meeting, said in an email that she is grateful staff acknowledged the intersection is dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists.
"Persons who live nearby, mostly those at the (Jewish Community Center), iterated that the traffic on San Antonio backs up into the freeway. The different plans presented did not tie in Charleston Road modifications nor Fabian Way leading to the future bike bridge. Also, I gathered that the staff preferred the plan that would have two right-hand turns from San Antonio onto Charleston with pedestrian crossings redrawn so it is more visible to oncoming vehicles," she said.
She noted that former city Planning and Transportation Commissioner Arthur Keller brought up that the JCC has a transportation-demand-management plan, but city staff did not appear to know about it and could not respond regarding its effectiveness nor if it has even been implemented.
Aggarwal said staff is aware of the JCC's traffic management plan, but they were not aware if it was monitored or not at the Sept. 5 meeting. But she said on Thursday that staff is working on getting that information, which will be included in the concept analysis.
Small businesses on Fabian Way also wanted staff to know that removing parking spaces is not acceptable to them.
"These modifications to mitigate traffic congestion are 'Band-aid' short-term solutions if city government continues to not acknowledge the developments they approve in locations that are problematic for incoming and outgoing traffic. It is poor backward planning," Kou said.
Aggarwal said staff will be making adjustments to the concept plans based on the meeting participants' feedback. The transportation department plans to have new data collection and analysis by this fall and will develop a recommendation for approval by the City Council. Pending the council's direction, the design could be implemented within 12 to 18 months, she said.
Information and updates about the project can be found at cityofpaloalto.org.
Correction: An earlier verison of this story said that one goal of the project was to reduce traffic capacity. The goal is to ease traffic congestion.