After an extended trial run, Palo Alto is preparing to make permanent the recent road modifications on a busy stretch of Middlefield Road with a long history of collision and congestion.
The City Council is scheduled to approve on Monday a recommendation from planning staff to permanently adopt the road modifications between Forest Avenue and the Menlo Park border, an area where residents have long complained about unsafe driving conditions. After considering five different "road diet" designs, the City Council approved the changes nearly two years ago and they were implemented in June 2017 as part of a one-way pilot.
The project includes a reduction from two lanes to one between Woodland Avenue and Palo Alto Avenue and the redesign of the four lanes between Palo Alto and Everett avenues to create two directional lanes along with a center turn lane, as well as dedicated left-turn lanes at Hawthorne and Everett avenues. The redesign also included the removal of one of two northbound lanes between Everett and Lytton avenues to create a left-turn-only lane, and a new right-turn-only restriction for cars approaching Middlefield along Hawthorne and Everett avenues.
Now, the results are in and both city staff and the majority of the residents believe the project has largely succeeded in meeting its primary objective of improving safety. The number of collisions on this stretch Middlefield — which has seen about 100 collisions between January 2014 and April 2017 — has dropped significantly. In the last three months of the pilot program (summer 2018), there were three reported collisions, which represented a 'five-year low compared to historic data for the corridor between 2012 and 2016," according to the city's consultant, Alta Planning and Design.
Consultants found that by the end of the pilot program, "near misses" along Middlefield have become virtually nonexistent, according to staff. A review of traffic-camera video showed that after an initial increase in "near-miss collisions," the number of observed near-misses at Middlefield Road/Hawthorne Avenue and Middlefield Road/Everett Avenue during peak morning, mid-day and evening periods dropped to zero, a report from the city's Office of Transportation stated.
The safety improvements came with some side effects for commuters. At Middlefield Road and Lytton Avenue, the level of service dropped from "D" to "E" (the second-lowest rating on a scale from A-F), though staff believes some of this may be the result of Palo Alto's concurrent effort to upgrade gas pipelines downtown, a project that required street closures. Staff also reported greater delays at the intersection of Middlefield and University Avenue, with cars experiencing an increase of about four seconds during midday and evening peak periods.
The data collected by Alta also showed that more cars are now using five routes parallel to Middlefield Road. The average number of cars that used these routes over a two-day period went from 687 before the pilot program to 952 vehicles at the end of the pilot program. This included an increase of 387 daily trips on Fulton Street and 441 daily trips on Guinda Street.
Despite this increase in traffic on parallel streets, the average traffic speeds have remained below the speed limit. As a result, 58 percent of the residents who were surveyed said they believe the project made the corridor safer, while 26 percent indicated they did not believe it did, according to the city's survey.
Overall, vehicle speeds decreased by about 11 percent on Middlefield Road in the study area. But while safety conditions improved overall, the city's consultants observed some cars driving around the new traffic diverters and making illegal U-turns.
The city's surveys also showed the project gradually growing in popularity. Over the one-year period of the project, support for it among residents grew from 33 percent to 66 percent, according to surveys.
John Guislin, a Middlefield Road resident who has long advocated for traffic improvements and who has a gallery of photos documenting traffic collisions on the busy stretch of the road, lauded the improvements but voiced some frustrations in early December about how long it is taking the city to permanently approve a project that he called "a success from all the measurements and analysis performed."
"While many other traffic projects suffer from long delays and/or negative reactions, Middlefield North should be a model for a successful partnership between the City and residents," Guislin wrote to city leaders.
He pointed to an analysis of the results that the city commissioned, which showed a decrease in the number of collisions and lower speeds.
"I can confirm that I and my neighbors feel safer driving on Middlefield as well as walking on our sidewalks and crossing at the new crosswalks," Guilsin wrote.