The intersection of San Antonio Road and East Charleston Road is perhaps the busiest junction in south Palo Alto, and certainly among the most dangerous.
That point was driven home on Tuesday morning, when a three-car collision there caused a shuttle van to roll over, leaving six girls and three adults with minor injuries. But even before the incident, the intersection was on the city's radar for near-term improvements. The 2018 Traffic Safety and Operations Report includes as one of the city's priorities safety improvements for pedestrians at this intersection, particularly for people crossing East Charleston while southbound cars on San Antonio Road are trying to turn right from that street's two right-turn lanes.
The study relied on data assembled by the California Highway Patrol indicating that there were about 25 reported collisions at the intersection between January 2012 and December 2016. Most collisions were caused by speeding or improper turning, according to transportation staff.
On Wednesday night, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission threw its support behind a new proposal to make the intersection safer and less congested. Developed over the past year, the plan calls for improving visibility of pedestrians by eliminating three parking spaces along a frontage road on San Antonio (just south of the intersection) and re-aligning the crosswalk, which is currently skewed in a way that increases the distance that pedestrians have to travel to cross the street.
The idea also includes some lane reconfigurations. The second right-turn lane on southbound San Antonio (heading away from U.S. Highway 101), which today also allows through traffic, would become a right-turn-only lane. The two through-lanes would remain as they are, with the right through-lane providing access to the frontage road just south of the intersection. And the city would add a second left-turn lane, a change intended to increase roadway capacity and address concerns about congestion.
The commission voted 6-1, with Commissioner Carolyn Templeton dissenting, to adopt the concept that staff recommended after a series of community meetings. Commissioners agreed that the intersection is a mess, particularly for those who aren't driving.
"When I see bikes and pedestrians at this intersection, it's daunting," Commissioner Doria Summa said. "Not the easiest place for those modes of travel."
Unlike an earlier concept, the one that the commission supported Wednesday does not add bike lanes, though it leaves the door open to implementing them in the future. Most commissioners didn't see that as a problem. Commissioner Giselle Roohparvar called the intersection a "mess" and noted that cars enter the intersection immediately after they get off Highway 101. Many continue to speed through as they approach the junction.
Chairman William Riggs, who supported the plan, nevertheless criticized it for failing to recommend improvements for all forms of transportation along the corridor.
Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi agreed and suggested that the already busy area will likely see more development in the coming years.
"This area is going to be most likely rapidly changing, and it's something we'll need to keep a really close handle on," Kamhi said.
Kamhi also said that any potential bike improvements at this intersection would be evaluated as part of the broader bike network. There is a "considerable amount of work" for a bicycle network to happen close to the project, he said, including a new bike bridge over Highway 101. (The City Council is preparing to approve a construction contract for the long-awaited project on Nov. 18.)
While Templeton voted against the concept, she lauded staff for its outreach to community members and for improving the design over the course of the past year. Despite the effort, however, she questioned whether the chosen design really solved the problem.
"This does look awkward, and I'm concerned that the changes may be confusing to current users," Templeton said.
Editor's note: The Police Department clarified that six girls and three adults were injured in Tuesday's three-car collision.