The most dangerous intersection in south Palo Alto is about to see some changes, including new turning lanes and a realigned crosswalk that will make it easier for drivers to see pedestrians.
The City Council unanimously approved on Monday night a plan to reconfigure the lanes on the often-congested intersection of San Antonio and East Charleston roads. According to the city's 2017 Traffic Operations and Safety Report, that intersection saw more collisions over the preceding five years than any other intersections but one: The intersection of Everett Avenue and Middlefield Road in Crescent Park, which has since seen its own modifications.
Palo Alto's transportation planners pointed to data from the California Highway Patrol, which showed that the intersection had about 25 reported collisions between January 2012 and December 2016. Transportation staff had determined that most collisions were likely caused by unsafe speed or improper turning and that the most common type of crash was either rear-ends or sideswipes, according to a report from Office of Transportation.
• View an interactive map of the high-incident intersections in Palo Alto from January 2012 through December 2016 here.
Those who bike through the intersection find it particularly challenging, given the high volume of cars and the lack of biking amenities. Ken Joye, vice chair of the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, urged the council on Monday to approve the proposed reconfiguration and to also add biking amenities. Joye noted that while the proposed changes are expected to relieve traffic congestion, they do little for bicyclists.
The city is, however, planning to add a bike lane to the area around the intersection as part of a different project, the multiyear effort to improve the Charleston-Arastradero corridor. Rafael Rius, the city's traffic engineering lead, said that project will include the creation of a bike lane on Charleston, through the San Antonio intersection.
"I can assure you, having gone through this intersection on my bicycle with extreme trepidation, it's challenging," Joye said. "So I look forward to the bicycle provisions for this intersection that will be in Phase 3 of the Charleston-Arastradero corridor plan."
The modifications that the council approved include adding a second left turn lane for southbound traffic on San Antonio and modifying the right-turn lanes at the intersection. Currently, San Antonio has one right-turn lane and another lane for both right turns and through traffic. The new configuration would create two right-turn lanes and a total of six lanes on this stretch of San Antonio (two for left turns, two for right turns and two for traveling straight).
The plan also calls for modifying the southwest corner of the intersection to shorten pedestrian crossings and improve sight lines, according to the report from transportation planners.
"The priority issues and goals are to get out of this project are to improve pedestrian safety, improve vehicle safety, and then, thirdly, to improve traffic operations and congestion issues that occur at this intersection," Rius said.
The council enthusiastically supported the plan, which was developed over nearly two years of community meetings and which has already been approved by the Planning and Transportation Commission. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois lauded the process, though he also said that improving traffic flow at the intersection is his top goal.
"It's unusual in the city that it's two major arterials intersect and for me, traffic congestion is a priority," DuBois said. "It's a place where we have to be really careful about gridlock."
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who routinely rides his bicycle to meetings, focused his comments on bike improvements and wondered why the addition of bike lanes isn't part of this project. Tanaka said he used to ride his bicycle through this intersection every weekday to get to work and he agreed with those who described the bike ride as "terrifying."
Rius assured him that the bike improvements are coming and that the Charleston-Arastradero project, which is now advancing, is expected to be completed before the road improvements on San Antonio and Charleston. His report also noted that the designs under consideration "are not anticipated to prevent a southbound buffered bike lane in the future."