Months after the City Council enthusiastically endorsed the creation of bikeways on a well-traveled stretch of south Palo Alto, the $1.7 million effort has run into a tricky obstacle: opposition from residents who don't want to lose 80 on-street parking spots for the new bike lanes.
The project includes a protected bikeway along East Meadow Drive, between Alma Street and Fabian Way, as well as bikeways on both sides of Fabian Way. It also includes widening the existing multi-use path along Waverley Street between East Meadow and Charleston Road, along the western edge of Mitchell Park.
Most elements of the project — including the changes to the Waverley path and Fabian Way — remain broadly popular to this day. But there is a notable exception.
Dozens of residents who live on the eastern portion of the East Meadow Drive segment have come out against the city's plan for their blocks, one that would require the removal of about 80 parking spaces to make way for protected bike lanes.
On Friday, more than 30 residents held an impromptu meeting at Ramos Park with the city's planning staff to express their concerns. Dozens also submitted letters and testified in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night to oppose the creation of the protected bikeways in their area.
Many of the project's critics suggested that the solution proposed by staff and consultants is worse than the problem, which some claimed doesn't really exist. Chuck Wilson, who lives on East Meadow, said all three of his children biked to school along the stretch for years and called the bike lanes on his street "some of the widest in the city." He also said that the removal of parking spots on the south side of East Meadow, near the entrance Ramos Park, would require the park's many young users to cross the busy street to get to the park.
"Their parents park on the south side so their kids don't have to run across the road," Wilson said. "Removing the parking for the south side means that all these kids that go to Don Ramos Park will be running across the road."
George Greenwald, who lives on Ortega Court, near East Meadow Drive, similarly opposed the project, noting that the creation of wider bike lanes could force residents and their visitors to park farther from their homes.
"The inconvenience to the neighborhood, in our collective opinion, far outweighs the disruption to our neighborhood by making changes based on the unproven assertion that there is a safety issue," Greenwald wrote.
For the city, the sudden surge of opposition creates a difficult dilemma. The project in 2016 received a grant of more than $900,000 from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. It also received a vote of confidence in January, when the council unanimously supported proceeding with the bike improvements and directed staff to perform further community engagement.
But at the same time, planning staff, council members and many community members acknowledge that south Palo Alto residents have painful memories of the city's recent misadventure with Ross Road, where a long-planned streetscape project became a neighborhood flashpoint after the installation of an unpopular traffic circle on Ross and East Meadow, along with other street furniture along Ross. The city subsequently acknowledged its mistakes, modified the project and vowed to do a better job in reaching out to residents for future bike projects.
Commissioner Cari Templeton said that it's hardly a coincidence that the locus of opposition to the latest south Palo Alto bike project is coming from the area closest to Ross Road.
"This neighborhood was very recently affected by a major transportation project," Templeton said. "And there's probably some lingering emotional feelings about this and a commitment perhaps among the neighbors to make sure they're never caught by surprise again."
In this case, however, accommodating the critics along one portion of East Meadow could upend the entire south Palo Alto effort. Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said the VTA grant requires bike lanes along the entire route, consistent with the proposal in the city's application. If Palo Alto opts to take a different direction, the transportation agency would likely withdraw its funding, he said.
"They're going to take this money and give it to another community that wants to do something similar to this and has potentially the support to do so," Kamhi said. "Without being able to provide a buffered and protected bike lane throughout, I don't think we'll have a grant-funded project."
The loss of VTA funding would represent a significant setback for the city's decadelong plan to enhance bike amenities in an area that serves Fairmeadow and Hoover elementary and JLS Middle schools and that is heavily used by Gunn High students and by visitors to Mitchell Park and the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life. Bicycling in the area has only grown in popularity, with the rate of JLS students who bike to school increasing from 48% to 70% between 2009 and 2019. The percentage of Gunn students who bike to school went up from 33% to 50% over the same period, according to transportation staff.
The road segment is identified as a priority in the city's 2012 bike master plan. And on Wednesday, transportation planner Joanna Chan pointed to a fall 2020 survey in which parents of elementary school students cited the lack of protected bikeway as the main reason for why they don't allow their children to bike to school. Shifting more people to bike would also align with the city's goals of reducing the greenhouse-gas impacts of transportation, which accounts for an estimated 65% of the city's emissions, Chan said.
"Projects such as this one support mode shift from vehicle trips to active transportation modes," Chan said. "It's a relatively low-cost and efficient strategy to reduce greenhouse-gas emission and reduce the barriers to bicycling identified by local parents."
Given the expected benefits, the planning commission agreed to push ahead with the proposed improvements, notwithstanding the criticism from residents on and near East Meadow. Commissioners noted that the stretch of East Meadow east of Middlefield Road represents just one of six segments along the proposed route. It is, however, the portion of the project area with the largest number of residential properties.
"I feel that we do have some expectation that more children will be able to bike independently when the biking facilities are more protected and safer," Templeton said. "I think it's really exciting that we have this opportunity to use funds from an external source to improve our city streets for bikers."
While the commission swiftly approved the addition of bike lanes to Fabian Way, the widening of Waverley Street and the addition of protected lanes between Alma Street and Middlefield, they proposed a more cautious approach for the eastern portion of the East Meadow segment. Ultimately, the commission voted 6-0, with Vice Chair Giselle Roohparvar recused, to back a motion from Commissioner Ed Lauing that endorsed the protected bike lanes and urged city planners to explore modifications so that fewer parking spots would have to be removed east of Middlefield Road.
The approved motion also directed staff to continue negotiating with the VTA in hopes that the agency will allow the city to use grant funding for the less contentious segments while the city considers other options for East Meadow east of Middlefield.
Commissioner Bryna Chang questioned whether protected bikeways favored by the VTA are really a "universal solution" for all segments of the bike route and underscored the need to continue to engage with the residents as the project moves ahead.
"I feel strongly that a lot more community engagement needs to be done to understand the nitty gritty of how things will need to be … implemented," Chang said.