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Opinion: Palo Alto needs a road safety policy

Cars turn left onto the Stanford University campus at the intersection of El Camino Real and Galvez Street in Palo Alto on July 21, 2022. Photo by Aliana Mediratta.

The city of Palo Alto does better on road safety than many U.S. cities; however, anyone who has walked or bicycled in Palo Alto, or has tried to parallel park on our busiest streets for that matter, can understand there is plenty of room for safety improvement.

Roads like Embarcadero and Middlefield see many crashes involving all kinds of road users. These collisions are no accident. Multilane arterials and their intersections are built for speed at the cost of road safety with multiple auto lanes in each direction, enabling uncontrolled passing and very limited space for bicycles and pedestrian facilities. For speeds over 20 mph, the risk of a fatality increases exponentially when a crash between a car and a pedestrian or bicyclist occurs.

Arnout Boelens is a bike safety advocate who serves as the Palo Alto PTA Council Safe Routes to School chairperson and is a member of Walk Bike Palo Alto and the city of Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee. Courtesy Arnout Boelens.

Improving road safety starts with policy change. Today, 60% of middle and high school students in the Palo Alto Unified School District walk and bike to school, and Palo Alto is ranked in the top five cities nationwide with a population of bicycle commuters above 60,000.

Yet, Palo Alto has never implemented detailed policies and programs to reach their goal of zero severe injuries and fatalities on city streets to protect these vulnerable road users, as stated in the 2030 comprehensive plan.

To improve road safety, the city could adopt a Safe System policy for road safety and set an ambitious timeline for pursuing its existing goal of zero severe injuries and roadway fatalities on streets in Palo Alto. That's something that Hoboken, New Jersey, has been able to achieve for the last four years.

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Traditionally, a city like Palo Alto makes sure infrastructure is up to code and monitors the crashes happening on its streets. When enough crashes take place at a specific location, safety improvements may be implemented. Under a Safe System approach, a city does not wait for tragedy to happen; instead, it applies known safety principles proactively and systematically for any repaving or new infrastructure project.

In addition, a severe or fatal crash would lead to a forensic analysis on how to improve road safety at that location beyond mere code compliance. This leads to a process of continuous road safety improvements and to a shared responsibility of road safety between the road user and the city.

According to the Transportation Injury Mapping System (TIMS) at the University of California, Berkeley, there were 86 victims of severe crashes in Palo Alto and 13 victims of fatal crashes in the city between 2010 and 2019. Of these severe crash victims, 15 were pedestrians, 31 were bicyclists, and 40 were motor vehicle occupants. Of the fatalities, seven were pedestrians, one was a bicyclist, and five were motor vehicle occupants.

Cars drive by a memorial along El Camino Real for a middle school-aged boy who died on March 6, 2020 after he was fatally struck by a truck while riding his bike, in Palo Alto. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

For these crashes, the top three primary collision factors were driving or bicycling under the influence of alcohol or drugs, improper turning and unsafe speed. Eleven of the severe crash victims were 18 years old or younger. This does not include the fatal crash on California Avenue at El Camino Real in early 2020 that took the life of a local middle school boy. Two-thirds of these crashes took place on high speed roads like Oregon Expressway, El Camino Real and Embarcadero and Middlefield roads.

Crashes on these streets are likely to continue unless we implement a Safe System policy that acknowledges that a severe or fatal crash is a sign of a flaw in our transportation system and something we should learn from and fix. This kind of post-crash care has been endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans in their respective Safe System road safety policies.

By adopting a local Safe System policy and setting an ambitious program with measurable objectives and specific timeline to pursue zero traffic fatalities and severe injuries, the Palo Alto City Council would prioritize this proactive approach to road safety for all road users. This would protect children walking and bicycling to school and seniors, who are at especially high risk in a crash. It will make road conditions safer for all road users, including drivers and others who may need other transportation options to get where they need to go.

People are vulnerable to injury and make mistakes. Let's do all we can to create an environment that reduces risk of collisions and injury to all street users — people who walk, bike, drive and use transit. Let's make our local streets work better for everyone.

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Arnout Boelens is a bike safety advocate who serves as the Palo Alto PTA Council Safe Routes to School chairperson and is a member of Walk Bike Palo Alto and the City of Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee.

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Opinion: Palo Alto needs a road safety policy

by Arnout Boelens / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 20, 2023, 6:50 am

The city of Palo Alto does better on road safety than many U.S. cities; however, anyone who has walked or bicycled in Palo Alto, or has tried to parallel park on our busiest streets for that matter, can understand there is plenty of room for safety improvement.

Roads like Embarcadero and Middlefield see many crashes involving all kinds of road users. These collisions are no accident. Multilane arterials and their intersections are built for speed at the cost of road safety with multiple auto lanes in each direction, enabling uncontrolled passing and very limited space for bicycles and pedestrian facilities. For speeds over 20 mph, the risk of a fatality increases exponentially when a crash between a car and a pedestrian or bicyclist occurs.

Improving road safety starts with policy change. Today, 60% of middle and high school students in the Palo Alto Unified School District walk and bike to school, and Palo Alto is ranked in the top five cities nationwide with a population of bicycle commuters above 60,000.

Yet, Palo Alto has never implemented detailed policies and programs to reach their goal of zero severe injuries and fatalities on city streets to protect these vulnerable road users, as stated in the 2030 comprehensive plan.

To improve road safety, the city could adopt a Safe System policy for road safety and set an ambitious timeline for pursuing its existing goal of zero severe injuries and roadway fatalities on streets in Palo Alto. That's something that Hoboken, New Jersey, has been able to achieve for the last four years.

Traditionally, a city like Palo Alto makes sure infrastructure is up to code and monitors the crashes happening on its streets. When enough crashes take place at a specific location, safety improvements may be implemented. Under a Safe System approach, a city does not wait for tragedy to happen; instead, it applies known safety principles proactively and systematically for any repaving or new infrastructure project.

In addition, a severe or fatal crash would lead to a forensic analysis on how to improve road safety at that location beyond mere code compliance. This leads to a process of continuous road safety improvements and to a shared responsibility of road safety between the road user and the city.

According to the Transportation Injury Mapping System (TIMS) at the University of California, Berkeley, there were 86 victims of severe crashes in Palo Alto and 13 victims of fatal crashes in the city between 2010 and 2019. Of these severe crash victims, 15 were pedestrians, 31 were bicyclists, and 40 were motor vehicle occupants. Of the fatalities, seven were pedestrians, one was a bicyclist, and five were motor vehicle occupants.

For these crashes, the top three primary collision factors were driving or bicycling under the influence of alcohol or drugs, improper turning and unsafe speed. Eleven of the severe crash victims were 18 years old or younger. This does not include the fatal crash on California Avenue at El Camino Real in early 2020 that took the life of a local middle school boy. Two-thirds of these crashes took place on high speed roads like Oregon Expressway, El Camino Real and Embarcadero and Middlefield roads.

Crashes on these streets are likely to continue unless we implement a Safe System policy that acknowledges that a severe or fatal crash is a sign of a flaw in our transportation system and something we should learn from and fix. This kind of post-crash care has been endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans in their respective Safe System road safety policies.

By adopting a local Safe System policy and setting an ambitious program with measurable objectives and specific timeline to pursue zero traffic fatalities and severe injuries, the Palo Alto City Council would prioritize this proactive approach to road safety for all road users. This would protect children walking and bicycling to school and seniors, who are at especially high risk in a crash. It will make road conditions safer for all road users, including drivers and others who may need other transportation options to get where they need to go.

People are vulnerable to injury and make mistakes. Let's do all we can to create an environment that reduces risk of collisions and injury to all street users — people who walk, bike, drive and use transit. Let's make our local streets work better for everyone.

Arnout Boelens is a bike safety advocate who serves as the Palo Alto PTA Council Safe Routes to School chairperson and is a member of Walk Bike Palo Alto and the City of Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2023 at 9:42 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 9:42 am

One of the simplest protocols might be to get bike traffic lights. I have seen them recently on San Antonio in Los Altos and they work very well. With many of our intersections over run with bikes as well as pedestrians in school commute times, e.g. Churchill/Alma, Loma Verde/Middlefield, getting a safe time for bikes to cross without any vehicles moving as well as a time for vehicles without bikes, would make it safer for everyone.


rob ruskin
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 20, 2023 at 10:40 am
rob ruskin, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 10:40 am

I have been supprised by electronic bikes racing thru stop signs silently. Sometimes hard to see in dark or dusk. How can we enforce traffic rules for them?


Rose
Registered user
Mayfield
on Jan 20, 2023 at 10:50 am
Rose, Mayfield
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 10:50 am

We should also get some equipment for intersections that capture a photo of speeders and red light runners and then a ticket with a considerable fine is issued and your car insurance goes up. The ticket includes a photo of the car and driver. They have these in San Francisco and they definitely encourage drivers to obey the law and be careful — I know!


Arty
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 20, 2023 at 11:03 am
Arty, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 11:03 am

I am surprised that their is no mention of speeding in this article. The average speeds of cars on Middlefield and Arastradero are above 35 mph with many cars going above 40. Although the existing speed limit of 25 is completely unrealistic, the high speeds on these roads is the cause of many accidents and is very unsafe.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2023 at 11:50 am
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 11:50 am

Very well said, Mr. Boehlens. A Safe Systems Approach has been adopted by federal and state governments and by many developed nations where the results have been excellent. I wonder what is Palo Alto waiting for?

The city should design for in-town speeds and road user behavior we want. Fellow drivers, we have some responsibility here. Post pandemic, traffic levels are down, so we have more road capacity than usual. The open roads seem to invite speeding. Please don't. Cars are not alone on these roads.

Imagine how your life would change if you hit someone and maimed or killed them while speeding. You would have to live with the legal repercussions and guilt for your carelessness for the rest of your life. I know someone who did this. He woke up with nightmares constantly most nights from dreams reliving the experience. It changed his life for decades until he died. I consider this possibility every time I drive, and so I am very careful. We all should think about this. Driving a multi-ton vehicle on a public street is a privilege (not a right) and an awesome responsibility.

Speeding 10mph over a 25MPH speed limit (which, by the way, is absolutely the right speed for a residential arterial like Middlefield or Arastradero which both serve homes and schools, parks, libraries. There are lots of people of all ages and abilities on these streets on bikes and on foot also with walkers and wheelchairs, visual impairments and other disabilities. Please consider the vulnerability of others.

City of Palo Alto, it is time to get with the program. Safe Systems is the direction the world has moved because it works. it keeps all road users, including drivers, safer. Even the slow-moving, Byzantine bureaucracy of the U.S. federal government has managed to adopt it. It's time to catch up.


felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2023 at 12:00 pm
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 12:00 pm

Early yesterday eve I nearly injured or killed a teen bicyclist, had not another car passed, it’s lights revealing him. The biker, without any lights, was entirely invisible just before crossing in front of me as I started to pull out of a public driveway in my car.
I was stunned, realizing as he sailed by, that there but for fortune, tragedy was averted.
Aside from suggestions here, this ridiculous carelessness by teen and adult bikers must stop. I want to safely share the road with you. I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want you to put that on me. Stop being stupid.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2023 at 12:22 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 12:22 pm

The law requires bicyclists to use a headlight and a rear reflector after sundown and before sunrise. Lighting up at night is legal and smart. In that hypothetical crash, because the bicyclist was not compliant with the law, he would have been legally at fault. Bicyclists, it is smart to always have a light and reflector on your bike, in case you are caught out after dark or in a rain storm. Be safe. Be seen.

However, this article is about Safe Systems which puts systems in place that encourage better behavior by all road users. You can visit the federal government's web page to for a one-page summary of their approved Safe Systems Approach. Web Link


Knows Stanford Labor
Registered user
Community Center
on Jan 20, 2023 at 12:24 pm
Knows Stanford Labor, Community Center
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 12:24 pm

Opportunistic speeding on Middlefield occurs most often when drivers can accelerate in less traffic, under conditions of unimpeded stretches of road and fewer vehicles. Speeds of 50+ are common, especially during early evening and at night. Absent policing, could the City place speed bumps? This aggravation might spare people who frequent the many schools and community buildings, including parents opening strollers and drivers simply trying to exit their parked cars.


Old PA Resident
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 20, 2023 at 1:07 pm
Old PA Resident, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 1:07 pm

One continuing frustration is Churchill where it dead ends into El Camino. There is no pedestrian / bike lane if you want cross El Camino (on the PALY side). Cars are forced to wait in line for blocks for a green light because there is not enough room for them to turn right. It causes huge traffic jams while being unsafe for all. I know we can do better.


Deborah
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Jan 20, 2023 at 3:55 pm
Deborah, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 3:55 pm

I'm not sure that readers understand that NONE of their complaints - about speeding, bikes without lights, Ebikes running stop signs, etc... - can be addressed unless there is coherent, specific policy adopted. That's why "The Safe Systems Approach" was developed. If council adopts "The Safe Systems Approach," ALL of your complaints can and will be addressed. I do think whoever named that policy format should have gotten the opinion of an ad man/woman. It's a name that makes sense to "policy wonks," but not the general public and that's a mistake.


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Jan 20, 2023 at 10:40 pm
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Jan 20, 2023 at 10:40 pm

Seems like a good first step would be to separate bikes from cars just as pedestrians are already separated from cars by having sidewalks. Trying to squeeze in bike lanes on major arterials (or worse, "sharing the lane") is a system that promotes collisions rather than preventing them.

Setting up bike lanes on quieter streets parallel to arterials provides cyclists with fairly direct routes while keeping them away from most cars. We can preserve traffic throughput while reducing the interactions that lead to accidents.


M
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 21, 2023 at 1:57 am
M, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 21, 2023 at 1:57 am


One of the pictures in this article was from the tragic accident at El Camino and California Avenue. Yet, in spite of this, the Palo Alto City Council directed city staff to not have a bike bath, which has long exited, through the California Avenue shopping district. The reason for this appeared to be pressure from restaurant owners whole tables extended well into the street.

What was frustrating is that by directing staff to not provide bike lanes in their plans for Cal. Avenue, they were taking away an exiting official bike path. Moreover, they didn’t also direct staff to designate an alternative path, if they didn’t want bikes to continue to use the California path. So California Avenue became one more Palo Alto bike path with a gap — this one around the dangerously El Camino crossing — for bike commuters to fined their own way around the gap. (Some Council members felt that bike riders should walk their bikes in the shopping area, which they never would ask car commenters to do.)

Hopefully this can be remedied, as it just doesn’t make sense for the California Avenue bike path to disappear at the shopping district and the dangerous El Camino crossing.






Bruce
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 21, 2023 at 10:59 am
Bruce, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 21, 2023 at 10:59 am

Thank you for writing this Arnout. I want to see our City Council to direct the Transportation Department to make all future projects safer for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers.


TimR
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jan 22, 2023 at 10:04 pm
TimR, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jan 22, 2023 at 10:04 pm

How about figuring out a way to fix the light at Churchill and El Camino first, and then maybe move on to more ambitious projects?


jguislin
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 23, 2023 at 10:27 am
jguislin, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 23, 2023 at 10:27 am

Before you rate Palo Alto "better than many US Cities," look at the date from the Cal Office of Traffic Safety. Compared with other cities of the same size, Palo Alto is in the top 10 (worst) for accidents with bicyclists <15, Pedestrians <15, pedestrians >65, motorcycles, and drinking drivers 21-34.
Also, it is a fact that many small crashed go unreported. When my neighbors and I photographed every crash we saw for 2 weeks and compared the count with the SWITERS data (Statewide Integrated Traffic System) we found more than 4x the number of crashes compared with those reported. Even when police are called to the scene, that is no guarantee the accident will be reported.
Addressing traffic and safety should be a top priority but those efforts would be helped greatly with good data.


4good
Registered user
Stanford
on Jan 23, 2023 at 3:48 pm
4good, Stanford
Registered user
on Jan 23, 2023 at 3:48 pm

Agreed - every decision should be about all users -- not just about what is best for autos. I've see a couple of comments about Churchill -- there has been a project in the works for 10(!) years to make improvements. Expected completion is now Summer 2024. Web Link


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2023 at 4:16 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 23, 2023 at 4:16 pm

Mr. Guislin, Raw crash data is not adjusted to take into account the much higher volume of bicycle trips in Palo Alto than most of the other cities you reference. For comparison, it is important to look at collision RATES, not just total number of collisions.

Nonetheless, we still have important work to do to make our roads safer for all users.


Asha W. Agrawal
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 24, 2023 at 4:37 pm
Asha W. Agrawal, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 24, 2023 at 4:37 pm

This important piece lays out both the traffic safety crisis in Palo Alto and the feasible Safe Systems approach that the city can adopt.

And the benefits of a safe systems approach go beyond saving lives. Imagine a Palo Alto where nobody gets injured from crashes, vehicle drivers are spared the headaches and expense of repairing major crash damage, parents feel it is safe to let younger kids walk or cycle alone to school, and more people start to bicycle because they are no longer afraid of traffic.

I very much hope our council members will embrace such a vision and the steps needed to realize it.


Fr0hickey
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 26, 2023 at 1:26 pm
Fr0hickey, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 26, 2023 at 1:26 pm

I propose that for every bicycle fatality, the City is mandated to build one mile of protected bike lane on the street where the fatality occurred. If there is already a protected bike lane, then one mile is added to it.


Rose
Registered user
Mayfield
on Jan 27, 2023 at 7:00 pm
Rose, Mayfield
Registered user
on Jan 27, 2023 at 7:00 pm

I agree with others here that Cal Ave is one of our few east/west arteries and needs to be open, safe and direct — to and from the Caltrain Station. Closing it early during COVID made sense but it should be reopened to traffic and BIKES ASAP given its already awkward egress and ingress.


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