Plans for California Avenue discussed, debated | March 19, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 19, 2010

Plans for California Avenue discussed, debated

City would reduce number of lanes on 'Avenue of the Arts' from four to two

by Martin Sanchez

Palo Alto residents debated plans for changing California Avenue Tuesday night, in particular shrinking the number of lanes from four to two.

The meeting at Escondido Elementary School was the first of two outreach meetings conducted by the city to review the second phase of the California Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project, which focuses on the business district.

This phase of the Improvement Project involves re-paving the road and making two wider traffic lanes — one in each direction — out of the four current ones, city Transportation Engineer Rafael Ruis said.

The change would eliminate "that multiple threat situation, where the car in the right lane will stop for a pedestrian, but the car in the left lane keeps on going. If you go and wait down there for five minutes, I'm sure you'll see it happen," Ruis said.

The city would also convert all California Avenue parking spots to diagonal parking, Ruis said. Some spaces are currently parallel.

"Our concept plans show 20-24 additional spaces and four to five more handicapped spaces. Right now, there is only one," Ruis said.

Other changes include new furniture and newspaper kiosks up and down the street and a new fountain in the plaza at the end of the street, near the train station, Transportation Planner Gayle Likens said.

Many of the meeting's attendees debated the efficacy of the planned lane changes.

Palo Alto resident Brent Barker said dangerous traffic situations could occur as drivers will take time to adjust to the new lane configurations.

"There will be a transitional period where cars are trying to move around each other," he said.

Palo Alto resident Lawrence Garlin said the planned lane changes will make California Avenue safer by increasing the distance between bicyclists and parked cars.

"Bicycles being struck by car doors is the leading cause of bike deaths," he said.

California Avenue business owner Jane Radford-Barker said she and other business owners think the lane changes will increase traffic congestion in the area.

"California Avenue business owners have one major complaint: They've never been asked what they think. They don't want anything changed," she said.

Ruis gave examples of nearby commercial districts with two-lane street layouts similar to the planned California Avenue changes. With more than 19,000 cars daily, University Avenue in Palo Alto and Castro Street in Mountain View both have twice the traffic of California Avenue with minimal congestion, he said.

Safer conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians could also "enhance business" in the area, he said.

Mike Sartor, Palo Alto's assistant director of public works, said the city would apply for a Transportation for Livable Communities grant to fund the next phase of streetscape changes. These additional modifications could include concrete bulb-outs at street corners, added planters along the street and further changes to the fountain plaza, he said.

These proposed changes "would of course come back to the community for input, discussion and modification" should the city acquire a grant, he said. Grant applications are due in April and the city could hear back by July, he said.

The grant is being offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area's transportation planning agency. The MTC has allotted $6 million in grants for Santa Clara County, of which Palo Alto plans to apply for $500,000 to $1 million pending city council approval, Sartor said.

The city unsuccessfully applied for similar grants twice before, Sartor said — once in 2006 to fund the current re-paving efforts and once in 2005 for the replacement of 50 trees along California Avenue, which took place last September.

"One thing that's changed since 2005 is that we've already invested in the project," Likens said. She said this commitment to streetscape changes could strengthen the city's grant application.

The next community meeting has not been planned but will likely take place in the latter part of April, Sartor said.


View the city's plans for California Avenue at

Editorial Intern Martin Sanchez can be e-mailed at


Posted by Sarah, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2010 at 10:25 am

Change for change sake. Let's just leave California Avenue the way it is and save the money, especially if the people who operate businesses there don't want anything done.

Posted by Here We Go Again, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2010 at 10:27 am

It would be nice to have California Avenue updated but going from 4 lanes to 2 lanes is wrong. Obviously the council is not looking at all the housing that is being built and has been built which is bringing in more traffic and congestion. We don't need any more congestion on California Avenue than there is now. I also feel that it would affect the current businesses on California Avenue. Can we think before we leap before making such a drastic change?

Posted by k, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 17, 2010 at 10:30 am

2 lanes will cause auto traffic. the focus is not about the autos. people want more foot traffic, so making the walk ways nice and making the roadways smaller.
2 lanes on charelston sucks too. especially since they added all the new housing at charelston and el camino, people have to travel the 2 lanes to either 101 or 280.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 17, 2010 at 10:33 am

> "Bicycles being struck by car doors is the leading cause of
> bike deaths," he said.

And just how many people have been killed California Avenue from car doors being opened? This is the kind of crap that has reduced city government all over the world to nothing more than the theater of the absurd. California is closed at one end (today), and has two stop signs on this otherwise very short street. The cars park diagonally, for the most part, so that doors don't open into the lanes of traffic. Most people drive very slowly on California. It's difficult to believe than any bicyclists have been killed on this four lane street.

Why do media outlets print junk like this?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2010 at 10:41 am

Since the commercial area of Cal Ave is not a through route then reducing the number of lanes makes sense. Widening the sidewalks also makes sense. These moves would make the ambience more conducive to strolling and people watching, and enable outside dining. I am not sure about the furniture as that may just encourage the homeless, but enabling the restaurants to provide outside seating for customer use would be a better idea.

However, do we have the money for this type of work?

Posted by MMN, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 17, 2010 at 11:28 am

I didn't bother to go to this hearing because the City has already decided what it will do. The purpose of the hearing is to give the staff the ability to say, "We did public outreach. This plan was the subject of public hearings." Mike Sartor and Glenn Roberts (I like to think of them as the lumberjacks) can check off another box on their checklist. But nothing we are going to say will change their plans. If you'll recall, when they got in trouble for cutting down all those trees, were able to pull out their check list and cite a couple of hearings several years ago where they trotted out their tree-cutting plans.

Here's their objectives:

1. Do anything that brings in Federal funds. That means expanding the city budget and hiring more people. When the funds run out, they'll find a way to keep these new people on the city budget. (Remember when the city was so intent about pushing roundabouts down our throats -- roundabouts are federally funded, which means more money for public works. Who cares that all the research shows they're dangerous.)

2. Hire as many consultants and contractors as possible. Usually these firms are owned by or staffed by former city employees or the relatives of current city employees, or girlfriends/boyfriends of city workers.

3. Punish businesses that have been critical of the city. Perhaps put up a tree or planter in front of a critic's display window. Or create a new resting spot for Victor Frost near the door of a critic. This also serves as a reminder to other businesses that they should never, ever think of criticizing a city project or public employee.

4. Reduce traffic on California Ave so that it becomes dangerously slow. That will mean more public works projects in the future to correct the problems created by this one. This keeps the public works department fully staffed.

5. Keep council members in the dark about all problems, even violations. Remember all of the violations at the landfill/compost pile Roberts hid from City Council? If council ever discovers it has been misled, the most that will happen is that Roberts will have to apologize and indigent members will get a chance to make a tough-sounding speech.

Posted by david, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2010 at 11:46 am

There is no practical need for 4 traffic lanes. Driving the lane adjacent to parking is in fact dangerous, due to vehicles backing out of parking spaces. Two lanes would work just fine.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2010 at 11:55 am

What needs to be done before they narrow any lanes is a study looking at what will happen to traffic heading from El Camino to the train station--will it back up and potentially block El Camino? we do not need another repeat of what happened when they put adjacent traffic lights outside of T&C and blocked traffic at El Camino and Embarcadero.
Has this study been done yet?

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 17, 2010 at 12:07 pm

"dangerously slow" ... that's a new one.

Posted by Stuart Berman, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Changing from four lanes to two is a great idea. And please add bike lanes to give a little margin of safety to bicyclists.

Have people forgotten that the California Ave. shopping district is about four blocks long and dead ends into the CalTrain tracks. I'm there all the time and traffic is light.

Posted by jean, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I definitely like the idea of two lanes and wider sidewalks. I also agree that the current situation is unnecessarily hazardous for bicyclists. Diagonal parking makes sense.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 17, 2010 at 1:01 pm

> Changing from four lanes to two is a great idea. And please add
> bike lanes to give a little margin of safety to bicyclists.

The question for the merchants should be .. how much business will the bikes bring to this "bike friendly" commercial zone, and how much will the cars that are displaced take to Mountain View/Los Altos and/or Menlo Park?

Don't be surprised to see that the gross revenue for this business district going down over time. It might go up at first, but if it's not easy to get in/out of with a car, why bother going there?

Posted by Barbara, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Changes sound great!! Two lanes instead of four, yes!

Posted by Anciana, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

If they shoehorn all the traffic from two lanes into one, the long line of slowly progressing cars will never end, and pedestrians will have to wait a very long time for a break in which to cross.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Okay here is the new plan to appease all those that constantly complain about traffic:

1) Turn University and California Avenue into pedestrian malls
2) Turn Middlefield, San Antonio, Embarcadero and Oregon Exp into 1 lane in each direction
3) Put in traffic calming measures on Loma Verde and any other streets that can be used for short cuts

As per the PA belief, all the extra cars will magically disappear and their will not be any traffic back ups anymore.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Ruis says ".. University Avenue in Palo Alto and Castro Street in Mountain View both have twice the traffic of California Avenue with minimal congestion."

Has he been on University Ave. lately? It's always congested.

With diagonal parking, how many bicyclists have ever been hit by car doors?

No wonder the state has a huge budget deficit. It's giving away millions of our tax dollars for "bulb-outs" and for counting trees.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 17, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

To those who think going to 2-lanes would cause congestion, it would be very useful for you to provide details about when, where and how such problems arise. Those of us who have observed Cal Ave over the years as these proposals have come up have not seen levels of traffic that could not easily be accommodated by a 2-lane configuration.

For those not familiar with the Cal Ave area:

Because most of the parking for the Cal Ave area is not on Cal Ave itself, but on the parallel streets, it is those streets that seem to get the traffic related to that parking. Access to/from Page Mill/Oregon is often via Park Blvd and Birch, not via Cal Ave to El Camino.

For the Caltrain station: (1) the parking lot is under-utilized, and (2) many of the vehicles seem to come via Park Blvd (off Page Mill/Oregon Expressway).

Posted by Chris Gaither, a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 17, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Leave California Avenue alone already. It does not need any alterations, changes, modifications. For those of us who live in the immediate area, we like it just the way it is. It is a peaceful, safe and walkable neighborhood. The cars that need to travel up and down California Avenue do not present any dilemmas with the current set-up. Been here for 25 years. Let it be. You already took our trees, and planted "Charlie Brown" trees as replacements.

Chris Gaither

Posted by Chrisc, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 17, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I like the idea of two lanes on California Ave. However, we do not need a new fountain. We already have one. Can't anything from the past stay around?

Posted by Concerned, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 17, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Remember the fiasco on Middlefield Road intersection with Oregon Expressway the City attempted a few years ago? You need 4 lanes to absorb traffic coming from El Camino toward the train station. Without 4 lanes, at least for some portion of California Avenue off El Camino, you will have traffic backing up and blocking El Camino - especially at evening rush hour. One car waiting to pull into a diagonal spot will back up the entire line of cars trying to enter CAlifornia Avenue. Upset drivers and blocked intersections are a danger far greater than exists now.

Posted by Elizabeth, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2010 at 10:34 pm

I agree with Sarah. Please don't do this! East Charleston used to ba a reasonable road to travel. Now as often as not it fails to flow.

One lane on a commercial street when cars are entering, exiting and pulling in and out of parking spots, will be disruptive of traffic flow and make it an unpleasant area to do business in.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

ref: ped crossing concern. Doesn't every intersection have 4-way stops? Use the cross walk at the intersections...

Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 18, 2010 at 11:39 am

Leave it alone!

If PA is supposed to be such a green city, don't they realize that traffic will back up when cars are trying to park and leave parking spaces. What do traffic backups cause? Pollution.

This makes as much sense as the idiotic proposal a few years back to make Middlefield as bicycle boulevard. Cars are already backed up for miles when school drop off/pickups are in order, creating tons of exhaust pollution. Eliminating turn lanes just make things worse.

Hasn't the city already screwed up poor California Avenue enough. It will take decades before it looks half-way decent again.

Let them worry about reducing costs and stop wasting staff resource on such nonsense.

Posted by nat, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 18, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Having a bike lane directly behind diagonal parking is very dangerous. With just one lane, the bicyclist can't maneuver if some vehicle is backing out and the driver cannot see the bicyclist coming until the vehicle is partially backed out into the traffic lane. This is asking for terrible accidents and bicyclists will quickly resort to using the sidewalks.

Also, during busy traffic times, one lane in each direction will cause congestion and drivers will tend to use the side streets.

I don't see the point of reducing the lanes.

Posted by Louise, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 18, 2010 at 9:44 pm

California Avenue business owners should be jumping for joy at the chance for more on-street parking and better pedestrian amenities that will help encourage more residents and Research Park employees to linger longer and transform the unfriendly 1950s design into something that works!

To Jane and all the other armchair traffic engineers getting hysterical about the possibility of traffic backed up on California Avenue: You comments reveal astonishing ignorance of how traffic flow works and the realities of how drivers access California Avenue now and how they will do so in the future. TWo lanes in each direction are simply not needed, as long as turning pockets are provided at the intersections (these are included in the design).

Doug Moran is spot on about the role of Park and Birch, and we should add Cambridge -- all these streets are preferred by most drivers coming from Page Mill or El Camino and points west and north.

Palo Alto Weekly reporters could be helpful here -- what is the ADT on California as compared with Castro Street? How did the City staff respond to the uninformed comments? If you must quote members of the public who have neither acquainted themselves with the facts of what is being proposed, at least give the readers accurate information!!!

Posted by Silly, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 18, 2010 at 10:00 pm


Let's widen the sidewalks and kill the trees they just planted.

Let's disrupt the merchants some more so tax revenues decline so the city can raise utility rates again.

Let's make it even tougher for people to park since most of the back lots off Cal Ave are already full so people go spend their money elsewhere.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 19, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I have a long history of challenging the City on their claims about lack of traffic impacts, and I fully understand why people would be reflexively suspicious of this proposal. However, I don't see that sort of problem for Cal Ave. Furthermore, I get the feeling that many (not all) of the people opposing the change do not have any real experience with Cal Ave.

For example, "Nat of Midtown" says that during peak hours, the change will push drivers to use side street. The reality is that drivers already DO use the side streets more than Cal Ave because that is where the parking lots are. I do not remember EVER not being able to get onto El Camino from Cal Ave on the first cycle of the traffic light--but during peak hours it is not uncommon for me to have to wait for the second cycle on Cambridge. At evening peak, the backup on Park Blvd of cars waiting to get onto the on-ramp for east-bound Oregon Expressway may extend for two blocks (to Grant) when at the same time that the "backup" at the El Camino traffic light on Cal Ave is nil.

The comparisons to University Avenue and Castro Street are invalid: Those are major THROUGH streets, not just the central street of the shopping district. A better analogy for Cal Ave are the "streets" feeding the various parking bays in a small shopping mall (much smaller than Stanford Shopping Center).

This congestion that people are talking about is baffling to me. As a pedestrian, the traffic is so sparse, that I rarely have to do more than stutter step to cross without impeding the cars. As a driver, there is rarely a "backup" at the stop signs. If a car is pulling out from a parking spot, it is typically only me and possibly one other car that "suffers" a trivial delay. The exception is the "major intersection" of Birch and Cal Ave where there may be -- horrors -- two cars ahead of you at the stop sign.

The already sparse traffic and the stop signs render Cal Ave effectively a two-lane street and the GENERAL THRUST of the proposal is to convert the grossly under-utilized extra traffic lanes into uses that better support the businesses, for example additional sidewalk space for outside tables for the restaurants. Note: I had a conflict with the meeting on Tuesday, so I am out-of-date on the details of how they propose to reallocate the space.

Posted by spooked, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 20, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Which is more scary to a bicyclist, being backed into by a diagonally parked car, or having a door opened by a parallel-parked car?

I'll take the parallel-parked car anytime. I've had near-misses with parallel-parked cars, but I've been able to avoid contact. I'm much more scared of being backed into by a diagonally-parked car. I think it would be much more difficult to avoid serious injury in that situation. I'm not very tall, and those big SUVs have rear windows that are pretty high off the ground. Close objects in the rear may not be visible.

So, unless the diagonal parking is changed, I won't be biking down California Avenue, regardless of other "improvements," and I don't buy the sales pitch about the proposed changes being bicycle-friendly.

If the proposal cost the City zero dollars and zero staff time, and, additionally, if installing the "improvements" caused little disruption to pedestrians and businesses, then I wouldn't be opposed to it. But there are better ways for the City to be spending its resources.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 20, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On parallel vs diagonal parking: The _theory_ is that diagonal parking is safer for bicyclists because the backup lights provide timely, readily visible warning whereas with parallel parking, doors open with no real warning.

On the routes I ride, there is virtually no diagonal parking, so I have no basis for comparison. However, when riding beside parallel parking, while I can _usually_ see whether there is anyone in the driver's seat in the typical car, I can't see into most vans and many SUVs.

Posted by jb, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 22, 2010 at 5:16 pm

So what might be installed in the two lanes of street-turned-sidewalk? Outdoor seating? The trees won't cast a shadow of shade for the next ten years, least of all into the traffic area. Then another unhappy generation of ambiance sybarites will be asking for their styles of amenities. I have never encountered enough foot traffic to find my personal space impinged by too many other pedestrians. At meal times and the a.m. and p.m. commute hours it can be hard to get across the street.

AS for Castro and University Ave, I NEVER drive down those streets. I always take a side street. There are too many pedestrians lost, wandering in traffic, or just seeing whom they can stop by stepping in front of their car. It is idiotic to even think of driving close to a destination on those streets.

I agree with Sharon. This is the time to save the money; the street functions perfectly well as it is.

Posted by Lawrence Garwin, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 25, 2010 at 9:55 am

To set the record straight, I'd like you all to know that on Saturday, 20 March, 2010 1:39 PM, I sent the following to the article's author.


Hi. Thanks for including my biking fatality remark in your article.

For the record, my last name is Garwin, not Garlin. (Rhymes with "Darwin", I seem to remember saying.)

Unfortunately, I believe that I was misunderstood about the planned lane changes making California Ave safer for bikes. I am not decided on this and do not believe I stated an opinion.

Currently I am quite happy taking the whole right hand lane (as a cyclist) and creating plenty of clearance to the parked cars. Because of the second lane, cars can pass me safely. Possibly cars passing me would still be safe with the single wide lanes that are proposed.

I am unhappy with striped bike lanes that suggest cyclists ride in the door strike zone of parallel parked cars or too close to diagonally parked cars. I understand that striped bike lanes are not part of the plan.

Diagonal parking generally seems safer for cyclists, but the rare (in Palo Alto) inoperative left hand back up light then becomes a hazard, as a car can pull out unexpectedly and without the driver having a clear view of the road. This is still a much rarer hazard than doors being opened in front of cyclists from parallel parked cars.

Below is a bit more reading for you.



Web Link

Who Causes Cyclists’ Deaths?

More than 52,000 bicyclists have been killed in bicycle traffic accidents in the U.S. over the 80 years the federal government has been keeping records. When it comes to sharing the road with cars, many people seem to assume that such accidents are usually the cyclist’s fault — a result of reckless or aggressive riding. But an analysis of police reports on 2,752 bike-car accidents in Toronto found that clumsy or inattentive driving by motorists was the cause of 90 percent of these crashes. Among the leading causes: running a stop sign or traffic light, turning into a cyclist’s path, or opening a door on a biker. This shouldn’t come as too big a surprise: motorists cause roughly 75 percent of motorcycle crashes too.

Posted by Lawrence Garwin, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 25, 2010 at 10:10 am


At the meeting mentioned in the article, the city representatives eventually told us that the proposed changes would be implemented at no cost to the city, merely by painting on the appropriate striping after the next repaving of California Avenue.

They also said that the grant money that might come in later would pay for raised bulbouts and other physical changes that would be more costly to change back if they didn't work. Thus, the currently proposed changes with the restriping would, in essence, be a trial of more permanent changes we might do later with outside funding.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields


One more week to vote!

Don't forget to cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.