By Arnout Boelens
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.