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December 08, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Narrowing Middlefield sparks wide outcry Narrowing Middlefield sparks wide outcry (December 08, 2004)

Traffic engineers say they just want to gather data

by Jocelyn Dong

A planned three-hour traffic test is ruffling some feathers in Palo Alto, which in turn is testing Chief Transportation Official Joe Kott's patience.

The city's recently announced, one-day test will narrow Middlefield Road in Midtown from five lanes to three between Colorado Avenue and Oregon Expressway. It's planned for the evening commute hours, 4-7 p.m., and is not scheduled until January.

The one-time exercise will allow the city's transportation division to assess the effects of going to three lanes, which would allow for one lane in either direction, a left-turn lane in the center and bike lanes on the outside.

Currently, there are no bike lanes.

Even before the test has taken place, strong condemnations have surfaced. City Council member Jack Morton was quoted in one local newspaper as saying narrowing Middlefield could bring on "another Downtown North" -- referring to the 10-month traffic-barrier trial that tore apart the neighborhood north of University Avenue.

Another newspaper columnist alleged the Middlefield test was a de facto prelude to the city making a permanent change.

"We have no agenda," Kott said of the study, which was ordered by the City Council in May 2003. He grew emphatic in saying the department needs to gather evidence to forecast how feasible a three-lane stretch would be, rather than simply presenting the council with opinions on whether such a change would be positive or negative.

The test will use orange cones to block off the outside lanes to vehicle traffic.

To measure how well the narrowing would work, the transportation division plans timed runs of the four-block stretch. Essentially, staff members will drive up and down Middlefield Road, timing how long it takes with only one lane in each direction. They will also conduct the same time test under normal road conditions for comparison.

Staff will also observe whether cars get backed up and, if so, how long the lines are and how long it takes them to clear, according to Transportation Engineer David Stillman. They'll also monitor the driveways into the Midtown shopping center, which includes stores such as Longs Drugs.

Sheri Furman, chair of the Midtown Residents Association traffic committee, said her neighborhood is divided on the issue of narrowing Middlefield.

"While many favor traffic calming and increased safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, others are concerned about spillover traffic on side streets," she said in a prepared statement. "Contrary to what some residents believe, the MRA is not trying to foist any one solution on them. We do not feel that any outcome is fore-drawn and that a trial is the correct way to determine the effects -- positive or negative -- of lane reduction on Middlefield."

The stretch includes the intersection of Bryson Avenue and Middlefield -- deemed the fourth most dangerous intersection in Palo Alto in years past. Because of the high accident rate, a traffic signal was installed earlier this year. A left-turn "pocket" lane was also added.

Kott said residents have only praised the new light. But bicyclists complain that the lanes don't allow for their safe passage. Kott noted the city's Bicycle Master Plan does call for having bike lanes along Middlefield Road.

To add a 5- to 6-foot bike lane in each direction, though, one lane in each direction would have to be eliminated.

The test is planned for a weekday, when traffic is at its peak -- "the worst case scenario," Kott said. He wouldn't reveal the date, however, saying that having a crowd of observers could lead drivers to drive differently.

He acknowledged the study would not measure traffic diverted to other streets, adding that only a months-long trial could gather such data.

Following the test, a committee of Midtown residents, bicyclists and others is expected to make a recommendation about whether to proceed with a trial. Their recommendation would be forwarded to the city's planning commission and council.

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at [email protected]

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