Commission to look at roundabout plan

Publication Date: Wednesday Nov 1, 2000

Commission to look at roundabout plan

Embarcadero Road traffic may be slowed with circles

by Valentine Ding

Embarcadero Road residents may one day back out of their driveways onto a thoroughfare full of roundabouts, meant to slow cars down as they head to and from U.S. Highway 101. The plan is part of a citywide "traffic calming" project aimed at trying to smooth traffic and increase roadway-user safety on residential arterial streets. But, taking out some traffic signals and reducing travel lanes may be worrisome to some residents.

The Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission is expected to take up the matter on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. An information session for the public is scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. at Cubberley Community Center.

"Counterintuitive as it may seem, we will be able to reduce the number of lanes without increasing vehicle delay, which is a function of traffic congestion," wrote Joe Kott, Palo Alto's chief transportation official, in an e-mail letter to concerned residents.

The new devices, called roundabouts or traffic circles, would replace traffic signals at some intersections along Embarcadero Road. The circles, used in several cities in California as well as all over Europe, tend to curb speeding and reduce accidents.

A roundabout is a circular island constructed in the middle of an intersection. By using yield signs instead of signals or stop signs, roundabouts don't require drivers to stop before entering the circulating traffic. A wedge-shaped splitter at each entrance/exit creates strong curves and slows vehicles down. Combined, these two important features will result in steady, smooth traffic flow, transportation officials say.

The city plans to put roundabouts at Waverley Street, Newell Road, Greer Road, St. Francis Drive and West Bayshore Road. Middlefield Road will retain the existing four-lane-plus-traffic-signal system because of its heavy traffic and the city's unwillingness to design a two-lane roundabout.

The Embarcadero roundabouts will decrease the number of travel lanes from two to one in each direction and enhance safety for pedestrians and bicyclists with marked, full-length bike lanes and protective bulbouts.

"I'm really excited about using modern roundabouts to implement the city's traffic plan," said Yoriko Kishimoto, a resident on Embarcadero near Bryant Street and a member of the citizen's advisory committee on the Embarcadero plan.

"It will certainly make life better for all: drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, residents. Everybody wins here."

However, with more than 100 residential driveways fronting directly on the road, the plan also raises concerns.

Some residents have suggested using coordinated traffic lights and raising the speed limit to reduce congestion and speeding.

The city's plan does not include any changes to the speed limits on Embarcadero. According to Kott, the current typical travel speed, which he blames on the existing design of the road, is 37 to 38 miles per hour (the posted speed limit is 25). The proposed Traffic Calming plan is expected to bring the typical speed down to 31 or 32 miles per hour.

"What people don't realize is that by slowing down, roundabouts have amazing capacities to move traffic," said Patrick Siegman, city-hired consultant on the plan.

Siegman sees the biggest benefit of roundabouts as "simple decision-making at low-speed." He has his laptop loaded with pictures to show the popularity and workability of this new crossroad system in other parts of the U.S.

"Cupertino, Davis, and Santa Barbara all have them," he said. "And that's only in California. Thousands of roundabouts have been built all across Europe and Australia for the past two decades."

Recently, at a public meeting to test residents' views toward installing local roundabouts, the majority of the polled residents favored the roundabout design over dual left-turn lanes or minimal change.

"I think it's a chance for Palo Alto to try something that has worked so well in other parts of the world," said Siegman. "If we do it right, we can make our streets much safer and better." 

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