New city grant application to increase bike safety at Paly

Christina Chen, Author

Penny Ellson, chair of the PTA's Traffic Safety Committee, introduces the traffic safety improvement project to Paly PTSA at the Feb. 21 meeting. If passed, this project may improve bike and pedestrian safety at Paly while relieving congestion Churchill Avenue.
Penny Ellson, chair of the Parent Teacher Association’s Traffic Safety Committee, stands to introduce the traffic safety improvement project to Paly PTSA at the Feb. 21 meeting. If passed, this project may improve bike and pedestrian safety at Paly while relieving congestion Churchill Avenue. Photo by Christina Chen.

In the wake of various student bike accidents this year, the City of Palo Alto is reviewing a proposal for improvements around the Churchill Avenue entrance of Palo Alto High School to reduce congestion and improve safety for bikers and pedestrians.

According to Penny Ellson, chair of the Palo Alto Council of Parent Teacher Association’s Traffic Safety Committee, the safety of students is “a very high priority for the city” given the large number of students biking, walking or commuting to school.

“Forty percent of high school students bicycle to PAUSD [Palo Alto Unified School District] high schools, with bike counts increasing each year,” Ellson said. “An uncounted additional number of students walk or take the shuttle to Paly. We anticipate these numbers will continue to increase.”

If passed, the project will remove the crosswalk islands at El Camino Real and Churchill Avenue as well as the intersections where El Camino Real meets Galvez Street and Embarcadero Road.

According to Ellson, this change would introduce a tighter turning radius, which would force drivers to slow down during the turn. It would reduce the distance it would take to cross the street, making it safer for pedestrians.

The project also proposes to make more visible crosswalks and add new illuminated multi-use pathways around the Churchill and El Camino perimeters of Paly’s campus.

Furthermore, a westbound right turn lane would be added at the intersection of El Camino and Churchill, relieving traffic congestion.

This dedicated right turn lane was contested at the Feb. 21 Parent Teacher Student Association meeting, where the PTSA secretary Sarah Burgess expressed concern that reducing congestion would encourage more cars to go through that intersection, thus making it more dangerous for students walking or biking.

Ellson stated that she has shared this concern with the City of Palo Alto.

“The current plans are conceptual,” Ellson said. “If the grant is approved, it will fund a study that will inform development of the final engineering plans.”

This project is one of eight projects that are awaiting approval by the Valley Transportation Authority as part of the One Bay Area Grant program.

“This is the first time the VTA has offered the program and it is the one of the largest grant programs anticipated over the next four years so it is planned to be very competitive,” Ellson said. “How any of the city’s eight proposals compete will depend on how many other cities submit projects and how well the competing projects meet the eligibility requirements.”

Ellson stated that the Embarcadero Road Corridor Improvement project is “very competitive,” but the result is uncertain.

“We don’t know what kinds of projects other cities might submit,” Ellson said.

The Paly PTSA has written a letter of support for this project to the city.

“Safe and convenient bicycle/pedestrian routes to our school site are a very high priority for the PTSA,” the letter states. “School commutes become increasingly challenging as the distict builds to accommodate increased enrollment at the site, increasing daily school commute trips.”

PTSA president Rebecca Fox agrees that the project will help Paly become safer.

“I believe that the Paly community will benefit from improvements to the intersection at El Camino and Churchill, as traffic will flow more smoothly and the intersection will be safer for bicyclists and pedestrians,” PTSA president Rebecca Fox said.

At the Feb. 21 meeting, Ellson also encouraged parents, teachers and students to report any bike accidents to the city.

“The data will move safety improvement projects’ priority up in city funding,” Ellson said.

The non-emergency number for reporting bike accidents is 650-329-2413.

“Parents can call this number and make a crash report, even if there is no injury,” Ellson said. “We need to start documenting the problem.”

The City of Palo Alto will decide on which projects to accept for funding by late April.