Council members finally weighed in on the community's discussion of bike and pedestrian safety last week, with some members pushing for big changes, including narrower streets and 15 mile-per-hour speed limits near schools.
Council members made the comments in a Nov. 20 study session following months of community-wide discussion after three children were hit on the four-lane road in front of Graham Middle School in recent months, and three pedestrians were struck and killed by cars on California Street and Shoreline Boulevard earlier this year.
The most impassioned remarks came from council member Ronit Bryant.
"We have lots of great plans, the time has come to move forward and do it," Bryant said. "I would really like to see the schools and public works and the city and the neighborhood all working together. Studies are great, but let's put stuff on the ground and let's see how it works."
Collisions at Graham spur action
Graham Principal Kim Thompson said she was motivated to speak in front of the council because three of her students were hit on the four-lane stretch of Castro Street in front of her school, a road seen by many as wide enough to encourage unsafe speeds.
"I've never experienced anything quite like this," Thompson told the council. "I was behind the car that hit one of my students, so I saw it happen. It's a very short (stretch of road) between Castro (downtown) and Graham, and yet it's like a speedway."
The stretch of four-lane road in front of Graham is on a list of streets that could lose lanes to make room for protected bike lanes, also known as a "road diet," in a draft of the city's Pedestrian Master Plan which may be approved by the City Council in December.
Council members Laura Macias and Ronit Bryant expressed some support for protected bike lanes or road diets. Similarly, Mayor Mike Kasperzak said he hoped to see "lots of green paint in our future," referring the brightly painted bike lanes that have sprung up in other cities.
Macias presented pictures of separated bike lanes on a city street in Long Beach to show what might be possible.
"We might want to do a separated bike lane just for that area to Graham from El Camino," Macias said.
Castro Street in front of Graham is "one of the streets where a road diet makes sense," said Jarrett Mullen, a bike advocate behind the Rengstorff Great Streets Initiative, which is calling for road diets to reduce car speeds and make room for bike lanes.
When a car hits a person at 40 miles per hour, "80 percent of pedestrians die," Mullen said, "At 30 miles per hour, 40 percent die. Just by reducing speed from 40 miles per hour to 30 miles per hour, you've cut deaths in half. At 20 miles per hour, only 5 percent die. That is why speed matters. It impacts stopping distance."
The reduction from four lanes to three on Arastradero Road in Palo Alto "reduced the number of cars going over 37 miles per hour by 50 percent," said Menlo Park bike advocate Adina Levin, adding that it reduced chances of death and injury. The change is also cited as a factor behind the higher rates of students biking to Gunn High School compared to Mountain View High School.
Council member Margaret Abe-Koga, who said her daughter just started at Graham, raised the possibility of reducing speed limits in front of Graham and other schools in the city. All have 25 mile-per-hour limits. City staff members said it was possible to go as low as 15 miles per hour and would increase safety if police could enforce it, said police Chief Scott Vermeer.
But to those advocating for road diets, lower speed limits aren't enough.
"If it feels comfortable to be doing 40 miles per hour then we need to change the street, that's it," Bryant said. "We need to decide how quickly we want people to drive here and design the street accordingly. I want to see pilot projects in place this coming year," she said, referring to street narrowing. "If it doesn't work, we'll take it out and try something else."
Bryant said a road diet may costs as little as $100,000 per mile if San Francisco's experience is any indication.
"We're gathering a committee to figure out what our next moves are," Thompson said. "We know something needs to be done, whether it is lowering the speed, narrowing the road or flashy lights, we don't know. We don't want a knee-jerk reaction, but what is best for our kids and the community."
Increasing student population
Thompson said the problem is "not going to go away," as the number of students at Graham is projected to reach 900 kids soon after going from 600 to 800 in the past three years. "More people are coming on foot, which is exciting. I just want them safe."
Students at Graham are receiving lessons and daily reminders on traffic safety and thanked police for stepping up enforcement in the area, Thompson said.
"It's still an issue," said one of several traffic officers who have been out there for the last month on a daily basis.
With kids, "you don't know what they are gonna do," said council member Jac Siegel. "If there's a way to make a mistake, they'll do it. That's what they do. It is up to the adults to take care of them."
Michael McTighe of Greentown Los Altos shared some lessons from efforts in Los Altos and Palo Alto where there's been increased biking and walking to school. He noted slower street traffic and parent involvement as key factors.
"Ninety percent of traffic at a school is because of parents dropping students off," McTighe said. "There's just a lot more traffic coming through there than needs to be. Look at Arastradero Road (in Palo Alto). It's a great example of a road diet that's worked."
How far will council go?
Kasperzak complained that the city has been behind in terms of bike and pedestrian safety and noted some resistance among city staff members to simply painting streets with shared lane arrows. The markings are used in more and more cities to alert drivers to bike routes on streets where there's no room for bike lanes. "Everybody is doing sharrows and we're not doing them yet," Kasperzak said. "We were told they weren't approved."
"I would like to see Mountain View out in front of this, rather than behind," Kasperzak said.
After the meeting, bike advocates expressed some excitement that at least some of the council appeared to support significant changes to the city's roads.
"I was hearing a lot of acknowledgment for complete street design," Levin said, referring to the idea that streets should be designed for bicyclists and pedestrians as well as cars. "That is really exciting to hear."
The council may also make new street infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians a top goal in January if Bryant has her way.
"I am definitely planning to put this as my goal for council goals so we will move forward this," Bryant said.
The council will be taking up the issue of bike and pedestrian safety more and more, possibly with regular updates on the city's efforts to reduce collisions. Police say a new system will make it easier to track data on bike and pedestrian collisions, which will be used to see what works and what doesn't, police officer Tony Lopez told the council.
Options include narrowing the city's most dangerous streets. In the city's Pedestrian Master Plan draft, candidates for "road diet" studies are Castro Street in front of Graham, Middlefield Road, California Street, Miramonte Avenue, Charleston Road east of Highway 101, Showers Drive and Cuesta Drive east of Miramonte Avenue. While the Rengstorff Great Streets Initiative has called for narrowing the six-lane portions of Shoreline Boulevard near downtown, it is not on the list.