Desperation is mounting in the Willows.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, a time when many seek respite to spend time with their families, a group of about 30 Willows residents gathered to draft a petition to the City Council, and collected about 350 hard-copy and online signatures (as of Nov. 29) in favor of immediate action to curb unprecedented levels of cut-through traffic, according to Willows resident Amar Murugan.
Though residents have for years complained about commuters cutting through the Willows, the recent installation of temporary traffic signals at the Willow Road/U.S. 101 interchange as part of Caltrans' project to rebuild the interchange has resulted in blocks of residential streets being gridlocked from roughly 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. each weekday.
Some locals took their concerns to the City Council on Nov. 29, regaling council members with horror stories of being locked out of their neighborhood, of kids experiencing near-misses with frustrated drivers going down the wrong side of the road, of angry commuters shouting and refusing to let residents out of their driveways.
As might be expected, residents of the side streets closest to the Willow Road/U.S. 101 entrance have been hardest hit. Residents of Durham, Chester and O'Keefe streets say that in recent weeks their street is a logjam of angry commuters, backed up blocks to Laurel Avenue starting around 4 p.m., and farther down the street at evening peak times.
Birgit Greschner, a resident of Chester Street, said that the traffic has become a major quality of life problem and a safety concern. Starting as early as 3 p.m., she said, she's had cars idling in front of her house. She's taken to parking blocks away from her home, even after grocery shopping runs, since she can't get in or out of her driveway.
Chris DeCardy, who is a member of the Environmental Quality Commission, but was speaking to the Almanac as a resident of the neighborhood, said that in his time on the commission, he's never seen a neighborhood so united in its desire for immediate action.
The petition itself is straightforward. It reads, "We are Willows neighbors concerned about the safety of our streets due to the unprecedented speed and volume of traffic during many hours of the day. This ongoing problem has been exacerbated by construction of the Willow Road / Highway 101 bridge. We urge the City Council to take immediate measures during this construction period to restore our neighborhood safety by addressing speed and volume of traffic while protecting the character and vitality of our neighborhood, including residences, schools and businesses."
A simpler version of the petition online at change.org had attracted 208 signatures as of Dec. 1.
What can be done?
On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Menlo Park City Council was scheduled to discuss some short-, mid-, and long-term ideas to ease congestion. The council could act to approve the short-term ideas Tuesday; city staff are recommending the council hold off on implementing the others until the short-term ideas have been enacted and their effects studied.
• Install signs prohibiting right turns onto Willow Road from O'Keefe, Chester and Durham streets between 3 and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
• Add "Keep clear" pavement markings on Willow Road at O'Keefe, Chester and Durham streets.
• Add signs prohibiting left turns from Woodland Avenue to Baywood Avenue between 3 and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
• Add signs saying "No access to Willow Road" on Laurel Avenue at Chester Street and Menalto Avenue at Chester and Green streets.
• Create a partial "bulb out" at Middlefield Road and Woodland Avenue.
• Dedicate $275,000 in funding to coordinate traffic signals. (The city has applied for a grant to do this, but putting city funding into it would speed the process.)
• Prohibit right turns from Gilbert Avenue onto Willow Road.
• Prohibit right turns from the Pope-Chaucer bridge onto Woodland Avenue between 3 and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
• Prohibit left turns from Marmona Drive onto Gilbert Avenue and from Woodland Avenue onto Blackburn Avenue.
• Close Clover Lane at Willow Road to create a cul-de-sac.
While these changes might deter cut-through commuters, they might also make it harder for residents to get around the neighborhood, according to staff, so they're being held for consideration at a future date, after the short-term ideas are implemented.
Staff presented a third tier of ideas that, according to a staff report, "would have potentially significant unintended consequences."
Those ideas are to:
• Temporarily lift the overnight parking ban along Woodland Avenue.
• Restrict access to the neighborhood to locals only. This would require giving about 2,500 local residents (including residents of East Palo Alto west of U.S. 101) placards and monitoring the neighborhood's 15 entrances. The city would also have to figure out a way to allow business and school employees, students and patrons access to the neighborhood.
• Make Willow Road one-way during evening peak traffic hours.
• Add lanes to Willow Road by removing parking or bike lanes.
• Add stop signs on Central Avenue and Laurel Avenue at Walnut and Elm streets.
• Close the Pope-Chaucer bridge to car traffic and allow only pedestrian and bike access.
City staff members said that many of the ideas haven't been vetted with a formal community outreach process, but noted that some of the recommendations come from a neighborhood traffic study completed in 2011. At the time that study was completed, according to Assistant City Manager Chip Taylor, residents could not reach consensus as to which measures should be implemented, so the study was shelved.
Other recommendations have been compiled from residents' comments and suggestions on how to ease the problem.
What's been done so far
To address the Willows traffic crisis so far, the city has installed "No Thru Traffic" signs at several Willows neighborhood entry points: on Woodland Avenue at Middlefield Road and the Pope-Chaucer bridge, on Baywood Avenue at Woodland Avenue, on Blackburn Avenue at Willow Road, and on Menalto Avenue at Chester Street.
The yellow "advisory" signs initially installed were replaced with white "regulatory" signs, but, staff note, the signs "do not appear to be enforceable."
Caltrans' contractor has added some pavement painting at the interchange to make it less confusing, and more traffic signs have been ordered and will be installed soon, staff say. Caltrans and the city are working on coordinating the traffic signals along Willow Road from Durham to Newbridge streets, according to the staff report. The city has also increased police enforcement and presence in the construction and neighborhood areas.
The Menlo Park City Council meets Tuesday, Dec. 5, starting at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 701 Laurel St. in the Civic Center.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story indicated the city was considering a left-turn ban from the Pope-Chaucer bridge onto Woodland Avenue. The ban under consideration would be for right turns, according to Menlo Park transportation engineer Angela Obeso.