Ask almost anyone, and chances are they won’t be able to tell you what they were doing the morning of Sept. 27, 2016. But Palo Alto High School junior Renle Chu still remembers that foggy Tuesday morning like it was yesterday — she was hit by a car at the intersection of Churchill and Castilleja avenues.
“I just remember seeing the car and realizing in literally a second that I was going to get hit,” Chu says. “The impact was super fast and I just remember a huge blow to my body and suddenly I was on the ground laying on my side, super disoriented.”
Although Chu was grateful to not sustain serious injuries, she was shocked to discover that she bore legal responsibility for the accident — she had failed to notice a small sign warning bikers that cars do not stop. As a result, Chu had to finance the repairs for her bike and computer, both of which had been severely damaged.
“I couldn’t have her [the driver] pay for any of my bills or press charges even though she admitted that she was on her phone and that she didn’t see me,” Chu says.
However, even more shocking to Chu was that, following the accident, no permanent measures were taken to improve the safety of the intersection.
“After my accident, I know that they hired a security guard for a day, but after, it was like it was forgotten and it [the intersection] still remains very unsafe,” Chu says.
“After my accident, I know that they hired a security guard for a day, but after, it was like it was forgotten and it [the intersection] still remains very unsafe.”
— Renle Chu, junior
With dangers from this intersection and others remaining over a year since, the City of Palo Alto has begun to implement changes to improve bike safety near Paly, as well as construction of a bike boulevard on Ross Road, a common bike path for Paly students. While these projects aim to improve student bike safety, their actual effects, and direct implications on Paly students, must also be understood.
The Ross riddle
According to City of Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello, the purpose of the bike boulevards is to alleviate traffic along a common bike path for JLS Middle School, Paly and Gunn High School students.
“The elements along Ross Road are primarily intended to reduce speeds of motor vehicles and also the volume of motor vehicles.” Mello says.
These changes include the installation of concrete islands and roundabouts along Ross and neighboring roads, which make the roads narrower in hopes of forcing cars to slow down.
However, some residents, have expressed concern over the changes.
These disagreements have even motivated some residents to sign an electronic petition calling to halt the developments on Ross Road. As of mid-March, the petition had garnered over 700 signatures.
“This is dozens of neighbors trying to raise the alarm before an elementary school bike commuter is crushed by a minivan; before an ambulance is stranded on a concrete island,” the petition states.
The Paly perspective
Ross isn’t the only road that will undergo changes to improve bike safety, according to Palo Alto Safe Routes to School Coordinator Sylvia Star-Lack. In the coming months, students can expect to see changes happen even closer to home.
For one, the city hopes to reconfigure the intersection of Embarcadero Road and El Camino Real, which borders Paly, by implementing bicycle crossings and pedestrian crosswalks with protection islands. According to Star-Lack, construction should commence in late spring or early summer.
“This is a really important connection,” Star-Lack says. “Right now dealing with this intersection on Embarcadero and El Camino is a deterrent for bicyclists — nobody really likes to be there. But I think they [students] are really going to like the Embarcadero project when that’s done.”
In addition, in the next couple months the city will begin to construct a staircase with gutters for bike wheels on the infamous slope between Town and Country and the Embarcadero underpass.
“You would be able to walk up the steps rolling your bike along with you,” Star-Lack says. “You wouldn’t have to ride all the way over to the crosswalk anymore.”
Yet another project that should be underway by the end of this year involves widening the crossing at the tracks on Churchill Ave. which lie on a common bike path for Paly students.
“We’re thinking a lot about how to make it easier to bike to Paly,” Star-Lack says.
Back to Churchill
But what will happen to the intersection of Churchill and Castilleja avenues where Chu was hit? According to Star-Lack, although the city is trying to to improve the safety of this intersection by installing a button-operated flashing beacon, they have hit some roadblocks. These include pending approval from the school board to provide an easement and a barrier at the federal level.
“The flashing beacons were recalled because the federal government has said that they’re no longer approved,” Star-Lack says. “But we know we have to improve the crossing there.”
Regardless, Chu supports efforts to improve the intersection.
“One of the parents that saw me get hit said that her daughter actually got hit at the same intersection but it just wasn’t as serious,” Chu says. “It’s super important for crowded intersections to implement either a crossing guard or some kind of sign that tells … cars to slow down.”
For some students, the recent bike path reforms have reflected positively on Palo Alto’s bike-friendly reputation.
“Palo Alto is a pretty bikeable town compared to other towns,” says Paly sophomore Neil Kapoor. “The city has clearly recognized this [bike safety] as an issue and is doing something to change it. But there are always improvements that could be made.”
“The city has clearly recognized this [bike safety] as an issue and is doing something to change it. But there are always improvements that could be made.”
— Neil Kapoor, sophomore
Going forward, Star-Lack urges students to speak up about any issues or concerns they may have regarding bike safety around town, whether it’s using the Palo Alto 311 app to submit suggestions to improve bike routes, all of which are reviewed by Star-Lack herself, or by contacting council members directly.
“I know that students are out there every day biking and walking … you [students] see it every day — you know what the problems are,” Star-Lack says. “We want to hear from you how to fix it.”