“Traffic Garden” plan gains traction in Ventura

Children drive through the pop-up traffic garden installed at Fairmeadow Elementary School on October 3, 2023. Photo courtesy of Nara Cammack

Nara Cammack had her “eureka!” moment shortly after a memorable ride to school on El Camino Way when a young cyclist knocked her off her bike as he passed her and another rode over her arms, shouting, “Hey, sorry!” as he continued cycling.

Cammack, a rising 12th grader at Gunn High School, was a freshman at the time of the accident. She had a misaligned front wheel but no major injuries, and she learned the importance of bike education.

“I often see kids getting into accidents or engaging in dangerous cycling habits, like running a red light on El Camino Real,” 17-year-old Cammack said in an interview. “It wasn’t a big deal until I had a bike accident with another cyclist.”

“I was knocked off my bike and then run over. Then I thought, ‘Couldn’t this have happened if other people could ride bikes?'”

Now she’s doing something about it. Last year, she broke ground on Palo Alto’s first “traffic garden,” a bike path with tiny streets teeming with miniature versions of familiar things like roundabouts, crosswalks, stop signs and bus stops. They’re designed to give young children a safe place to learn the basics of cycling at their own pace. In a way, they’re cycling classrooms disguised as playgrounds.

At the same time, Cammack has navigated Palo Alto’s notoriously labyrinthine process at breakneck speed. She pitched her traffic garden idea to Rose Mesterhazy, the city’s Safe Routes to School coordinator – a collaborative project between the city, school district and parent volunteers that focuses on bike safety. She said Mesterhazy encouraged her to test the concept by creating a “pop-up” traffic garden during the city’s annual Bike Rodeo, an educational event for third-graders held at Fairmeadow Elementary School in October.

Then more allies joined her. The Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition provided Cammack with an educational route that she used in her pop-up garden. It took a few hours to create and required a bit of chalk. The event, she said, was a huge success.

“People came with their families and children and drove through the traffic garden. Everyone had a great time,” Cammack said.

About 100 people also signed Cammock’s petition calling on the city to create a permanent traffic garden. The petition points out that more than 50% of Palo Alto’s middle and high school students ride their bikes to school every day. The city’s one-day hands-on bike safety training offered to third-graders is not enough, the petition says.

“The opportunity to practice should be available year-round,” the petition states. “While there is a vast system of public parks and squares with extensive sports and recreational facilities, there is not a single park in Palo Alto with an area where children can practice and learn bicycle safety to reduce the number of injuries or deaths while riding bicycles on our streets.”

Cammack’s vision also resonated with City Hall. She spoke with staff from the Department of Community Services (which oversees parks and recreation programs), the Department of Public Works (which designs and builds playgrounds, among other things) and the Transportation Department, and received support from Peter Jensen, the city’s landscape architect. Cammack also said she spoke with Jeff Greenfield, a longtime member and former chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, who is a strong supporter of the project.

Cammack said she initially considered creating a traffic garden in Robles Park, which was already slated for upgrades. Jensen suggested the Ventura Community Center, a city-owned campus off Ventura Court with a paved area and no designated use.

“One of the really great things about the Ventura Community Center is that there is a lot of asphalt space there that isn’t being used at all. There are no basketball courts and the surface isn’t currently painted, so a traffic garden there wouldn’t displace anything else,” Cammack said.

Jensen noted in a report that city staff met with Palo Alto Community Children Care, a nonprofit that leases the Ventura Community Center from the city. The nonprofit indicated it “sees great value in a traffic garden in Palo Alto” and supports its establishment at the Ventura Community Center site, Jensen wrote.

The effort received another boost on June 25, when the full Parks and Recreation Commission received Cammack’s presentation and enthusiastically supported her proposal for a Ventura traffic garden. Cammack showed the commission videos and photos of existing traffic gardens in Roanoke, Virginia; Seattle, Washington; and Salinas, and made the case for building the Bay Area’s first traffic garden in Palo Alto.

“Children love to play,” Cammack told the commission. “By giving them the opportunity to learn to play, we give them the opportunity to learn through play.”

Cammack is facing a deadline of her own. Her passion project is also her Girl Scout project, which she must complete before she graduates from Gunn next year. To get things started, she’s trying to raise $20,000, which is how much the city estimates the traffic garden will cost. So far, she has about $3,000, but she plans to reach out to the Friends of Palo Alto Parks and other potential donors in the community in the coming weeks.

The construction itself, she noted, would only take about two to three days, as a traffic garden is built using stencil patterns and readily available equipment. She hopes a contractor could donate some time and expertise, she said.

Greenfield called the project a “big deal” and praised Cammack for pursuing a project that will benefit the community in the long term.

“It’s fantastic that we’ve been able to evolve the project into something that’s really simple and straightforward to do at a relatively reasonable cost,” Greenfield said at the meeting.

The city has released the concept plan for the proposed traffic garden at the Ventura Community Center. Courtesy of the City of Palo Alto.

His colleagues were equally enthusiastic. Commissioner Bing Wei floated the idea of ​​creating traffic gardens in schools across the city, while Commissioner Joy Oche said she hoped the traffic garden would “serve as an example for young people to develop more community projects.”

Steve Castile, deputy director of the Department of Community Services, called the planned traffic garden a “wonderful project.”

“What a great idea. Very inspiring,” Castile said. “When I first looked at it, I thought it was a very big and ambitious project, but after talking to (Nara) and understanding the enthusiasm for it, we are definitely behind it and support it as it moves forward,” Castile said at the hearing.

According to Jensen’s report, the traffic garden will include four- and three-stop intersections, crosswalks, a shoulder and a roundabout. The Transportation Department and the Safe Routes to School team will also consult with Fionnuala Quinn, a national expert in traffic garden construction. The city and its consultants will also consider ways to integrate the new traffic garden into the Bike Rodeo curriculum. That could mean using the facility as an alternative school event off school grounds or as an option for students who may not have been able to attend their school event.

Although education is the focus, Cammack said in an interview that she hopes that is not the only priority. She wants to see what is currently an unused space become a vibrant and valuable space.

“I really hope it will be a happy, fun place for kids and families to practice their bike skills without it feeling like an educational burden, and I hope it becomes more than just a place to help educate people, but more like a park,” Cammack said.