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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Can cities handle our traffic mess? I doubt it!

Uploaded: Jul 9, 2019
Can Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities ever find a way to diminish the terrible traffic congestion problems we all are experiencing, particularly during commute hours? I am more of a skeptic every day.

Palo Alto is trying, but it’s going to be a struggle. The city created PATMA (Palo Alto Transportation and Management Association) a couple of years ago and that organization so far has received more than $1.2 million the past two years from the city to get people not to use their cars to get into town. They’ve had some success since this fledgling organization started – some 330 trips, by their count, have been eliminated. Cost of that? About $1,800 per vehicle. PATMA’s goal for December 2019 – five months from now – a total of 397 cars. The city’s funding for the program will inexorably surge the next couple of years.

But the traffic problems will inevitably worsen. Take a look at all the new buildings, especially offices, in the Menlo Park-Palo Alto-Mountain View area. Thousands of square feet accommodating thousands of jobs, many of them new. And when people get these jobs, they need housing (which this area now lacks), more schools and cars for the workers and their families. Ipso facto, the result is more traffic. And it’s a big regional problem.

PATMO Executive Director Steve Raney agrees he’s got a hard task in front of him – reducing traffic is a challenging problem that has to be tackled step by step. He quoted Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada’s response about the traffic problem: “You can make it better. You can deal with traffic hot spots. You can manage traffic, but you can never completely solve it.”

Raney told me TMA programs ($1,800 per car eliminated) are cheaper than building a parking garage downtown. Right – and wrong. Garages cost $60,000-plus per space, so he’s right it’s cheaper, but garages serve a community day and night for years on end, so we’re not just talking about 397 cars that won’t use a garage.

So what is PATMA doing to solve this problem? Diligently talking with employers and employees to reduce single vehicle commute trips, paying $163/month for Caltrain passes to get low-income employees to use Caltrain to commute to work, paying $10 for early morning and after 8 p.m. Lyft rides so employees who live nearby can get home (BTW, Lyft is a car on the road, and Lyft and Ubers have caused more traffic in NYC than the city ever experienced), creating a long-term education program so residents, visitors and shoppers can use public transit, bikes or their feet to get downtown, and provide some incentives to do all this.

Yet let’s face it, our public transit program is inept. Next year 2020, PATMA plans to concentrate on California Avenue and work on eliminating single vehicle drivers. With a proposed 2021 program, the cost to the city is an anticipated $2.86 million a year. Their goal is to eliminate some 3,500 solo drivers. Gold stars for trying.

But in reality, 3,500 is just a drop in the bucket, and I think they know it and we know it, as much as city councils that pour money into organizations like this know it.

Their problem is people like me. I like my car. It gets me quickly where I want to go. I don’t drive much (2,500/miles/year), just around town, and I DON’T BIKE. I am a terrible biker. I ran into a tree as a college biker and had to be carried away; I’ve fallen off my bike at least six times, and now, as a senior citizen, I simply can’t bike, given my balance issues. I’m not the only one.

Part of our regional problem is the result of our last 10 years of area city council members encouraging more and more developers to build, so their cities can thrive as more and more companies want to locate in the Valley. During this decade, councils haven’t insisted on developers providing enough parking for future building occupants. “Don’t worry about that,” they kindly said, and, as I paraphrase, “Just build a plaza/statues/benches/tiny park by your office building instead.”

And therein lies our traffic problem. More buildings, employees and cars. And not surprisingly, I’ve never heard any city officials accept the blame for causing all these traffic and overcrowding problems. But that’s another column.
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Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 9, 2019 at 8:30 pm

The facts you list are all completely true. I hasten to add though that you have not mentioned the one other fact that is public transport.

To give Caltrain passes assumes that Caltrain is running with empty seats at commute time. There is no truth in this and even with electrification and extra trains, Caltrain cannot solve getting riders from across the Bay, from the Coast, to and from our airports, to those working graveyard shifts, etc. and the first and last mile problem is not dealt with.

Better public transportation needs to take these factors into account including crossing city and county boundaries.

VTA has recently been given a failing grade as a public service provider. The worst in the country.

Without comprehensive public transport for those commuters and regular travelers such as school children should be a given. The fact that Google et al can run better transportation services for their workers than the transit agencies begs me to ask why we are not asking them to aid the rest of the community?

We need to comprehensively redo public transportation in the Bay Area as a region. Unless the whole region rewrites everything presently done for the public to use comprehensive transit as an affordable, efficient service that is an alternative commute, as opposed to looking at buses as serving poor communities that are not able to afford their own cars, we are not going to get anywhere.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 9, 2019 at 8:57 pm

The city is doing way too much to try and influence the situation, they end up wasting a whole lot of taxpayer money and actually making the situation worse. They should leave well enough alone.
I'm always gonna be opposed to punitive solutions. They are either directly punishing car drivers, or neglecting car drivers entirely as if they don't even exist, and then they're surprised that there's traffic!
What I see is a group of high-minded bureaucrats who fantasize about turning the region into Denmark, instead of elected representatives doing their job of serving the people.
The traffic situation isn't merely caused by companies trying to expand their businesses or employees drawn to a place where they can find high-paying jobs. The government has blood on their hands. The traffic has been exacerbated immensely by failed government experiments and gross mismanagement (a perfect example was when they shut down a lane on 101, took forever to finish the project, only to shut down the lane for another 2 years because of the JPA flood control and worrying about endangered bird species), justified by a demonization campaign against the "single-occupant commuter" and "cars are bad now" just like "plastic is bad now" even both are absolutely essential things in our lives that we can't suddenly live without overnight.

Posted by Oldster, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jul 10, 2019 at 1:39 pm

The day City of Palo Alto City Councilmembers give up their special parking spaces at the City Hall gatage is the day I could believe those "let them eat cake" aristocrats might start working for us commoners instead of for the revolving door class of people who got us into this traffic mess.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:25 pm

Of course it's not going to get better. The city refuses to impose a moratorium on office construction while it continues to waste our tax dollars narrowing roads to create more congestion and pollution and then wastes more money preaching at US -- not the commuters, not their employers -- to get out of our cars.

Maybe they should start paying US for all the time we're stuck in traffic instead of paying for the commuters' expenses!

What an expensive farce.

Anyone on looked at the mess on Charles ton lately?

Posted by Citizen in PA, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:53 pm

Public Transportation needs a major overhaul!

Ask the Europeans hpw they have managed to make their public transit seamless! The Swiss have public transit perfected.

Palo Alto City Council should send the transportation Board to Basel and hire them. CA State and USA public transportation needs a major overhaul too.

Stop the Oil Industry from keeping our country in the dark ages!

Posted by Stop Castilleja Expansion, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 4:13 pm

City Council and Planning say they want to protect cyclings and safe routes to work, yet they have spent three years trying to make Castilleja's planned expansion compliant in order to satisfy the school (not a taxpayer, just benefits from our services).

The featured variance/craziness is the proposed single entrance to an underground garage on Bryant Bike Boulevard. And they may want to commandeer one lane of Embarcadero when they so desire.

It's all about loyalties, not fairness.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 4:19 pm

All new commercial construction must incorporate sufficient housing to accommodate its employees. That won't address the excesses of the past, but it will contain the future problem.

Posted by PA Grandma, a resident of Community Center,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 7:35 pm

Traffic will not get better with any of the proposed city schemes. The city is so oversubscribed with current and future jobs that the only thing that will possibly at least keep the barely viable status quo is to STOP DEVELOPMENT! And any plans in the pipeline should include parking for every worker. Any future plans should include both parking and housing.

Diamond doesn't mention Stanford's expansions here, but the volume of cars that will start pouring through our streets will increase traffic dramatically. Stanford must provide housing and parking for their future employees.

Public transportation that really worked would be fantastic. But it's a lovely pipe dream at this point. Where are more rail lines going to go? How much housing will be demolished to widen streets? What happens when fleets of Google/Facebook giant busses start adding to the traffic?

We are never going to get control of this until development stops.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jul 12, 2019 at 5:58 am

mauricio is a registered user.

More development means more traffic and no delusional talk of public transportation will change that reality. The odds cities can handle the traffic mess are zero.. Unless development is halted and tech companies stop expanding and hiring and move elsewhere, the traffic mess, already horrible, will become nightmarish.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 12, 2019 at 8:08 am

I think we're already at "nightmarish". They want to bring the level of congestion up to "apocalyptic" so that driving is literally not viable anymore.

As long as these people are in power, they may yet achieve their goal of forcing us out of cars and achieving a green utopia, even if it takes a scorched earth method of doing it.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 12, 2019 at 8:49 am

San Francisco and NYC, among others, have worse traffic due to Uber and Lyft drivers circling until such time as they get their next ride. SFO airport is rerouting ride share pickups and dropoffs to improve traffic circulation at its terminals.

For whatever reasons, these Uber and Lyfts are becoming a good choice for many people to get where they want to go. Whether they do it regularly, frequently or seldom, they are choosing to ride share rather than walk, drive, or use public transportation. I myself use them, not often, but they are handy and they have the bonus of not requiring to find a parking spot at destination.

We don't have school buses and many parents drive their kids to school for multiple reasons.

When school is out, there is less traffic. When it rains, there is more traffic with less people on bikes. With less shopping choices, people are driving further to get basics. Every time an OSH closes, people drive extra miles to get whatever they need. Every time a home is built without adequate parking, it means more cars parking on streets. ADUs, underparked developments, RPPs, all ignore the reality that cars still need to park when they are not in use. When cars move they are traffic, when they are still they require parking. That is the reality.

Palo Alto is way too congested with people, workers, residents, renters, homebuyers, visitors, Ubers, etc. We are not urban and were never designed to be urban. We are suburban, we are leafy streets, pleasant neighborhoods, residents looking for R & R near home, and we enjoy our Palo Alto that way. We do not want to turn into Manhattan. We want to be suburbia.

Posted by Physics is the problem, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Jul 12, 2019 at 1:12 pm

The reason we have traffic is because of too many cars all trying to use the same finite amount of space. There is NO FIX for that except to increase the space or decrease the cars. It's been a warning call for only about 30 and we've done nothing but add more cars. It was still bad in the 90's with less cars and no "dieted" roads. Now we have a lot more cars so road diets or not, traffic will suck loudly...because of too many cars all trying to use the same finite amount of space.

The sad answer is that traffic will only improve when enough people stop using their cars. If you can have to use a car 100% of the time, I'd be working like hell to help others get out of their cars so your traffic might be better.

If you want better traffic for those on the road you have to reduce the amount of cars. Science and technology cannot help those who deny physics.

Posted by Kait, a resident of another community,
on Jul 13, 2019 at 7:38 am

Another solution is one tech employers have used for years: Work-from-home days. Most of my tech employers have had a standard one-day-per-week WFH policy. Many employees simply do not need to be onsite to be productive. In fact, many studies have found that people are more effective when they work from home.

Add to that the fact that employees aren't losing hours of commute time each day, and the resulting benefits of lowered stress, traffic, and environmental damage clearly show that having a strong WFH policy is a big plus. It won't solve the entire traffic problem, but it'll sure help, especially when employers start allowing employees to WFH more than one day per week.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jul 13, 2019 at 11:03 am

mauricio is a registered user.

Working from home would be helpful at the margins, but not make a significant dent regarding the traffic disaster. The original sin was in converting suburbia and a small college town into a major job center. They are fundamentally incapable of supporting major job centers, especially infrastructure-wise, as their roads are singularity unsuitable for the resulting traffic mess, not even considering the housing issues involved. It is like tasking a small 4 cylinder Honda to haul heavy boulders up a mountain, and that's why local municipalities will never be able to even slow down the worsening traffic disaster, let alone solve the problem.

The rational behind allowing suburbia to become a major job center was so flawed and corrupt it is mind boggling that those responsible, at least on of whom is still serving on the Palo Alto CC, and is a major mentor to younger mega development politicians was not discarded by the voters and paid no political price for this disaster

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 13, 2019 at 3:29 pm

"it is mind boggling that those responsible, at least on of whom is still serving on the Palo Alto CC, [snip] was not discarded by the voters and paid no political price for this disaster"

Palo Alto needs more effective, objective voter education. Else the voters pick the familiar names, or rely on the candidates' own (too often mis)representation of themselves.

Posted by No hope, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 13, 2019 at 8:11 pm

Where is all the traffic going to flow when they close Churchill and Palo Alto. Ave due to grade separation. The Stanford expansion will also exacerbate the problem. City council has no solution other than opting for the easiest solution and not thinking long term.

Palo Alto has been completely asleep on this one. Embarcadero and Page Mill will grind to a halt.

Posted by 15% here, 10% there, another 10% somewhere else, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Jul 16, 2019 at 4:55 pm

I agree the only solution is to reduce the amount of cars on the road, but it won;t be one soluiton. 10% more people riding bikes 50% of the time, 10% taking the bus or train,15% working from home 1 0r 2 days a all adds up! The "marginal" fixes, when assembled together creates a great reduction in car trips which is the ONLY solution to our traffic issues.
Everyone should be backing more programs to make it easier to get out of your car, at least some of the time so when you have to drive, there are less cars and less traffic.

Posted by Arastradero Rd Mess, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 26, 2019 at 8:16 am

The traffic mess caused by the Arastradero Rd changes is the biggest reason why all city council members should be replaced! Traffic is not balanced. It is making it safer to bike, but more dangerous to drive. Reduced driving lanes, more narrow roads, dangerous short merges into single lands, tighter corners so you hit on-coming traffic, all add to more road rage! The road changes will cause more accidents for drivers.

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