The issue came up during a meeting about local development, scheduled in an effort to reach out to residents following the fractious referendum on Measure D. That measure, which was defeated, asked the public to affirm rezoning of a site on Maybell Avenue to include dense senior housing and market-rate single-family homes.
As part of a discussion on the city's update of its Comprehensive Plan, which guides development, staff included a graph that showed traffic totals in Palo Alto falling, along with graphs that depicted a rising number of jobs, housing units, population and development
For several council members, the traffic graph didn't pass the "smell test."
Councilman Greg Schmid was first to sound the alarm.
"It's ... funny, driving around town seems to take longer, even though traffic is down 20 percent," he said.
Schmid's own analysis, using base measurements from 1996 to 2009, found that the delay was actually increased 19 to 20 percent, he said.
Palo Alto's new planning director Hillary Gitelman acknowledged that the results could be seen as counterintuitive but said traffic volume isn't the sole determinant of congestion, citing factors such as conflicting movement of vehicles and the capabilities of traffic signals.
Councilman Pat Burt said he was incredulous about the traffic numbers. A population increase from 58,598 in 2000 to 64,403 in 2010 and an increase of jobs in the city from 75,000 to 90,000 in the same time period couldn't possibly amount to a 20 percent reduction in traffic, he said.
"I understand there are other factors, but they can't explain this," he said, highlighting the need to re-establish trust with development-weary residents. "If the data isn't correct or doesn't pass the smell test, we're not establishing credibility within the community. This is as off as any data I've seen."
In suggesting a solution to traffic woes, Burt favored establishing a business registry for companies in Palo Alto aimed at helping the city determine what the company's effects on traffic and parking are. Using the registry, the city could levy a business-license tax on larger companies that exceed a cap on employees and therefore contribute more to congestion.
Though he said he thought the city had made progress on parking issues, Mayor Greg Sharff said he was still frustrated that the city hadn't built a new parking garage downtown, which he said would be critical in the short-term to easing downtown's infamous parking shortages.
Scharff said he agreed with Burt in that the council has to be able to trust the data that city staff supplies it.
"You can't make decisions without the right data," he said, pointing out that flaws in the staff report — such as listing the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park as a planned-community zone — makes residents question the correct information.
Scharff put part of the blame on the heavy workload on the city's planning department, with 21 proposals for development, a stiff deadline to complete the city's contentious "housing element" plan before facing harsh state penalties and the ongoing slog to update the city's Comprehensive Plan. He proposed that staff come back with a plan to increase staffing in the department to handle the extra workload.
City Manager James Keene defended the use of the data in the Comprehensive Plan discussion.
"We didn't draw any conclusions from the data. In fact, we were careful not to," he said.
The graphs were intended as more of an illustrative aid to put the Comprehensive Plan discussion into focus, he said, and extensive traffic numbers would require a different degree of data and research.
"You have to consider what that kind of data initiative is going to look like — it can't be just traffic numbers for one year, it's got to be for 50 years," he said. "There's got to be some tolerance that sometimes (the information is) not going to be perfectly right, and if it is (going to be perfect), we're going to have to slow down the process."