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Traffic looms large in Pat Burt's 'State of the City' speech

Mayor cites steep transportation challenges, potential solutions during annual update

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Steep housing prices, excessive office growth and a prolonged drought all loom as challenges for Palo Alto's future, but it was the city's efforts to deal with worsening traffic and parking problems that dominated Mayor Pat Burt's "State of the City" speech Wednesday night.

Delivered at the Mitchell Park Community Center, Burt's speech highlighted the city's recent efforts to repair its aged infrastructure, make progress on a new public-safety building and meet aggressive sustainability goals, including a carbon-neutral electricity portfolio. He mentioned the council's moves to protect local retail, its efforts to reform employee benefits, its completed renovations of California Avenue and El Camino Park, and its prolonged effort to expand ultra-high-speed Internet to nearly every home in the city through a fiber network -- an effort that he suggested may finally net progress in the weeks ahead.

But it was the city's most visible challenges -- traffic congestion and parking shortages -- that drew the most attention, with Burt borrowing the old Clinton-era slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," and applying it to transportation, the council's top priority for 2016.

"We have in many of our intersection, through a lot of the day, really unmanageable, overwhelming traffic," Burt said. "This is really a big problem and one where the solution isn't going to be simple."

And this problem drives another: parking spillover that is affecting residential neighborhoods, he said.

To tackle these twin challenges, Burt said, the city has recently formed a new nonprofit, known as a Transportation Management Association (TMA), charged with getting commuters to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. The association is one of the city's primary tools for reducing the number of solo drivers in downtown by 30 percent.

Though it remains to be seen whether the city meets this goal, there are some promising signs on the horizon. The council will hear next month an update report on the TMA, which last month became an official nonprofit. At the same time, the large employers at Stanford Research Park have joined to form their own association.

Burt said that when the council requested Stanford Research Park to take steps to reduce the number of car trips going to and from the research park, the companies indicated that they're already moving ahead with a plan to do so.

"They explained that they're moving in that direction because the businesses in the Research Park see traffic congestion as the biggest threat to the well-being of their businesses," Burt said. "So the very thing that we as residents see as problems, we see businesses seeing as a problem as well. Out of that convergence of that issue and challenge, we have the opportunity to really address it and solve it."

Regional transportation projects also offer hope for relief, particularly Caltrain's electrification project, which will nearly double the system's capacity and result in a "faster and cleaner system." On the local front, the city is in the midst of developing more than a dozen bike projects, with the goal of further improving its hugely successful Safe Routes to School program. Thanks to the program, Burt noted, close to 45 percent of the city's high school students now ride bikes to school, up from about 10 percent 15 years ago. And as fewer people drive, the school corridors become safer for biking, which in turn encourages more people to bike.

"We went from a vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle," Burt said, referring to the school biking program. "We can do this throughout our community."

For an example of what's possible, Burt pointed to Copenhagen, where about 50 percent of the residents rely on bikes, despite Denmark's harsher weather patterns.

"Imagine what we can have in some of the best weather on the planet," Burt said.

Shifting behavior patterns also offer some encouragement, with more young people eschewing cars these days, he said. Many people in their 20s don't even have driver's licenses, much less cars, Burt said.

"We are in the midst of a really significant shift in our transportation modes, and patterns and technologies that is shocking," Burt said. "A year ago, I didn't believe a lot of this was going to be happening to the degree it appears that it may."

Palo Alto's traffic challenges also loom large in the city's policies on new developments. Last year, the council adopted an annual cap on new office buildings in the three primary commercial areas: downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real. If the new projects total over 50,000 square feet, they would have to vie for approval in a "beauty contest." Traffic and parking impacts are among the criteria the city will consider in approving new projects, Burt noted.

"That competition is about who has the least impact on trip generation and parking spillover," Burt said. "Which building is the most architecturally outstanding -- not just adequate but outstanding? Which is the most sustainable building? Which might have other community benefits relating to what they're doing?"

Burt also echoed many recent community criticisms when he said he believes some of the new developments have not been the type of structures the community needs.

"We need to have buildings that relate to the street and are warm and engaging and have enough retail in them ..." Burt said.

Given the rising cost of housing, which Burt noted is "among the most expensive in the country," the city has a challenge to build housing that will "minimize and not contribute to trip generation" and not overwhelm the school system. This, he said, means focusing on small apartments that would appeal to young professionals and seniors. It also means concentrating new housing near transit-rich areas, most notably the two downtown districts.

In addition to transportation and development, Burt devoted a good portion of his roughly 50-minute speech to sustainability, both as it relates to the environment and to the city's finances. He stressed the importance of the city's new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, which will establish aggressive new greenhouse-gas reduction goals.

He also made a case for water purification and pointed to San Jose, where a water plant currently produces water that is purer than existing tap water. Given that the energy cost for water purification is "dropping drastically," exploring this alternative could have substantial financial benefits for a city at a time when the price of Hetch Hetchy water is rising dramatically.

Burt also cited the council's recent reforms to employee benefits, changes that now require workers to contribute more toward their own pensions and health care costs. As a result, the city is now in "the strongest shape we've been in a long while with our city's finances."

Even so, Burt warned that the work is not done and that the city will have to continue its work on ensuring that long-term costs are contained.

"We're talking about having to work through negotiations to get all of our city employees to ultimately participate in making our budget long-term sustainable so we can invest in our future and so that our children can have the sort of the community that we have been able to enjoy," Burt said.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


16 people like this
Posted by Sequoia
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 25, 2016 at 7:33 am

Sequoia is a registered user.

Congratulations to Mayor Burt for a thoughtful and inspiring State of the City presentation.

With so much of the media coverage on Palo Alto's challenges I was pleased to hear about our accomplishments celebrating recent improvements in our infrastructure, safe routes to school program impacts (avoiding >10,000 car trips every school day), and changing our electricity to carbon neutral sources to name a few.

Loved seeing the student-made Carbon Neutral rap video: Web Link

Feeling proud of our fine city's leadership!

13 people like this
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 25, 2016 at 7:44 am

Burt is utterly clueless.
Trying to phase out cars is regressive.
The transportation association will attempt to drive an unstoppable force into an immovable object.

You think congestion is bad? You ain't seen nothing yet.

27 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 25, 2016 at 7:47 am

We agree that the city needs to do more to encourage non-car commuting. This includes more bike lanes and more bus routes, and not just around downtown. Bus routes around the southern part of the city are really terrible. And we need much better bicycle and pedestrian routes from Midtown across across the Caltrain tracks to the California Ave train station.

10 people like this
Posted by Housing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2016 at 7:56 am

It's inspiring to see the Mayor talk about additional housing to address skyrocketing housing prices. But it's hard to square with the new scenario the Council asked for on Monday. If it wants to address the desire of residents for more housing, the Council will need actions, not its words.

16 people like this
Posted by pacsailor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2016 at 8:01 am

If there is no alternative to cars how can people go from one place to another, not everyone can bike there is a large senior community amongst us that is unable to bike. When a person goes shopping there is no way to use a bike to carry large shopping bags. Better and more frequent buses are the answer. We also need to realize that the majority of the solution is regional and not just local.

11 people like this
Posted by Sequoia
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 25, 2016 at 8:28 am

Sequoia is a registered user.

To pacsailor:

I agree SOME seniors/disabled are unable to bike but more seniors than ever are very active and may not have ever TRIED using a sturdy "city-style" bike to run errands and get to appointments around town. With new electric bikes, you can go far with little effort!

I do much of my grocery shopping by bike using either panniers or a trailer.
I have great lights, safety vest and rain gear and commute by bike year round.
I plan to buy an electric bike in the future to increase my range and lower the amount of time spent in my car. It usually is FASTER to travel by bike in Palo Alto during high traffic periods.

I wish we had safer routes to get to Mountain View and Redwood City for movies, shopping etc.

I wish we had more safe places to lock our bikes. Most old bike racks around town are terrible.

16 people like this
Posted by cars and bikes
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 25, 2016 at 8:30 am


I didn't hear Mayor Burt say he wanted to phase out cars. He wants to phase in biking for more transportation. 50% of middle schoolers now bike to school - and it has made congestion near schools less bad than it could be AND the middle schoolers are learning independence and getting some extra exercise. This is a town made for biking- great weather, flat as a pancake, plenty of pleasant routes. Don't knock it until you try it. It adds to quality of life - not detracts. Plus, when you do need to use a car, there would be more parking spaces available.

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2016 at 9:20 am

I do agree that we should be doing more to encourage people to get out of their cars, but that is only part of the problem.

We have no school buses and school commutes provide a great deal of the traffic. Improving shuttles to schools for everyone, not just students, would help. These do not have to be free, but they have to be efficient and reliable.

Similar shuttles at highway exit points with parking lots would also help.

As residents, we can and do walk, bike and drive, but shuttles are really only viable for regular commuting.

Parking is ridiculous and complicated - especially for occasional business users as well as visitors to town.

People want to cross into other cities, particularly south PA into Mountain View, and north PA into Menlo. Both of these are not easy to do by anything other than car even for a reasonably short trip.

If the City can promote alternatives within town and cooperate with neighboring towns to improve things it would help.

Most of what is being done at present is stumbling blocks. I want to see some effort being put into solutions rather than making obstacles in our traffic/parking issues.

And, I am saying this from the point of view of a family that walks, uses bikes and occasional public transportation. Let's do better.

12 people like this
Posted by Council watcher
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 25, 2016 at 11:49 am

It is politically safe to be upset about traffic. Who isn't?
There is no doubt that Burt is an intelligent and charismatic speaker. He has taken a lot of us in with his very effective speeches. But his votes on crucial issues belie his words.
He can’t be trusted. Look at his VOTES.

Burt’s votes on CRUCIAL issues:

1 He voted YES for development advocate real estate lawyer Scharff as Vice Mayor. Burt was the fifth vote, joining development advocates Wolbach, Kniss, Berman and Scharff.
Web Link
Web Link

2 Burt voted NOT to reappoint Susan Fineberg to the Planning Commission in July 2012.

3 Burt voted IN FAVOR of the huge underparked office building at the corner of Lytton and Alma.

4 Burt voted FOR development advocate Alcheck for Planning Commissioner: Burt, Espinosa, Klein, Scharff, July 31, 2012

Yet some gullible so called residentialists support him. You figure it out.

18 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 25, 2016 at 1:56 pm

People want to be fooled. Enough Residentialists voted for Wallach and Scharff to get them elected.

@Housing, there is no desire from residents for more housing. There is a desire from mostly non residents to make housing available and affordable to them, as if Palo Alto is a sardine can that can absorb all the millions of people who desire to live here..

16 people like this
Posted by Resident of Palo Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2016 at 2:57 pm

I've been watching Council meetings for 17 years. Most of Burt's vote place him as a moderate on growth. He is consistently in support of thoughtful transportation policy. He is prudent with finance--has served capably on the Finance Committee.

He and I don't always agree, but he usually has good reasons for his positions.

If you cherry pick votes of any Council member out of context, you can make a case for anything.

Mauricio, I'm a resident, and I am in favor of some new housing. You don't speak for me. I thought Burt's speech (and most of his past votes) have been pretty thoughtful.

2 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 25, 2016 at 4:08 pm

Resident of Palo Alto, and you most definitely don't speak for me.

3 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2016 at 4:29 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 25, 2016 at 4:39 pm

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by PA Housing Advocate
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2016 at 4:49 pm

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 25, 2016 at 7:33 pm

Palo Alto is not Copenhagen This is another example of taking something out of context.

On the other hand maybe the Mayor is saying that Palo Alto should build up its density, replace all the single family homes throughout the city with multi-story buildings, bring in large amount of business and commercial enterprises and spread them throughout the city and build a large scale transit system, then maybe you can start comparing Palo Alto to Copenhagen.

If he means it then the first thing to do is ban any more detached single family homes from anywhere in the city.


Like this comment
Posted by PA Housing Advocate
a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Right on, Marc!

13 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 25, 2016 at 9:08 pm

You can't ride a bike to buy groceries, pick your kid up after soccer practice, go to the cleaners, etc. The city made a lot of bad pro development decisions that has hurt the quality of life in PA.

6 people like this
Posted by Council watcher
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 25, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Resident thinks the votes I enumerated are cherry picking. Wrong. I remembered them because I was surprised by the betrayal.

These are highly significant votes, appointments to the Planning Commission and the Vice Mayor. Votes that affect the future of the city. And they are all in favor of pro-development interests. The effects of these appointments are felt for years. Think about them when you are stuck in traffic or observe another oversized office being built.

If you can point to Burt's votes that are good for us Palo Altans and our community, let us know. Not just heartwarming speeches.

BTW the developers of Lytton Gateway considered him worthy of substantial support after that vote. Check his campaign contributions.

1 person likes this
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 25, 2016 at 11:28 pm

Palo Altan: I do all of those things by bike, and in fact, our family got rid of one of our cars and most of our trips are now on bicycle. Palo Alto is great for cycling, and it's fantastic that city council is working at creating more routes.

It'd be really, really great to see another bike/ped underpass under the Caltrain tracks between Cal Ave and Meadow. This personally causes me to ride an extra three miles every day. My waist line appreciates it, however, sometimes you just want to get the kids to school quickly.

9 people like this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 26, 2016 at 1:06 am

I ride my bike to shop for groceries, when my kids had soccer or after school activities, they could handle their own transportation by the time they were 13. Every now and then I have a trip that requires a car, 90% of my trips do not. Thank goodness. And, as Mayor Burt says, the parking is easy.

4 people like this
Posted by hopeful
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 26, 2016 at 4:31 am

If our friends at local tech companies can design driverless cars,
can't we get their help with smarter traffic lights?


I beg you Mr. Red Light,

Notice what a human would notice, that there's nobody coming the other direction, that the bicyclist pushed the walk button and then fled, that the pedestrian is already safely across.

3 people like this
Posted by Rita
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 26, 2016 at 7:58 am

I attended Mayor Burt's excellent speech and thought it was very well covered in this article.

Most of us agree that traffic and parking are terrible; too many large under parked buildings and the 3+ to 1 job ratio. I agree traffic could have been addressed building by building. As Greg Schmidt keeps saying "traffic is cumulative". Glad he is finally being heard.

At least the issue is being discussed and hopefully building under parking will decrease. Shuttles and "last mile" alternative transportation were discussed by Mayor Burt.

I again would encourage all who are unhappy with Palo alto's direction or specific topics to join others and come to the CC, Planing and Transportation or ARB meetings and stand up and speak. Emails to the CC are also appreciated.

It is so easy to criticize. Becoming involved is a LOT more work but much more helpful.. IT does work.

6 people like this
Posted by Steve Raney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2016 at 1:41 pm

1. To me, some of the anti-housing arguments break The Golden Rule. I recommend taking a more constructive, empathetic position such as "I understand the severe housing shortage and the deleterious regional impact of PA's jobs/housing imbalance. I am in favor of taking some action, including:
* new projects and policies to reduce traffic
* innovation
* pilot housing projects with empirically-based traffic reduction policies."

2. SPUR’s Egon Terplan has a great youtube video on decades of Bay Area housing-underproduction: Web Link

Some actions we can take:

3. Enact a "city-wide trip cap" to reduce single occupancy vehicle commuting from 75% to 50%. If we poll Palo Altans, I believe there is a supermajority in favor. This will reduce about 50,000 car trips per week day in Palo Alto.

Within the last two years, the cities of Menlo Park, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Cupertino enacted "trip caps" on new development projects. These trip caps motivate employers to adopt strategies to reduce their employees' single occupancy vehicle commute mode share.

4. Stanford leases 27 University Ave to Palo Alto. Palo Alto sub-leases to VTA. The lease comes up for renewal in June. Develop a pilot project proposal for a number of low-impact, low-driving, affordable-by-design microunit apartments. Preference the housing for Stanford people, to further reduce PA traffic. Details: Web Link

Measure the actual driving behavior of the pilot project residents in order to ascertain whether we should scale up production of this type of housing.

5. The most cost-effective alternatives to driving alone are:
* biking, foldable electric scooters, electric bikes
* walking
* carpooling
* filling up seats on existing transit service.

There is empirical evidence that people shift to carpooling when other options aren't so great. Some comments yearn for a big increase in public transit, but this is often not the most cost-effective approach.

6. Northern European cities have very high rates of biking with plenty of senior citizens biking. The main difference between Nothern Europe and PA is the social expectation surrounding biking. It's all in our wimpy mind-set.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2016 at 2:09 pm

I have driven (or been driven) to either SFO or SJC 7 times in the past two months to drop off, pick up or to travel myself and I have to do a pickup within the next week. On each occasion there was a single occupancy driver in the car for one way.

I feel that this is fairly typical for Palo Alto people.

There is no sensible option for getting to and from the airports in a reasonable amount of time and with multiple travelers it can get expensive too. True there are pick up shuttles, but they don't run cheap for a family and can be inconvenient.

It would be a good enterprise for an innovative company to use luxury buses running at approximately one hour between these airports with say a dozen off highway stops at places convenient for transfers. I would much prefer to take someone to one of these buses at say Baylands or San Antonio, than waste my time and add to highway traffic. My last round trip for a late afternoon drop off at SFO was nearly 2 hours in the car for me as traffic was particularly heavy in both directions and carpool lanes only last as far as north Redwood City.

Why don't we have good airport bus rides?

Like this comment
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 27, 2016 at 3:19 pm

@Steve Raney

The most pressing issue is congestion... and your response is to make it even worse? It's destructive in the short term (just look at the daily, artificial congestion caused by the failed "double HOV lane" experiment on 101) , and in the long term will encourage overpopulation and lower the quality of life making us look more like China than the vaunted "northern European cities" you dream of imitating.

It is egregiously irresponsible for city officials to make decisions based on a dream instead of reflecting current demand.

It also disrespects the rights & preferences of individuals. We are not an ant hill to be managed by enlightened leaders with a "vision for the future".

1 person likes this
Posted by Norm
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 27, 2016 at 3:26 pm

Palo Alto has been complaining about traffic for decades. Palo Alto thinks they exist in a vacuum. There constant complaining about traffic should be ignored. Pat is just parroting the PASZ ( and weekly) line. He should be ignored

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Raney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2016 at 4:08 pm

@Johnny, please read my point #3 above re congestion. And also, to me, your comment runs afoul of The Golden Rule.

Like this comment
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 27, 2016 at 4:21 pm

[Post removed.]

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