For Palo Alto residents exasperated by worsening traffic congestion, the city offered some hopeful news on Monday night: Help is on the way. Also, some words of caution: Expect delays.
In a special town hall meeting dedicated to traffic, the City Council heard from dozens of residents who either vented their frustrations about deteriorating traffic conditions or offered suggestions for easing congestion. Many argued that it's time to put a moratorium on commercial development to limit commuter traffic; many others called for the city to hold more meetings with residents before they significantly redesign roadways, like Ross Road or the Charleston-Arastradero corridor.
And while city staff assured residents that the Palo Alto (like the region as a whole) is moving ahead with a slew of projects to relieve congestion, one resident after another argued that the city isn't doing enough. They came armed with surveys, data sets and anecdotes.
Mark Nadim, a resident of Palo Alto Hills, said the congestion on Page Mill Road keeps him from leaving his house until after 10-10:30 a.m. And when he leaves, he knows he has to return by 2-2:30 p.m., otherwise traffic will be horrible.
"Most of this traffic is for Stanford Research Park and most of it is single-occupancy vehicles," said Nadim, one of about 30 speakers to address the council Monday night. "We need to have some shuttles, buses ... to reduce the number of cars turning from (Interstate) 280 to Page Mill Road."
Allen Akin, who lives in Professorville, said he has installed a camera at his house to help him count cars. He saw traffic at Lincoln Avenue and Waverley Street increase from 4,200 cars per day in 2013 to 5,600 cars per day in 2018, a 33 percent hike.
"There's not an hour in the day or the night without traffic," Akin said.
The Monday meeting was triggered by an offhand comment made by Mayor Liz Kniss on July 30, when she said that the community's concerns about traffic are "exaggerated" and recommended that residents try "alternate routes." Those who do so, she posited, would "find that traffic is not as overwhelming as you might think."
Two weeks, hundreds of emails, and several "Marie Antoinette" references later, Kniss apologized, retracted her comments and invited residents to City Hall for a special town hall meeting on traffic. Close to 100 residents took her up on that offer Monday.
By most accounts, traffic is getting worse. The most recent National Citizens Survey, which was released earlier this year, showed only 42 percent of local responders giving the city "good" or "excellent" ratings when asked about "ease of travel by car" – down from 65 percent a decade ago.
The problem is not just one of perception. Traffic studies conducted by the city continue to show the number of cars climbing on major arteries from one year to another and sucking up an increasing amount of commuter time. Data from the Caltrans Performance Measurement System and Joint Venture Silicon Valley show that Bay Area drivers experienced about 200,000 hours of delays because of traffic congestion in 2016 -- up from about 100,000 hours in 2012.
The same pattern seems to hold true for Palo Alto, which has Santa Clara County's highest ratio of jobs to housing. East-west travel through local streets has only gone up by a relatively modest 7 percent between 1967 and 2016, going from 208,000 vehicles to 222,500. North-south travel, on the other hand, has seen a 59 percent increase, with the number of vehicles going from 225,400 to 358,300 over this period.
A recent survey conducted by residents of the Crescent Park neighborhood, where traffic problems are particularly severe, indicates that most in the neighborhood see traffic as a particularly wretched problem on weekday afternoons and evenings: That's when the highest percentage of residents -- 65 percent and 74 percent, respectively – report experiencing traffic problems.
Of the 189 respondents, 91 percent said they were particularly concerned about the time it takes them to reach freeways; 85 percent said they were also primarily worried about the time required for short-distance trips.
"It just solidifies our belief that commuter traffic is the source of our problem," said Crescent Park resident John Guislin, who led the survey effort. "Getting our residents not to drive is admirable but it's not going to address the big problem that we all face."
The one claim that almost everyone who took the Crescent Park survey (94 percent, to be exact) agreed on is that the city isn't doing enough to address the problems, which a large majority of respondents (88 percent) said is negatively impacting their quality of life. Staff from the city's newly created Office of Transportation tried to push back against this perception by both detailing the local projects currently in the works and by underscoring the fact that traffic is a regional problem, well beyond Palo Alto's power to solve alone.
The city's newly hired consultant, Wayne Tanda, noted that Palo Alto added about 5,000 jobs between 2012 and 2017. While significant, it's far short of the roughly 100,000 jobs that were generated in other cities in northern Santa Clara County, including Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.
"Ninety-five percent of job creation was beyond Palo Alto's control," Tanda said. "When you add San Mateo and San Francisco, you can see that regardless of what Palo Alto does, there will be more travel and it will be in the north-south direction," said Tanda, a consultant with the firm Municipal Resource Group.
But Greg Welch, who lives in Crescent Park, pushed back against this assertion and made the case for halting local commercial development until the city solves its traffic problems. Palo Alto, he said, is transitioning from a town into a corporate-office park, with the volume of jobs growing by 11 percent between 2011 and 2017 and the population growing by 4 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
"We can say it's a regional problem but it's not," Welch said. "It's a direct result of development policy in Palo Alto."
While some proposed solutions, including new restrictions on office development, others praised the city's efforts to promote biking and reduce driving. But even these efforts drew criticism. The Ross Road bike project, which the city implemented earlier this year, proved a tough sell for many residents, hundreds of whom have criticized the large new roundabouts that are included as part of the effort.
A few residents offered similar concerns about the city's ongoing traffic-calming effort along the Charleston-Arastradero corridor. Joe Hirsch, who lives on Georgia Avenue in the Barron Park neighborhood, said the city's efforts to reduce the number of car lanes and add roundabouts are making the problem worse. While staff listed "reducing bottlenecks" as one of its primary actions to address traffic, Hirsch argued that project near his home suggests that the opposite is true.
"It seems to us and many in the area that the city is, in fact, creating (the) bottleneck," Hirsch said. "Arastradero-Charleston is an excellent example."
Eva Gal agreed and said the lane redesigns and traffic-calming measures along Charleston-Arastradero force buses to encroach on bicycling kids and cars. Gal said she reached out to the council for help in addressing her concerns but only two members -- Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou -- agreed to meet with her.
"As a former educator, I'd give everyone of you an 'F' now in terms of communication, in terms of responsiveness and in terms of awareness of what our community needs," Gal said.
Some lauded the council's effort to encourage alternatives to solo driving. Justine Burt, a sustainability consultant who assists the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association with outreach, said that while some downtown employees have good reasons to drive, others indicated that they would be happy to switch to other modes of transporation but didn't know about the many options available to them.
"There's so much more we can do in terms of behavior change," Burt said.
After hearing from the public, the council offered its own suggestions, including better communication with residents, improving data collection and providing its transportation division with more resources. Council members agreed that commuter traffic is the primary reason for Palo Alto's worsening congestion and, as such, should be the primary focus of the city's efforts.
Councilman Cory Wolbach was among those who concurred that the city should do more to promote the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA), the downtown nonprofit charged with reducing the rate of commuters who drive solo. He suggested that the city work with other cities to create a subregional TMA. Such an organization, he suggested, can use its purchasing power to buy transit passes in bulk at a more affordable rate. Kniss and Councilman Greg Scharff supported such an idea, which could involve nearby jurisdictions in Santa Clara County and cities in San Mateo County, including East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Wolbach also suggested that city should invest more in the transportation division, whether by hiring more employees or bringing on more consultants.
Other council members generally agreed and offered a range of views on the best way to come up with the money. Councilwoman Karen Holman said it's time to institute a per-employee tax on local companies to fund transportation improvements. Vice Mayor Eric Filseth said the city should consider further raising the employee parking-permit rates for downtown garages, a suggestion that Scharff supported. In San Francisco, Filseth said, such permits sometimes go for thousands of dollars per year.
"There's probably room to generate more revenue from commercial parking downtown," Filseth said.
Councilman Adrian Fine suggested that the city is blundering by building new garages and by allowing visitors to park for free at city lots and garages. The city's transportation woes should be looked at as a "mobility" problem, rather than purely as an issue of traffic congestion. As such, council members' opposition to programs like Santa Clara County VTA's Bus Rapid Transit on El Camino Real isn't always consistent with its goal of making it easier for people to get around.
Staff and council members all acknowledged that it would be tough to truly solve transportation problems with the current staffing levels. The Transportation Office -- which is charged with implementing the myriad bike projects, making traffic-signal improvements and planning for the redesign of the rail corridor, among other tasks -- has 10.5 full-time-equivalent positions, said Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus. It also has a vacancy at the top, with the recent resignation of Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello.
As a result, some of its more promising transportation programs have failed to materialize. The council has been talking about expanding the Palo Alto Shuttle system for years, and despite stacks of reports on the subject, the program has yet to launch. Similarly, the bike-share program that the council approved earlier this year (which allows the city to accept applications from various private bike- and scooter-share vendors) has also been slow to take off.
De Geus said that the city has so far received two applications for the bike-share program, one of which was deemed incomplete. The other one, he said, is mostly complete, aside from the outreach component and could be launched in the next few months. At the same time, he said, staff is mindful of the blowback that other cities had experienced with too many bikes and scooters on the streets. As such, the city is trying to make sure they don't cause unwelcome disruptions.
Kniss noted early in the meeting that overcoming the staffing challenge in the critical department -- much like solving the traffic problems -- won't be easy, particularly given the correlation between the two problems.
"It's a challenge to find someone in that particular area and, as you know, it's hard to hire people in the Bay Area for very obvious reasons -- some of them involving traffic," Kniss said.
• Watch "Behind the Headlines" to hear what Palo Alto Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada says city officials are doing to improve transportation.