Uploaded: Tue, May 13, 2014, 9:54 am
Palo Alto looks to cameras for traffic data
New method raises privacy concerns from residents
Seeking to gather more data about local bicyclists and pedestrians, Palo Alto has installed dozens of cameras around the city, prompting citizens' concerns about privacy.
Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez told the Weekly that the city has been putting up cameras at different locations since April 28, with each camera staying up for a week before being taken down. The goal is to count the number of bicyclists and pedestrians in preparation for a new wave of bike boulevard projects that the city is working on.
The technology has caused some unease over the weekend, with some residents wondering about the appearance of cameras near their homes. Paul Machado, a resident of Evergeen Park, noted in an email to the City Council Sunday that a camera on Stanford Avenue is "pointed in a way that will keep an accurate picture of every time we leave and return home."
"I am uneasy with the Palo Alto Klandestine Gathering Bureaucrats, aka KGB, making a pictorial record of all my comings and goings," Machado wrote. "My neighbors also may object."
On Monday, city officials made clear that the videos always point away from homes and only capture footage of roads and sidewalks. Furthermore, Rodriguez said, the city never sees the data. Rather, it goes to the city's data-service providers, who then watch it at a high speed, tally up the numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians and send the city the numbers.
"All we get is the raw data," Rodriguez said. "And once the data collection firm reviews the video, it is discarded."
There are three different firms providing data-collection services, he said. These are All Traffic Data, Traffic Data Services and Sandis. The goal is to collect data for 50 locations throughout the city. At any given time, about 25 are up, he said. The ones in Evergreen Park are due to come down Saturday.
In addition to the cameras, the city is using the traditional vehicle-counting tubes to gather data, but Rodriguez noted that the tubes aren't sensitive enough to gather data about pedestrians and bicyclists.
City Manager James Keene also addressed the camera issue during his City Council comments Monday. The use of video-based traffic data is fairly new for the city, he said. He noted that it is "helpful in us being able to see good baseline data for pedestrian and bicycle use that has not been previously available to the city."
"I do think it's unfortunate that we did not get this news out in advance, and I think we had a few surprising situations with folks sort of surprised by these cameras being put up," Keene said. "We'll probably be doing some more extensive outreach on that."
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on May 15, 2014 at 9:38 am
With all due respect to the above posters, I am concerned above all about the culture at our City Hall, especially among the planning and transportation people, to make all efforts serve the approval of their favored developments (basically, any development).
@ Wolfie, I would have thought just like you if I hadn't gotten a much closer view of City Hall in the last year, and what I saw wasn't pretty. The City really is far more likely to be using the cameras and the data to bolster a pre-existing purpose than out of an interest in collecting information to inform future decisions.
More to the point. The City announced this bike safety improvement initiative in the middle of the Maybell debates, in which development in the area and its impacts to the safety of the thousands of school children traveling to and from school, around half by bike and on foot, was a major issue. School enrollments are projected to expand, and construction at Gunn has been geared to take hundreds more students in the coming years. Business traffic along that corridor is projected to almost double because of just the VMWare expansion, which is still in process.
The expert traffic analysis of the City's traffic report found no analysis was done of the impact of development to the bikes and pedestrians. No cumulative analysis of developments already in the pipeline was done. This despite our City having a policy of heightened scrutiny of developments on school commute routes, and safety being a reason Cities can reject bonus density requests and development plans made even under existing zoning rules. And despite the fact that the one Councilmember who went out and spent time there deeming the corridor unsafe as it was with no development at all on the property, and all of the Councilmembers being on record as saying they felt a development at Maybell even under the pre-existing zoning would be even less safe than the a major development planned there at three or four times the pre-existing zoning.
Despite that issue being a deal breaker to many who fought the rezoning at Maybell, in the many months of the debates, and repeated calls for that safety analysis, the City and the developer never did safety analysis to the bikes and pedestrians. During the debates, they claimed repeatedly that the fire department had done a separate traffic safety analysis and had found everything fine. They continued to claim this even after neighbors found out that the fire department never did any traffic analysis for that development, and that they only were ever asked to look at access to the site itself for the fire department (which was fine, since the department is across the street) and on-site code compliance.
The disturbing thing we learned, that all Palo Altans should be concerned about, was that the fire department doesn't do a separate safety assessment of emergency traffic and emergency vehicle access problems, for example (something of great concern at the elementary school there, which has no other way in and out for emergency vehicles), unless planning and transportation tells them there is a problem, and P&T never finds a problem for a development it wants to approve.
Emergency services is required to take their cues from planning and transportation, which takes its cues from developers. About that time the city manager even admitted the staff cherry pick the Comp Plan to support whatever development push they are making. And even after it had been shown to be a complete fabrication, rezoning proponents continued to claim on the record that the fire department had assessed the traffic at Maybell and deemed no problems.
So, about the recent safety improvements on that Maybell-Arastradero corridor, I have the following questions:
*Did the City do the traffic safety analysis for the impact of traffic to bikes and pedestrians that residents had called on repeatedly for months prior? Or did they launch into the effort without any new data or analysis?
*At the first meeting, one community member pointed out that many residents in the neighborhood had just spent 6 months working hard to come up with improvements for the last major costly safety upgrade of Maybell, but were ultimately told most of their suggestions couldn't be done because of the physical limitations of the road. They asked if the City employees could at least just please find the notes and reports from that effort so none of the work on the new effort was just redundant and wasted. Did City employees find the reports and/or use them to help the new effort, or did they require neighbors to just start over again as if all that had never been done and the lessons never learned?
*At the first meeting, I asked if potential development on those corridors at yet-to-be-developed sites, at least under proposed zoning, would be included in the improvements, and was told by one of the planners that they were told they couldn't. In making the current plans and improvements, were planners allowed after all to look at the impact of sites that will be developed but hadn't yet been approved, or were those sites simply ignored (even though proposals all exceeded zoning and City Council shows a propensity for approving whatever developers ask for and for ignoring the Comp Plan when it calls for lower densities)?
*Last year, one of the Councilmembers pointed out that Menlo Park measures bike traffic at every intersection in the City, and said Palo Alto should do the same. Were such measures ever taken, especially for this effort, or did this effort proceed without such comprehensive, relevant data?
*During the debates, frustrated neighbors called on the City repeatedly to conduct the "heightened scrutiny" of developments their own policy calls for on school commute routes. Did the City ever attempt to define more specifically what "heightened scrutiny" entails and to conduct it, or did they continue to just ignore those calls?
* Were residents who were completely put off at the first meeting, who felt the safety effort was sincere but being done in a way that was more for show on the part of the City -- were they contacted for their input afterwards, or was it mostly just true City Hall adherents like you whose input made for the bulk of the changes?
*Are the changes the result in any way of review and recommendations based on safety analysis and traffic experts, or are they based on recommendations picked and chosen by P&T staff based on input by mostly amateur CH adherents in subsequent meetings? Are the changes based in any way on projections of future development and traffic on those corridors, or just the suggestions the P&T staff liked from people who showed up at the meetings?
*Again, traffic data taken in May of ANY year, much less the driest on record or memory, is NOT representative. Will the City remember the data taken now is NOT REPRESENTATIVE DATA, or will it use this traffic data (and this round of community involvement) to make sweeping claims about the traffic there or the improvements?
If the answer is Yes to any of the former question in each point above, please elaborate, because I doubt it. If the answer is yes to any or more like, ALL of the latter of each point above, it's business as usual in our City, and as most of us suspected, the City is less concerned about the safety of the kids on bikes than about getting away with pushing ever more density and our part of town, using things like this as cover.
So, to the above persons concerned about your privacy - I support your complaints, because I seriously doubt there's any more noble purpose in using the cameras than political manipulation to get some development approved. You watch, this NON-representative data and the recent bike corridor effort will get used to try to approve another too-big development.