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Traffic numbers prompt council head-scratching

Original post made on Dec 3, 2013

Few would say that traffic in Palo Alto has been getting better in recent years, yet that was what graphs in a city staff report appeared to depict, which raised red flags and frustrations among some City Council members Monday night.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, December 3, 2013, 3:21 PM

Comments (45)

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:09 pm

It's a shame that the Traffic Engineering Department has chosen to put so much of its attention into pushing bicycles, rather than developing a technology-based plan for monitoring, collecting, and analyzing traffic data here in Palo Alto. Inexpensive microwave counting units have been on the market for well over a decade that would allow the Traffic Engineers to provide Council, and the public, real-time 7/24/365 traffic data for all of the import streets in Palo Alto.

Microwave Traffic Counters:
Web Link

There simply is no reason that we (Palo Alto) should not have this data on our City's web-site, so that Council members, and the public, could review the data when needed. It would also be important to frequently measure the intersection QOS (Quality of Service) designators for the major intersections.

At some point—data is data, and if the numbers reveal downticks in the number of vehicles using the streets, those numbers would need to be accepted by the public.

My review of traffic accidents in Palo Alto:

Web Link

showed a roughly 25% decline in traffic accidents over the time interval 1995-2009. Traffic accidents are related to traffic volume. So, it's not difficult for me to believe that there has been a decline in traffic volume over the years.

Council Member Schmidt's comments need to be buttressed by the time-of-day when he was motoring about. Traffic is definitely brisk (or even heavy) during the morning, and evening, drive-times. Certainly from 7:00 PM to 7:00 AM, traffic is very light in Palo Alto, generally.

It would be nice if the Council were to start demanding that the Traffic Division start paying attention to using more state-of-the-art technology, as well as releasing more data on the City's web-site (OpenData).

Posted by Silver, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Obviously, no one checked the numbers before presenting them to the council. There was something wrong with the equipment, because there is no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that figures presented were anywhere near correct.

Try again, boys.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I suspect that the traffic moves so slowly nowadays that if a counter is counting the number of vehicles passing a given spot in an hour, it is down because so few get by the counter in the given hour. If the counter is looking at the number of vehicles passing in 30 minutes along a given street, it now takes an hour for the same number of vehicles to pass by.

I was trying to cross Middlefield at San Antonio yesterday in evening commute time. The light changed from green to red and I did not move at all the first time and the second green only allowed a couple of cars to move. If a counter had been counting vehicles in my lane in that 5 minute period it would have counted 3 cars in that period. It didn't mean that there were 3 cars passing the counter at the speed limit, it just meant that traffic was at a standstill most of that 5 minutes.

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 3, 2013 at 5:02 pm

BTW, the Traffic people provided this data (ca 1999) some time back:

Web Link

This is a graphic, and might be a little hard to read. (I transcribed these numbers into a spreadsheet at some point. If I can find them, I'll try to check them against the ones released by the City this week.)

Posted by long-time resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 3, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Hmmm. If you are looking at how many cars cross an intersection in a given amount of time, and on one date the traffic is at maximum capacity but flowing, and on the second date, it's congested and stop-and-go, fewer cars will be counted crossing the same intersection per unit of time at the later date, even though the traffic is worse.

Is that what they're looking at? I have lived here for 30 years and just this year have had to double the amount of time I allow myself for cross-town (or partial cross-town) trips. More stops at intersections, and more stops where I have to wait through multiple lights account for much of the delay.

Posted by Norman Beamer, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 6:18 pm

It was an amazingly inauspicious debut for the new Planning Director.

Posted by What Traffic?, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 3, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Unfortunately, the city manager got defensive after being called out (very politely by council members). He basically said you can have your data quickly or get it correctly but not both. COME ON!! Give me a break!

Posted by Seven years is not enough, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Staff has been working on the Comp Plan Update since 2006. They have had seven years to develop the traffic model so lack of time is no excuse for a model so flawed that it fails a sanity check. It is far past the time for Counc to hold Keene responsible for failing to deliver a competent work product in a timely manner.

Greg Schmid is to be applauded for his work on this.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2013 at 8:22 pm

I would suggest to Mr. Keene that if he can't get data quickly and correctly at the same time,... well then someone else could.

Posted by Garbage in garbage out, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Please everyone, Planning is busy.

Not with what matters to residents of course.

They are busy, and under PRESSURE from all the development applications. Think of all the schmoozing going on in that office.

Planning has no time for our concerns, they need to focus on approving all the ugly and uglier projects they have applications for.

This traffic report is utter incompetence. What more can we expect?!!!!!!

Posted by anon, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Erick Filseth for president!!!!!! please those of you who are leaders in the community consider running for council .

we need you!

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 3, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Finding my traffic volume spreadsheet (1969-1999), I wanted to add the 2013 data from the City's study session report. It didn't take long to see that the street segments in the data previously supplied by the City (to me) were not in the graphic in the report.

I had also previously requested a list of important intersections, and their LOS (Level-of-Service) indicators. While this data is now three years old, it's clear that most of the intersections were in the "C" and "D" level then--

LOS Indicators for 22 PA Intersections:
Web Link

I think the LOS data is collected annually, so there is no reason that the 2012/2013 LOS ratings should not have been available at this time—unless the Traffic Engineering Department does not want them available to the public.

Palo Alto needs a really comprehensive traffic analysis, updated on a yearly basis. It is unbelievable that so much time and money has been spent pushing bicycles, when traffic and parking are clearly a much bigger problem for the city as a whole.

Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 6:19 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Thank you Wayne for the charts

I think that Long Time Resident hit on how perfectly valid counts can be used to create a distorted rosy picture.

One can assume that this was the INTENT of staff. Maybe Councils is waking up and discovering that they are also being *had*.
GIGO = bad decisions

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2013 at 6:54 am

I applaud Council member Schmid for taking the time to go through past studies of individual projects (like the Arastradero diet) to find that the traffic counts increased over the past decade, rather than what staff showed in their report that traffic counts decreased.

I also applaud Council member Burt in pointing out that adding 5,000 residents, and tens of thousands of jobs does correlate with traffic decreasing by 20%.

The conclusion that I reach is that staff was either trying to influenthe council towards continued development, by saying "no traffic problem", or they are incompetent. Hard to take, given the 6 figure salaries they are paid. It also shows that city staff doesn't know much about the city they work in that they could not see that the data they presented didn't make sense.

Posted by boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2013 at 7:16 am

1. This traffic data seems highly flawed and does not represent the real picture.

2.One of the main reason why traffic seems to crawl in Palo Alto is that just about every block has at least one house under construction or being remodeled, and almost everywhere you go there a road is being torn apart, be it utility work or something else.

Of course, when a small town is unnecessarily being converted into a megalopolis, traffic becomes a major problem, or weren't the council members aware of that?

Posted by Joyce, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 4, 2013 at 10:41 am

Perhaps there are less cars counted because they aren't moving in 2013, especially along Alma & Charleston, I may have to wait thru 2 - 4 traffic lights before I can get through the intersection. The lights for left turns after waiting for a train are poorly programmed. It often seems just when the left turn off of Alma to go on E. Charleston is about to turn green it's interrupted. Once the train has passed, the lights continue to allow parallel traffic to continue, then it cycles through again, when just as the left turns finally again have their turn - bang! the next train interrupts the cycle! Infuriating, as well as crazy. It encourages one to cut through neighborhoods to avoid ridiculous delays.
How can a City filled with so many smart people have such unintelligent staffing?

Posted by Not an expert, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 4, 2013 at 10:56 am

I read the table prior to the meeting that showed a decrease in traffic and wondered, are they kidding?
Some things are so obvious, it's hard to understand how such a table could pass into print.
The city manager is good at long meaningless responses.
How about someone standing for an hour at a time with a hand-counter? Don't laugh. It would be more accurate than the nonsense we get.

Posted by Brian, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:11 am

A reduction in some traffic numbers could real a bypass that some people have found around problem areas. Like cutting through a neighborhood. As the lights get longer and things get more congested it forces people to look for alternatives. If if they are not faster at least they are moving.

Posted by Cur Mudgeon, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:12 am

GIGO--I can't add anything to your comments, which about sum it up from where I sit as a 37 year resident of Palo Alto. Well put.

Posted by resident 1, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:17 am

The traffic on Louis Road between East Meadow Circle and Charleston is growing at an alarming rate. Apartments and businesses on East Meadow Circle have limited access. Try and turn left onto Charleston in the end business day is impossible as the traffic on Charleston is backed up single file. So you turn right and head to Alma - now cars who were single file are switching into the right hand bike lane because they are tired of waiting for lights and trains.
That whole corridor was set up for bikes but no one on bikes would be safe here at rush hour. This corridor needs to be reversed to the original two lanes each way so we do not have a single line of cars each way with frustrated and angry drivers. It is getting dark early so people cannot see everything that is on the road - like pedestrians and bikes.

Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:37 am

Resident & LTR have accurately explained the realities of gridlock, which can lead some idiots to think that traffic is diminishing here while the opposite is true.

"Field of Dreams" was an entertaining movie, espousing "build it & they will come." Unfortunately for Palo Alto & surrounding towns, you did & they have. Now, you get to find the ways to keep them moving, since unfortunately people just won't stay in their homes or offices all the time once they get here.

Posted by Dan, a resident of Southgate
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:41 am

1999 was the peak of the dot com bubble and traffic was HORRIBLE all over the Bay Area. I believe its true that traffic is better now than in 1999, but why only two data points? Why pick 1999 which I believe was a relatively peak year? I think its ridiculous to try to determine a trend from only two data points, especially when one of them was a bit of an anomaly. Is this just poor statistical analysis or was the presenter intentionally cherry-picking data to attempt to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion?

Posted by Visionary, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:48 am

It is time "reduce" traffic lanes and to restripe every street following the great jobe done by the city traffic engineer on Arastradero. The reported traffic volume data clearly proves the "job well done?"

HIRE a Manager ASAP to help Mr Keene.

Posted by Alfred, a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Another possible explanation. It seems to me that many traffic lights are not timed well. I've sat at many red lights for excessive time while there was no traffic coming from the other direction(s).

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 4, 2013 at 12:04 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics. Where is the factual basis to the report so one can compare it to the previous data that was gathered? Was the methodology to collect the data the same as the one previously used?
Something is not right...maybe the new guy has " cooked the books " like many others have.

So where's the REAL data?

Posted by COnfused, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I had to drive my son to PALY this morning (he ususally bikes)-- 45 min round trip for 4 miles. What was most stunning was the traffic light at PALY/Town $ Country, changed 3 times before allowing the left-hand turn lane into PALY to go (AND there were no on-coming cars from El Camino!) The back-up was all the way down Embarcadero to Middlefield when I turned around. That is not just a car issue, someone really needs to fix the way these traffic lights works. Here we are in one of the smartest communities in the world, and we can't control traffic a little better.

And, yes, the traffic has gotten much worse. I think we need to hire independent people to count the cars. It's pretty basic.

Posted by Write Caltrain if the east/west delays are bugging you., a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm

In that same period, how has use of alternative transportation changed? (Trains, bikes, walking, buses, shuttles, carpooling) When the city is working on improving conditions for alternative commuters, they should not just measure auto traffic counts. We should be looking at TOTAL TRIPS to understand how much mode shift (from autos to other modes of transportation) is occurring. This might account for some of the auto reduction. Reducing auto trips was the GOAL...Remember? To understand how much mode shift has occured, it has to be measured. A question we might ask is, "Where did those drivers go? Are they using other modes? Are they telecommuting more? Are they carpooling? Riding a Shuttle/train? Bicycling? How many of them are doing this?" As the city considers their TDM programs, they should include new MEASUREMENT requirements. They need effective enforcement mechanisms attached to performance measures. Data collection should be required for projects like VMWare who get density bonuses in exchange for TDMs that are not well monitored or enforced.

Much of the east/west delays are caused by train preemption. The number of trains during peak periods increased significantly. Just last week I was at the front of a queue at Charleston/Alma intersection. I waited through 4 trains and 3 signals before I got a green. However, the signal caused a back-up in both directions on Charleston that stretched as far as I could see. I'm sure that the people in all of those cars blame the city for the delay. This is not the fault of City of Palo Alto or the C/A Plan. This signal crossing is controlled by Caltrain. The delay and back-ups it creates would occur with or without the C/A Plan. Write a letter to Caltrain here Web Link . Grade separation is desperately needed as east/west delays get increasingly worse each passing year, especially in south Palo Alto where the number of rail crossings is far fewer.

North PA has seven east/west rail crossings with four that are grade separated(not counting Oregon and including bike/ped underpasses). The south has only three total crossings and only ONE grade separated crossing(again not counting Oregon which divides north from south and serves both), San Antonio. The remaining TWO east/west crosstown routes in the south are at grade. This is important.

We see similar east/west preemption problems on El Camino Real where the controlling agency (Caltrans) prioritizes signals for north/south movements and allows VTA buses to override signals (Yes. VTA 22 and 522 get signal override which VTA claims doesn't affect east/west movements, but that really makes no sense at all when you do the math or observe the signal changes.)

I have timed Charleston/Arastradero point-to-point travel times multiple times before and after the trial, and my travel times are the same as the city reports. The points of delay have moved around, but the travel times are consistent before and after trial. I bike it and drive it. I am satisfied that the current 3/4 striping plan is the best possible solution (though not perfect) to create a safe place on the street for the hundreds of youth walkers and bikers who are out there in the peak hour traffic every day commuting to school. Auto congestion is about the same. Overall, conditions are MUCH better than before the trial. However, certain cross-road points are problematic and they require regional transportation authority solutions which are slow in coming.

In sum, is the citywide data wrong or incomplete? Let's have a look at other modes of transport besides just automobiles. Right now we don't have a good way to measure shift to alternative modes comprehensively, and that is a problem.

Posted by Up and down traffic, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

This study covers a HUGE period of time. 1999-2013. In that time, traffic dropped significantly due to economic factors and then increased again as the economy improved.

It might be helpful to show points in between so people can understand how dramatically it fluctuated.

Posted by Joel, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Joel is a registered user.

I ditto "Long time resident" It takes me 15-20 minutes to get from Maybell Ave to Stanford Ave at Bowden. It use to take me about 10 minutes. Then to find parking downtown between 5-7 is a maze of an adventure as to who gets there first. I am a 43 year resident. Much of the Council has lost it's way.

Posted by senor blogger, a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 4, 2013 at 3:14 pm

The decrease in traffic is due to the increase in all the Mass Transit that we have in Palo Alto.

City Staff Needs to Fix Themselves. They think they're still serving developers.

Posted by Palo Alto Native, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 4, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Makes you wonder about all of the "studies" done before the soon to be fiasco called California Avenue.

Posted by Janet, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Hopefully the new planning director has a probation period prior to fully securing her new job. Obviously she has flunked her first big test, and she needs to be released. The city manager is incompetent, too. It is absurd and laughable to say that the traffic has decreased in Palo Alto.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 4, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I just don't believe it. There has to be some commonsense in our city government discussions and reports.
It can be very challenging just to try to get across town and many roads are full and I see cars dangerously turning against the red across major intersections (something I despise seeing, but perhaps understandable from frustrated drivers): ECR and Embarcadero, ECR and Oregon/Page Mill Rd, Charleston and several intersections mentioned by posters and various others.
We can agree that traffic is BAD now in these various hot spots, even taking into consideration Caltrain's operations and how that limits those particular intersections.

Posted by C/A commuter, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 4, 2013 at 4:12 pm

@Write Caltrain if the east/west delays are bugging you.

"I am satisfied that the current 3/4 striping plan is the best possible solution (though not perfect) to create a safe place on the street for the hundreds of youth walkers and bikers who are out there in the peak hour traffic every day commuting to school."

We know you are Penny.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 4, 2013 at 4:16 pm

My favorite gridlock is rush hour afternoons at Embarcadero and East Bayshore where everybody comes off northbound 101 heading home into East Palo Alto. The ramp onto Embarcadero is a standstill as drivers wait to cut across into the left turn lanes, maybe one car per stop-light cycle. Anyone headed straight through for the dump, golf course, duck pond, etc, gets creative on the right shoulder. The new hotel traffic for the Mings site will be entertaining. I hope somebody has enough sense to paint a line making that ramp explicitly two-lane.

Posted by A, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Dec 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Others have touched on these points, but ANY competent traffic engineer SHOULD know that the number of cars passing a point in a given hour or day is not a measure of congestion. Traffic jams have very low numbers per hour. Traffic lights also limit the number of cars per hour no matter how many are backed up behind. They may say that the total car-per-day number will eventually count all the cars backed up behind the light, and it will, but it does not count all the people who habitually avoid bad intersections by taking other routes. A road that never has peak traffic great enough to cause a jam will carry more cars per day than the same road when peak traffic is great enough to cause it to jam. People are at least as smart as rats and learn to take different routes to minimize time. A much more useful number is the time needed to traverse a route at peak commute hours.

On top of all this, 1999 was a boom year.

Someone is actively trying to lie to us here.

Posted by incredulous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:37 pm

What congestion? Traffic heading into town on Embarcadero at 7:30 this morning was moving at a lively 40-50 miles per hour from 101 to Middlefield, where I paused long enough to watch several cars run the red light. Not a cop in sight, but the traffic slows nicely by the time drivers reach the mess at Palo Alto High and Town and Country. No speeding downtown, where 3 different construction projects -- all big office buildings with no street setback -- have been permitted to block a lane of traffic! The city is too busy issuing commercial building code exemptions and outsourcing street sweeping while collecting a new budget surplus to even pretend to look out for the welfare of the taxpayers who live here. Time to clean house, elect a new council that can build some common sense and fiscal transparency into city government. Of course, our current city staff has a $200,000-a-year PR person to spin everything magically wonderful here in the heart of Silicone Valley.

Posted by Sheldon Kay, a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 5, 2013 at 8:06 am

PA in the heart of Silicon Valley, which produces the best technology in the world has the most stupid traffic lights. They are timed to drive people mad and cause them to drive in residential neighborhoods (mine). Most of the time I am in PA, I enjoy the privileges my bicycle offers, but it does stop me from seeing what the autos have to deal with. A light is red for traffic and for 1 minute absolutely no traffic is coming in the cross direction at a major intersection.

Posted by Midtown, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Under conditions of gridlock the number of daily car trips is zero. Does that mean we have reduced congestion? Ok, so the way to measure congestion is to measure how long it takes to get from A to B along commonly traveled routes at various times of the day. Apple, Google and the NSA already have that data from our cell phones. Get them to plot the data for us.

Posted by Oh sure, a resident of Community Center
on Dec 5, 2013 at 1:10 pm

What is obvious is that the PA city council thought they were smarter than everyone else and could do as they pleased. They have forgotten that the residents of PA are not only very bright, but in most instances they are much smarter than the " make a career out of politics" pols on the city council, some of whom have not the ability to do much else but feed off of the developers.

Posted by Too many Armchair Experts, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Thanks "Write Caltrain if the east/west delays are bugging you" for introducing some reasonableness onto this comment board. The argument against the numbers seems to be entirely based on anecdotal evidence - "When I try to drive around during rush hour there is too much traffic!"

Since 1999 transit service has greatly improved (Caltrain baby bullet, VTA 522 Rapid, Dumbarton Express), more people are biking, walking, carpooling (added carpool lane anyone?) and large employer shuttles have become much more common place. If none of these improvements had been made then surely the charts would show that traffic volumes have increased.

People are in denial - The plan is working. The shift to alternative modes is playing out in front of us all yet even the public and decision makers refuse to accept it. We can't build our way out of traffic congestion - there isn't room to continually widen roads and build more parking lots for cars. The only true solution is to continue to support alternatives to the single occupancy motor vehicle.

Also, Palo Alto does not exist in a bubble.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 5, 2013 at 2:40 pm

More people, more cars since most people do not walk or bicycle to work or the stores.

From Middlefield to Fabian Way on E. Charleston, the kids all use the sidewalk to get to and from the several schools in the area. So much for the bike lanes which I see used only by dedicated bicyclists - most in their flashy gear.

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 5, 2013 at 3:02 pm

> Since 1999 transit service has greatly improved (Caltrain baby bullet,
> VTA 522 Rapid, Dumbarton Express)

For several years now, CalTrain has been posting its yearly ridership numbers on its web-site. Using their numbers, the total number of unique people using CalTrain (from Gilroy to SF) have risen to about 24,000 per day--out of a service are of about 3M people.

Palo Alto's ridership is barely a blip on the radar compared to the total car trips that occur here every day. The last published number I remember is about 600K, but that number is quite old.

Not certain if VTA produces any ridership numbers that reflect the ridership for each of the towns that they service, but the buses are generally not full--particularly the local service bus.

Palo Alto has never come up with any valid bicycle-trip counts for the whole city, so one can only speculate about the number of car-trips that have migrated to bicycle-trips.

Posted by long-time resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 5, 2013 at 10:03 pm

@ Oh sure,
"What is obvious is that the PA city council thought they were smarter than everyone else and could do as they pleased. They have forgotten that the residents of PA are not only very bright, but in most instances they are much smarter than the " make a career out of politics" pols on the city council, some of whom have not the ability to do much else but feed off of the developers.

Or maybe the current councilmembers aren't even capable of recognizing their own @$$es handed to them on a platter...

@ Dan,
Traffic in Greenacres is definitely far worse than in 1999. In the last two years, I have had to double my cross-town trip times at most hours of the day.

Posted by long-time resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm

The new urbanism is putting in buildings with no setbacks and sidewalks that are completely unwalkable and can never be fixed without tearing down the buildings.

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