Guest Opinion: Finding balance in a new world


Few places in the world epitomize the juxtaposition of the global and local as does Palo Alto. Our region has the most active innovation "ecosystem" in the world. Yet we also have the luxury of some of the most livable and family-friendly neighborhoods, with walkable access to parks, schools, libraries and, for some, grocery stores and shops. Beyond the town, we are surrounded by thousands of acres of open space to give us clean air and water, and "room to breathe." Thank you for supporting the passage of Measure AA!

How long can we juggle the extraordinary pressure and demand from companies and people from around the world who wish to locate here with our desire to protect a healthy environment, walkable lifestyle and family-oriented community? This is the challenge of the next Comprehensive Plan for Palo Alto.

I propose some ideas and a framework for thinking about how Palo Alto can tackle its seemingly intractable problems of traffic and housing.

"Net zero" mandate. A "net-zero" mandate is very powerful. Stanford University has operated under this performance goal for decades, required to meet the standard of no net new trips (peak-hour) as it built millions of additional square feet. It is powerful in bringing innovation to transportation so that Stanford can expand. The results have been noteworthy, with the percentage of commuters coming in single-occupancy vehicles plummeting to 42 percent recently from 72 percent in 2002.

The net-zero goal does not operate in isolation. The county's general-use permit also required the building of significantly more housing units, for example. For Palo Alto, net-zero requirements to eliminate increased traffic and other impacts is a worthy idea but needs to be combined with an overall plan that includes honoring our height limit and taking into account the impact on local schools.

The good news is that "net zero" is not draconian. If you think about it, if there is a 3 percent increase in trip demand, our community needs to get 3 percent more efficient in how we get around. If we take 10 trips a day today, changing one trip a day from car to walking, biking or combining trips is a 10 percent improvement. Making one day per week into a "no car" day is 15 percent improvement. Well-designed net-zero goals for our city would help spur more innovation in both public policy and private-sector initiatives.

Jobs/housing balance and regional impact fee. The jobs/housing ratio is a reality. No one wants to be seen as anti-jobs, but once the unemployment ratio reaches a stable point, every job created adds a person who needs to live somewhere — historically, one housing unit for 1.6 workers. In a large region, a good transit system can connect a job center with housing, but transit takes funding and all cities face the same challenge of providing schools, parks, libraries and other services for new residents.

I have long thought that a regional impact fee for net new jobs created through new office space is worth considering. Affordable-housing projects near transit and regional transit could draw upon this regional fund for subsidies.

Caltrain special district. High-density jobs such as those provided by Google, Facebook, Apple, Stanford and other core employers of our region usually require a "high-density" transportation network and/or high-density housing. The transit spine for the Peninsula is Caltrain. A bus rapid-transit system along a regional HOT (high occupancy toll) network and El Camino also deserves serious evaluation and support.

Since Caltrain's crisis in 2010, when it was looking at slashing service by 30 percent, it has rebounded robustly, increasing ridership almost every month since then; it now carries more than 57,000 riders on an average weekday. That's almost two and a half times the ridership of 24,000 in 2004. It still lacks a dedicated funding source, although its operating revenue now covers two-thirds of its annual operating expenditures. Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties all have relatively robust support for transportation measures — and terrible traffic congestion. It's time to consider a Caltrain special district that cuts across parts of these three counties.

Bay Area transit coordination council. Finally, Bay Area residents need to rise up and call for an independent transit coordination council that will bring the 26 (!) transit agencies of our region together to coordinate schedules, fares and, where it makes sense, consolidation. There are precedents. According to Michelle DeRobertis of Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities, the Stuttgart region has 45 different transit operators in a metropolitan area with 179 municipalities and 2.4 million people. Since 1979, they have a coordinating agency that is responsible for the coordination of fares, schedules and planning. Its governing board has half of its members from political jurisdictions and half from the transit operators. This is different from our Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is governed solely by political leaders and has not had the political mandate to truly coordinate transit operations across borders.

"Balance" has always been the goal of the visions I have supported over the years, including through my work with the Palo Alto Civic League, which fought for residential values when business interests dominated, and my efforts as mayor in 2007, when my call to action was to build a green economy through innovation. Balance is an evolving act, based on a deep understanding of the forces in and around our city.

For Palo Alto to continue to thrive as an environmental leader and jobs center, we must contribute to balance in the region as well as to the balance within our borders.

Yoriko Kishimoto is former mayor of Palo Alto and now serves on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. She began as a neighborhood and transportation activist, serving on the comprehensive plan committee in the 1990s. She now works with nonprofits including Friends of Caltrain. She can be reached at

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Joe Kott
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2014 at 9:29 am

Joe Kott is a registered user.

This is a characteristically thoughtful article by a highly-regarded Palo Alto civic leader. Yoriko Kishimoto adds value to all of her civic work, both as an elected official and as a enlightened public policy advocate. I am delighted that Yoriko serves as President of the Board of Directors of our new 501(3)(3) nonprofit research institute, Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities. For more information about our organization, follow this link to our web site: Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Steve Raney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 20, 2014 at 10:18 am

Nice to continue to see courageous folks discussing how to reduce car travel from residents and workers in places like Palo Alto. I hope the NetZero traffic / no net new trips concept catches on. Stanford accomplishes this by charging $3.60 per day to park in an "A" Lot and then offers many great incentives to use alternatives.

Some more forward-thinking comments:

MTC: "There is no question that the provision of free parking is a huge incentive for people to drive to work. A 2000 survey of Bay Area commuters found that while 77 percent of commuters drove alone when free parking was available, only 39 percent drove alone when they had to pay to park. Additionally, among commuters with free parking, only 4.8 percent commuted by transit. By contrast, among commuters without free parking, 42 percent commute by transit."

Sept 18, 2013, PA Daily Post article ("City Takes Aim at Cars") and Oct 4 2013 PA Daily News article ("Council Pursues Traffic Solutions"). "Council is talking about putting the onus on employers to reduce solo car trips by 30%. Councilmember Scharff: ‘Traffic and Parking is the Number 1 Palo Alto issue.'"

VTA's new General Manager Nuria Fernandez (previously New York MTA COO) stated "Silicon Valley is insane. We charge for parking in New York, so we should consider charging here."

San Jose's Envision 2040 General Plan adopted an objective: "40% less VMT (vehicle miles traveled) via regional congestion pricing policies. The City supports regional adoption of pricing solutions to encourage a high level of mode shift (shift from driving alone to carpooling, biking, transit, etc)."

1 person likes this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 20, 2014 at 12:33 pm

If money grew on trees... Wouldnt it be great to underground the train and use the strip created as a long bike and pedestrian path up and down the peninsula, with easy access to the stations? No need to diss it, I already know it will never happen. Just dreaming.

2 people like this
Posted by longtime weekly reader
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2014 at 12:45 pm

To me this is just an extension of what Yoriko spent 8 years on the council saying--too much traffic and no new net car trips. Same old same old.
Meanwhile during her tenure she supported business and development in town, supported Destination Palo Alto, the Senior Games and the Tour de California in the city-- all of which brought additional traffic into the city.

5 people like this
Posted by artificial lines
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 20, 2014 at 10:11 pm

I would love to see the Bay Area's transportation issues be approached from a regional, rather than city-by-city or even county-by-county perspective. People work and travel in and outside of their own cities and counties every day, so why should political boundaries take precedence over the realities of how people actually live in the Bay Area? A regional organization should make choices for the good of the area as a whole. As it is, we have too many cooks in the kitchen.

3 people like this
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 21, 2014 at 9:01 am

Great ideas for public transit, however one item of great importance seems to be left out of the equation:

The last half mile.

If we are to really get people out of their cars, it must be convenient. We seem to have lots of "corridor" transit, with lots of empty seats, so increasing use of existing transit capacity has merit.

If you have ever been in a town where people just walk to the corner and get on a trolley that has regular and frequent stops in neighborhoods, you will find more seniors and people who find it difficult (or inconvenient) to get to a bus stop using public transit.

Take the transit to the people with small and convenient electric (low pollution) shuttles, and get the most out of existing capacity, before the transit agencies build more big and sexy (and extra tax justifying) major projects.

Sam Trans seems to ignore the local convenience needs, and trys to fit a one-size-fits-all "take it or leave it" major corridor approach.

This bureaucratic ignorance is "missing the bus."

Offered with hopes of one day having a very connected "truly local" public transit system that is too convenient not to use.

Tim Gray

Like this comment
Posted by Eric Rosenblum
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 21, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Bravo, Yoriko!

Clear-eyed, practical analysis from someone who knows a thing or two. Thank you for the thought leadership, Yoriko!

6 people like this
Posted by Kid Friendly???
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 21, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Palo Alto has not been kid friendly for at least five years, and it worsens every day. People in neighborhoods with kids complain about kids, restaurants don't want to seat people with kids, real estate agents don't want to work with people who have kids--unless the family is paying cash for the home. The few houses being built new here have no useable back yard and. End rooms too small for more than a twin bed.

The examples of leaders that kids have in Palo Alto and the surrounding areas are: college dropouts, more college dropouts, people who profit by stealing ideas from others, insider-traders, convicted hackers, greedy developers who profit from swindling others, etc.

The schools unfairly reward those who cheat or have boatloads of money to spend on multiple tutors. The middle schools here are sub-standard, which is why many people put their kids in private schools for 6th through 8th grades. The high schools are so competitive that kids are nervous wrecks. And sometimes driven to commit desperate acts; [portion removed] and everyone seems to be exclusionary.

Tell me again how Palo Alto is kid friendly?

1 person likes this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 25, 2014 at 10:29 am

I very much appreciate the suggestion re Bay Area transit coordination council and hope that gets some traction.

3 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 25, 2014 at 10:39 am

Wait. This is the same person who foisted the bloated and incredibly over-budget & under-funded HSR on us.

Clearly this person has not driven on ECR...yes, let's take away 1/3 third of the available lanes for a bus system that doesn't work, on a road nowhere near the main employment centers in the valley.

Give me a break.

1 person likes this
Posted by 6Djockey
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 25, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Yes we need to look at traffic and parking problems independent of political boundaries. One ramification of Stanford's net zero policy is that Stanford employees park on palo alto streets and ride the shuttle onto campus. And Stanford is praised for the results

Like this comment
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 25, 2014 at 7:07 pm

You know, it occurs to me that these projects to supposedly get people out of their cars are missing the point as much as the "paperless office" people. All this technology was supposed to make paperless offices possible, but all they succeeded in doing is making us make massively more paper far more efficiently.

People need to get around, and time is money, time is life. Focusing just on the cars misses the point of why people are using their cars.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2014 at 7:42 am

Confused how this article is dated Sep 25 and on the front page, but has comments from the past week.

Don't always agree with Yoriko, but she is right that all 26 Bay Area transit authorities need to be combined into one authority with improvements in ticketing, scheduling and advertising. This should be done immediately before any advancements into any one particular system are made.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

After 39 years of cakes and pastries, Palo Alto institution Prolific Oven to close
By Elena Kadvany | 59 comments | 18,291 views

Local Transit to the Rescue?
By Sherry Listgarten | 20 comments | 2,745 views

The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) Process Explained
By Steve Levy | 15 comments | 1,721 views

"You Gotta Have Balls [to do counseling] . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,537 views

Eating Green on the Green – August 25
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 575 views


Register now!

​On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

More Info