Off Deadline: Palo Alto reviving the battle against 'King Car and Czar Truck'?


Byron Sher, former state senator and assemblyman, once posed with his wife, Linda, and children on the curb of a Palo Alto street for a political ad urging residents to fight "King Car and Czar Truck."

He was running for re-election to the Palo Alto City Council in a unique all-council (also known as the "recall election") race in the spring of 1967, with the council sharply divided between "residentialists" and "establishment" members. Sher lost that bitter election, to his long-lasting chagrin, but was re-elected to the council in 1972 and later became mayor, beginning his rise to higher offices statewide.

But his ad, with his family looking up the street as if trying to cross, fearfully, into the path of the dreaded vehicles, now echoes throughout Palo Alto nearly a half-century later. Sher, long retired, now resides in the Sierra foothills near Placerville, far from Palo Alto traffic.

But traffic remains at the top of Palo Alto concerns, reflected in the Feb. 22 "State of the City" speech by current Mayor Pat Burt, well-covered by reporter Gennady Sheyner in the Weekly (Read In a jam: In planning for long-term future, Palo Alto wrestles with worsening housing, traffic problems)

Traffic isn't the only issue, for sure, to agitate voters and cause City Council members and city administrators to become agitated. Overall growth, a sense of growing urbanization for a community that likes to consider itself suburban and environmentally conscious also rates high on the community-concern scale.

Overflow parking from commercial areas, chiefly downtown Palo Alto and in the California Avenue business district, has added to the anger of many residents and contributed to the election of a pair of "neo-residentialists" to the council, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth, opposing what some perceive as more growth-friendly council members (Karen Holman and Greg Schmidt as exceptions).

Burt's narrow election as mayor on a 5-4 vote also highlighted an intricate interpersonal alignment on the current council, despite members largely agreeing on the core issues before the city this year.

During the last half-century, the push and pull of development versus slow-growth (sometimes no-growth) sentiment has waxed and waned. But the irritation has remained as a fairly constant undertone and has spilled over into other issues before the city.

One such big, continuing issue is a housing shortage, exacerbated by the number of jobs that have been created in Palo Alto, which by the late 1960s added up to a 2.5-to-1 jobs-to-housing ratio. That ratio has reportedly gotten worse since and, along with great schools, amenities, trees and parks, made Palo Alto a premier place to live, with housing prices soaring to shock-level heights and with rents to match -- among the highest in the nation.

It was, in fact, a proposal for lower-income senior housing and 12 market-rate homes on Maybell Avenue in south Palo Alto that was the spark that ignited the current "residentialist" surge, with traffic at the core of residents' concerns.

The council and Burt include housing as a concern and goal for 2016, especially focusing on "affordable" housing for younger people and seniors, and some for lower-income people and families generally.

Burt told me in a pre-speech over-breakfast interview that there will be increased city attention to housing sites located in the north end of Palo Alto, rather than the sensitized south part of town -- especially near transit hubs.

Yet the new assault on traffic will be at the forefront. Burt noted that there are some solid factors afoot that will help in the anti-traffic efforts this year and in the immediate years to follow.

One is that a number of young professionals are choosing public transportation as an alternative to commuting by cars, and some of those don't even own a car, Burt noted. Some don't even have a driver's license, under a "Why do I need it?" rationale, he said.

Another factor is that major changes are literally on the road in a technological revolution. That includes not just the self-driving car roaming around Palo Alto but also the potential for self-driving vans to carry a number of passengers, which could cut down on traffic.

Palo Alto has created a new Transportation Management Agency, or TMA in city shorthand, as a nonprofit organization that will implement efforts to get folks out from behind the single-occupant-vehicle steering wheel, called "transportation demand management." The TMA's initial report is due out in mid-March.

The city's TMA also is reflected by a similar group formed by businesses in the Stanford Research Park, and the two groups are coordinating efforts. Burt attended a meeting of the Research Park TMA in late January for an update on some of the major steps being planned there. Their program is due to launch in April.

Both groups have looked to Stanford University for an example based on some of the traffic-management steps taken by the university -- an outgrowth of county requirements when Stanford's major expansion plan was approved around the turn of this century.

"We're finally doing with our TMA -- rideshare, apps -- what Stanford has been doing," Burt said. "They're doing all the things we're talking about doing."

What can be done?

"Big employers have regional buses," Burt said. "What about sharing the buses?"

Other steps that could reduce traffic include: expanding the incentives to bike to work in a mostly level region with great climate; improving the city's shuttle system to quadruple the ridership; and instituting Eco Passes, which provide employees free and unlimited rides throughout the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) system; and expanding parking permits in neighborhoods.

Data is expected by the end of 2016 on how effective a multi-headed program might be.

For funding such an effort, Burt and others are looking again at another long-debated issue: a business-license tax that would be dedicated to a TMA program.

So buckle up for an accelerated ride.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at

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8 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2016 at 8:47 pm

"We're finally doing with our TMA -- rideshare, apps -- what Stanford has been doing," Burt said. "They're doing all the things we're talking about doing."

Just how are going to do what Stanford has been doing: coercing our commuters to park their cars just outside of town and ride shuttles into Palo Alto?

1 person likes this
Posted by Not just North PA
a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 13, 2016 at 9:13 pm

Residential streets in South PA are also seeing commuters parking on their streets on a daily basis. Particularly around Lewis and Charleston. This is not just a downtown problem.

8 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2016 at 9:21 am

Walk The Talk.

Why doesn't the City of Palo Alto force all these great ideas on city employee's? Let's ban all city employees from driving to work. That will free up a lot of parking spaces in the city hall garage. Let's ban all City Council members from driving to meetings, no excuses. Don't say "it's late", I have to get to the meetings from work, etc. If you want to make others not drive, then set an example and see what the burden is.

What is Embarcadero Media doing to control employees driving in the city?


11 people like this
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2016 at 10:08 am

Agree 100 percent with Marc. The elitism is sickening. It makes me want to drive my car alone more than ever and as much as possible, just to spite them. And If they get the maligned single occupant vehicle drivers crammed into buses like their personal time doesn't matter then less traffic for me to deal with. I know, so selfish!

So good luck to the overfed hypocrites and their Holy Crusade against personal freedom.

1 person likes this
Posted by There but for the grace of God go I
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 14, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Its clear: Cars foster anger. I have to drive to work every day, but if it wasn't for the bike, I'm afraid I'd be as miserable as many of you seem to be. Just bitter, angry and willing to act out of spite regardless of the logic counterparts on the road seen every single day. It is my quest to not be that person, and the bike takes me away from that threat.

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

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