Traffic in Palo Alto seems overwhelming in its complexity, but in order to think about systemic solutions to actually reduce traffic congestion, it is helpful to zoom out and think about the big picture. Since I work with open space, I think of the analogy of watersheds and air basins.
Successful ecosystems are rich in information and diversity, have multiple small loops and are adaptive by design. What can we learn from them to tackle our frustrating traffic problems?
The highway system is analogous to the concretized flood-control channels that replace natural creeks. They accommodate fast water flows for the 5 percent of time they are needed, but they also destroy life in communities they pass. They are effective in meeting certain engineering parameters but ignore other goals, such as supporting rich soils and life in the surrounding ecosystem. Most of the time they become "dead zones" versus living streams that adapt to conditions of low or high flow.
What lessons can we learn?
Silicon Valley is a place of extremes. We are fortunate to be experiencing good economic times today. Many jobs are added -- but housing and transportation cannot be added that quickly. Also, we don't want to build the infrastructure to accommodate just the peak demands -- it is overbuilding for the remaining 95 percent of the time. We need a system that is more adaptive and flexible and that serves our overarching priorities of a sustainable economy, environment and community.
"Slow it, sink it, spread it" is the mantra of Brock Dolman, watershed guru. We want the water to be absorbed where it falls and not rush into the concrete channel where it may cause flooding (read "congestion"). For traffic, it means staying local when feasible: local jobs, shopping, schools where we can get around by foot or bike.
Flexible channels: Highways and roads can't widen on demand, but we can use them much more efficiently. Carpooling services like Scoop fill the empty seats in cars -- long acknowledged as the untapped resource in our car system. As for buses, when they each replace 20 to 60 single-occupancy vehicles, their value is obvious. Pedestrian and bikeways are very flexible in their capacity.
Diversity: We have seen an explosion of innovation in software, services and products in the transportation sector recently -- wonderful! Private operators have stepped forward offering to supplement our commute choices with additional services, fulfilling unmet needs.
Rich in information and relationships: Smart phones revolutionized our access to maps and real-time conditions. Better data connecting us all will make for better micro- and macro-decisions on when, where, and how we travel. It is truly revolutionary to have so many options and real-time data on one's phone.
The reality of living in an air basin became apparent to me when I was serving on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board of directors about eight years ago. Wood smoke from fireplaces was recognized as a health hazard. When regulating wood-burning fireplaces in our area was first proposed, there was visceral opposition. How dare we even think about banning cozy hearth fires on Christmas Eve? It was the essence of family traditions on cold winter evenings.
But what might have been acceptable with fewer than 3 million people before 1970 is no longer acceptable when there are more than 7 million people today in the Bay Area air basin. Woodsmoke caused almost a third of the health-impairing particulate matter in the winter, and the air district took regulatory action to ban wood burning on winter "Spare the Air" days.
The same perception shift has not yet happened with cars. Cars and diesel trucks are an even greater source of particulate matter, the No. 1 health hazard in the air we breathe. And air quality is just one of the negative side effects of cars! Congestion, horrible inefficiency and high costs are among the prices we pay.
Can we reduce traffic rather than live with the prospect of ever-worsening commutes? Yes, it's very feasible. Our City Council is launching a comprehensive set of measures to help us transition to this more diverse and sustainable network: Transportation management associations (TMA), residential permit parking (RPP), mandatory transportation demand management (TDM) programs, and a possible funding measure to pay for alternatives. Charging for parking in the neighborhoods protects quality of life and raises funds for alternatives.
Next Monday, the City Council will review an aggressive climate action plan to slash our greenhouse gases by 80 percent below 1990 by 2030, and transportation reform is at its core.
The government's role is to help take collective action to achieve our highest common goals and manage our common rights of way, coordinate land use and transportation through the Comprehensive Plan and zoning, and protect the environment and quality of life. Private solutions and new technologies also have a large role to play. But a comprehensive, "ecosystem" view must be taken to optimize overall costs to the economy, environment and our social fabric.
Finally, it comes down to us, as citizens, commuters, residents. I hope we all make this "perception shift" and realize we live in a common and limited air basin and commute shed. We can choose to limit growth, or we can change our behavior and infrastructure to accommodate somewhat more growth -- that is a political decision.
I hope each person will commit to trying a new mode of travel -- carpool, bus, train or bike at least once a week. It's addicting! And good for us all.