Guest Opinion: Peak traffic? Re-framing our actions and choices in our Bay Area 'ecosystem'


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.

Yoriko Kishimoto served as mayor of Palo Alto in 2007 and chaired the transportation committee of the citizens advisory committee that drafted the current Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan. She is currently president of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Board of Directors.

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2 people like this
Posted by David Groves
a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2016 at 9:02 am

Thank You! For your leadership.

3 people like this
Posted by Yes!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 15, 2016 at 9:16 am

Couldn't agree more!

26 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2016 at 12:49 pm

I suggest we all lock ourselves in our homes and never go out anywhere because it is good for the planet.

What is good for us?

I tried an experimental route plan of how to do our commute by VTA. Almost two hours, 3 different buses with short walks between and half mile walks each end. A total of almost 2 hours v 15 - 20 minutes. How can that be justified? The cost of this would be $11 per day.

I am a great believer in public transit, but until we can improve it so that it is quicker, efficient and more cost effective, then we will never get people using it.

One of the biggest problems is that there is so much school traffic in Palo Alto. Can we get shuttles or buses to get the kids to school, particularly the high schools? Route 88 looks as if it will be scrapped with the VTA shakeup.

If we can't get the kids to school by bus which is one of the most regular and routine commutes around town, how can we expect those with irregular and longer commutes to manage? We do happen to have great numbers of kids riding bikes to school and we can't really expect those numbers to go up very much more for many reasons. But we should be able to get them out of parent cars and into a more independent lifestyle by the time they are high school age.

6 people like this
Posted by Eric Rosenblum
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 15, 2016 at 5:53 pm

Yoriko: you have a voice that is well worth listening to. I think that the metaphor of water management vs. traffic management is a good one, and that there are lessons to be learned. The realization that we live in a connected ecosystem and not an island is also critical for good decision-making

16 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm

The recent announcement by VTA that they are considering eliminating essentially all the bus routes in Palo Alto is not very helpful to this goal.

1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Apr 16, 2016 at 1:32 pm

@Norman Beamer

You're in luck because absolutely no such announcement was ever made.

20 people like this
Posted by No to new VTA tax measure
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 17, 2016 at 10:46 pm

Think of traffic congestion as a giant toilet. Flush the VTA down the drain and make room for new s..tuff. Do not vote for the VTA's planned November sales tax increase. That would generate billions headed straight for the sewer. And one last point - a question: what ever happened to tele-commuting (i.e., working from home or other close-to-home locations)?

14 people like this
Posted by Commonsense
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 18, 2016 at 10:20 am

Nice piece but the lack of even mentioning the problem with our housing shortage is irresponsible. Without more, a LOT more living units in the Bay Area, including Palo Alto, commute times will continue to be too long and, therefore, roads clogged. It's time to stop treating the peninsula and beyond as open space that needs to be protected.

8 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2016 at 11:24 am


Irresponsible perhaps, but not all that surprising, as there are a significant number of people who refuse to acknowledge a housing shortage actually exists - even now that its making national news.

20 people like this
Posted by Human values
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2016 at 11:45 am

The problem is over-population and over-development if you want to be realistic. Over-development attracts people to the area. Greed and competitiveness feeds the process. I want, I want, declare an emergency.

The shortage is in human values other than greed and competition.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 18, 2016 at 11:46 am

Nice sounding platitudes that fails to provide any real guidance and ignores the real obstacles, like lack of sufficient public transportation networks. Solving transportation issues is difficult, challenging work that we have yet to step up to in a meaningful way.

7 people like this
Posted by SpreadIt
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 18, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Well written article, particularly the analogy to "slow it, sink it, spread it". I'm sure Yoriko isn't suggesting spreading it in terms of suburban sprawl. But "Spread it" does have a role - we need to think about slowing the pace of development so we're not chasing peaks and spreading it - distributing jobs less densely in the mid-peninsula. If Google, Facebook, Palintir, and Apple shifted their organizational behaviors to spread major job centers thoughout the Bay Area, rather than concentrating large majority of staff in relatively small places, the commuting pressures could be eased.

Rather than focus on changing consumer behavior, we need concentrated effort on changing corporate behavior, and making sure the costs are being borne by organizations at the root of the problem.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2016 at 12:24 pm

@Human values

Thank you for beautifully demonstrating my point.

12 people like this
Posted by Palo Verde
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 18, 2016 at 2:01 pm

Our Palo Alto City Council and Planning Commission seem to live in a different reality. Assuming that creating more bicycle paths will reduce auto traffic is ridiculous. Today's Mercury News says that the VTA ridership has dropped 23 percent since 2001. When I use the VTA application to plan my travel from Palo Verde to the San Antonio/El Camino shopping center it estimates over an hour and a half for the trip ... which would take ten minutes by car! And I wouldn't have to hurt my senior nees by walking to the bus and waiting with no bench or shelter. What about senior transportation? Seniors don't ride bikes and can't walk much. They use cars and need to park. Single rider traffic increases despite company buses. Let's get real! Car traffic won't go away. We need a completely different approach to housing, building codes,parking structures, etc that will ACCOMMODATE auto traffic, not try to force commuters onto bikes or buses.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2016 at 2:41 pm

Palo Verde mentions that VTA ridership is dropping. On tv news I saw someone say that one of the reasons is because they are reducing service. The latest is that they will be reducing service even more particularly in Mountain View and Palo Alto areas.

To reduce car use, they should be increasing service not reducing service. The big problem is that they are not being realistic about what sort of service to provide. They are providing slow, snaking routes that take a long time to get where they think we want to go. A much better idea would be short, frequent services between residential areas and Caltrain stations, or between busy office parks and Caltrain. They could also do better to serve schools. They need to see themselves partnering and support systems for other services, not competing against them. They need to give seniors and others off peak reductions in fares. They need to see that two short trips on the one commute should not be charged double. They could even try getting Peninsula residents to both airports.

Instead of reducing service to areas that are already poorly served, they should be increasing service and working with those who live here to find routes we want to use. I certainly would love to get a ride to use a bus up and down highway 101 to get to an airport.

3 people like this
Posted by Transit Costs
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 18, 2016 at 2:46 pm

@ Palo Verde - Never force people into transit. There will always be destinations that need cars and people who need to be driven. There is also a certain percentage of car trips the city could easily reduced.

If somebody is willing to take a bus to meet their kids at school or grandpa at the community center and then take a cab or Uber home, that should be encouraged. It reduces car trips and parking needs. There is not an incentive not to get a Residential Parking Permit. Cheap carpools don't help that. If there are multiple adults in a residence, but only 1 person gets an RPP and the other takes the train or bus, that should be encouraged. We are right on the County border, making us pay for 3 transit systems (VTA, Samtrans, Caltrain) to go a few miles. It is cost prohibitive.

Safety - this is a true impediment to public transit. Many bus stops are unsafe and on crowded roads. The Charleston Road corridor is busy and dangerous. The train station gives the easiest, safest drop off spots to corporation buses. Residents and visiting seniors on the C line must cross busy Alma.

Otherwise, you are correct there is no coordination between transportation services. Figuring out what time the senior bus in Menlo Park arrives and coordinating that with the Palo Alto Shuddle and VTA is very hard to do. You really have to search.

Previously I thought it was only for corporate employers. If it will help residents and visitors (seniors, shoppers), it should say that. The TMA web site is interesting, but doesn't explain its incentive program very well. There is no phone number for questions. It should coordinate with Abilities United, senior centers, libraries, youth centers, Public Authority Services which coordinates benefits for home health workers, Sourcewise which helps seniors, aid agencies. Some already provide VTA passes.

Most transportation services and agencies are South County oriented. VTA does little for Palo Alto and is always trying to cut Palo Alto services. Only Palo Alto will fill its own needs, no matter how much its citizens pay in taxes for county services. Palo Alto is asking what it needs to do to meet its own needs. This is Palo Alto's best, and ultimately its only, option.

Like this comment
Posted by Tony Carrasco
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 19, 2016 at 9:20 am

Great article Yoriko! Thanks

9 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2016 at 10:05 am

To Yoriko Kishimoto. Do you "Walk the Talk"? Do you always take alternative transportation regardless of the cost or how long it takes to travel?

I am not against alternative transit. I am against proponents telling others what they should do.

How about we start with banning all government officials and employees from using private vehicles. All city, county and state officials and workers should be forced to take alternative transportation to/from their job. No excuses.

Let the Palo Alto City Council start. Lets see all our elected officials perform ALL their duties without using private vehicles. No excuses. If they can't get to/from a meeting, how do they expect a person getting off at 11:30pm to get home.


Like this comment
Posted by Transit Costs
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 19, 2016 at 12:00 pm

What happened at the City Council Meeting? What did the Council vote to do?

6 people like this
Posted by Ahem!
a resident of Southgate
on Apr 19, 2016 at 2:12 pm

The VTA published an announce punt on Monday that they are dropping service on several routes that have very few riders.

It appears the VTA is hemmorrhaging money.

1 person likes this
Posted by Re Work, Work
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 19, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Corporate mentality is still living and dying in the 20th Century! Re-think and reconfigure how a 40-80 hour work week can be cut in half and produce more effective and efficient outcomes. More working from home or office hubs than gigantic office building sprawl and work complexes such as Google, Standford etc.

3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 19, 2016 at 7:54 pm

"If somebody is willing to take a bus to meet their kids at school or grandpa at the community center and take a cab or Uber home, that should be encouraged. It reduces car trips and parking needs."

That works very well in the mind's eye. But then some real-worlder comes along to ask where the cab or Uber came from to get to the pickup point, and where does it go after the dropoff? A car trip requires that a car travel the trip route however you slice it up.

"Re-think and reconfigure how a 40-80 hour work week can be cut in half and produce more effective and efficient outcomes. More working from home or office hubs than gigantic office building sprawl and work complexes such as Google, Standford etc."

Office hub workers are already a major component of our horrific commute traffic. And how the dickens do janitors, police, carpenters, tow truck drivers, cement workers, teachers, plumbers, trial lawyers, garbage collectors, home care givers, retail clerks, firefighters, housepainters, mail carriers, surgeons, bus drivers, gardeners, FedEx and UPS drivers, park rangers, grocers, chefs, airline pilots, building inspectors, electricians, chimney sweeps, roofers, laboratory researchers, excavators, pizza delivery, ... , work from home?

Like this comment
Posted by Transit Costs
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 19, 2016 at 9:28 pm

True, Uber cars come from somewhere, but the Uber application orders the closest cars in the area, which may already be dropping off. Many drivers are on their way home from work, and they are on the road anyway.

Often the application tells us the driver is completing another ride, and will arrive after dropping off the previous passenger.

The Uber driver does not park and get out of the car, so it not taking an all day parking place, which is a huge problem in downtown and the residential areas.

Uber discourages travel in congested times by being an on demand service that charges more for Surge or busy times. Since travel time is part of the price charged, there is an incentive to ride at less congested times. When the price goes up, we wait until it drops and until there is less traffic. If the trip price estimate gets too expensive, we take public transit. This system is the strongest incentive to limit traveling at congested times we have dealt with.

You have to have time to do this. We can wait when we don't have to get to work and are transporting grandpa and students or for recreation. We cannot when we have to arrive at a certain time or taking very small children or injured people.

After the emergence of Uber, our family rides public transit more, not less. Why? Because we know if we take transit one way and we get delayed, we always have another way home.

The disabled people in our family received VTA passes to encourage use of bus instead of more costly Paratransit. Now they take public transit almost 100% of the time. Why? Free VTA public transit at $0 is cheaper than Outreach Paratransit at $4 - $8, and even more if traveling in two counties. Free VTA at $0 is also much cheaper than Uber cost of $21.

It is a question of what you want to incentivize and encourage. Free passes may not bring a lot of money, but they do reduce Paratransit costs and car trips and get people on buses that are traveling on the roads anyway.

Like this comment
Posted by stanhutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2016 at 10:02 pm

stanhutchings is a registered user.

I think one of the first objectives of Traffic Management should be eliminating the need to commute (other than by walking or biking). Long distance shuttles waste time, resources, and generate pollution.
A much better idea would be one or more high-rise (more than 25 stories) condo/apartment buildings located adjacent to or on office hubs, gigantic office building sprawls and work complexes such as Google, Stanford Research Park, etc. and subsidized by the companies. Only employees of the employers who subsidized and built the high rises would be eligible. The lease would be conditional on employment at the sponsor's office on the park. Instead of subsidizing commutes, housing would be subsidized. This would be especially attractive to young singles, and young marrieds without children - it would certainly have appealed to me when I was in those categories. A poll of employees would give an estimate of how many residences could be filled. Careful consideration should be given to what architectural designs would be most attractive to the target residents. Facilities should include the retail markets needed for everyday life: grocery, restaurants (coffee shops, fast food and up-scale), barber shop, beauty salon, etc. Personal vehicles should be discouraged by extremely high garage fees; convenient shuttles, rental cars (e.g. Zipcar), bike parking, safe walking and biking routes to nearby retail and entertainment centers (California Avenue, El Camino Real, Stanford.
This sort of concentrated housing is very successful in other cities, and could be successful here with State and City support, incentives and good planning. There would be no need for a TMA if there were no commute traffic. But we do have to get over our objection to high rise buildings.

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

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