Can higher speed limits slow down drivers on some of Palo Alto's busiest arteries?
To those of us who aren't traffic engineers, the idea may sound counterintuitive, if not outright absurd. But it's also an idea that the city is currently exploring for 14 different stretches of road -- including portions of Alma Street, Embarcadero Road, Middlefield Road and University Avenue -- as part of a broad initiative to make traffic speeds more predictable and safe.
The drive to slow down the drivers picked up steam after the city completed a traffic survey for 70 different segments of road, a study that tracked the speeds of vehicle, analyzed collision rates and made recommendations to change speed limits where the posted maximum does not comport with reality.
Take, for example, the stretch of Embarcadero between Middlefield and U.S. Highway 101, where the posted speed limit is 25 mph. The survey found that cars in this stretch actually go 37 mph. Identical conditions exist on Alma, between University and Lincoln Avenue. For both stretches, the study recommends raising the speed limit to 30 mph.
Chief Transportation Officer Joshuah Mello told the Planning and Transportation Commission last week that motorists on Embarcadero currently aren't getting the message that the speed limit is 25 mph.
"They feel comfortable going much faster than that," Mello said.
The city isn't suggesting capriciously upping the speed limits, though; in fact, it can't. As Mello noted in a new report, state regulations prescribe that a speed limit be established at the nearest five-mile-per-hour increment to the critical 85th percentile speed (the speed at or below which 85 percent of the vehicles are traveling). On some roadways, where conditions are "extraordinary" because of a high volume of pedestrians or high collision rates, the city is allowed to reduce it by another 5 mph, Mello told the commission last week.
The vast majority of the city, including most of the residential streets where the speed limit is generally 25 mph, would not be impacted by the proposed changes. But if the city proceeds with the study's recommendation, four segments Coyote Hill Road, from Page Mill Road to Hillview Road; Deer Creek Road, from Page Mill to Arastradero; and two segments along East Bayshore Road, between Embarcadero and San Antonio Road would see their speed limits go up from 35 mph to 40 mph.
That's not to say, however, that the city is aiming for faster traffic. Rather, the plan is to supplement the higher speed limits with traffic-calming measures that would keep speeds down. In other words, even if the speed limit on Embarcadero is raised from 25 mph to 30 mph, the city could add things like speed humps and lane merges to keep speeds manageable.
Much like the proposed changes to speed limits, the traffic-calming elements would be subject to public hearings and council approval before they are implemented. The City Council is set to discuss the proposals on Nov. 21, though no decisions are expected to be made until next year.
Traffic could also be slowed the old-fashioned way: through law enforcement. Raising the speed limits to the state standard will make those stretches eligible for radar enforcement. Currently, police officers rely on pacing and estimation to catch speeding vehicles. These methods, however, don't always hold up well in court, Mello said. Rather, they make it "difficult for police to enforce because ultimately citations can be dismissed when they get to traffic commissioners."
"We're recommending updated speed limits that are enforceable under state law," Mello told the planning commission.
There could be a snag, however: Even if the city chooses to go along with the radar-eligible speed limits, improved enforcement may not follow. That's because the traffic-enforcement team in the Palo Alto Police Department is currently nonexistent, having been gradually reduced from seven members to three, before being eliminated altogether.
Police Sgt. Craig Lee told the planning commission on Nov. 9 that speed enforcement is conducted at the discretion of patrol officers who, because of reduced staffing, "are doing a lot more with less."
"Speed is currently being enforced on a priority basis, in relation to calls for service and all the other collateral duties that an officer in patrol functions may be faced with on any given time of the day or that week," Lee said.
Given the dearth of enforcement, the planning commission wasn't all too keen on immediately raising speed limits on more than a dozen roads. Commissioners were, however, more receptive to the broader goal of creating speeds that are both safe and reflect how people are actually driving. They also supported the idea of moving ahead with design improvements on roads to achieve target speeds, whether or not these improvements are complemented by higher speed limits.
Several commissioners urged planning staff to focus its attention on those roads where residents have been calling for improvements, rather than moving ahead with changes on all 14 of the segments identified in the study. Commissioner Eric Rosenblum noted that increasing some of the speed limits in the problematic segments would run counter to the expectations of residents.
"When community is asking for enforcement, they're asking you to lower the speed," Rosenblum said. "The focus should be to get to the 'target speed' as quickly as possible."
Commissioner Greg Tanaka lauded the new analysis, though he also stressed the need for more community outreach before moving ahead with any changes.
"The key piece that's missing is community feedback," said Tanaka, who last week completed a successful campaign for the City Council. "I've walked up and down all the streets, and I'll tell you, some people felt very passionate about this stuff."
Others also raised concerns about how the higher speed limits would be perceived by the community. Commissioner Adrian Fine said that the idea reads like "people are driving faster so we should increase the speed limit."
"That's not the best argument to start with," Fine said.
He urged staff to be clear about its broader goals, whether it's improving traffic flow or reducing collisions. Chair Michael Alcheck agreed and warned about "information whiplash" that residents will be experiencing if the city raises the speed limit while simultaneously moving ahead with traffic-calming solutions. He suggested skipping the former step and focusing on the latter. He also urged Mello to be more direct about identifying the staffing challenges in the Police Department, which make enforcement tricky regardless of the speed limits.
"We don't really need to spend a lot of time (talking) about enforcing higher speed limits if the City Council isn't going to create a budget for an enforcement team," Alcheck said.
Road segments where higher speed limits are proposed:
Alma St. from University Ave. to Lincoln Ave. | From 25 to 30
Arastradero Road, from Foothill Expressway to El Camino Real | From 25 to 30
Charleston Road, from El Camino to Alma St. | From 25 to 30
Charleston Road, from Middlefield Road to Fabian Way | From 25 to 30
Coyote Hill Road, from Page Mill to Hillview Ave. | From 35 to 40
Deer Creek Road, from Page Mill Road to Arastradero Road | From 35 to 40
East Bayshore Road, from Embarcadero to Baylands frontage | From 35 to 40
East Bayshore Road, from Baylands frontage to San Antonio Road | From 35 to 40
Embarcadero Road, from Embarcadero Road (Baylands) to Hwy 101 | From 25 to 30
Embarcadero Road, from Hwy 101 to Middlefield Road | From 25 to 30
Embarcadero Road, from Middlefield to Alma Street | From 25 to 30
Middlefield Road, from Embarcadero to Oregon Expressway | From 25 to 30
Middlefield Road, from East Charleston to south city limit | From 25 to 30
University Avenue, from east city limit to Middlefield Road | From 25 to 30