Higher speed limits may boost Palo Alto's ability to conduct traffic enforcement on key roadways, but city officials indicated on Monday that they are in no rush to pursue this potentially controversial solution without buy-in from the greater community.
The idea of raising the speed limit came out of a recent traffic survey and engineer study, which evaluated speeds at 70 roadways throughout the city and identified 14 where cars go significantly faster than the posted speed limit. But if the city wants to enable radar enforcement on these segments, it would have to establish a speed limit that is within 5 mph of pace at which most drivers are traveling, according to state law.
If the city were to pursue this solution, speed limits would be raised at numerous key stretches, including sections of University Avenue (between Alma Street and Middlefield Road), Middlefield (between Embarcadero Road and the southern edge of the city) and Embarcadero (between Middlefield and U.S. Highway 101). In all these cases, the speed limit would go from 25 to 30 mph. For East Bayshore Road (between Embarcadero and San Antonio Road) and stretches of Coyote Hill and Deer Creek roads, the speed limit would go from 35 to 40 mph.
In discussing the survey results Monday night, members of the City Council acknowledged the importance of enforcing the speed limit. At the same time, few had appetite for making the change. Rather, they generally agreed that the city would be better off pursuing traffic-calming measures that would encourage cars to slow down.
Planning staff also wasn't particularly enthusiastic about changing the speed limit. Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said that staff is not recommending the changes but merely pointing out that, based on the study, the threshold would need to be raised on the 14 segments if the city wanted to pursue radar enforcement. And everyone agreed that on certain segments, including Arastradero Road, raising the speed limit would be ill-advised. The city is now preparing for the next chapter of renovating the busy artery, a long-term project that includes a host of new bike lanes, raised medians, widened intersections and turn lanes.
“I really would not encourage increasing speed limits here as we're making design decisions based on a 25 mph speed limit,” Mello said.
The council generally agreed that there is no need at this time to rush into a policy that many would see as both controversial and counterintuitive. Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted that while radars may be a useful enforcement tool for enforcement, it's not one for which she has seen a lot of appetite from the community -- particularly if implementing it would involve raising speed limits.
“I'd be very surprised if you found someone in the community who's saying, 'Please raise the speed limit on Middlefield!'” Kniss said.
Councilman Eric Filseth was more open to the idea of raising speed limits on a few segments, but only if the focus of the change is to reduce collisions through greater enforcement. The key, he said, is to precisely identify the problem that the city is trying to solve and to present residents in the effected area with a complete plan for achieving the needed change. Simply putting up signs would accomplish nothing, he said.
While the idea of raising speed limits proved relatively unpopular, some council members were enthusiastic about the prospect of lowering speed limits near school zones, as allowed by state law. Under the staff proposal speed limits would drop from 25 mph to 20 or 15 mph within 500 feet of schools. Mayor Pat Burt favored the idea of lower speed limits near school zones, though he wondered how low the speed limit can be before drivers begin to ignore it.
Most people agreed Monday that calming traffic through things like bike lanes, traffic humps, chicanes and roundabouts is a more effective strategy than raising the speed limit. Former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, a staunch advocate for reducing car trips, was among them. She urged the council not to move ahead with raising speed limits but to instead pursue as a goal a long-term reduction in citywide automobile traffic.
“Please direct staff to take raising the speed limits off the table,” Kishimoto said. “I think there's no need to stir up that conversation.”
While no council member strongly advocated for radar-eligible speeds, several spoke about the importance of enforcing the speed limit. The topic of enforcement loomed large during the Planning and Transportation Commission's review of the traffic survey earlier this month. The Police Department currently does not have a staffed traffic-enforcement team, though patrol officers enforce traffic on an ongoing basis.
While planning commission Chair Michael Alcheck argued at that meeting that staffing levels should be at the forefront of the speed-limit discussion, City Manager James Keene on Monday clarified that the traffic team is included in the Police Department budget. However, staffing challenges have kept the department from filling the budgeted positions.
“We did reduce the traffic enforcement team in the recession days but that is back and funded,” Keene said. “What the Police Department has been dealing with is overall staff shortages, between turnover and having new people coming into the academy and joining the department.”