Palo Alto City Council taps the brakes on higher speed limits

City officials not sold on idea of enabling radar enforcement on major arteries

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.”


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


12 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:04 pm

“I'd be very surprised if you found someone in the community who's saying, 'Please raise the speed limit on Middlefield!'” Kniss said.

I'll say it ... raise the speed limit to something reasonable for a 4-lane major artery. The speed limit on Middlefield through Midtown as already effectively 35mph ... when traffic isn't backed up, so why not have the signage reflect that and be able to enforce it? If I follow the posted 25 mph limit, I become a traffic hazard. 25mph is an appropriate speed limit for small 2-lane residential streets, not the major 4-lane connector streets.

9 people like this
Posted by LOL
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:43 pm

Crisis of conscience ????

27 people like this
Posted by Kate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 22, 2016 at 5:25 pm

Kate is a registered user.

I drive 25 on Middlefield, despite its use as a major artery, as you put it, @Dan, because it's the speed limit, and in my view, an appropriate speed in an area where lots of children bike, people walk and cross, and drivers exit and enter the roadway from their driveways and parking lots of stores, the library, and parks.

11 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 22, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Dan, Middlefield is not a major 4-lane highway. In many places it's only 2 lanes. In others, the lanes have been so narrowed not cars don't even have a full lane because of the buses and the trash cans.

When is the city going to get rid of the expensive, dangerous and useless Jordan "bike" lane on Middlefield and N. California that was installed over the protests of the neighborhood and that Jordan school officials refuse to let the kids use because it's so dangerous?

Instead, we've had all these useless bollards and posts backing up traffic on N. California and Middlefield for more close to four months!

How much has this fiasco cost in dollars, erroneous but costly studies, dramatic but wrong 3-day models and zowie PowerPoint presentations, "monitoring" the situation at the wrong times of day to get the desired responses, wasted staff time, wasted time for police officers "reassuring" the residents who complain and wasted time for drivers, bikes and pedestrians?

7 people like this
Posted by circle of destruction
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 22, 2016 at 6:56 pm

The transportation staff is pursuing its own agenda
and covering the city and our neighborhoods with signs and paint,ill advised lane configurations,
etc, feeding off disastrous land use policies which have led to overdevelopment and increased traffic and, perversely at the same time, actual reduction of police enforcement in a giant circle of destruction of our city and our neighborhoods
which get uglier and more dangerous every day. And the City Council buys into this circle of
destruction and perpetuates it in every aspect.

22 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2016 at 7:05 pm

Increasing speed limits will increase pedestrian fatalities, especially on roads like Middlefield where there are long stretches with no stop lights to protect pedestrians in crosswalks. I guarantee it. Don't do it.

6 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 23, 2016 at 8:39 am

Politics at its best.

Josh Mello knew that this would never fly. This was just a ploy to give his department cover to continue his Bicyclist Agenda by pretending he was concerned about traffic that his own department is causing.

Clever Josh, but you really need to find another job.

4 people like this
Posted by James Thurber
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 23, 2016 at 10:22 am

As a non-car owner (I ride a bicycle) I find Alma Ave particularly enticing being a straight shot from Mountain View to Palo Alto. There's no bicycle lane but under the law bicycles are considered vehicles. So I take the lane, the whole lane (albeit the slow lane).

Alas, at my normal cruising speed of about 15 mph I find cars backing up behind me with (frequently) angry drivers using that noisy device (the horn) to get my attention.

If I'm feeling comfortable I can speed up to 16 mph, with a tailwind even 18.

And eventually I get where I'm going.

Commuting to / from Palo Alto Schools I frequently find traffic on Arastradero traveling at speeds exceeding 40 mph. How do I now they're going 40 mph or more? As a former police officer I was required to judge speeds to within 3 mph (plus / minus), a skill I've worked on maintaining. Fortunately there is a bicycle lane on Arastradero although not on Alma.

Drivers, save gas, drive slowly, enjoy the view, be safe, and have a nice day. PS: Stop for stop signs, when turning right on red and put down that silly cell phone.

4 people like this
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 23, 2016 at 11:28 am

I am disabled and make my way down Middlefield. Most cars exceed 25mph already. I'm not convinced speeding things up is desirable.

3 people like this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Nov 23, 2016 at 11:49 am

Let's rebrand Palo Alto -- with welcome signs at all major entries that say:

Welcome to Calm Palo Alto
Drive Slowly - Be Considerate

Set our expectations right when drivers enter our residential city.

Thank you City Council, for dropping the idea about raising speed limits. We need to slow drivers down and I'm glad to hear that the City Manager James Keene is working on hiring more police to help control the wanton speeding and disregard of stop signs throughout our city. Thank you!

5 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2016 at 11:57 am

Middlefield needs more stop lights. At least one more between Embarcadero and California, one more between Colorado and Loma Verde, and one more between Loma Verde and Meadow. The long gaps between stop lights make pedestrians walk extremely inconvenient distances to cross the street safely and car speeds reach unsafe levels on these long stretches with no stop lights.

2 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2016 at 12:30 pm

I guess I live in an alternate reality, where I need to commute to work, buy groceries , ship kids from place to place, etc. Since I work 50+ hours per week , can't afford to drive at 15 mph, sit in "calmed" traffic... so I am looking for the council to facilitate flow of traffic along major roads like Middlefield in Midtown( and yes, it Is 4 lanes between 101 and Oregon Expy, perfectly safe for all modes of traffic except when it's slowness causes drivers to take risks changing lanes) . Don't constrict it further. That is what creates potential dangerous situations . Probably should move out of Palo Alto, out of the bubble back into the real world.

5 people like this
Posted by Pat
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 23, 2016 at 12:31 pm

I completely agree with "circle of destruction's" points! We definitely do NOT need increased speed limits on Middlefield! And the increasing "eye litter" on the streets is annoying, serves no purpose, and distracts us from seeing the natural beauty of our trees and shrubs. We do not need huge swaths of lime green, yellow and white lines at every intersection. we all know what narrower lines mean. And those bike lanes with posts and bollards by Jordan serve no useful purpose....they just slow traffic down. When will the City realize that Middlefield is not a place to encourage our kids to ride bikes? Bikes should be encouraged on side streets that are much safer.

The City seems to ignore community input on these traffic issues, pursuing some agenda other than what residents want. I wonder why.

3 people like this
Posted by Thanks, for keeping school routes and residential arterials safe..
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 23, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Thanks, for keeping school routes and residential arterials safe.. is a registered user.

Thanks, City Council, for not increasing speed limits on residential arterials (many of which double as school routes for hundreds of kids on foot and on bikes).

To Me2, please read the article more closely. Staff didn't bring this forward by choice. The state REQUIRES them to regularly do a speed survey. If you personally attack someone, be sure you have your facts straight. Mr. Mello was just doing his job as the state requires.

3 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 23, 2016 at 1:15 pm

"The state REQUIRES them to regularly do a speed survey. If you personally attack someone, be sure you have your facts straight. Mr. Mello was just doing his job as the state requires."

My facts are straight. He is an unelected official that has a Bicyclist Agenda. No one else would come up with the Rube Goldberg-esque approach to bicycle lanes that are now in front of Jordan.


Like this comment
Posted by DoNotUnderstand
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 23, 2016 at 1:28 pm


1. We cannot use radar on a street if the actual average speed exceeds the current speed limit.
2. So in order to make people conform to the posted speed limit, we have to RAISE the speed limit before we can use radar to catch them?

Can someone explain the RATIONALE of this to me? Assuming that it is actually rational?

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2016 at 2:04 pm

The problem with Palo Alto is that there is too much traffic slowing/calming and not enough efficient traffic flow. We have too many bottlenecks and not enough sensible road planning. We have too many traffic holdups and not enough thoughtful planning.

We also have a great deal of people moving about town in cars because there are so few safe alternatives. Not everyone can ride a bike or walk a couple of miles, but if we had better transportation for school commuting and reaching stations and airports we might have less traffic on the roads.

3 people like this
Posted by Go Dave Go
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2016 at 2:37 pm

I'm with Dan. 25mph on Middlefield between Oregon and San Antonio is nuts. This road should easily be signed at 35. Anyone doing 25 is increasing the risk of an accident. As for home owners.... yes, you bought a house on a thoroughfare.
As for more lights.... I would absolutely agree that in this section of Middlefield there should be crosswalk lights (on demand only) to allow crossing in Midtown and down at Church row on Middlefield north of E Meadow.
As for stop sign proliferation. it's crazy. For example, the 2 signs added on Loma Verde by El Carmelo were a lazy and low cost move by the city that people run constantly. There should be an active lighting cross walk there like the VERY effective on at Louis and Charleston. There when you need it with VERY clear visibility and not there when you don't.
The added signs on Cowper at Maureen and Ashton are similar. Totally ignored by many drivers and ALL bicycles going to/from Fairmeadow. If you aren't going to enforce them, don't put them up. It just creates false security and more danger.

4 people like this
Posted by SLow down
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 23, 2016 at 3:33 pm

Where 25 mph is posted they drive 35, or more. And they admit it here openly. If you post 35, they will drive 45, or more.

Palo Alto is over-run with traffic - true. It is insane and the "common sense" response is to raise the speed limit. So, you want to have all that traffic to rush through the small city at 45 and up? Is that what you are suggesting, Dan and "with Dan"? That is what is going to happen.

It is ridiculous how people cannot take it that some cities just want to preserve their identity and have a say in how they live.

"Probably should move out of Palo Alto, out of the bubble back into the real world." Probably you should, if that is what you want. I am not worried by that prospect. If you like "energy", there are places like LA, New York.

4 people like this
Posted by Midtowners
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2016 at 4:10 pm

Midtowners is a registered user.

We could start with actual functional traffic lights. I literally just sat at a red light on Oregon Xpwy at Cowper while both left turn lights turned green - nobody turning left either direction. No wonder traffic piles up when we don't have the simplest light sequences working.

And raise the speed limit on University between Alma and Middlefield. LOL! You could raise it to 70 mph but it would still take you 15 minutes to drive the 6 blocks. Speed limit isn't the issue there.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 23, 2016 at 5:24 pm

@DoNotUnderstand, here's the official explanation -- Web Link -- specifically chapter 3, "Engineering and Traffic Surveys (E&TS)".

The premise is: "In order for the court systems and the public to accept and respect the responsible public agencies’ posting and enforcement of posted speed limits ..." which directly addresses our issue that few drivers accept or respect 25 mph on our arterials, and enforcement of speed alone is viewed by the courts as an illegal "speed trap".

Paragraph 3.4.3 is the rationale for that 85 percent number:

"Speed limits are established at or near the 85th percentile speed. Speed limits higher than the 85th percentile are not generally considered reasonable and prudent. Speed limits below the 85th percentile do not ordinarily facilitate the orderly movement of traffic and require constant enforcement to maintain compliance. Speed limits established on the basis of the 85th percentile conform to the consensus of motorists of the reasonable and prudent speed, rather than the judgment of one or a few individuals. The majority of drivers comply with the basic speed law. Speed limits set at or near the 85th percentile provide law enforcement officers with a limit to cite drivers who do not conform to what the majority considers reasonable and prudent. Further studies such as FHWA-RD-92-084 and FHWA-RD-98-154 show that establishing a speed limit at less than the 85th percentile generally results in an increase in collision rates."

I imagine a lot of argument went into hammering out that paragraph.

Here's where I see our problem: "The intent of the speed measurements is to determine the actual speed of unimpeded traffic. Free flow is a condition of traffic where a vehicle’s speed is not influenced by anything other than the roadway geometry." And "Choose locations midway between traffic signals or 0.2 miles away from signals." Furthermore -- "Not influenced by enforcement or the perception of enforcement..." In this intent our traffic survey measurements are invalid, and should be redone after replacing the existing 25 mph signs with "Speed Limit Whatever" signs.

Like this comment
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 23, 2016 at 8:41 pm


In summary, it's to prevent turning high traffic thoroughfares into speed traps for revenue generation.

@resident said "but if we had better transportation for school commuting and reaching stations and airports we might have less traffic on the roads."

Better transportation requires enough density to support the capital and ongoing operating investment. Simply put, we aren't dense enough.

1 person likes this
Posted by Go Dave Go
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2016 at 9:39 pm

@SLow Down
35 doesn't mean everyone will do 45. As many have pointed out, it is sensible and in line with statute that the limit should relate to the average speed in the corridor. It doesn't mean the actual speed keeps increasing!
If anything, it will keep traffic in the arterials in midtown to have middle field at 35 and off Cowper, Wavererly, Ross, etc. where there are really kids and pedestrians close to the action.
A car doing 25 on Middlefield south of Oregon is an obstacle that other vehicles will change lanes to go around GREATLY increasing danger to all.
If those slowpokes would move to the right as the law requires it would be safer but they generally don't follow that law, choosing instead to play enforcer.
I moved here over 30 years ago and the joke about the speed zones on Embarcadero, Oregon, Middlefield and Alma has been the same the whole time. No one obeys and no one enforces limits that don't meet statutes.
An unenforceable traffic control is FAR more dangerous than a rational one that CAN stand up to prosecution.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 23, 2016 at 10:47 pm

Somebody will have to stand a lot of heat when the first fatality occurs after a speed limit increase, regardless of the actual cause. People love to place blame.

6 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Nov 24, 2016 at 11:22 am

With all the housing the developers want to build and with the city council allowing it, speed limits will become obsolete. The roads will be gridlocked.

1 person likes this
Posted by circle of destruction
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 24, 2016 at 11:43 am

If the Police Dept is dealing with "overall staff
shortages" as Keene says, then perhaps the salaries
need to be raised to be competitive just like Mr.
Keene does when he hires his own staff. Police
staffing is obviously a critical issue for the
community and needs to be confronted head-on.
The community needs more of a response than "it's in the budget" (it's not my fault). Police presence itself,with or without radar enforcement, is a deterrent to speeding and reckless driving and crime. But the staff priority is more signs,
more paint.

3 people like this
Posted by novel idea
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 24, 2016 at 11:44 am

It's simple really, I stick to the speed limits, you raise the speed limits, I drive faster. Any other conclusion is non-sensical. So I drive 25 mph down University. You get occasionally idiots tail-gating but that just means you leave a larger gap with the car in front.

University is a residential arterial with two bike lanes. Raising the speed limit to 35 mph is just plain dangerous. Remember the death with the ambulance plowing into a tree and that was with the speed limit at 25mph.

The solution here is to slow the traffic not to just throw in the towel and raise the limits!

2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 24, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Re the "staff shortage" of police officers too busy to deal with traffic enforcement and things like bike thefts, check the police blotters in this and other media to get a sense of city priorities in the face of limited resources and budgets.

Not too long ago, the city approved and deployed a new 5-person team plus supervisor to enforce "behavioral" regs like drinking and smoking cigarettes.

They recently added another police responsibility: ensuring that no one grows marijuana outdoors. They had no problem proposing landscape police to monitor drought tolerance but fortunately that was defeated. But the City jumped right on the former before California had even legalized marijuana.

You might question the enforcement priorities before you propose adding staff.

3 people like this
Posted by circle of destruction
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 24, 2016 at 2:35 pm

@Online Name. Good point. So there is no transparency here on any aspect of our city government - it's a question of staff priorities,
staff agendas, as to what is really going on.

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

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 4 comments | 4,040 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 6 comments | 1,189 views

Premarital and Couples: "You're Not Listening to Me!" may mean "I don't feel heard."
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 1,055 views

All those things our city does – and doesn’t -- do
By Diana Diamond | 6 comments | 993 views

Migraines and motherhood
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 589 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.