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Traffic mess gridlocks Palo Alto for hours

Residents demand better response after Thursday evening snarl

A big rig breakdown on the Dumbarton Bridge caused a traffic backup in Palo Alto and Menlo Park that lasted for hours on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 1, forcing some residents to abandon their cars to walk to their destinations.

The snarl of vehicles jammed streets from Middlefield Road all the way past U.S. Highway 101. Motorists anxiously sought ways to find a way out of the mess, but to no avail. The drivers were stuck on University Avenue and on side streets, often at a dead stop. Even Palo Alto police officers were stuck, a department spokesman said.

Some residents caught in the mess said they expect a better city response in the future, even if the root of the problem is outside of town. Frustrated drivers act dangerously, but there did not seem to be any coordinated effort, they said.

The backup began at 4:56 p.m. on the eastbound lane of the bridge, California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer James Evans said. Removing the big rig took until 5:49 p.m. By then traffic was so backed up that it still had not completely cleared by 8:30 p.m. in Palo Alto.

"Traffic is so bad in the Bay Area that a little hiccup causes massive backups," Evans said, explaining why the gridlock lasted so long.

The number of exhaust-spewing vehicles lined up in front of Downtown North and the Crescent Park homes was stunning, even to residents who endure heavy traffic in those neighborhoods.

"Last night was similar what happens most weeknights on Middlefield, just on steroids and over a wider area. There were double lanes of traffic on the four blocks of Middlefield north from about 3:30 to after 7:30 p.m. I did not see exactly when it cleared," said John Guislin, who has been working for years on traffic-calming measures along Middlefield.

"I had planned to go out to do errands but was completely blocked from leaving my driveway. Remember, Middlefield has two lanes in each direction, so backing out is extremely difficult because even if a car in the curb lane stops for you, the center lane can't see you until it's too late." he said.

Residents in Crescent Park had similar experiences, and they are fed up, they said.

"In north Palo Alto and perhaps over a wider area, there was a Chernobyl-level traffic gridlock event that spread throughout the neighborhoods due to some slight disturbance ... Of course the traffic has been very bad in recent years, but this was an order of magnitude worse. This is just a harbinger" of things to come, Norman Beamer, president of the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association, said in an email to the Palo Alto City Council on Thursday night.

He included a selection of emails from the neighborhood's online forum. One person wrote that gridlock started at Middlefield and Woodside Road in Redwood City, where it took 90 minutes to get to Willow Road on Middlefield. Traffic did not move more than a few inches along Willow, allowing just a few cars to cross the jammed intersection into Palo Alto.

Another resident faced similar challenges.

"At 6 p.m., I had to squeeze between cars getting out of my driveway," the resident wrote. That writer found the side streets blocked from Center Drive to Middlefield Road. Traffic was also heavy along Lytton Avenue to Alma Street. Returning home from Menlo Park, the resident found gridlock again on Hamilton Avenue and for four blocks from University to Pitman avenues.

One man's wife simply gave up on trying to drive and hoofed it.

"She sat in her car in front of our house for 20 minutes, not moving one foot. She re-parked in our driveway and walked to the Four Seasons in 10 minutes. A vignette of the absurd."

On Friday, Beamer said the problem will only get worse.

"It's like the canary in the coal mine. It is a warning of what we have in store for us in the very near future," he said in an email to the Weekly.

Bob Wenzlau, a former Citizens Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan member, said that when a gridlock event occurs he has seen motorists drive unsafely. Some drivers, likely local, decide that they have the right to drive in the wrong direction to cut to their home. Some motorists seek to reach another arterial route to escape Palo Alto, racing on the cross streets as they go from one location to another. For example, if Center is slow, they will race down Dana to take Newell, he said.

Wenzlau said that police should take a more proactive role in these situations, even if the accident causing the problem is outside of the city.

"I was disappointed that dispatch and seemingly the police department were unaware of the incident and felt that there was little they could do in the neighborhoods. The notion that a police presence wouldn't contribute anything is wrong," he said.

"The city can do a Traffic Alert (gridlock) message to an affected neighborhood. Palo Alto Fire Department should be informed that all streets are blocked. A police presence should occur in the neighborhood. This might discourage crazy driving habits. Dispatch should also be notified. Simple communication is probably the best," he said.

The city must also acknowledge that gridlock is not a future concern, he said.

"We actually have arrived and might better confront the mitigation of gridlock on neighborhood streets rather than aspiring that it does not occur. How can we make it survivable?" he said.

Palo Alto police spokesman Zach Perron said there is no way the department's staffing could direct traffic. With the limited amount of personnel on duty, all officers are on calls. The department does not put out alerts on accidents that occur in other jurisdictions -- that is up to those departments -- since Palo Alto police wouldn't have accurate information to report.

He repeated the observation made by CHP's Officer Evans, that the increase in traffic every day puts the area at risk for these kinds of backups when a single incident occurs.

Emergency vehicles can drive in bike lanes and shoulders in most cases to get around the gridlocked traffic, and there is "Plenty of room if needed," he said.

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