Off Deadline: Raising speed limits? Better to re-open Pandora's Box

How to fight traffic volume, speed in Palo Alto

Some recent studies show that a slightly higher speed limit might actually slow down traffic on 14 key stretches of Palo Alto streets. The suggestions instantly stirred up a vigorous debate online and at city meetings.

The problem is that on some four-lane streets -- such as wide Embarcadero Road between U.S. Highway 101 and Alma Street -- traffic does not travel at (or even near) the posted 25 mph. But state law prohibits using radar to help control the over-limit offenders because 85 percent of the traffic is exceeding the posted limit.

That law purportedly stemmed from an incident in which a state legislator's wife got caught in a rural "speed trap" in a small town in outback California. Most of us know of those little towns on two-lane roads when suddenly the speed limit drops from 55 to 25 and a police car is parked within a block -- a sure revenue generator for local governmental entities.

Now, decades later, this "anti-speed trap law" still haunts communities such as Palo Alto, wherein traffic and the speed of traffic (and fear of future speeding traffic) have combined as a major theme of city and neighborhood politics for a half-century.

Well, don't panic this time around. The City Council late last month threw cold water on the idea, dampening any near-term chance for significant changes.

Anyone who thinks the issue is simple or subject to rational analysis or civil discourse should check out the excellent report by the Weekly's city reporter Gennady Sheyner, as well as the many comments attached to the online story.

The issue of fighting traffic volume and speed has been around since the fast-growth 1950s in Palo Alto, when the Stanford Research Park (formerly the Stanford Industrial Park) was in its formative years, before it became the "heart of Silicon Valley."

There was a bitter 1963 battle over a county plan to convert the jammed two-lane Oregon Avenue to the four-lane Oregon Expressway, which city voters narrowly approved after heavy trucks were banned. But the battle left political scars.

That led to the election of a six-member bloc of "residentialists" to the 13-member City Council and to another bitter election in 1967 -- the so-called "recall election" of anyone not facing regular election, in which four of the six residentialists were defeated.

Among them was Byron Sher, who entered city politics because of concern about traffic from the Oregon Expressway. In the 1967 campaign, Sher posed for a campaign-ad photo with his wife, Linda, and their children on a curb looking fearfully for a break in oncoming traffic. The ad urged residents to fight back against "King Car and Czar Truck," which I discussed in a column last May (see

Others trace their political involvement to traffic issues and concerns about growth and speed. Those include current council members Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois, whose political involvement stemmed from the controversy related to adding housing on Maybell Court in southwest Palo Alto. Former Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto was politically motivated by traffic concerns, as was Nonette Hanko in the 1960s (both now serve on the board of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District).

Residentialists made a comeback in the early 1970s, when Sher was returned to the council, later becoming a state assemblyman and senator. Establishment candidates surged back in the mid-1970s, continuing the local political see-saw that exists even today.

Former city transportation director Joe Kott, now a consultant, ran into the traffic/speed issue head on when he tried to convince people that putting in traffic circles along Embarcadero Road would expedite traffic movement without increasing volume or speeds.

An earlier traffic engineer, Ted Noguchi, observed way back in the 1970s that Palo Alto actually had 56,000 traffic engineers -- the approximate city population at the time.

An added complication has been the creation of the citywide bike-lane system in the 1970s, expanded later in an attempt to reduce the "conflicts" between cyclists and vehicles. Palo Alto's attempts to better accommodate its many bicyclists actually date back to the 1950s, when the city adopted a "Guard and Go" system of alternating stop signs on every other block in residential areas.

Attempts at "traffic calming" by narrowing and reducing lanes invariably stir up opposition. Resulting back-ups may calm traffic but often don't calm drivers, fostering a "lane-reduction rage."

One commenter on the Weekly's recent story points out correctly that bicycles are defined as vehicles and are legally entitled to take up a traffic lane. The writer says he travels about 15 mph (up to 18 mph with a tailwind) in the outside "slow" lane, irritating drivers behind him. Anyone wonder where driver hostility toward cyclists might originate?

Yet many cyclists who breeze through stop signs feel their bikes are a special breed of vehicle and feel tickets they get shouldn't count against their driving record and car insurance ratings. They do.

Back to Embarcadero: In the 1970s the police department instituted a hard-line enforcement effort to slow traffic from the 35-40 mph range to something closer to the 25 mph posted limit. Alas, someone expressing the inherent rebelliousness of the American public sabotaged the effort by posting warning signs of the "Speedtrap Patrol" a block or so ahead of the police presence of the day. The officers hated that moniker but were stuck with it.

I once observed that the only way to curtail speeds along Middlefield Road would be to have police cars driving up and down all day going 25 mph. The idea is that virtually no one is going to pass a police car, whereas a "pace car" experiment failed. I suggested that a uniformed officer would need to be in the patrol car and that that might be a good job for the young police cadets.

Ah, but is a mind-numbing job the best training for future officers?

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at


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10 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 9, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Car drivers speed on Embarcadero and Middlefield because of the long distances between stop lights. Even where there are legal crosswalks, there are often no stop lights to protect the pedestrians from speeding cars so crossing the street is extremely dangerous. I have read about multiple pedestrian fatalities on Middlefield and Embarcadero in recent years. RIP.

The city needs to install more stop lights. I say pedestrians in residential neighborhoods (like Middlefield and Embarcadero) should not have to walk more than 300 feet to get to a crosswalk with a stop light (or stop signs protecting their direction). Making pedestrians walk lengthy extra distances just encourages them to drive instead of walk. This is especially true of older residents or families with children who often aren't fast or agile enough to dodge speeding cars in the crosswalks. These stop lights will have the added benefit of slowing traffic down to a safe speed. Even when there are no pedestrians crossing the street, the existence of traffic lights will force car drivers to slow down and pay more attention to the roads.

Unfortunately, the speed limit laws were written for the baby boomer generation, who are generally competent drivers. Laws really need to be re-examined for the new iphone generation. It is no secret that pedestrian fatality rates have been soaring in recent years due to increased distracted driving.

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 11, 2016 at 5:39 pm

Driver-less pace cars that set their speed at 25mph going both directions on Embarcadero - splitting the lanes so that cars cannot pass on the right or left. Done.

2 people like this
Posted by HAL
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 12, 2016 at 7:01 am

I was following a driverless car the other night along middle field. It was interesting to see they follow the 85% rule instead of the speed limit.

1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 12, 2016 at 11:46 am

Thing is, once the herd exceeds the speed limit, there is no speed regulation. Drivers travel at whatever speed they can get away with in the traffic.

Higher, enforceable (and IMPORTANT! visibly enforced) speed limits are more likely to drop the average traveled speed than to increase it. Then, with the new speed regime established, ramp the limit down while keeping up the enforcement.

4 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 12, 2016 at 11:57 am

Speeding car drivers only care about their own safety. They do not care if they hit a pedestrian or other innocent victim. Raising the speed limit to what reckless drivers are comfortable with just perpetuates the danger of speed on residential streets. The city needs to install more stop lights. I bet that will tame the reckless driving on Middlefield and Embarcadero.

Like this comment
Posted by Bikes2work
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 12, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Unfortunately, a bicycle is NOT a vehicle under California Vehicle Code (CVC). It is still subject to specific rules under CVC, but it is not included in the official definition of vehicles:

670. A “vehicle” is a device by which any person or property may be propelled, moved, or drawn upon a highway, excepting a device moved exclusively by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.
(Amended by Stats. 1975, Ch. 987.)

Web Link=

Like this comment
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 12, 2016 at 5:48 pm

There are some ways to get people to slow down. Traffic lights work to an extent, although witness what happens in SOMA in SF when cars just gun the engine between lights and often blow through them entirely.

Another way to do it is narrowing lanes from 11-12' down to around 8'. Wide streets give the impression that it's OK to speed, plus it makes it harder for pedestrians to make it across. It's a lot easier to get across an 80' road than it is to get across a 110' road, plus it returns part of the street for other purposes like walkable spaces and protected bike infrastructure. The key with narrowing streets is you still need to be able to get safety vehicles through, which means either leaving a single lane which is wider, or replacing american sized fire engines with ones which are more maneuverable.

We could also just replace the surface with (don't laugh) cobblestones. No one speeds over cobblestones. It has the benefit of not having to be repaved almost ever (there are roads in Europe which are over a thousand years old), plus it looks a lot better than blacktop. You don't have to put them everywhere though, and you also have to make certain you leave a path through for wheelchairs and bicycles for safety issues. It's still probably cheaper than putting in stop lights, plus doesn't take any electricity.

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

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