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 tinyurl.com/PAWTraffic-16).
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 email@example.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.