Carmageddon came to Palo Alto on Dec. 1, the worst traffic gridlock that residents and many commuters said they could recall. By 6 p.m. no one in north Palo Alto was moving along main streets or side streets.
In Crescent Park and Downtown North residents gave up trying to get out of their driveways, and frustrated drivers took extraordinary risks to try to get to their destinations, speeding down side streets and driving in oncoming lanes. The cause of the gridlock, California Highway Patrol said, was a truck breakdown on the Dumbarton Bridge, miles away from Palo Alto's borders.
Thursday's traffic nightmare was an extreme version of what many residents on Middlefield Road and feeder streets to University Avenue said happens every day, affecting both safety and their quality of life.
Now, they are taking action. Armed with cameras and software, they're counting the traffic volume to impress upon city leaders the problem's urgency. Gridlock is already here, they said -- it's not some future problem.
City officials acknowledge that traffic is terrible. But without billions of dollars and about 10 to 15 years, big fixes such as adding additional lanes or creating a more effective mass-transit system aren't going to materialize any time soon, they said. Instead, they are working collaboratively with other cities on smaller fixes on a local scale.
Traffic problems are hampering public safety, affecting fire and emergency personnel, Palo Alto and Menlo Park fire department officials said.
"We are seeing an impact to our response times, sometimes as much as 60 seconds. This is not only caused by an increase in traffic but also by construction and street configuration changes -- traffic calming devices, street closures and the like," Palo Alto Fire Deputy Chief Catherine Capriles said.
The department works with other city departments and local agencies to identify possible obstructions as fire vehicles roll out, she said.
The department is also using a new technology called HAAS Alert, which notifies nearby cars that use the system of the emergency vehicle is approaching.
Even off-peak traffic hours can be a problem, just not as severe, she said. "We anticipate that the situation will only continue to get worse and that we need to figure out a solution to the issue in how we respond to calls," she said.Menlo Park Fire has found Willow Road so congested during peak times that fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman developed a plan in 2015 for routing emergency units through Palo Alto when needed.
Most of the time, routing emergency vehicles through Palo Alto has worked. But one year later, Schapelhouman is still worried.
"Backups last longer and continue to challenge our response times, as does new technology like traffic-avoidance apps, which spread the problem everywhere in terms of cut-through traffic," he said.
"The road design on Willow needs to change -- and wait until they start the work on the (Willow Road) overpass" (over U.S. Highway 101), he said.
Schapelhouman said that transportation plans must -- but don't usually -- take the needs of first responders into account. He cited some of the area's most ambitious roadway redesigns as lacking public-safety components, including the El Camino Real Grand Boulevard Initiative, California Department of Transportation Complete Streets document and San Mateo County's Countywide Transportation Plan for 2040.
Palo Alto police said their hands are pretty much tied when gridlock occurs. Officers respond to incidents within the city's jurisdiction, but when something happens on a bridge or freeway, it falls into another law enforcement department's lap. It is also up to that law-enforcement agency to communicate about the problem, Palo Alto police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron said.
The city can only sit and wait for traffic to clear.
"When there is gridlock, including on streets adjacent to our city, there is simply nowhere for us to direct traffic to go, even if we had sufficient staffing to do so," Perron said.
The Palo Alto Police Department currently doesn't have a traffic team. The city used to have one sergeant and three officers who rode motorcycles around town and were dedicated only to traffic enforcement and collision investigations. But like many law-enforcement agencies, the department is short-staffed, Perron said. Palo Alto currently has 82 officer positions filled out of 92 that are authorized.
Consequently, the department put the traffic officers back into regular patrols last July.
"All traffic enforcement efforts by our department are now done by patrol officers," he said. "Since July 1, every traffic complaint that we've received has been assigned to a patrol officer and/or group of patrol officers to address."
City officials said they are trying to tackle the problem in whatever ways they can. At a Dec. 9 bi-weekly transportation-policy meeting, top departmental staff addressed no fewer than 10 items, from signal re-timing on Middlefield Road to a neighborhood traffic-safety study and a Valley Transportation Authority connectivity study. Upcoming meetings into the first quarter of 2017 include a dizzying array of 18 items, from biking to neighborhood residential permit-parking programs and the Palo Alto Free Shuttle.
In January and February, staff will be taking all kinds of traffic and transportation-related issues to the Palo Alto City Council, City Manager James Keene said.
But "folks have got to realize that most of this (traffic congestion) is not under our sole control," Keene added.
The cities of Mountain View and Redwood City have already built thousands of housing units, and all along the east side of the Bayshore Freeway, Google and Facebook are building the equivalent of an entire city. Those homes are not being built close to mass transit such as Caltrain, noted Joshuah Mello, Palo Alto's chief transportation official.
"There's 11 million square feet of office and commercial space along the 101 corridor all on the outside of Palo Alto and 20,000 housing units" to be built, he said, noting that those workers and residents will certainly contribute to gridlock.
But Mello is working with supervising police officers on a traffic hot-spot list that has thus far identified Crescent Park streets Center and Southwood drives and Hamilton Avenue. The city can begin to better focus their resources such as police patrols on these troublesome areas, he said.
Adjusting traffic-signal timing is another shorter-term solution that Mello said would help around town.
There's only so much Palo Alto can do on its own, though, because roads are often controlled by multiple agencies. From Palo Alto to the Dumbarton Bridge, for example, University Avenue traffic signals are under the control of three entities: Caltrans (at El Camino Real and the U.S. Highway 101 overpass), Palo Alto and the City of East Palo Alto. Synchronizing their traffic systems, including the logistics of feeder streets, could greatly improve traffic flow, but doing so is complex, Mello said.
"We as a region are going to be forced into an L.A. mindset," Mello said, noting cities should not see themselves as autonomous when it comes to transportation but as a region that must work together.
That thinking has begun. Palo Alto is part of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Managers Mobility Partnership, a coalition that collaborates on transportation issues and meets at least monthly. The group includes city managers from Redwood City, Mountain View and Menlo Park, Stanford University's senior associate vice president and he nonprofit Joint Venture Silicon Valley. Keene represents Palo Alto.
The group is currently working on bicycle infrastructure across their communities, including expanding bike-sharing programs and creating a regional network of bicycle pathways; improving pedestrian corridors between the cities; boosting shuttles, car-sharing services and other forms of transit; improving traffic management on arterial roads; and advocating for additional Caltrain service, according to the group's website.
Both Keene and Mello are clear that addressing gridlock by changing the city's roadways would be costly, a long way away and would carry repercussions. If University Avenue were widened, all on-street parking would have to be eliminated, for example, Keene said. And it won't help if people keep driving cars. When Los Angeles widened the Interstate 405 to ease traffic congestion, it just filled up again, Mello said.
In March, Facebook contributed $1 million toward a feasibility study of the Dumbarton Corridor that could include bringing back the Dumbarton Rail from across the San Francisco Bay. There is talk of adding toll lanes on Highway 101 and dedicated rapid-transit bus lanes. But all of those options "are a lifetime away," Keene said.
But Keene said that although the outlook looks gloomy, city officials are not throwing up their hands. "Even though we're all confronted with this gargantuan regional systems problem, we're not going to be paralyzed by the scale of that," he said.
To help city officials understand the effects of traffic that's spilling over from main roads into neighborhoods, more than a dozen residents in both Palo Alto and Menlo Park are doing their own traffic surveys, using software and traffic-monitoring equipment to gather their data.
Alan Akin, a Professorville resident, has been studying the intersection in front of his home, at Waverley Street and Lincoln Avenue, since 2013. Akin, who has twin-10-year-old daughters who will soon be riding their bikes on their own around the neighborhood, was concerned for their safety, he said.
He set up a camera that can record traffic over the course of 24 hours and conducted studies on Dec. 3- 5, 2013; Jan. 7, 2014; Nov. 17-18, 2015, and May 25, 2016. He also recorded traffic when school was out for comparison data.
"I was surprised to find that on average 4,200 vehicles per day drove through the intersection by my house," he said of the initial 2013 findings. That number has continued to rise. In 2015, he recorded 5,124 vehicles passing his home per day. From 2013 to 2015, Akin found a 20 percent increase in traffic on Waverley and a 30 percent increase on Lincoln, he said.
Menlo Park residents are using monitoring equipment from New York-based Placemeter at Woodland Avenue in Menlo Park near the Chaucer Bridge. During the week of Nov. 28, the sensors showed peaks of more than 200 vehicles per hour during weekday morning commutes and peaks of more than 300 per hour during evening commutes , except for Dec. 1. On that evening, traffic peaked at about 600 vehicles per hour as more drivers sought to use that route when other streets were jammed. Monday through Friday, a total 12,802 vehicles pass that one spot. .
Palo Alto resident Neilson Buchanan said residents plan to also use the same equipment to monitor east-west traffic along University and Hamilton avenues and Willow, and along the Middlefield, which runs north to south.
On Dec. 7, from 4:27 p.m. to 6:13 p.m., Buchanan and Menlo Park resident Jim Wiley monitored how traffic-avoidance apps are spreading gridlock into residential areas.
"Eleven cars backed up on Everett. Most of them making illegal turns at 4:25 today onto Middlefield," Buchanan wrote in an email record he and Wiley shared with the Weekly.
"Even Google Maps knows to avoid that block!" Wiley wrote. In planning a route from the Palo Alto University Avenue Transit Center to Facebook in Menlo Park, Google Maps recommended cutting through on Everett Street and then cutting through the Willows neighborhood to save 15 minutes of sitting in Willow Road traffic, Wiley noted.
Google switched to recommending Hawthorne Avenue in Palo Alto and Middlefield to get to Woodland. When traffic backed up 0.5 mile on Woodland, Google went back to routing cars through the Willows , causing traffic to back up 0.5 mile on Central, Chester, Durham, O'Keefe and Laurel.
Wiley offered an update at 4:52 p.m.: "The Willows is in gridlock, so Google now sends traffic down Forest to Lincoln to Hamilton to West Crescent to University," he wrote. About 10 minutes later, the Willows and Crescent Park neighborhoods were in gridlock, he noted. And so it went on through the peak hours.
The problem isn't confined to streets near U.S. Highway 101. At the western end of town, Mark Nadim said he and his neighbors can't get out of their Palo Alto Hills neighborhood to shop because of traffic on Page Mill and Arastradero roads.
"We get stuck. I can't leave before 10 or 10:30 in the morning. Page Mill gets backed up. I have to come home by 2:30. And (Interstate) 280 both exits, north and south, are backed up a quarter mile until 10:30. We are being besieged by traffic around us," he said.
College Terrace residents, who live between Stanford University and El Camino Real and the Stanford Research Park, have been at the forefront of battling traffic congestion for at least 15 years. Stanford University's new 180-unit Mayfield junior-faculty-housing development on California Avenue has activated residents again.Led by scientist Ed Schmitt, they purchased their own traffic-monitoring equipment.
"Anyone leaving or entering the area must pass through one of two intersections: Hanover and California Avenue or Hanover and College Avenue. There could be gridlock problems," Schmitt said.
Residents maintain that the city didn't have sufficient traffic data in 2005 to substantiate the projected traffic impact claimed by Stanford's consultants, so the city used tables taken from a traffic-engineering handbook. Those tables favored the university's position and were based on data that didn't reflect the realities of Palo Alto traffic, Schmitt said.
Residents had similar concerns about traffic impacts on Yale Street and other streets near the El Camino and California Avenue below-market housing site and the soon-to-open College Terrace Centre, so they took action.
"Rather than go through the imaginary traffic-number-tossing game once again, the College Terrace Residents Association initiated a program in late 2014 to actually count the vehicular traffic on all of the streets in College Terrace each year before, during and after completion of projects. We purchased a traffic-counting system from Diamond Traffic and made over 100 measurements in almost two years. We had volunteers stretch out the pneumatic tubes, read the counter and move them to a new site.
"We have asked the city to make three measurements so that we could duplicate and validate our measuring system with the city's. The city did cooperate and we were able to reproduce their results to a high level of precision," he said.
"Now we can argue with facts generated in College Terrace rather than graphics acquired from a different part of the country. If the estimates were poorly gauged and mitigation is required in College Terrace, we will have actual traffic counts for all hours of the day or night of every street in the neighborhood to support our case."
Such data gathering can reap results.
Crescent Park resident John Guislin has a digital library of accident photos along his section of Middlefield Road. It's a frightening parade of cars on their sides, cars pushed onto sidewalks and front lawns, and cars that have gone into street signs or that have been T-boned by vehicles traveling on Middlefield after they illegally made left turns from Everett or Hawthorne avenues across four lanes of rush-hour traffic.
On July 14 Guislin and his neighbors video-recorded the intersection of Middlefield and Everett from 4:30-5:50 p.m.
"It was a low-traffic-volume day, but we counted/documented 30 turn violations in one hour. That's a turn violation every two minutes," the residents said in a report to the city.
Guislin and his neighbors have compiled accident data from the California Highway Patrol to compare accidents along four blocks of Middlefield starting at the intersection of University Avenue with four blocks of University beginning at the same intersection. In 2014-2015, the Middlefield section had 40 accidents compared to 23 for University Avenue. Broadside and sideswipe collisions accounted for 76 percent of the Middlefield accidents compared to 23 percent for University Avenue. Conversely, rear-end collisions accounted for 6 percent of accidents on Middlefield but 70 percent on University.
Three years of efforts by Guislin and his neighbors -- and many years longer for other neighbors, he said -- have finally produced dividends.
On Oct. 6, Mello held a workshop to review seven possible road configurations to improve safety and quality of life along Middlefield.
"This workshop left us with the most hopeful and positive feelings toward city government we've experienced in a long time," Guislin and residents Carolyn Godfrey, Tim Lindholm and Andrea Lichter wrote in an email to transportation department staff on Oct. 10.
But proposals remain only good ideas until they are implemented and the results are monitored, they wrote.
"We fully understand there are tradeoffs with any solution, and it is very important that we remain engaged in those decisions."
Guislin said on Dec. 7 that he is hopeful that what residents have achieved in a partnership with the city will continue to grow.
"I hope city leaders look at this as a model for how to engage with citizens," he said.
Take a ride-along through traffic with the Menlo Park Fire Department. The video mounted on a fire truck shows the impediments that emergency responders face trying to get to the scene of an accident on the Dumbarton Bridge. View the video here.