News

Guest Opinion: A roadway Odyssey — Palo Alto-style

A former teacher gives a glimpse into Palo Alto life by traveling around town

While some of my friends binge on their second safaris, cruise European canals or time-share in Hawaii, I consider a trip to downtown Palo Alto an equally grand adventure. For someone living in south Palo Alto, a crosstown sojourn requires strategic planning. Snail-like speed limits, packed parking and a rotating landscape of shops and restaurants present pioneer-like obstacles: The time it takes mirrors the forty-niners' trek West; the lengthening queues of cars lined up at lights make their own modern wagon train.

With who-knows-what lanes of Alma Street often under construction, I opted for Middlefield Road, still four lanes and deliciously drivable. New library crowds for sure, but few drivers actually crawling at 25 mph; new stoplights but only a few short miles to University Avenue. Ah, the proverbial straight shot. Or not! With the new tidal wave of traffic, expect the unexpected. I forgot that living in Silicon Valley does not guarantee synchronized lights or sensors that save gas, time and tempers.

Signals between Charleston Road and Oregon Expressway flashed like pinball machines — the green, amber, red in quick succession before East Meadow Drive. Still optimistic, however, I sailed along smoothly past the Winter Lodge and sprinted by Safeway until ... my sudden brake and balk at the stop-start-slow-stop-go-stop through Midtown. I'd made it halfway!

Not until after Oregon Expressway did the real squeeze begin.

Old Palo Alto, new traffic pattern! I should have packed snacks to sustain me. And jammies, in case I nodded off along the narrowing track and found it necessary to bed down among the lawn-bowlers.

Approaching the To-Be-Named-Later Middle School, fortress-style white stanchions guarded the sanctity of the shrunken and empty curb lane for ... kids? On bikes? Only if they're part of Cirque du Soleil! Though due to pinched lanes and clogged cars at the signal before California, not much moved anyway — I was stuck, but I was safe. And by now, famished. If the road onward imposed an impasse, downtown remained a dream. Eureka! I'd call AAA for a sandwich and coffee. I figured they owed me since my aging Toyota had never required a road fix.

Again inching along, wary of a close encounter with oncoming cars, I noticed frenzied homeowners frantically waving for some kind of reprieve from the steady traffic in order to escape from their own driveways — and this on a weekday. What else could I do but order more sandwiches and hope no one was vegan or kept kosher. It's a good thing our town is aging. Many Middlefielders are a mature and resourceful audience, able to wait out the daily commute, student deluge, day-long parkers. They must stay healthy should their rewrought roadway impede trucks or ambulances in case of fire, falls or emergencies. I feel especially sorry for the holiday latecomers who can't get through to Christmas Tree Lane until spring.

I made it downtown before dark, stalked someone walking to the Bryant Street garage and then wandered around seeking the old and scouting the new. Thank you Bell's Books for being where you belong; hello, welcoming West Elm; boo-hoo the demise of iconic Sport Shop and Toy World. May Lemonade last, cold metal benches and all, but where the heck was Sam's Chowder House — didn't that just open? How much did I age en route; everyone on the street seemed so very young, except the homeless.

My new mantra? Ohm ... change ... ohm ... Daily I breathe yogic-ly to tackle my regular routes closer to home that careen southwest along San Antonio Road and weave toward the hills via Charleston. The holy grail of Interstate 280 remains the closest we'll get to the wide open spaces of an earlier (1960s?) California.

Even complicated roundabouts and those scary, neon-green bike lanes that suddenly stretch mid-street cannot match the congestion, confusion, fear and fascination of constant construction and insidious road diets at my end of town. Nope, can't blame it all on Mountain View! It cost me thousands in eye surgery to even attempt navigating the slings and arrows on Arastradero Road — and I wonder how many drivers dare veer the mandated 3 feet away from bikers as lanes suddenly disappear, new signals appear and a scrappy teenager passes on someone's lawn to beat the bell at Gunn.

Didn't my taxes pay for the wonderfully wide lanes on East Charleston now mashed together with that enticing but off-limits center? The Machiavellian transportation engineers, who probably steer clear of these silly street changes themselves, endlessly alter the light patterns just to keep drivers in the dark. I'm convinced they collude with Caltrain to catalogue my personal car trips in order to catch me precisely when those white bars clang down at the railroad crossing.

Ohm ... there's more on the way. Instead of road rage, we'll progress to car rage, mowing down those little driverless steel gumdrops with roof bulbs for brains. I can also imagine Tesla Man helicoptering up by his battery-powered beanie to ride sky-high above the clogged congestion of earthbound Everyman. Just picture, however, the mid-air collisions of briefcase-wielding bodies madly whooshing along without any lanes, lights or stop signs. Imagine when they collide with the ever-lower flying commuter planes! The more things will change ...

... the more we'll remain stuck. I bow to the plethora of people, cars and jobs in burgeoning Silicon Valley that make my home a costly castle. Given the inevitability of increased traffic — above and below — I just hope we old-timers won't have to pull up the drawbridge or circle our SUVs to keep out all those impending Prime subscribers soon to be delivered to by Amazon drones.

Evelyn Preston is a former Palo Alto teacher and a 25-year investment adviser who now writes.

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Comments

25 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 18, 2017 at 9:13 am

Thank you for this amusing tale on a Friday morning.

I will only add that the author was quite fortunate to not choose a trash day for her epic journey, as she would no do doubt have had to negotiate bikes in the vehicle lanes as they could not contend with overturned trash cans of all sizes and colors blocking the bike lanes, and of course getting stuck behind the trash can grabbing garbage truck doing its thing while waiting for a break in oncoming traffic to overtake the massive slow moving obstacle!


7 people like this
Posted by The answer is hard
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 18, 2017 at 9:40 am

Lots of blame on infrastructure, but in reality the only fix is less cars on the road...and there is the conundrum for people who need to drive.
A bike will fill most gaps nicely for in town trips I've come to learn. Beyond that, you need to get wily. There's a new old saying: Silicon Valley isn't so bad, but you need a good guide.


28 people like this
Posted by pedestrian
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2017 at 10:23 am

As a pedestrian, I have a completely different experience traversing Palo Alto compared to the car-centric writer of this article. Reckless car driving in this city is much worse now than 10 or 20 years ago. I used to see teams of police cars hiding out in church parking lots on Middlefield and Embarcadero and Alma at least a few times a week watching for speeding cars to pull over. Now I see this once a month at best and car speeds are increasing.

Traffic lights on Oregon and Middlefield and Embarcadero have been re-timed to make these streets harder for pedestrians to cross. Some crosswalks have been removed and barricaded. Others now have pedestrian buttons that can take 5 minutes or more to give you a green light. Walking from Midtown to the California Ave Caltrain station now takes me twice as long because of all these car-centric changes.

People wonder why there is so much car traffic around schools? The answer is simple: all the reckless driving and pedestrian-unfriendly street crossings really discourage kids from walking to school anymore. I'm sure the same applies to kids trying to bicycle across busy streets. Traffic signals in this city give pedestrians and bicyclists a much lower priority than car traffic.


28 people like this
Posted by pedestrian
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2017 at 10:33 am

One more thing - car drivers, please come to a complete stop at stop signs and stop lights and look right before you turn right. Most car drivers only look left before turning right, which is a terrible mistake. Many many times, I am half way across the street in a crosswalk when I see an oncoming car run the stop sign or stoplight and then turn right across my path. I try to walk more slowly across crosswalks so I can watch for these reckless drivers and try to dodge them, but if I walk too slowly, the light will turn red before I finish crossing and then I have to worry about cars hitting me from other directions.


5 people like this
Posted by Ride a bike!
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2017 at 11:15 am

Thanks for the amusing article today!

I just want to suggest biking to downtown! There are great bike lanes throughout Palo Alto (and those new green bike paths are great), you can get to downtown as quickly as driving, and there's never a problem finding a place to lock up a bike.


21 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 18, 2017 at 11:44 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Excellent!! I'd entitle this the "Ode to Josh Mello."


3 people like this
Posted by Mark Silverman
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 18, 2017 at 12:54 pm

After being coerced into a number of 'vacations' around the world by a somewhat demanding and materialistic spouse, your reportage was refreshing (although a bit mundane at times).

Would you consider conducting a weekend seminar for aging, baby boomer wives who have nothing better to do than finding new and different ways of spending their husband's hard-earned money?

Some folks have told me that I should have gotten divorced years ago but after 30+ years of this crap, I can no longer afford to as a 50/50 split would probably relegate me to an apartment or trailer park.

I would love to see and/or hear of her trudging around the mid-peninsula checking things out (sans the Hermes bag and credit cards).

Until then I can only dream.


5 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2017 at 1:56 pm

Annette is a registered user.

What a wonderful, refreshing, read. Your students must have loved being in your classroom! THANK YOU!


7 people like this
Posted by retired
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2017 at 2:30 pm

Great idea! Wouldn't mind seeing my wife on a bike pedaling about PA (providing the traffic conditions were safe).

She could stand to lose a few pounds.


8 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 18, 2017 at 7:52 pm

-- Snail-like speed limits, packed parking and a rotating landscape of shops and restaurants present pioneer-like obstacles: The time it takes mirrors the forty-niners' trek West

heh, heh ....

Palo Alto is 4 miles end to end if you drive on Middlefield from Menlo Park to Mountain View.
At 25 mph that is less than 7 minutes ... so, maybe it takes 10 minutes with stoplights and traffic.
Driving in our nice air-conditioned cars, with internet and radio and help just a phone call away.

In the pioneer days if you needed to go to San Jose to pick something up, or God-forbid
San Francisco that might be an all day trip. My, how we take the good things about our time
for granted.


3 people like this
Posted by The Old Wrangler
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 20, 2017 at 1:23 pm

So, so funny
So, so true

I hope, Evelyn, that you are collecting your excellent Guest Opinions for the Weekly and will publish a book.


7 people like this
Posted by Contrarian
a resident of University South
on Aug 20, 2017 at 6:41 pm

So, I guess the alternative would be large unmarked roads with no traffic signals or stop signs anywhere? Sounds like you just want to drive anywhere you want, full speed, at any time of day. Perhaps we could pave the entire city (except for your house and any destinations that you like to visit, of course)?

We could also prohibit anyone except you from driving at the same time you decide to. This would likely require a special city ordinance,


6 people like this
Posted by PK
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 22, 2017 at 6:10 pm

This is the reason I moved out of the area, and spent 52 years in Palo Alto, and watching all the changes and not all good. I loved PA, but could not stand to watch all the changes. It became a city I did not want to stay in any more.

Way to much traffic, no parking, way over growth, city streets cannot handle all the traffic. The City was not built
to handle all this, it was a small college town, and now you want to make to something else.

Get back to the basics of life.


Like this comment
Posted by I like to bike.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 24, 2017 at 7:18 pm

I like to bike. is a registered user.

I love bicycling and walking on Palo Alto's lovely, shady streets. It's good for my ancient, arthritic bones. :-)

Less whining, please. These are first world problems. Get out there and enjoy yourself. We are blessed to live in this beautiful place.


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

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