Besieged by a daily influx of commuter traffic, and with parked cars clogging neighborhoods streets, East Palo Alto officials are undertaking to develop a comprehensive "mobility" plan to solve the increasingly vexing problems and prepare for future growth in the region.
Every weekday, East Palo Alto's University Avenue fills with cars during the evening rush hours. In commenting in 2016 on Facebook's environmental study of its proposed expansion, East Palo Alto officials cited a study that found 84 percent of cars on University at peak commute hours are from the East Bay, city officials said at a Sept. 27 community on traffic and parking.
The mobility plan, which is part of the City Council's 2017 Strategic Priorities, will include a study that would look at traffic and parking congestion, cut-through traffic on residential streets and the overall circulation of traffic.
Surrounded by U.S. Highway 101, Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and Embarcadero Road, East Palo Alto is a gateway to Silicon Valley jobs. But the city's residents bear a disproportionate burden of commuter traffic while receiving little or no benefit, residents said.
Since traffic is mostly due to Stanford University, Facebook and tech companies, the city should find ways to have them fund some of the infrastructure for traffic calming and street repairs, the residents said. The city could find a way to charge motorists using University Avenue as a through street.
A staff report to the City Council on Tuesday outlined other potential solutions: increasing public transit; improving pedestrian and bike facilities; and improving the city's jobs/housing balance by adding commercial development so that residents have more options to work in the city.
The mobility plan could also include measures to reduce cut-through traffic in neighborhoods, including redirecting traffic to major streets; converting some streets to one-way in the heavily impacted Gardens neighborhood; redesigning University Avenue as a "Grand Boulevard," which would benefit residents by adding amenities such as shopping, housing and traffic flow; updating the city's Transportation Demand Management policy and traffic-impact fees; and identifying critical gaps in the city's bicycle and pedestrian networks. The Bicycle Transportation Plan, for example, identifies 25 segments of bike lanes the city could build or improve for better connectivity; 35 percent have been implemented.
Another strategy could analyze the Waze app to determine how it directs cut-through traffic through residential streets. The city would consider political and legal strategies to prevent Waze and other trip-direction services from sending traffic into the neighborhoods.
That Waze strategy is not unprecedented: Los Altos Hills officials approached Waze in April. After the town could not get its streets removed from Waze's mapping service, officials designated certain streets as closed to through traffic and installed signage. The town then had Waze mark the streets as closed on its maps, officials and residents noted during the Sept. 27 community meeting.
The mobility plan would also address parking, an issue residents identified as a priority, but one that is generated not primarily by commuters but by residents. Among the causes: 12 percent of households have four or more cars, compared to only 8 percent of total households countywide. Many residents park the vehicles on the streets, according to the staff report.
Garage conversions and overcrowding are the root problems. Approximately 32 percent of all housing units in East Palo Alto have too many occupants, according to the report, owing to the regional affordable-housing crisis. Persons living in RVs has also become an issue, adding garbage and noise in some neighborhoods.
The mobility plan would include a survey to determine the number of parking spaces and registered vehicles in the city. It would look at a potential parking-permit program and possible striping for perpendicular parking on some wider streets. The city would review its municipal and parking regulations for possible changes.
On Tuesday, the City Council approved a resolution authorizing staff to apply for a Sustainable Transportation Planning grant from the State of California to fund the mobility study and gave the staff direction on the mobility plan.
The council is scheduled on Oct. 17 to vote on a resolution adopting the Bicycle Transportation Plan and to direct staff to submit the plan to the California Department of Transportation Office of Active Transportation and Special Programs Division for grant funding.
In the near term, staff will seek proposals from towing companies to remove illegally parked oversized vehicles. But it is a challenge. Towing large vehicles requires specialized equipment and large lots to store the vehicles. It's hard to find any company willing to take on that work, staff said.
The council could also amend the municipal code to prohibit overnight parking of oversized vehicles in residential and possibly in commercial zones, staff said. There would be public input during that process.
About 60 residents offered additional ideas for parking relief during the community meeting: The city could create designated RV parking just for existing East Palo Alto residents; enforce how many people are allowed to reside in residences; limit oversized vehicles and increase towing; and add a large police department traffic division, which would cut down on motorists' dangerous behaviors and generate revenue for the city.
The city could create private agreements to use underutilized lots for parking or park-and-rides and work with other municipalities to develop a regional traffic plan.
Other Silicon Valley cities have three jobs per employed resident, thus having to import many workers from the outside; East Palo Alto has 0.2 jobs per employed residents, meaning that city residents must drive to other cities for work rather than finding work within the city, according to a city study.
When it comes to getting around, East Palo Altans are more likely to use traffic-reduction modes of transportation: 69 percent of East Palo Altans drive alone compared to 71 percent countywide; 14 percent carpool compared to 11 percent in the county; 4 percent bike compared to 1 percent in the county and 4 percent walk compared to 1 percent countywide, a survey included in the bicycle plan found.
But East Palo Alto residents are less likely to take transit because there aren't good connections: In the bicycle plan survey, 6 percent reported they use transit compared to 8 percent countywide.