The recent uproar over Mayor Liz Kniss' comment during the July 30 council meeting declaring that Palo Alto has no significant traffic problems earned her some deservedly strong reactions, including mine. We need to go beyond calling an elected official to task. We must honestly acknowledge the scope and impacts of worsening traffic congestion. As others look to Palo Alto for innovative solutions, we must collectively focus our energies on the root causes and viable solutions to reduce the traffic burden on residents and commuters.
Let's agree we have a problem and acknowledge that the empirical data from city traffic studies show the number of cars on our streets is increasing. Of course, if you live near downtown, California Avenue, Arastradero Road, Oregon Expressway, etc., you don't need a study to explain what you experience daily. Our robust economy has brought more and more cars into Palo Alto, a fact underlined by our region-leading jobs-to-residents ratio of 3:1.
Our arterial roads are now so backed up at commute times that drivers use technology to find alternate routes to shave minutes from their drive. This frequently puts them on residential streets, creating traffic that can clog narrow roads and potentially impede access by emergency vehicles. (Note: I live on a residential arterial -- there are five in Palo Alto.)
Some people may be less concerned that residents like me endure hours of traffic stalled in front of our homes on a daily basis. In my view, no resident should feel trapped in his/her driveway for hours by commute traffic or risk the slow arrival of emergency services. Clogged residential arterials today will mean clogged small streets tomorrow.
Residential streets near business cores also are experiencing the impacts of commercial traffic searching for parking. The city has implemented RPP (Residential Preferential Parking) programs, but they are minimally managed, fail to maximize the use of existing parking structures and are undermined by recent council votes to authorize non-resident permit sales in excess of actual demand.
Efforts to "calm" traffic and improve safety are hindered by a lack of enforcement. I applaud our new police Chief Robert Jonsen for re-starting an enforcement division, but it is impossible for our current two enforcement officers to cover all of Palo Alto effectively.
Consistent enforcement is necessary to ensure compliance with traffic rules and maximize safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. Without it, illegal turns, running red lights and other dangerous behaviors will likely continue.
A recent report from TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation-research group based in Washington, D.C., details the increased costs for operating vehicles due to the deteriorating state of our roads, the costs and increased risks of accidents and the wasted fuel due to congestion. In San Jose and the south bay including Palo Alto the additional annual operating cost to motorists is $2,745, trailing only the San Francisco and Los Angeles regions (see TRIP reports here: tinyurl.com/tripnetPA). To my knowledge, no one has quantified the cost of traffic to residents' sense of safety or quality of life.
Mayor Kniss has apologized for her misstatement about the lack of traffic and has proposed a community meeting in October to discuss traffic issues. In my view, we are well beyond the point that citizens need to spend time educating our mayor about traffic impacts. The City Council has been deluged with traffic complaints for years (full disclosure: I have been one of those writing emails to the council) and with enough prodding, some steps have been taken. But these actions have been narrowly focused and undertaken only when citizen outcry was loud and unrelenting.
Further, our annual resident survey has clearly shown a yearly decline in how residents rate the ease of getting around town, and traffic is seen as one of the two worst problems facing Palo Alto the other is the cost of housing.
We need more than talk. The mayor and City Council must make finding and implementing solutions to traffic problems a priority. Here are some steps they can take:
1. Fund and staff the Transportation Division so it can implement systems, manage programs and develop solutions that address citywide issues. We had a knowledgeable and effective Chief Transportation Official in Josh Mello, who resigned on Aug. 28; city leaders must find ways to retain talent and fund projects to address increasing transportation problems.
2. Force the business community to pay a fair share of the costs for the infrastructure benefits they receive.
3. Business leaders must embrace the TMA (Transportation Management Association) and match city funding.
4. Get serious about satellite parking lots and a shuttle system that meets the needs of commuters.
5. Tap Google and Stanford University experts to submit practical solutions for Palo Alto to consider.
6. Require all new development to be fully parked period. No in-lieu fees. No phantom parking rights.
I encourage everyone to:
• Accept Mayor Kniss' apology but demand informed stewardship from the next mayor.
• Become informed about traffic issues and proposals.
• Write down what is important to you without losing sight of the impact on those around you.
• Contact at least one council member and let him/her know that the council and staff must find ways to act upon citizen concerns. Denial and inaction are not the hallmarks of good government.