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Guest Opinion: Local solutions for traffic and congestion

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A few years after Joni Mitchell wrote "Pave paradise and put up a parking lot" (1969), the San Jose freeway expansion interchange was halted by then Governor Jerry Brown at highways 680 and 101, which created the iconic "Monument to Nowhere" structure. Who could forget the picture of three isolated, independent freeway ramps hanging stoically in the sky over the farmlands of San Jose, ready for traffic yet to be generated.

This structure struck chords in me, a young college student born and raised in the Bay Area, who experienced the first Earth Day at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley. Nobody knew what to do, so students flooded the Miller Avenue intersection yelling at drivers to get out of cars. It was unfocused and idealistic, not even aspirational — for environmental causes, this was yet to come.

Nancy Shepherd.
So, the halted freeway project, in my idealist world view, was a testament to the Bay Area was saying "no" to building a Los Angeles car-culture future. In those days, northern Californians were proud to solve transit issues with ferries, buses, and rail to get workers from home to work. We thumbed our noses at southern California with its gridlocked traffic, smog and overpopulation sprawled deep into the dessert. This was not good civic planning.

Saying "no" to building a car-culture future was short lived.

By the mid-1970s, "Silicon Valley" was officially coined, and the Palo Alto-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara economy began to compete with San Francisco's and Oakland's. Indeed, the Stanford experiment of building an innovation center to attract the brightest around the globe was firmly launched. Today, the then-stalled intersection structure is operational with double the lane capacity and filled with gridlock traffic every workday.

Silicon Valley has a love-affair with cars — just like Los Angeles.

Everyday my driving experience becomes more aggravating. I've concluded that either I need to learn to be happy sitting in traffic and stuck longer in my neighborhood during commute hours, or support city efforts that re-think mobility to reduce congestion. Sadly, technology alone cannot solve the problem of physically getting people from home to work — especially workers in the service and retail professions. The "Beam me up, Scotty" app has yet to be invented.

So in 2013, I along with other Palo Alto City Council members introduced the idea of establishing a transportation-management association (TMA) for the job centers of Palo Alto (downtown, California Avenue, Stanford Research Park) as part of a long-term effort to relieve neighborhoods from overflow worker parking and reduce solo-vehicle trips. We learned from the Contra Costa Centre Transit Village — a TMA established in the 1980s along the Pleasanton/Walnut Creek BART station — that using commuter subsidies like Clipper Card funding, gas cards, van pools, shuttles, taxis, flex (shared) cars and more, did reduce solo-vehicle trips by more than 30 percent. For over 25 years the Contra Costa TMA has delivered personalized counseling to workers on public-transit routes and a guaranteed ride home in emergencies.

Last fall I had a conversation with a California Avenue worker as she helped me update my passport at the copy shop. I learned that she commuted from Los Banos every day, three-hours each way on a good day. Another retail worker at Town & Country Village lived San Francisco. Connecting these commuters to public-transit pipelines — Samtrans, VTA, Caltrain, BART, ACE Train — needs to be more convenient and affordable. TMAs fill this gap. Just like in Contra Costa, we can do this too.

In an era where the state threatens removing local control from cities, a TMA can show us the benefits of working thoughtfully to create nuanced local programs and solutions that respond to conditions on the ground and in our neighborhoods. TMAs increase quality of life for everyone, one worker at a time by offering transit subsidies, commute routes, incentives and more to reduce solo-occupancy trips into job center areas. It solves the "first and last mile" commute conundrum and fills the gap between regional and county public transit, as we navigate not just how to get to work but how to move around our own cities.

Today, Palo Alto Transit Management Association (PATMA) is deployed and considering expanding into the California Avenue business district by piloting donor-funded transit passes with a determination to succeed. We need to support this effort. If done well, employers of all sizes that are struggling to recruit and retain employees will find relief as the TMA aids them with tailored programs and services instead of individual employers scrambling to come up with incentives on their own.

If the TMA leadership is thinking long term, it will build relationships with other TMAs in the subregion like Mountain View, or emerging TMAs in Menlo Park and Redwood City, as solutions cross city and county lines.

Let's stop the temptation to do nothing, hoping someone else can figure this out because, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone" and take this moment to exercise local control and build a "Monument to Somewhere" instead. We need this for Palo Alto, our region and the Bay Area.

A resident of Palo Alto since 1984, former Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd served on the City Council between 2010 and 2014. She is a retired operations officer, controller and accountant in commercial real estate and can be reached at


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24 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2019 at 8:16 am

There is absolutely no use in touting transit when it is unrealistic for so many commuters. Caltrain is useful, but very full at commute times. Caltrain is doing nothing to encourage off peak travel. We have no efficient bus routes anywhere. We can't get to airports efficiently by public transit and who wants to use several changes before or after a 10 hour+ international flight!

So if you want to make a difference to public transit then get away with all the different agencies around the Bay. Get one efficient agency. Use advertising, use timed fares so that two short rides are not more expensive than one long ride. Use direct routes, parking lots at off ramps, express routes that use freeways, shuttles to ramp parking lots (drive and ride), etc.

Touting public transit when it doesn't exist is no good to someone who lives in Half Moon Bay and works in Palo Alto. Rethink the whole thing. Start again with efficient routes, pricing and promotions.

15 people like this
Posted by Game Over
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2019 at 8:21 am

I commute from King City to Palo Alto everyday. No choice because no decent jobs in King City which is still mostly agricultural.

7-8 hour two-way commute + 9 hours at work = 17 hours. That leaves 7 hours at home for sleeping (roughly 5 hours) + personal time/dinner (2 hours at best).

Weekends are better but Sunday evening begins the routine all over again & Friday is pretty much a lost day. Saturday is my only respite.

I have been diagnosed with hypertension & stress-related anxiety. MD says I have roughly 10 years left at this current pace...I am 37.

In retrospect, life isn't really worth living in this kind of contained existence as there are no fruitful incentives in being an hourly wage slave.

Perhaps best to quit my job & apply for social service entitlement benefits. As a taxpayer, I've contributed to the fund & consider myself more deserving to receive them than undocumented immigrants.

Though I did not vote in 2016, this is why so many disenfranchised American workers voted for Donald Trump. While he hasn't accomplished much to date, his rhetoric is a rallying cry for the downtroden white American wage slave.

America will never be great again. If anything, it has been surpassed by China whose citizens will eventually be relocating to the SF Bay Area in even greater numbers due to their financial wealth. More power to them as America allowed this to happen via its economic failures & mismanagement.

Democrats & Republicans are both to blame. They are like all the crooked lawyers who make their money by stirring the pot of disenfranchisement.

No immediate solution on the horizon. The American economic malignancy is already at Stage 4.

17 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 8, 2019 at 10:03 am

In principle, the TMA sounds great but its effectiveness is severely limited by the paucity of public transportation options to which drivers can be diverted.

To be truly successful, public transport must be fast, frequent, inexpensive, and extensive. Sure, Caltrain works for some of the people some of the time, but, the reality is that no such mass conveyance infrastructure exists here and there are no plans to build it.

As a former city dweller who once used public transportation all the time, it is disappointing to find that local options in Palo Alto are seldom suitable, even though my home is directly across the street from the downtown station.

But don't take my word for it. In the 2018 National Citizens Survey, only 22% of Palo Alto residents rated public transportation as "good" or "excellent".

Finally, note that in her opinion piece, Nancy Shepherd supports the TMA as a means of getting other people out of their cars, but makes no personal commitment to use public transportation herself.

9 people like this
Posted by SeriousQuestion
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 8, 2019 at 12:17 pm

SeriousQuestion is a registered user.

To Game Over -
This is not a sarcastic reply, but a serious question. Have you begun looking for work in areas of the country that have jobs where you can afford living near or a reasonable distance away? Your current life situation seems miserable. I agree that in this area the housing costs are ridiculous and the commuting times and conditions suck rocks. But doesn't that mean for your personal well being, self esteem, and future financial health that you shouldn't be looking elsewhere?

15 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2019 at 1:11 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I like this editorial. No one thing is going to resolve all our circulation/transportation/congestion woes, but our TMA is one tool that can have a positive impact. From my perspective, supporting it makes sense.

Note to the TMA file: for our local public transportation system to be seen as a better resource than a SOV it has to be robust and reliable and seamlessly continue one's rail commute. I work out by the Baylands. Taking the shuttle works for me if I bike or walk or get a ride to PALY. But then I am stuck out here until the shuttle resumes in the afternoon. And I am out of luck if I work late. The same is true for anyone who takes CalTrain. I doubt anyone who is inclined to use public transportation expects it to be 100% convenient or perfect in other ways, but it has to be reasonable and using it should not result in being stranded or waiting a long time for a connection. There should also be some covered bus stops so that riders don't get drenched while waiting for a bus on rainy days. If the available alternatives to the SOV are attractive enough, I think ridership will improve. Heck, I'd sign a pledge to use it some high percentage of the time if it worked even a little bit better.

13 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2019 at 1:25 pm

We need to invest more in public transit to make it more efficient. Electrifying Caltrain is supposed to increase capacity, but why is deployment taking so long? Also, why are there no discount fares for people transferring from one transit system to another (eg from Caltrain to BART)? The Caltrain station is in an awful part of San Francisco and charging people an extra fare to get to their destination greatly adds to the cost.

10 people like this
Posted by Commuter From Outer Sacto
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2019 at 2:00 pm

I used to commute from Citrus Heights outside of Sacramento to San Jose every day. Now spend Monday through Thursday evenings in a midpeninsula motel & return home on Fridays. This gets expensive.

Thinking of buying a used RV to save money. They can be parked almost anywhere in Palo Alto or Mountain View & the police don't seem to care.

Jobs are better paying in Silicon Valley compared to Sacto area. Houses are cheaper on the outskirts of Sacramento but it's way too hot & a dull place to live.

Everyone wants to live in PA. More high-rise dwellings are needed to accommodate workers. San Antonio Road represents an ideal use of available land. Prior to the new buildings, San Antonio Road was just a row of inconsequential smaller businesses.

Fortunately they are gone...nobody shops at Sears anymore & Burger King is bad to eat on a regular basis.

the key is to keep this new housing affordable to all. If it cannot be accomplished, it shouldn't be built.

6 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 8, 2019 at 3:18 pm

jh is a registered user.

Until developers see the light and decide to build at a loss the cost of land + high construction costs = expensive housing.

4 people like this
Posted by Both ways
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2019 at 3:20 pm

Palo Alto always wants to have it's cake and eat it to. A town of just under 60,000 people with an economy larger than many big cities what did everyone think was going to happen? This town will only really solve these problems when the residents realize that they cannot have it both ways. The town will have to change one way or another. It either stays a leafy suburban college town full of single family homes and loses some of it's economy due to persistent rejection of growth, or it faces the reality that this growth is already happening and Palo Alto will have to become more exurban with actual transit and high density housing. Wich is it Palo Alto?

16 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 8, 2019 at 7:42 pm

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

I understand these comments and questions. Given the state of transportation in this region, any "promise for improvement" is worth skepticism.

As a resident of Palo Alto, I have attended a majority of the TMA board meetings. I am not a TMA board member...just an interested citizen. I have watched the ups and downs of a small scale venture.

What is today's opportunity? Teamwork can make a difference within the sub-region of Palo Alto and its neighboring, comparable cities. The hurdle is to increase the TMA's success with economies of scale. I hope to see just a few cities merge resources so that professional staffing and analysis will produce bolder solutions that have been eluding us.

10 people like this
Posted by John Kelley
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 8, 2019 at 10:05 pm

Former Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd should be commended for this thoughtful, well-reasoned, and inspiring piece.

It’s good to be reminded that the Palo Alto Transit Management Association arose from local efforts to reduce traffic and parking impacts and benefitted from studying successful TMAs in other parts of the Bay Area. TMAs certainly can enhance the “quality of life for everyone, one worker at a time….”

Among other innovations, I’ve found Clipper Cards to be a powerful tool in using the Bay Area’s transit systems. Yesterday, I was able to use three transit modalities — CalTrain, Muni, and BART — to travel quickly and conveniently to and from San Francisco’s Financial District by two different routes, all with one, easy-to-use payment mechanism.

We should also remember the power that 511 SF Bay, Google Maps, and other transit-friendly navigational tools have placed in the palms of our hands. By assisting us in pinpointing the most efficient transit-based routes — at any time of day or night — they have reduced significant barriers for everyone to use transit systems more effectively. (Soon, one might hope, we will have even better alternative than calling 511 with a bus stop number to find out when the bus we are seeking is arriving.)

Neilson Buchanan is right to urge us to do more by envisioning “today’s opportunity” and seeking means “to increase the TMA's success with economies of scale.” While PATMA should be lauded for its accomplishments to date, and while all of us who live and work in Palo Alto should appreciate the boons that have resulted from PATMA’s initiatives, still more can and should be achieved. Looking for new opportunities for cooperation on the mid-peninsula — with Mountain View, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Stanford, Los Altos, Redwood City, and other communities — could not only increase resources available to existing and future local TMAs but also lead to the pursuit of broader goals. Consider just three examples.

As neighboring cities, notably Mountain View and Redwood City, exponentially outpace Palo Alto in developing new housing, will PATMA and other mid-peninsula TMAs have sufficient resources to respond by helping to plan, develop, and champion new policies, procedures, systems, and tools to complement and encourage use of future mid-peninsula-centric transit routes and systems? Given adequate resources, our local TMAs might in the future be able to promote new means of using current ride-sharing services and eventually both autonomous vehicles and variable, dynamically-priced parking not only to reduce shorter-distance commutes and other local, single occupancy vehicle trips but also to free up even more parking for those must drive their own cars.

Could local cites and TMAs work effectively with Stanford to expand and enhance the incredible Marguerite Shuttle? As Former Palo Alto Mayor and current Council Member Liz Kniss and Bob Moss, respectively, have reminded us, Palo Alto used to have trolley tracks running down University Avenue and its own bus system criss-crossing the entire city. With increasing housing densities throughout the mid-peninsula, perhaps the time has come for PATMA and other local transit management associations to join forces with Stanford to build a robust network of free shuttle services that interconnect seamlessly throughout northern Santa Clara County and southern San Mateo County.

Finally, as someone who rides a bike frequently, I want to applaud PATMA for the indirect benefits of its work. TMAs have certainly been effective in improving commute experiences, reducing gridlock, and making more on-street parking available. But you don’t need to drive a car to appreciate PATMA’s work. By reducing solo-vehicle trips and stimulating greater use of transit, PATMA also makes local streets more available, friendlier, and safer for various forms of human- and battery-powered mobility. More and more people are choosing to journey the last mile — or even to make an entire round trip — on foot, bike, skateboard, wheelchair, or scooter, and there’s no telling where mobility innovation will lead in the near future. In days to come, as we reckon more rationally with the already catastrophic effects of global warming, and especially once we place a meaningful price on carbon, we will become even more grateful for the foresight and dedication of those who launched PATMA, for the dedication of those who have sustained it, and for the follow through of those who will help it achieve even more in the future.

Former Mayor Shepherd is right to urge us to resist “the temptation to do nothing, hoping someone else can figure this out….” I want to thank her for also encouraging us all to do more, especially by urging PATMA onward.

4 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 9, 2019 at 12:20 am

The solution to transportation doesn't seem to have anything to do with
insulting drivers, of marginalizing their choice to buy and drive cars by
calling it a love affair.

People LOVE the freedom of being able to move about quickly, when they
want, where they want, with the minimal cost. This is not a bad thing.

You only get mass transit that makes sense in very specific circumstances, and
one them being dense cities ... but all of the Bay Areas people and cities
are fighting and rejecting that kind of density, so it follows we are going
to be keeping the roads, parking lots and cars because that is what works,
not because people who drive are defective or anti-social or lazy or
whatever. Design for that, stop trying to force a future ... predicting the
future is no ones expertise.

When I visit SFO, New York, W.D.C, Paris or other major world cities I see
people using public transit quite successfully. We do not fit the mold yet.

Somehow the people pushing this public transit do not understand their
subject, because the one thing people wanted was to see BART encircling
the Bay Area. That would be useful. A High Speed Rail system to duplicate
driving or air travel doesn't make sense. You don't do a thing just because
other countries are doing it, or some people think it would be a cool idea
or want to tell everyone else what to do.

Mass transit should evolve organically out of each situation where it
makes sense.

I am all for mass transit, but I do not like using the buses around here
because I have been attacked or harassed twice in the few times I have
taken it. BART is annoying in that regard as well, but I use it when I need
to, to get to events. It is annoying to see vandalism and graffiti as well,
who wants to be around that as the general tone and character of where
you live?

13 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 9, 2019 at 1:00 am

I would love to see mass transit perform better. That said, Palo Alto is at the limit of two transit agencies (Samtrans and VTA). VTA's bread and butter is San Jose and north county is an afterthought. Samtrans puts barely a toe into Santa Clara County. Yet commuters don't recognize these boundaries in their decisions about where to live/work.

This is why a TMA--expanded to focus on the all cities around the county border--is exactly what we need. It doesn't have to replace transit or the option of using cars. It should complement them with services like in Contra Costa County that Ms. Shepherd mentioned. It should also include ride-hailing services and bicycling programs. It only takes removing a few cars from traffic to reduce congestion significantly and you might be making those former drivers' really happy with cheaper transportation. It should be about having choices that benefits everyone through improved commutes and better air quality.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2019 at 7:45 am

The other aspect of traffic in Palo Alto that all residents know is that traffic is much better on days that schools are closed. It follows that a big reduction in traffic could be done if shuttles to secondary schools were greatly improved.

I am pleased that so many ride bikes and walk to school, but it is also true that these bikes move in waves and swarms. When one of these swarms meet a major intersection, such as Alma or El Camino, it can be chaotic.

5 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 9, 2019 at 8:09 am

Annette is a registered user.

Electronic hitch hiking also works.

I recommend a ride share program called SCOOP, a program that pairs commuters who both live and work near one another. One can sign on to SCOOP to be a driver or a passenger. I think it is genius b/c it gets cars off the highways and it reduces commute costs for drivers and passengers. I introduced it at work and those who use it like it.

And it would be great to bring back Zimride or something like it for public use. Zimride also takes cars off the road and it serves as a workable option for longer trips. Unfortunately, it is now available only to universities and partnering companies, if it even still exists. I used it a couple of times to hitch a ride to Tahoe.

And I second the recommendation to use Clipper Card. It is easy and convenient.

9 people like this
Posted by Easy Solution
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 9, 2019 at 9:03 am

Traffic congestion could be greatly reduced by allowing odd-even driving days based on the last digit of the car's license plate. On alternate days, people use mass transit.

Next problem?

1 person likes this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 9, 2019 at 10:08 am

Annette is a registered user.

Didn't Peter Ueberroth instigate some effective traffic management in LA during the 1984 Olympics? I vaguely recall that he essentially got companies to tweak the workday so that it was not strictly 9 - 5, thus avoiding carmageddon. Done on a large enough scale, this could be another effective tool.

Maybe local tech companies could pay employees who live more than X miles from here AND work an "other than prime time" schedule a premium on their salary. That would be relatively easy to manage, it would relieve traffic and parking pressures, and it might even reduce stress for those who participate in the premium pay program.

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2019 at 10:51 am

Annette, I think companies can do a lot to alleviate commute traffic and many do. As well as flexible hours during the day, I know some that have flexible work weeks (working occasional Saturdays to get a week day off) and others that have policies that include no onsite meetings on certain weekdays (Tue, Wed or Thurs) so that employees can work from home on those days.

Obviously many businesses are locked into traditional office hours but there are many types of businesses that can tweak their work schedules to enable less commuting by employees in high commute times.

19 people like this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2019 at 10:58 am

The most interesting part of Ms. Shepherd's piece was learning that her career was in commercial real estate. As I recall, Palo Alto voters gave her the boot and denied her a second city council term because of her pro development bias and PC project giveaways.

I have no problem with TMA solutions for commuting, but given Ms. Shepherd's history of supporting growth and development, it's hard to think of this editorial as anything but an effort to justify commercial development.

6 people like this
Posted by Keep Up The Good Work
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 9, 2019 at 12:09 pm

Ms. Shepherd,
Thank you for the thoughtful article. I agree that the Palo Alto TMA has already accomplished a lot and working on a subregional basis to do more is a great idea. There are many transit options that come into downtown Palo Alto: Caltrain, SamTrans, VTA, Dumbarton Express and others. Not everyone can take transit to work but more people could. The TMA helps those people who could by providing free transit passes. Now the TMA will share what they learned with other cities in the area. This work deserves more funding, especially now that the City Council has decided that backing away from the downtown parking garage will allow them to buy a lot of TMA.

6 people like this
Posted by Channing
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 9, 2019 at 4:26 pm

Channing is a registered user.

Thank you Nancy for stimulating the conversation on TMA. Having attended early meetings I applaud the stamina to overcome the challenges the TMA has had and applaud and encourage any and all efforts at growth to Cal Avenue or beyond. As has been said, economies of scale will help, and scale can only happed by creating demand. Suggestions that there are no current transit options are wrong. There are just clearly not enough options. Expanding PATMA and joining with neighboring TMA's, creating demand can only help. And we need to be aware that the TMA is one of many components, but an important component of taking in the traffic, parking and clear air challenges in Palo Alto. Your bottom line, which is to not give up is critical. Again, I applaud you for encouraging the discussion and the support of the TMA.

3 people like this
Posted by Chris C
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 9, 2019 at 4:31 pm

Ms. Shepard, what an excellent article. I whole-heartedly support the TMA, and I am flummoxed by those that oppose it. Nearly everyone I speak to in town thinks traffic is our biggest problem, yet many of the same people are opposed to solutions. I'm proud to live in a city and state where people solve problems, not just complain about them. Remember, progress can't exist without change.

1 person likes this
Posted by Roshongo
a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 10, 2019 at 9:13 am

To all the people frustrated with housing, traffic, etc.. MOVE. There are 50 states! There will never be a fix that will satisfy you. It only going to get worse..

15 people like this
Posted by Shepherd always pro developers
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 10, 2019 at 3:17 pm

I recall her history too. She was a consistent vote for developers. No wonder the development advocates above are singing her praise.

>The most interesting part of Ms. Shepherd's piece was learning that her career was in commercial real estate. As I recall, Palo Alto voters gave her the boot and denied her a second city council term because of her pro development bias and PC project giveaways.<

2 people like this
Posted by MO
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2019 at 9:08 pm

The PA TMA opens up space for those commuting into Palo Alto to try out public transportation. Investment in the pilot to CalAve shows commitment to serve the community beyond downtown. The construction of the parking garage and the public safety building in the CalAve area are going to put a strain on parking in the area. The PA TMA expansion comes at a good time to help encourage more use of public transportation. Let's spread the word about the TMA's good work!

4 people like this
Posted by Bg
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Mar 10, 2019 at 10:55 pm

Opening up cubberley as high school provides safer and shorter school commute, gets cars off the road, and should be high priority.

7 people like this
Posted by Bg
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Mar 10, 2019 at 11:02 pm

High density housing is harmful to mental and physical health. Reduce traffic by Limiting the number of commuters into pa offices, and move companies out.

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