Guest Opinion: While pondering big impacts, don't forget important "little" things | November 28, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 28, 2007

Guest Opinion: While pondering big impacts, don't forget important "little" things

by Elizabeth Schwerer

I appreciated Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto's and Chop Keenan's recent Guest Opinions about Stanford's proposal to expand its hospitals and shopping center.

I especially appreciated the mayor's discussion of the expansion's likely costs and how to mitigate them and Mr. Keenan's praise of Stanford's traffic and other environmental efforts.

Among other points, the mayor suggested that Palo Alto ask Stanford to work to ensure that the expansion creates no net increase in Palo Alto's traffic; Mr. Keenan objected to that request as unreasonable.

I have been trying to reason about it, too, and have come to the opposite conclusion from Mr. Keenan: Efforts to reduce automobile trips will serve the greatest public good.

By now we are aware that we can contribute to the well-being of our children and generations to come by drastically reducing our fuel use. We see how we are failing to do this adequately, both individually and institutionally. And we know that our powerful institutions, such as governments and universities, are in strong positions to foster the changes we need -- if we can direct them to do so.

I hope that people at Stanford will make use of the knowledge they have gained in their sustainability efforts and will take action and share the responsibility for the full environmental impacts of this proposed expansion with Palo Alto.

I worry that our practice is to evaluate collective decisions according to fairly narrow criteria. A proposal that will serve one good, like improving health care or creating jobs, might not be asked to meet any other standards beyond financial affordability and compliance with regulations. Eventual victims might be in no position to advocate for their needs or even to know what hit them. Because we don't react quickly to our institutional mistakes it is important to avoid them in the first place.

In her opinion piece, the mayor invoked Oregon Avenue's transformation into Oregon Expressway as an example of the costs of a past traffic increases -- it divided Palo Alto both politically and geographically.

As someone who crosses Oregon Expressway daily on foot or bicycle, often in the company of my young children going to school, I am painfully aware of some of these costs. Oregon Expressway is a dangerous road.

This is not a unique insight of mine. In 2004, Palo Alto commissioned a study of 34 road stretches and intersections along south Palo Alto school commutes. The two Oregon Expressway intersections in the study (Louis and Greer roads) got the lowest safety scores of the 34 sites studied, failing to achieve the grade of "tolerable."

My understanding is that those intersections have remained nearly unchanged since their construction in the 1960s, so I doubt that the findings about their unsafe conditions surprised anyone. Nonetheless, we have continued to tolerate these less than "tolerable" intersections through countless car-on-car collisions and at least four instances of cars striking pedestrians or bicyclists since that 2004 report, despite the availability of improvements that would seem fairly cheap and easy, such as changes to signage, striping or signal timing.

Why haven't adequate safety improvements been made in Oregon Expressway's 40-year history? A proximate reason must be competition with other dangerous intersections for scarce staff and money.

Maybe more fundamental is our difficulty in collectively changing course, even when we have compelling information that our course is damaging. We don't relish the prospect of funding government agencies at a level that would allow them to respond quickly -- we don't trust them with that level of authority.

At the same time, we don't hold any of our other institutions responsible for considering the wider good. We want to believe that the status quo has come about for good reason, and we are reluctant to change it.

I don't want to suggest that changes to striping or signal timing will correct the impact of car trips along Oregon Expressway -- far from it -- I just want to point out that even these cheap and simple improvements are slow and difficult. And they come too late for the people who have suffered serious injuries there.

As we consider this exciting, ambitious proposal from Stanford let's keep in mind the well-being of everyone who will be affected by the expansion.

Climate science has taught us that everyone will indeed be affected. Mayor Kishimoto is right that here in Palo Alto we cannot afford more car trips. We have not yet owned up to the costs of the ones we already have.

Elizabeth Schwerer is a 15-year Palo Alto resident who formerly taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Management in New York City. She presently describes herself as a stay-at-home mom to her twin 7-year-old girls, who attend Ohlone Elementary School. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 28, 2007 at 9:13 am

Maybe or maybe not we cannot afford more car trips in PA. But is it fair to ask only a single private institution to guarantee that there will not be an new net car trips in PA?
We should also approach other private companies with the same request. We should also request this from merchants on University Avenue and California Avenue. We should cancel plans for a new hotel at Stanford Shopping Center and also abandon the push to get more visitors into the city.
The bicycle tour planned for next year in PA should also be cancelled.
If we are serious about cutting traffic in PA, then everyone must take part.
To me it seems that if you say something enough times (in this case our mayor claiming at every opportunity that there is "too much Traffic"), people will actually believe that it is true

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 28, 2007 at 12:22 pm

"I worry that our practice is to evaluate collective decisions according to fairly narrow criteria."

You're exactly right, with the "elephant in the room" being Palo Alto's recent policy trend to deny the fact that *Palo Alto* is focusing too narrowly on the responsibility it has to the entire region to *reduce its own car trips* by bringing more housing on board. What's with that?

Will our policy makers support *that*? :)

I find is almost disarmingly amusing to witness the various minikin arguments *for* gouging Stanford, hidden beneath the subterfuge of various mythical "public good" argument that are more self-serving, than not. We have to start thinking *big*, like the big-time player we claim ourselves to be.

So, this time it's the "little things"; it makes me wonder what the next trumped-up excuse for gouging Stanford will be. We can do better than that.

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