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April 28, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Guest Opinion: Not all "traffic calming" means neighborhood conflict Guest Opinion: Not all "traffic calming" means neighborhood conflict (April 28, 2004)

by Eric Doyle

The rejection of the Downtown North street barriers echoes the similar failure ten years ago of a massive traffic calming trial in the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park.

In each case, traffic-control devices that fundamentally changed the neighborhood were installed without first winning the support of the residents -- and were finally removed. Wasted time, wasted money and injured civic well-being were the results of these trials.

Menlo Park currently is creating a new Neighborhood Traffic Management Plan ( Last November the City Council approved guidelines intended to minimize conflicts.

One important guideline requires support by a super-majority of affected residents before installing trial traffic-control measures. To appreciate the significance of this requirement, one must understand the inherent tendency of old-style traffic-calming processes to veer toward the more extreme solutions.

Traffic calming begins with residents being upset about traffic on their street(s). They've heard their city offer help with neighborhood traffic problems, so they approach City Hall. Staff engineers make a preliminary evaluation and find that, yes, many drivers on that street do exceed the speed limit, or that the street does carry more traffic than originally intended.

The city defines a project area -- the part of the neighborhood the engineers determine is affected most by the traffic -- and organizes a meeting with residents. The meeting is attended by people who are upset about traffic. Residents who accept traffic as an unpleasant reality have other priorities and don't attend.

From the outset, city staff classifies the people who have requested help as "the neighborhood." To get input from "the neighborhood," staff organizes a focus group to define the problem and propose solutions. Residents with the strongest concerns about traffic are the ones willing to devote time to the focus group. Their influence steers the plan toward more radical solutions.

The focus group members and a few allies become traffic-calming evangelists, recruiting neighbors, writing letters to the editor and lobbying staff and council members.

Eventually, the process requires formal involvement of the rest of the neighborhood. Typically this includes a mailed flyer, more neighborhood meetings and, finally, a survey offering a choice of solutions. Both the flyer and the meeting become sales pitches, downplaying negative consequences of the proposed solutions.

Residents with a low level of concern about traffic stay home. The meeting is attended mainly by traffic-calming activists and neighbors they have recruited. The staff keeps score of residents' comments and reports to the council that X percent of "the neighborhood" wants this or that solution.

The results of the survey are equally predictable. A small percent of the surveys are returned, but they are heavily pro-calming. The activists have organized to get out the vote. There's no organized opposition. The council members reasonably conclude that the neighborhood supports the plan, and they approve the trial.

The devices in the streets become a catalyst for opposition. People who were indifferent to traffic are dismayed by the solution -- diversion of traffic to nearby streets, delay of emergency vehicles, the ugliness of the devices. An opposing petition is circulated. Opposing arguments appear in letters to the editor and in speeches to the council.

Opponents feel disenfranchised and angry at the city for catering to a special-interest group. They learn to harangue the council and staff -- this seems to be the key to getting the city's attention.

But the Council has approved a fixed-term trial, so the neighborhood war continues.

Ultimately, the council must decide whether to make the devices permanent. If it rules against the devices, it's been a terribly inefficient path to that conclusion. The city made an effort to involve the neighborhood constructively but the process skewed the outcome by giving traffic-calming activists a disproportionate voice.

In 1995, Menlo Park's response to the Willows debacle was the "Interim Protocol for the Willows Area." The most notable improvement was a requirement that trial traffic-calming devices be approved by a majority of all households -- not just a majority of those responding to a survey.

This provision (as yet untested) will steer traffic-calming toward more moderate solutions. San Jose, Belmont and Palo Alto (for "spot" projects only) have such requirements. If Palo Alto had applied its existing process in Downtown North, we would have seen quite a different trial and much less conflict.

Menlo Park's new guidelines for the city-wide Neighborhood Traffic Management Plan will increase the majority requirement to a super-majority (tentatively 60 percent, as in Belmont) and apply the same standard to permanent installations.

As Palo Alto picks up the pieces of Downtown North, it might take heed of the trend evident next door and in other nearby communities.

Eric Doyle, a mechanical engineer at SLAC, has been a Willows area resident of Menlo Park for 30 years and is a member of the Menlo Park Transportation Commission. He can be e-mailed at<$

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