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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Questions on my mind about Palo Alto

Uploaded: Oct 4, 2018
I oftentimes come across things in Palo Alto that make me wonder, “Why does the city …” “Does data on how much services are used back up what the city is spending our money on?” “Is this city spending its money wisely? ” For example:

• Is Palo Alto’s free shuttle system working? It’s a concept the city council loved, and a wonderful idea, but is it really working – and working as well as possible? How many people use it? Do school-age children ride it much? How much does it cost this city? How much do we pay for each ride taken? Are the bus routes the best or do they need to be changed? I have seen no data on our shuttle system, but I often see relatively empty buses.

• Why has “transit-oriented housing” (building apartments and condos near train and bus lines) become such a mantra in city governments when apparently no study has been done locally to see if people who live in these units actually use public transit to get to work? I know transit-oriented sounds like a very logical idea, yet if people living there don’t use trains and buses, maybe we should rethink what we’re doing and perhaps build housing near big companies, e.g., Facebook, Google and Apple. Is it better to build so people live near where they work rather than near buses and trains?

• Why did the Palo Alto City Council very recently give public safety workers (our police and firefighters) an 11.5 %increase over three years? This year there will be a 5.5% raise, next year another 3%, and the year after that an additional 3%. And by the way, these increases are compounded, meaning if a salary goes up 5.5% one year, the next year the 3% is applied to the higher salary. Private industry is not increasing salaries anywhere near 11.5%. I’ve been told the city does this because it wants to retain these workers and doesn’t want them to go to cities that pay a bit more. But the cities then get competitive with each other – if one raises salaries, the other ones also do – like an escalating poker game: City A says it will give 3%, city B then raises its increases to 4%, City C says 4.5%, and finally City D goes up to 5.5% So City D is the winner -- until the next round – while residents lose because the city spends more money on employees and not on bike paths, improving roadways and other things residents want.

• Why do we have three or four of our city officials travel at city expense to welcome a new city someplace on this globe as a council-declared “sister city” -- and then they take occasional trips to visit our sisters? A council boondoggle, perhaps?

• With our new and our renovated libraries, are more people taking out books and using library services now? What are those numbers? Do they justify all this money we spent on libraries? I certainly hope so because I love libraries, but let’s let the numbers justify our love.

• Is Stanford University the only employer that the city is demanding it build housing for its employees? Does Mountain View ask the same of Google or Menlo Park demand employee housing from Facebook? Facebook is building some employee housing, but only a small amount for the thousands of new workers it plans to hire.

I really don’t want to be a skeptic, but Palo Alto certainly does spend a lot of money for its 67,000 residents. Palo Alto has a $220 million general fund this year (up from $140 million several years ago) and it seems use up most of it. Is the city doing a good job on the way it spends our money?

Tell me your thoughts.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 4, 2018 at 5:38 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

All excellent questions.

1) Re the shuttles, one can't see through the windows with all the cutesy designs from ground level but you can see how empty they are when you look out a second story window. Are the cutesy faces painted over the windows there specifically to hide how empty they are?

2) Re city wages, remember that our present and future city managers are in the top 3 most highly paid city officials in the state. And our future city manager negotiated for an extra year of salary and benefits contributions if he's dismissed from PA like he was from San Jose. And no one's paying attention and outgoing city manager was treated to a trip to PA's sister city in China along with 4 others at a time when the city's pleading poverty. Outrageous.

3) Re the libraries, I too love the libraries but the delays and the cost-over-runs were outrageous as was the lack of attention to human factors like eliminating one of book deposit slots on one side of the building, the noise at Mitchel Park and its absurdly designed parking lot. Given all the cost of these improvements. no wonder Ms Cormack -- the "silent candidte" raised such a huge amount of money from all the developers and construction folks licking their chops anticipating the next "big" project for which she claims such expertise.

Posted by Norman Beamer, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 4, 2018 at 7:05 pm

I was told that the idea of painting faces on the shuttle windows was Jack Morton's, a former council member. It is his only accomplishment as an elected official to my knowledge.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 4, 2018 at 8:00 pm

I am so nostalgic about the old Mitchell Park library. There used to be more trees in that area and natural open space and a nice quiet bench in a glade..
The oversized "inclusive" playground and the new Mitchell Park library complete with a weird sculpture and overpriced Cafe is an abomination.

Posted by Why oh why, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 4, 2018 at 8:12 pm

All good questions. Even in good economic times, there should be accountability.

One more to ponder: Why do PAUSD superindentents command a higher salary than the POTUS?

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 4, 2018 at 8:48 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"Why has “transit-oriented housing" (building apartments and condos near train and bus lines) become such a mantra in city governments when apparently no study has been done locally to see if people who live in these units actually use public transit to get to work?"

Easy--if you don't want the answer, don't ask the question. Anecdotal info says the answer is embarrassingly few, like 5%. What transit-oriented housing huckster would want to confirm that?

"Transit-oriented housing" is just dog whistle for "build that stuff down by the tracks where I won't see it from my house." Rationally, it makes no sense to "solve" the jobs-housing imbalance by siting housing where the obvious objective is to encourage its inhabitants to leave town every day. Shouldn't we be making it easier for them to get to jobs in town and relieve the commute crunch? Like your idea of housing near job sites?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 4, 2018 at 9:56 pm

All excellent questions.

1. The free shuttle. Basic question is why is it free? Something that is free is generally taken for granted and often abused. Why don't we have a modest fare that would at least answer questions such as do the same people regularly use them, do they use more than one route and how far does the typical rider travel on them? A swipe card or phone app could collect this data very easily. Second question is exactly who is it designed to serve and are those the people using it? My own thoughts are that the shuttles logical riders would be regular commuters, not once off riders needing to get somewhere or those in a hurry to do something in their lunch hour. I feel that downtown workers and schoolchildren would be the obvious users, but I have not seen actual data on this although I have heard anecdotally that the shuttles serving Paly are often full enough to ask questions about safety.

2. Transit oriented housing may possibly help to get one member of a couple to work, but does it get them to Costco, to dinner with friends in another city or to family across the Bay at weekends? Even if they start off being able to use transit for work, but what happens when they change jobs?

3. Libraries. I was one of those people who was very much against the rebuilding of Mitchell Park. I definitely wanted to see a decent remodel, but not the razing and replacing with such an ugly building. Why we have a sideways building that has no symmetry with yellow and blue plastic looking trim is not something I felt was the best way to spend our money. The way the building is now used may or may not be the way it was expected to be used, but I have discovered that I use it a lot less than the old library since my needs and reading habits have changed.

Lastly you mention bike paths and perhaps you were talking about Ross Road. I still feel that this was an unnecessary mistake particularly in light that we still do not have a bridge to replace the semi-annual closing tunnel. I can't see that Ross Road was ever a danger to bikes with huge numbers of accidents, but the fact that for a large part of the year bikes are forced to use San Antonio if they want to get to Google from south Palo Alto is in fact a much more dangerous concept. In fact, the City have been talking about making improvements to the San Antonion/Charleston/Fabian intersections to help bikes be safer, when for many bikes having a year round bridge over 101 would be the most safe idea.

But please, ask these questions as you may get better answers than the rest of us who do our best to get CC to hear our voices.

Posted by Robert Neff, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 5, 2018 at 12:50 am

Robert Neff is a registered user.

Have you visited the new Mitchell Park library? When I have visited, on weekends, I have found it well used, and far more attractive and inviting than the old one. The new community center meeting rooms are the best in Palo Alto.

The transportation department has made regular reports to council on the performance (cost and ridership) of the shuttle. Try emailing I think a lot of the service works for youths taking school trips. I think cost/trip is comparable to other services in the valley, except way lower than Facebook, Google, or Apple. Why don't you try is out, and let us know what it is like, at different times of day. Please do a compare against the 35 VTA bus. Here is a question: Are we better off with every half hour service on each, or should we subsidize VTA to run twice as many 35 buses down Middlefield?

Stanford builds housing because they have a lot of low income graduate students, or post-doctoral researchers, on limited incomes. Without the Stanford provided housing, these positions would be far less attractive. Also, the more worker and students they house on campus, the more they can expand the campus, without increasing the number of commuters crossing the campus boundary. That is a key metric for their development agreement with the county.

Posted by Good questions, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 5, 2018 at 1:08 am

Good Questions.

A question re: safety is why pay more in salary while maintaining safety as such a low priority relative to pushing development?

We don't use the PA libraries for books because the lending policies and availability ay Los Altos is better.

Love Ada's cafe at Mitchell Park, it's one of my favorite things there.

Wish the facilities at Mitchell had been more comparable to north side of town - community pool, theater space, etc. It's not practical to travel across town anymore to the north because of traffic and parking. The road changes also make driving way more stressful.

Don't use the shuttle because it's so difficult to coordinate. I wanted to take transit to Foothill classes and nothing goes there directly, you have to change at San Antonio and it takes an hour from Gunn. It would be faster to walk except there's no reasonably nice safe footpath.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Oct 5, 2018 at 9:31 am

Allen Akin is a registered user.

Regarding transit-oriented housing: It makes sense if you assume that there's going to be unlimited growth. ALL development (housing, jobs, services) needs to be within a short distance of a high-capacity transit node for unlimited growth to work. You simply can't move the necessary numbers of people and goods on lower-capacity systems like conventional roads.

Some people really want unlimited growth (often because they'll benefit financially). Some people just assume that it's inevitable, whether or not it's desirable. These people will tend to favor transit-oriented development.

Some people don't want to live in an environment of unlimited growth. Some don't think it's feasible (for a variety of reasons). These people will tend to see transit-oriented development as misguided.

Posted by Chris, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 5, 2018 at 10:44 am

All good questions.
With regard to the shuttle, my son takes it to Jordan and it's packed with kids during those hours. I agree that it's pretty empty most of the day in my views of it as it passes the house, but it's indispensable for those kids (especially during inclement weather). My 82 y/o mom also loves it when she visits from out of town (she doesn't have a drivers license, as she lives in big eastern city.) It gives her amazing mobility and she connects to stanford and elsewhere. She said that if she should afford it, she would move to PA just for the shuttle!

Posted by Debbie, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 5, 2018 at 12:47 pm

Ok with giving employees comparable raises to retain them, but NOT ok with doing nothing about these out of control, city bankruptcy pensions. Remember, the raises boost the pensions payouts “ big time".

Posted by PA Resident, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Oct 6, 2018 at 1:43 am

I can speak to the shuttle, both pro and con.

Pro: We used it one summer when my boys had summer school classes at Jordan, and they used it to commute; it saved me a lot of schlepping! I rode along once or twice, and it was packed to the gills with summer school kids.

Con: When one son started his first post-college job, which happened to be in downtown Palo Alto, and was living at home to save up money to rent his own apartment, he found that it was useless for commuting because it only ran until 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Very few people can accommodate a full-time work schedule to the hours that the shuttle runs, so it's useless for typical commuters. (He ended up riding his bike to work, with me transporting on rainy days, just as he had in high school.)

One other point: I understand that one group of heavy users of the shuttle are those who live in retirement communities such as Stevenson House.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 6, 2018 at 8:59 am

Perhaps it is time for a Weekly reporter to ride the shuttle interviewing those who ride it.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 6, 2018 at 4:42 pm

My thoughts are that; crippling our school system, taking over our media, manufacturing and paying our politicians, have all worked to reduce that critical mass of people in society that have functioning brains to make a democracy work. It is not laws, it is not people, it is the system of good people seeing what is wrong and getting together to create a fix it via whatever way makes the most sense. All of these control channels have failed and been replaced by appointed loyalists to a system that is annoying more and more people at a higher and higher level, and leaving them no way to fix it, while instead spending huge money and energy to pulling the curtain on all the rest of us and locking us out. All this while the main reason we are such a prosperous area is the wonders we can play with data. Imagine that. And that fact that this is still escalating is completely unacceptable and against what this country has stood for.

Posted by Screwed up city, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 6, 2018 at 8:56 pm

Another question to ask is why cannot the city get simple projects done in a timely manner? As an example why hasn't a bike bridge over 101 been built yet? Or to rephrase the question�" why do we allow these projects to become personal ego trips for council members with a zero record of accomplishments?

Regarding the Stanford housing question, I believe Stanford is the only local employer that the city demands housing from. First of all Stanford cannot pull up stakes and move out, unlike most businesses that will just say “goodbye". Second Palo Alto sees Stanford is viewed as a cash cow by Palo Alto, to be milked whenever Stanford wants money. Palo Alto has effectively killed retail people n the city with their demands and the demands of self-appointed “watchdogs". And to add insult to injury our city council wants to “protect" mom and pop retail , but no Chan stores are allowed.

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 10, 2018 at 12:49 am

Annette is a registered user.

I can provide input on the Embarcadero and Tech Shuttles which I ride frequently. The shuttles are convenient once I get to Town & Country, the shuttle's first stop after leaving the transit center. Before 9am the shuttles are well utilized; after that ridership tapers. In the afternoon it tapers after about 5:30. There are no shuttles during the middle of the day and since there are limited services and restaurants east of 101, this is a deterrent to using the shuttle. In the morning it is rare for a rider to get on or off between El Camino and 101 but in the afternoon there are often people who get on or off at the stops between Edgewood Plaza and Middlefield. Using the shuttle doubles my commute time and limits my daytime flexibility. If that bothered me more than driving in traffic bothers me, I would drive every day. Best I can tell, the primary users of the Embarcadero and Tech shuttles are people who work at the few businesses located at the far end of Embarcadero Road and who also ride the train to Palo Alto. If the city is serious about getting people out of cars, the shuttle system needs to be improved.

Some shock absorbers would be nice, too, but that's getting fussy.

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