By Diana Diamond
Get cars off our streets??Uploaded: Jun 20, 2018
As outlandish as it sounds to me, while there are a number of Palo Alto residents who feel our streets are too crowded (they are!), their solution is to get more of our cars off the streets. Instead, people should walk or bike around this city, they say. And if you happen to work here, don’t drive to your job but take public transportation – like Caltrain that only goes north and south, or the VTA buses that ride along El Camino and Middlefield, but reach little of the rest of town. Let’s admit that our public transit system is pathetically inadequate.
But some city officials still say don’t drive, use public transit. As one resident pointed out in a recent blog, “It’s sad that so many people are now guilt tripped driving their automobiles, as if it’s something we should ‘give up’ for the ‘good of the community.’”
There’s more traffic here because there’s a lot more new office space in town, which results in more people, and more cars. For the past decade however, those same city officials have been extremely generous to developers, and approved of all sorts of new office space, especially around California Avenue. So they had a big hand in creating the traffic mess.
Discouraging drivers to use their cars keeps on resurfacing in different forms. Recently the city allowed Windy Hill Property Ventures to build a “car-light” 57-unit “workforce” apartment building at Page Mill Road and El Camino that instead of the required 102 parking spaces, would only have 65 spaces. Renters of the studio or one-bedroom apartments (average size 526 square feet) would get bus and Caltrain passes to encourage them to use public transit to get to work. Some council members were really excited at the prospect of getting people to buy into housing that discourages car use. Councilman Adrian Fine said this housing is “exactly what we've been asking for and exactly the kind of units we need in Palo Alto.”
But I keep on wondering what will the tenants do about getting groceries, making a trip to a doctor’s office, shopping at Costco or a pharmacy, having guest parking or not usurping neighborhood parking spots. None of that was really answered. My guess is that tenants will soon tire of relying on bikes and public transportation to obtain the basics they need.
Then there’s the city’s revised comprehensive plan, in which the embedded philosophy calls for discouraging driving and encouraging bicycling and other types of alternative transportation.
So cars are not wanted. The city’s Rail Committee recently considered grade separations at Churchill Avenue, but the two options of having cars go over or under the tracks would involve getting rid of some 40 homes, which, for very valid reasons, the committee didn’t want to do. Instead the current suggestion is closing Churchill to autos, and letting only bikes and pedestrians across the tracks. That would send cars to Embarcadero Road, crowding an already traffic-intense area. Staff suggested maybe the train underpass near Paly High School should be widened to four lanes, to accommodate the increase of autos.
Former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto objected to the widening, and urged the Rail Committee to eliminate the option. She argued that there is no evidence that the underpass causes a bottleneck. Adding a traffic lane, she said, would lead to more traffic and more speeding. And this would add more cars, contrary to the comp plan’s philosophy.
For nine years the city has unsuccessfully been struggling with the traffic jams that arise on Embarcadero and El Camino Real at the left-turn signal. I’ve oftentimes waited through three light changes to get onto Embarcadero because cars are clogged on the road that becomes one lane just before the underpass. Widening it would help ease the jam. This squeeze is a problem that can only get worse, and no solution is in sight – even before closing Churchill occurs.
I think the notion of curtailing car use in this city is a pie-in-the-sky hope, but one not grounded in reality. Making it more difficult to drive around the city will not deter car use, but it sure will get residents angry when nothing is done to solve an apparent problem.