Published Thursday, November 27, 2003, in the Palo Alto Daily News
Traffic planning needs a dose of reality
By Diana Diamond
It's time to talk turkey -- about traffic in our towns.
For the past several years, city officials have been scurrying
around, coming up with all sorts of proposals to put barriers,
bollard and bulbouts on our streets, to build roundabouts on roads
and medians in the middle of streets, to reduce perfectly good four-
lane roads into two- or three-lane roads, and to narrow the width of
lanes on El Camino Real in Palo Alto -- all in the name of improving
traffic flow in our community.
It will be good for us, we are told, because we will be slowing
traffic, and making streets safer for children. And despite reduced
speeds, don't worry -- traffic will flow more evenly. We will also
get more people to walk and bicycle around town, as well as use mass
transit, including Palo Alto's shuttle.
This all has such an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to it.
But it is real. Consider the following:
* In March 2001 there was a proposal to install three roundabouts on
Embarcadero Road, while reducing the street from four to two lanes.
Estimated cost was $3.5 million. Residents were skeptical, calling
the idea counterintuitive. Roundabout proposals are around no longer.
* That same year a plan for a Palo Alto Intermodal Transit Center at
the Caltrans station re-emerged -- an estimated $250 million train-
bus mecca. Consultants had already collected $350,000 in fees. No one
was quite sure where we would get the money, so, figuratively
speaking, the intermodal idea has left the station.
* In June 2002, a proposal to narrow El Camino in Palo Alto from six
to four lanes was presented to the community at a series of meetings.
This $100 million-plus project has been now put on the back burner.
The study cost at that time was $288,000 -- $48,000 of which came
from city coffers.
* Two years ago Menlo Park's downtown suddenly blossomed with
bulbouts and street impediments, as a way to slow traffic on Santa
Cruz Avenue. Drivers were bumping into bollards, road rage was
rampant, and residents demanded the offending impediments be removed.
They were. And the council faction that supported the bulbouts wasn't
able to get even one of its candidates elected in last year's
* Early this summer, 10 barriers were installed in Palo Alto's
Downtown North neighborhood, creating several dead end streets where
traffic used to flow smoothly. The result may have been some "traffic
calming" on some streets but not others, since cars roam around the
maze looking for an exit. Police reported losing a robber in the
maze. Neighbors are anything but calm -- they are at each other's
throats -- half support the closures, half hate them.
* The Charleston-Arastradero roads corridor is under discussion, with
suggestions for medians in the middle of this 2.3-mile corridor --
and reducing the Highway 101-to-Alma Street stretch from four to
three lanes. City transportation officer Joe Kott's stated goals for
this corridor are to promote more walking and bicycling, improve bike
lanes, beautify the street, and not extend the time it takes a
vehicle to travel the corridor.
The reality test
Let's be real about it. How many of us throughout the entire town
really want Embarcadero reduced to two lanes -- or Charleston reduced
to three lanes? How many of us really want El Camino reduced from six
to four lanes so more bike lanes can be added? How many of us would
actually bike along El Camino? Would you? If there were wider bike
lanes along Charleston, then would you really let your kid bike to
There also is this underlying presumption that many of us that aren't
walking and bicycling today will magically decide to change our ways
and bike in the future.
It's part of that theory that if you put in a bike lane then people
will use it. But as one man told the council the other night, the
minute a teenager turns 16 and gets his driver's license, he forgets
he has feet.
As to the medians in the middle of the street, they do look pretty,
but I wonder if homeowners on Charleston and Arastradero realize that
every time they back out their driveways, they would only be able
Incidentally, part of the Charleston area study found that trip
generation by residents is 15 times greater than by businesses.
So it's not all those outsiders commuting into our city that cause
all our traffic problems. It is us.
Reframing the discussion
I do think there are things we should be talking about that could not
only help traffic flow but also make our streets safer for our kids:
* Lighted pedestrian crosswalks in particularly hazardous areas, or
twinkling lights that become activated when a pedestrian steps off
the curb onto the crosswalk.
* Adaptive signal timing. Computers would control traffic flow,
allowing information to be forwarded immediately from one
intersection to the next to accommodate more or less traffic. This
would allow cars to drive slower but save time driving the length of
the corridor. San Jose tried this out on one of its streets and
decreased travel time by 33 percent. Cost for the corridor: $1.2
million, according to Kott.
* Finally, it is time to look at grade separations (underpasses or
overpasses) for the railroad tracks. With Baby Bullet trains almost
here, and high-speed trains on the way, such separations will be
inevitable, because this is one of the few ways to get high-speed
trains past car crossings. My separation models are the two in
Redwood City at Fifth Avenue and Jefferson Avenue -- tracks raised a
bit, streets lowered a bit -- both in scale. Separations should
certainly be taken into account in any planning for a revamp of the
Charleston corridor; separations would provide safe pedestrian and
bike passage, and make the entire street safer.
Diana Diamond's column appears every Thursday and on alternate
Sundays in the Daily News. Her e-mail address is
[BATN: See partial list of related items:
Editorial: El Camino lane reduction ill-advised
Palo Alto Embarcadero roundabouts nixed for now
Palo Alto Embarcadero roundabouts put on hold
Palo Alto's roundabout plan for Embarcadero
Palo Alto to try roundabouts on busy Embarcadero
$200M Palo Alto Caltrain & bus hub still on track
Palo Alto Caltrain/bus hub plan funds look tight
Palo Alto panel supports $196M Caltrain hub plan
Palo Alto plans for major rail & bus transit hub
Palo Alto panel votes to narrow El Camino Real
Palo Alto eyes widening El Camino Real sidewalks
Opinion: El Camino is broken & we can fix it
Palo Alto eyes putting El Camino on a "road diet"
Comment: Civil war over El Camino lanes, traffic
Editorial: El Camino lane reduction ill-advised
Palo Alto ponders El Camino traffic calming
Palo Alto plan to narrow El Camino worries some
Comment: Palo Alto's El Camino plan is overkill
Caltrans, pols discuss Palo Alto El Camino plans