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By Diana Diamond

Can cities handle our traffic mess? I doubt it!

Uploaded: Jul 9, 2019

Can Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities ever find a way to diminish the terrible traffic congestion problems we all are experiencing, particularly during commute hours? I am more of a skeptic every day.

Palo Alto is trying, but it’s going to be a struggle. The city created PATMA (Palo Alto Transportation and Management Association) a couple of years ago and that organization so far has received more than $1.2 million the past two years from the city to get people not to use their cars to get into town. They’ve had some success since this fledgling organization started – some 330 trips, by their count, have been eliminated. Cost of that? About $1,800 per vehicle. PATMA’s goal for December 2019 – five months from now – a total of 397 cars. The city’s funding for the program will inexorably surge the next couple of years.

But the traffic problems will inevitably worsen. Take a look at all the new buildings, especially offices, in the Menlo Park-Palo Alto-Mountain View area. Thousands of square feet accommodating thousands of jobs, many of them new. And when people get these jobs, they need housing (which this area now lacks), more schools and cars for the workers and their families. Ipso facto, the result is more traffic. And it’s a big regional problem.

PATMO Executive Director Steve Raney agrees he’s got a hard task in front of him – reducing traffic is a challenging problem that has to be tackled step by step. He quoted Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada’s response about the traffic problem: “You can make it better. You can deal with traffic hot spots. You can manage traffic, but you can never completely solve it.”

Raney told me TMA programs ($1,800 per car eliminated) are cheaper than building a parking garage downtown. Right – and wrong. Garages cost $60,000-plus per space, so he’s right it’s cheaper, but garages serve a community day and night for years on end, so we’re not just talking about 397 cars that won’t use a garage.

So what is PATMA doing to solve this problem? Diligently talking with employers and employees to reduce single vehicle commute trips, paying $163/month for Caltrain passes to get low-income employees to use Caltrain to commute to work, paying $10 for early morning and after 8 p.m. Lyft rides so employees who live nearby can get home (BTW, Lyft is a car on the road, and Lyft and Ubers have caused more traffic in NYC than the city ever experienced), creating a long-term education program so residents, visitors and shoppers can use public transit, bikes or their feet to get downtown, and provide some incentives to do all this.

Yet let’s face it, our public transit program is inept. Next year 2020, PATMA plans to concentrate on California Avenue and work on eliminating single vehicle drivers. With a proposed 2021 program, the cost to the city is an anticipated $2.86 million a year. Their goal is to eliminate some 3,500 solo drivers. Gold stars for trying.

But in reality, 3,500 is just a drop in the bucket, and I think they know it and we know it, as much as city councils that pour money into organizations like this know it.

Their problem is people like me. I like my car. It gets me quickly where I want to go. I don’t drive much (2,500/miles/year), just around town, and I DON’T BIKE. I am a terrible biker. I ran into a tree as a college biker and had to be carried away; I’ve fallen off my bike at least six times, and now, as a senior citizen, I simply can’t bike, given my balance issues. I’m not the only one.

Part of our regional problem is the result of our last 10 years of area city council members encouraging more and more developers to build, so their cities can thrive as more and more companies want to locate in the Valley. During this decade, councils haven’t insisted on developers providing enough parking for future building occupants. “Don’t worry about that,” they kindly said, and, as I paraphrase, “Just build a plaza/statues/benches/tiny park by your office building instead.”

And therein lies our traffic problem. More buildings, employees and cars. And not surprisingly, I’ve never heard any city officials accept the blame for causing all these traffic and overcrowding problems. But that’s another column.