Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | In a city plagued by traffic congestion, and the air pollution that goes along with it, officials are working with residents and a consultant to figure out if tech solutions or other strategies can help get cars off the roads.
The city of East Palo Alto is only 2.5 square miles. Yet during peak commuting hours, an otherwise eight-minute drive across town takes about 20 minutes longer than walking the same distance.
The toll of traffic on jammed East Palo Alto streets is more than an annoyance. As Silicon Valley tech workers navigate their cars through the city’s neighborhoods and past its schools, following apps that suggest shortcuts to nearby Facebook and Google headquarters, the remnant emissions and smog create a health hazard for residents. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to air pollution from traffic can increase the risk of asthma in adults and children. Compared to all of San Mateo County, East Palo Alto has almost double the rate of children 14 and younger hospitalized for asthma.
To figure out how to relieve its overcrowded streets, East Palo Alto hired consulting company Hexagon to conduct a traffic and parking study—the first of its kind for the city. FUSE executive fellow Susan Barnes has been managing the project, seeking input and feedback from residents who are most affected by the traffic. She has also identified potential tech solutions and is coordinating with nearby cities to address the issue from a regional perspective.
Tapping into the heart of the community to understand the issues will be key to solving congestion issues, said Barnes, who has experience working within and as a consultant to civic organizations. “Residents use the streets every day,” she said, “so they know what’s feasible and what’s not.”
East Palo Alto’s economy gains little from non-resident commuters. A report calculated that the large majority—84 percent—of weekday traffic jamming up University Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, is simply passing through.
On-street parking is making it all worse. East Palo Alto used to suffer from high crime rates, but those have dropped dramatically—from 42 murders per year in the 1990s to three in 2018—making the city more attractive to those in search of an affordable place to live in Silicon Valley. In response to increasing housing demands and costs, many property owners have divided single-family homes into multi-unit residences. Garages have been converted to living spaces, and homes are filled with extended families. But driveway parking can’t accommodate all the cars, and some residences don’t even have a driveway. East Palo Alto has no parking permits, so cars line the streets, narrowing already clogged roads.
“It’s a traffic apocalypse,” said Mark Dinan, a 10-year resident of the city. “Our population has grown because people are moving here after being pushed out of other communities. And because the murder rate has fallen, people are happily driving through our city now.”
To hear directly from the community, Barnes has attended local events—Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth, for example—in the various East Palo Alto neighborhoods, asking residents questions about traffic and parking. She also created an online survey, available in English and Spanish (63 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino), for resident input on suggested reforms. So far, 380 people have responded.
Dinan, along with other residents, have noted that they would most like to see greater enforcement of existing traffic laws, such as infractions against gridlock and illegal U-turns. But with a limited police force and city budget, increased ticketing is a tall order, Barnes said. “There’s a hierarchy of needs,” she said. “Crime is at the top.” Still, she plans to include the request in her final proposal.
The second-most popular idea was giving households a set number of parking permits. Restrictions for nonresidents would be established as well, potentially banning parking completely or establishing time limits. Hexagon is exploring the practicality and effects of this idea and will come up with recommendations, which will be vetted by the local community and shared with the City Council for direction.
Barnes has found that many residents also support the idea of adding a toll for driving on University Avenue, which runs north to south and dissects the city. Such a toll would require permission from the state, Barnes acknowledges, because California doesn’t allow municipalities to designate toll roads and collect tolls. “It would take some legislation,” she said. But there is precedent: Lombard Street, the zigzagging roadway in San Francisco that’s popular with tourists, received special permission to implement a passage fee.
Kamal Fallaha, director of Public Works in the city, also believes the idea is worth pursuing. “If they’re using our streets, they should pay their way,” he said.
University Avenue could also be turned into a high-occupancy lane, barring cars that have no passengers, an idea that’s popular with residents like Dinan. City Council has long considered the idea, Barnes adds.
Barnes has another idea: influencing the navigation suggestions on Google Maps and Waze (also owned by Google), which often recommend that drivers pass through East Palo Alto. If the city strategically prohibited left or right turns on certain streets, those routes might no longer be suggested by these apps. Barnes has tried to approach Google to work on a solution. “It’s hard to get through to any decision-makers,” she said.
But she knows some planners in nearby Foster City who have worked with Google, which has given them online access to its app. Now the city can change the algorithms for traffic routing itself and reroute traffic based on recent events. Barnes hopes to use that knowledge to add information to the options that Hexagon eventually puts before the council.
Both Barnes and Fallaha also expressed interest in a regional transportation management agency, a body with representatives from several Silicon Valley municipalities that could interact with and get tech companies to cooperate. “It’s a regional problem,” Barnes said. “Solutions need to be regional but can’t handicap an under-resourced community, such as East Palo Alto. The challenge is, how do you go to Palo Alto or Menlo Park and say, ‘You have to help us?’ We are working on figuring this out.”
Hexagon, the city’s hired consultant, began working on the study last fall. It is examining cut-through traffic using data models, license plate readers, and cell phone activity to gather data on the number of cars that travel through East Palo Alto and will make suggestions on how to reduce those numbers.
The company is also researching the parking situation in residential neighborhoods and will report on pros and cons of options such as parking restrictions, parking permits, and converting some streets to one-ways. Other parts of the plan include identifying intersections that might be holding up traffic and suggesting improvements to bicycle and pedestrian pathways.
In the fall, Hexagon will present the study and a menu of options to the City Council, with Barnes providing input from community members. “City Council will digest all these ideas and see what they think is achievable,” she said. “There are no magic bullets. The city can come at this from the point of victim or self determination. We’re hoping for the latter. Then the challenge will be to put systems in place so that these actions are sustainable.”
This story was produced as part of a solutions-journalism initiative through FUSE Corps, a nonprofit that partners with government agencies to tackle communities’ biggest challenges.
Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor.