Proposal to Limit Vehicles on University Ave in Palo Alto Gains Support

university_2.jpgUniversity Avenue in Palo Alto. Flickr photo: richardmasoner

In the past few weeks, Stanford University students have built support for a proposal to reduce parking, widen sidewalks, and eventually close eight blocks of University Avenue in Palo Alto to motor vehicles. The Palo Alto Pedestrian Mall (PAPM) started out as an assignment in a "Creating Infectious Action" class at the design school at Stanford and has since garnered support among transportation committee members of the city council and businesses along the avenue, many of them restaurants that want to take advantage of extra sidewalk seating. 

Amrita Mahale, a masters student in engineering at Stanford, explained that their assignment in class was to create a social movement that would reduce gas consumption, and after looking at traffic mitigation around campus, she and her fellow students thought that University Avenue would be more visible and significant. They started a Facebook page, which she was proud to note had over 1300 members in less than two weeks, canvassed businesses along the street to build support among a key constituency, conducted informal surveys of street users to measure their response ("all positive" she said), and enlisted Palo Alto’s former mayor and current councilmember, Yoriko Kishimoto, who has become a champion for the proposal.

"Now I think we have enough momentum for the city to take us seriously," said Mahale.

Kishimoto said the project resembles a trial closure that she enabled in 2007 while still mayor, when the city shut the avenue down for one night to create pedestrian promenade and program events. "Overall it was a success and a magical evening that showed the possibilities," she said. "But we also made some mistakes that we need to learn from, like merchant outreach." 

Picture_5.pngUniversity Avenue between Cowper and High Street, with parralel one-way pairs in red.

The students envision PAPM starting slowly with the removal of a
portion of the 120 spaces on University between High Street and Cowper
Street, widening sidewalks with provisional treatments, and testing
monthly or weekly street closures for events.  If University were
closed permanently, the students want to see adjacent parallel streets
convert into one-way pairs to deal with possible congestion.

Mahale and her classmates said they had pitched the idea up and down the street and over a dozen businesses had already agreed to put support stickers in their windows. She explained that restaurants in particular understood the benefit of having more pedestrians using the space and sitting outside to eat. 

Cafe 220 Manager Yusuf Tosun was hopeful the closure
would bring more business. "I think its gonna be nice to not have car
traffic and to allow restaurant owners to have a patio outside,
especially with the economy so bad.  People like the idea, especially
restaurant owners." 

Mahale also highlighted the problem of employees using the parking spaces on University in front of the businesses where they worked. She said they could bypass the two-hour parking time limit on the street by moving between two zones with different restrictions.

"We saw several employees leave customers to move their cars," she explained. "We asked the employees about it and they said, ‘yes it is a problem, but the customers understand.’"

Not everyone would be happy with a complete closure, though incremental steps like replacing parking with wider sidewalks seem less controversial, particularly given the many parking lots and garages just off University.

James Whitman, manager of the President Hotel Apartments, said he couldn’t speak for the entire building, but he liked the idea of phasing in changes.  "I definitely do support what they’re trying do, but if that isn’t possible I can see a compromise, the possibility of taking parking spaces out. It’s not an all or nothing."

Kishimoto said the most likely solution would be incremental. "I don’t think Palo Alto is just ready to close University down.  I think there’s definitely going to be concerns about making a permanent closure… many of the downtown leaders are open to looking at removing some of the parking, using that parking for outdoor dining, temporary bike parking."

After trying out small changes to parking, she suggested, then they could experiment with routine closures. "Maybe once a month or once a week you close University. Maybe Friday night and keep it closed for the Farmer’s market on Saturday morning."

"Palo Alto downtown is already a major hotspot on the Peninsula and I think this could make it more so."

  • Wow, this would be great. I hope Palo Alto has enough vision to see this through. Since Palo Alto is flat and generally warm and dry, there’s no reason 75% of trips there can’t be done by bicycle, thus making the removal of car parking moot. Stanford University could also do more to promote people taking Caltrain to campus rather than private cars, which would ease the strain of redirecting traffic patterns. (They do have a great free shuttle system that meets every train.) Perhaps Palo Alto should just close down the University Avenue off-ramp from the 101 freeway and push the traffic to Embarcadero or Oregon Expressway.

    As a side note, check out these great pictures of how the Chinese use bicycles for hauling just about anything.

  • theo

    One can hope that extra seating will lead to increased competition and slightly lower prices at restaurants.

    University Ave.’s geographical role is a town-meets-gown strip of student amenities and local shops, not a place for startup jocks to pitch VCs or Restoration Hardware galleries.

    Rent pressure has driven the district too far in the direction of useless yuppie amenities, forcing students into their cars to obtain necessary services. This will hopefully relieve some of that pressure.

  • “Stanford University could also do more to promote people taking Caltrain to campus rather than private cars, which would ease the strain of redirecting traffic patterns.”

    Stanford is really good already. I am very jealous of the Stanford employees, who get a Caltrain Go-Pass as a perk.

    But I can’t feel sorry for the Stanford students, if they wanted “town-meets-gown” they should have gone to Cal ūüėČ

  • John,

    I agree Stanford is good at encouraging their employees to take Caltrain, but when they have huge events such as football games and alumni reunions that involve tens of thousands of people, they could do much better at getting folks to arrive in some fashion besides private cars.

  • Velocycling

    That is a great idea. Palo Alto is such a cosmopolitan city to began with. This would just take it to the next step. Just like a lot of other Euro cities!

  • The only time I ever actually drive down University (a street I’m on about 5-6 times a week) is between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am, because those are the only times traffic doesn’t slow to a crawl. Let’s push that traffic to Hamilton and Lytton avenues and devote University to foot traffic. It’ll make the street so much more pleasant.

    It was just more than 100 years ago that Palo Alto first started running streetcars down University.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Wait, where am I supposed to pitch my idea to VCs if not in Palo Alto? That’s practically the only pastime in that town.

  • theo


    How about that place in Woodside?

    Whatever you do, just stay away from University. And Il Fornaio.

  • Steve

    Meh. University isn’t a bad street for a pedestrian mall, but it’s not like it’s a bad place to walk as it is now. And one-way streets framing it sound like traffic sewers making it harder to walk *to* University from anywhere else in Palo Alto.

    I guess closing University to traffic is probably not a bad idea, but there are a lot of other changes I’d rather see Palo Alto make (e.g. permit more, cheaper apartments, require less parking with everything, turn Stanford Business Park into something walkable, etc.).

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Hey theo, you know the difference between Buck’s of Woodside and any place on University? Buck’s has a bike lane leading to it.

  • MrMission

    The sidewalks on University Ave. are already pretty wide and nicely tree-lined — it is a very pleasant place to walk. I am not sure what this proposal would do other than make it more difficult to get around and push traffic into the more residential areas of downtown. Seems like a solution looking for a problem.

    The idea that 75% of the trips in PA could be done by bicycle is pretty laughable. Unfortunately, bike fanatics just don’t realize that bikes are not a good general purpose solution for most people and families.

  • theo


    Heh. Sure that’s not a horse trail?

  • Dear Mr. Mission,

    I am not a bike fanatic. I am a 47-year-old mother of three who drives, walks, and takes Muni, though indeed my favorite form of transportation is my bike. Yesterday I took three trips from my home, totaling 27 miles, all by bike in windy, not warm, hilly, poor-bike-infrastructure San Francisco. Eleven of those miles were with my 85 lb eleven year old daughter on the back of my bike. I must assert that bicycles are an excellent general purpose means of transport for trips under five miles for most people and families. Plenty of families in Holland, Denmark and Japan use bicycles to transport children all the time, though this wasn’t true thirty years ago in Holland and Denmark. What has changed in those two countries is improved bicycle infrastructure and the attitudes of the people.

    You’ll notice in my comments about Palo Alto, I said “there is no reason why . . .”

    There is no reason why Palo Alto could not have excellent bicycle infrastructure with plenty of physically-separated bike lanes. The technology exists (paint, concrete dividers, etc.) and the cost when compared to most road projects geared to car traffic is negligible.

    There is no reason why, with excellent bicycle infrastructure, most trips under five miles in Palo Alto could not occur on bicycles in good weather. Bicycling on flat ground at a moderate speed works up no more of a sweat than walking and can be done in regular street clothes.

    There is no reason why, with excellent bicycle infrastructure, children over the age of 8 in Palo Alto could not bicycle themselves to school and activities.

    There is no reason why, with excellent bicycle infrastructure, families in Palo Alto could not use a bakfiet to transport children under the age of 8. If you visit, you’ll see that the Danes have an unbelievable variety of three-wheeled bicycles they use to transport children and other valued items.

    There is no reason why, with excellent bicycle infrastructure, errands and shopping could not be done by bicycle. (200 lbs of groceries will fit on the back of an Xtracycle.)

    There is no reason why, with excellent bicycle infrastructure, many folks who are elderly or physically unable to cope with a bicycle could not use an electric adult tricycle for local jaunts. In addition, for anyone facing hills or heavy-loads, adding a small electric motor and battery to one’s bike is a viable option.

    I reassert that there is no reason why 75% of all trips within Palo Alto could not occur by bike. The place is flat and has far better weather than Denmark, Japan or Holland. In addition, bicycles are far more economical than cars. It’s all about infrastructure and cultural mindset.

  • CBrinkman

    Yay TaoMom – well said. (nailed it!) So true. So ignored by people like MrMission. It is so freakin’ easy to do almost everything I need to do by bike -, to work, to shop, to go out at night – imagine how many more people would do their less then 5 mile trips by bike if the infrastucture made it as easy or easier then by car?

  • Steve

    I live and work in Palo Alto and bike pretty much everywhere. I’d agree that 75% of trips within Palo Alto could be done by bike, and I wouldn’t be shocked if someone told be that some number in the 30-40% range are. It’s eerie to ride around at 11pm on a weeknight and realize there’s more bike traffic than car traffic.

    Problem is, a lot of people come to Palo Alto from farther afield and a lot of people who live in Palo Alto go other places, and a lot of those trips don’t get made by bike. And let’s be realistic: my co-worker from Pleasanton is never going to bike to Palo Alto to get to work.

    But that’s not to say TaoMom is wrong. There are a lot of things we could change, infrastructure-wise and culture-wise. Getting rid of free car parking, allowing more density, making it easier to take bikes on Caltrain, running more trains on Caltrain, making Dumbarton Rail happen, etc. can all make Palo Alto a better place for bikes (and walking). And there are plenty of car trips now that could easily be bike trips if people felt safer on bikes.


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