To curb speeding, Palo Alto may ban cars on some streets during Covid-19 crisis

In a bid to slow down speeding cars and improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists during the coronavirus pandemic, Palo Alto is looking to close some streets to traffic, the city’s Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said Monday.

In doing so, it is preparing to follow the lead of Oakland, Denver and Minneapolis – cities that have closed some of their streets to cars and allowed pedestrians and bicyclists to take over. San Francisco has taken a more limited approach, recently closing a section of the Great Highway to vehicle traffic. Kamhi said he plans to bring a proposal for closing streets in the near future, though he did not specify on Monday which streets would be closed or when the determination would be made.

The proposal was fueled by recent reports, both in Palo Alto and elsewhere, of drivers taking advantage of empty roads by speeding through the city. Mayor Adrian Fine complained about the speeding last week and Council members Alison Cormack and Liz Kniss brought it up again Monday.

“They go so fast that you can’t even wave at them and tell them to slow down,” Cormack said.

The Police Department also has taken notice of the phenomenon, which Kniss called “distressing.” Police Chief Robert Jonsen assured the council that his officers ramped up enforcement last weekend, which he said resulted in a couple of arrests of people driving under the influence. He also told the council that it will see “more proactive enforcement” of speeding, even as the department continues to advocate for social distancing for its officers.

Kamhi said the increase in driver speeds is a trend that can be seen throughout the Bay Area. He noted that Oakland used that as one of the justifications for its street-closure program, known as Oakland Slow Streets.

“We are actually looking at opportunities to roll out something very similar to what you’ve seen in Oakland, Minneapolis and Denver,” Kamhi said.

The ambitious Oakland program, which was launched last weekend, closed off all existing neighborhood bike routes to through traffic to promote safety and make it easier for people to maintain social distance when exercising outside. The program’s website states that the streets are closed to traffic so that “people can more comfortably use these low-traffic streets for physically distant walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging and biking all across the city.” Those segments account for about 10% of all of the city’s streets.

Minneapolis has closed many of its parkways to car traffic to allow trail users to “follow social distancing practices and limit the spread of COVID-19,” according to the city’s Park and Recreation Board.

While it wasn’t immediately clear whether Palo Alto’s program will be as ambitious as those two, Kamhi said in an email that the city will be looking at its existing and planned bike boulevard network, similar to Oakland. He is also looking at options for spacing throughout the city, he said.

In another break from recent trends, City Manager Ed Shikada told the council Monday that the city has modified its proposal for utility rates and is recommending that there be no rate increases for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

The discussion of utilities and speeding cars came up during a wide-ranging update on the city’s COVID-19 response. Conducted remotely over Zoom, the meeting was interrupted three times by “Zoom bombing,” an increasingly common form of trolling in which callers disrupt conference calls, often with lewd and vulgar words and imagery.

In this case, callers muttered barely discernible gibberish, as well as racist and homophobic statements. In each case, the caller was quickly muted after making a comment and the council proceeded to its regular business.