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Palo Alto

Why if you are rich and intelligent and carfree you might like living in Palo Alto, California, USA.

Added by colin #442 on 2004-10-03. Last modified 2004-10-09 18:40. Originally created 2004-10-03. F0 License: Attribution
Location: World, United States, California, Palo Alto
Topics: boosterism

Coming out of the summer perma-fog near San Francisco State this August, I was fortunate to have an aunt near the California Ave Caltrain stop to stay with. The first time I exposed my paling skin to that Stanford sun (the hills to the west block the coastal fog), I got off at the main Palo Alto stop and had a long walk to her small house.

The poshness I walked through was such I had not experienced since parts of New York City, but here was free of the grunge or gray of tree-scarce pavement and skyscraper. The first street I walked down was lined with two-story buildings, owned, well-cared for, and well-decorated with fountains and brass lion-heads and things by venture capital firms with expensive names. The cars were sleek and shiny—no F-250s here, well maybe just one or two. I passed open-to-the-street restaurants and cafes, and unlike I've seen elsewhere, I didn't think them foolish for being open to the streets. Traffic was low and calm. Not much further along was a hallowed Whole Foods Store. Walking inside to look around and see the prices (they weren't too bad!), I felt I was among people who lived in Palo Alto.

In the suburb I walked and walked through, well no house looked less than a million dollars. While not mixed-use, it was a pretty nice walk, and one street over was labeled a bicycle boulevard. Railways cutting through towns have made many places more pleasant for walking than they would otherwise be. Finally, closer to Oregon Expressway the houses started to look cheaper. I managed to cross that road, and my aunt's house was on the other side.

Now Stanford itself is a suburb of a campus, and perhaps a reason why low-density layouts have been propagated so much around the United States. But that doesn't mean a carfree person couldn't enjoy living nearby. The rich, smart, or whatever you want to call them often seem to know the value of taming traffic. Walking around the town is reasonably comfortable and pleasant. There are many streets cut off to through traffic. There are little paths to be found that let you leave the roads entirely.

One notable feature of Palo Alto is "the Dish," or the open lands behind the Stanford campus. These lands have a path running through them that I've called a "white person's paseo." Bikes and cars are not allowed on these paths and many of the Palo Altoans walk or jog the path daily. The highways that serve or strangle the area are far enough off to the east (along the bay) and to the west (in a valley between the hills of the dish and the coastal mountains), that it is reasonably peaceful up in the hills of the dish. There is a good view all around and all the way up the bay to Oakland and San Francisco. You can watch hawks hovering over the fields. And you get to see the beautiful intelligent people who are not all white walking on the path too.

If you were thinking that would be a good place to spend the night while visiting Palo Alto, you may be right, but you'll have to be more careful than usual. The lands have a fence all around them, and no one is supposed to be inside between certain hours. You are also supposed to stay on the paved paths. The lands near the dish (there is a big radar dish there) are extremely low-density Pebble Beach-style suburbs, and it is possible to sleep there, but the best bet is probably out along the coastal trail near the landfill and the small-plane airport, on the other side of a miserable freeway. By the driving range near the (often empty) lake on campus looked good too.

So, in the right circumstances, Palo Alto could be a good place to live for a carfree person.

The Stanford Shopping Center, apparently the first or only shopping mall that is on a college campus, and to this date the most upscale auto-centric shopping mall in the U.S. is also apparently worth a visit, and is a memorable part of the Stanford experience to the students there (There was an article about it I'm not able to find right now—here it is). I walked right by the thing I and may have missed it because it is the kind of mall that has a beautiful pedestrian interior (I've heard) surrounded by acres of single- and multi-story parking. As I mentioned earlier the Stanford campus really sucks for how spread out and car-centric it is. But due to lower and tamer traffic, using a bicycle would be reasonably pleasant, I think.

I think you can see some criteria surfacing for places I think would be good to live carfree: being able to easily get to and from the place by rail or by water, and to be able to walk around the place and not feel constantly oppressed by aggressive drivers or noisy highways &  toxic smog and road dust. The Caltrain route from San Jose to SF (or at least part of that route) has been running continuously since 1863.

Palo Alto gives the feel of being closely surrounded by undeveloped areas, another feeling I like. The lands along the bay are wide open (bay trail), and while there is a highway on the other side of the dish lands, beyond that is undeveloped mountain land, and likewise to the south. While it wasn't as easy to find good free places to feel very comfortable (i.e. next to no chance of anyone happening upon you) sleeping outside close to town like in SLO and Davis, I'm sure it could be done.

Sausalito is an interesting town to compare Palo Alto with. It doesn't have a college campus. It is also for the very rich. It is mostly or entirely a bedroom community of SF. It is more foggy. It is squeezed right along the hills, and thus pedestrians are often forced uncomfortably close to cars. You can get to it easily by water.

I wish I could say I feel about Washington DC like I feel about Palo Alto. But there is too much development for too many miles around Washington DC, although it may be possible to find peace and unbuilt places to sleep close to that development, like along the beautiful C&O canal, or south along the Potomac. And even though I can't easily sleep on it, large expanses of water seem to have a similar effect to undeveloped land, as I noted when living next to the Hudson in New York City.

Ah—I remember now. The key, I'm finding, to living carfree and enjoying it anywhere is to organize my life so I don't have to spend my time near cars, or, I might add, in any kind of public transit. Here in San Diego, I only have to cross two busy streets between home and campus. In San Francisco, sleeping near Lake Merced, I only had to cross one busy street, and SF, if you don't know, is car hell. I noticed long ago, somewhat surprised, that it was more pleasant to be in suburban Northern Virginia than in Prague because I walk those empty suburban streets without competing for space with cars, and I know of strips and patches of parks and forests I can go to and not be bothered. No doubt a high-density area could also be pleasant to live in if it wasn't also afflicted by a high density of cars.

On the other hand, had I been in Prague longer, I would have learned to modify my routes to keep to the less traffic-dominated places. And there is a definite cost to living carfree in San Diego or suburban NoVa, especially if away from any sort of college, where it is only you who are living without a car.

Colin Leath <>    

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