Why are the Clarke Avenue Overcrossing Lights Completely Out?

Either there is a trend of increasing vandalism in East Palo Alto, or I am becoming more observant of our city's infrastructure.

I use the East Palo Alto Clarke Avenue pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing often at night when biking back from Downtown Palo Alto / Palo Alto Caltrain back home. In the past 3 months, I have noticed that the lights are completely out at night. As a cyclist with a beam light mounted on my bike, I can see some things, but frankly I feel unsafe crossing that bridge at night. I feel unsafe because I sometimes see people loitering around the bridge at night (sitting on the side or standing next to the Pad D water tank), and I am afraid if one might just jump out and attack me at some point.

I feel even more scared for the pedestrians - particularly women walking alone - who I have seen walking across the bridge at night. For me, it's a relatively fast 1 to 1.5 minute bike ride. For pedestrians, it's probably over a 5 minute walk in darkness. And if somebody targets you, you have nowhere to run because there are metal fences on both sides.

So this begs the question: why are the Clarke Avenue Overcrosing lights completely out? And why has the City not been able to fix this?

Continuous Vandalism

I brought this up in December with our public works director, Humza Javed; public works is aware of this problem and is working on fixing this. There has been continuous vandalism of the lights making all of them go out. Upon talking with our public works supervisor, Kevin Lewis, I learned that a particular electrical box has had its locks cut and photocells  (kind of like GFI's) removed. This has resulted in not only the Clarke Avenue Pedestrian Overcrossing lights going out, but also lights on Clarke Avenue including lights behind the Home Depot. Why Home Depot? We'll come back to this later.

I did a bike ride during the daytime to examine the bollard lights; while a couple lights themselves have been vandalized, most of the structures seem intact. Hence, the problem does seem to lie with the electrical box.


So now, why would someone want to break the light electric box? Here are some possibilities:

  1. They may not want the overcrossing to be lit so that certain activities can take place on the bridge (e.g. drug dealing?).
  2. Financially motivated: they may want to steal electric panels or copper wires to sell. I've talked to a number of neighbors who always assume that they are people on drugs doing this.
  3. It may be kids vandalizing for the thrill of it.
  4. The vandalizers may not be targeting the overcrossing lights, but rather targeting lights elsewhere on Clarke Avenue, such as the lights behind the Home Depot.

Home Depot Thefts

Of these options, it seems that Home Depot thefts may be one of the most convincing. Our public works supervisor has had conversations with the Home Depot manager, and he learned that there have been a lot of thefts at Home Depot, including stealing supplies from the back which would be illuminated by lights connected to that electrical box. That would explain the new video recording notice signs plastered throughout the Home Depot parking lot.

I noticed these new video recording notices outside Home Depot when I went in mid-January 2024.

If the motivation was to become less visibile when stealing from the back of Home Depot, then vandalizing that electrical box would be a good strategy.

Part of a Bigger Problem

This vandalism is a part of a bigger problem. We have 7 or 8 lights broken on Bay Road between Pulgas Ave and Cooley Landing. Half of them I have heard anecdotally from neighbors as being shot with BB guns by kids driving by. I have also noticed that the motorized gate leading up to Cooley Landing has had its electronics gutted.

Potential Solutions

The City is considering some options for new lights mounted on poles, so that they are harder to vandalize. While this is a nice improvement, I don't see this as a viable solution because the problem seems to be with the electrical box which is a step before the lights.

I think we need a much more secure lock for the electrical box. Assuming someone who really wants to get into that box is going to break any lock on it, we need some better way of protecting that asset. Moreover, Home Depot should consider installing solar powered lights or their own wired lights. I don't know if they already do since I don't wander around Home Depot's back alley at night.

We also need some better monitoring. When I spoke with Mike, owner of Infinity Auto Salvage which is lit by those vandalized lights on Bay Road, he mentioned that there is a security camera mounted on a light pole across the street that points to the lights. He does not know if our police department is aware of the security footage and whether they have used it to find the vandalizers. Perhaps we need some better automated monitoring of our city's assets.

Impact on Future Projects

We need to figure this out now. We have a number of exciting projects to be delivered this year, and I want to ensure they do not just add to a growing list of things to repair.

  • University Avenue pedestrian / bicycle overcrossing which I wrote about here and here. It will also have lights, and we want to make sure they don't go out.
  • New automated gate developed in conjunction with the SFPUC (San Francisco Public Utilities Commission) to allow residents in University Village to access the Bay Trail (source: Public Works & Transportation Commission meeting 1/17/24). If our current automated gate has not had its stolen electronics replaced in over 2 years, how will we maintain these new automated gate(s)?
  • Mini roundabouts on Pulgas Ave which I wrote about here. How will be ensure these are not vandalized?

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