Last November, a standing-room-only crowd packed a meeting hall in affluent Palo Alto, Calif., to alternately praise and condemn roadblocks erected by the city as a “traffic-calming” measure. A few months earlier, city officials had put up seven barriers to discourage cars from cutting through a residential neighborhood adjacent to Palo Alto’s popular downtown entertainment district.

As the hearing unfolded, a neighborhood resident stood up to extol the roadblocks. She finally felt the streets...

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