As parking shortages and traffic congestion continue to rile Palo Alto residents, city planners are steadily shifting their transportation priorities to encourage more biking, walking and transit use.
The city is in the final stage of rewriting its Transportation Element, a major component of the its official land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan. The revised document, which lays out the city's transportation goals, policies and programs, received the blessing of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission Wednesday night. The commission also voted 6-0, with Alex Panelli absent, to extend the planning horizon for the document from 2020 to 2025.
The revised Transportation Element, like the existing one that the city adopted in 1998, stresses the need to look beyond cars. The vision statement of the existing document already commits the city to emphasizing "alternatives to the automobile, including walking, bicycling, public transit, and car and van pooling." The revised document takes this commitment a step further and adds a host of new projects, including one that calls for the city to create a "transportation demand management" (TDM) program for city workers to encourage them to scrap single-occupancy vehicles in favor of other commuting options.
This TDM program would include as its elements transit passes, commuter checks, car sharing, carpooling, and outreach to encourage more bicycling and walking.
The new Transportation Element also contains a vision statement that is both more concise and more specific than the one currently in place. The revised element purports to "maintain and promote a sustainable network of safe, accessible and efficient transportation and parking solutions for all users and modes." But it also specifically commits to promoting "alternatives to single-occupant greenhouse-gas emitting vehicles" and to implementing the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, a broad document that calls for a wide variety of bike-friendly projects. These include bike boulevards, trails and a new bike bridge spanning U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek.
Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez told the commission Wednesday that one of the most ambitious goals of the revised Transportation Element is to reduce the city's greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent by the year 2020.
"It's extremely aggressive, but it's definitely a goal that represents the type of innovation Palo Alto is known for," Rodriguez said.
The revised element also formalizes the city's recent trend of encouraging dense development near major transit stations -- a trend that was exemplified by the council's recent approval of the four-story Lytton Gateway building near the downtown Caltrain station. The transportation document specifically calls for the city to "locate denser development near transit corridors and near multi-modal transit stations."
Other new policies that seek to curb driving include reviewing the Zoning Code to identify ways to encourage facilities supporting alternative-fuel vehicles; providing incentives for public-private transportation partnerships such as car-sharing companies; and supporting the development of "bicycle parking and service infrastructure such as bicycle stations, valet bicycle parking, and bicycle sharing programs."
The revision also includes a host of new policies relating to the Caltrain corridor. Many of these were informed by a recent report from a citizen task force that surveyed and analyzed the corridor and came up with a community "vision" for improving it. In keeping with that report's recommendations, the city's transportation plan calls for making it easier for people go east and west, across the train tracks, using various forms of transportation. It also formalizes the city's opposition to constructing elevated rail tracks and shrinking the number of lanes on Alma Street.
But while bicycles and Caltrain have a stronger presence in the revised Transportation Element, the document also includes new policies that would impact drivers. These include consideration of changing High Street from a one-way to a two-way street between Lytton and Channing avenues as part of a broader effort to create an "efficient roadway network for all users." Another new policy calls for evaluating converting Lytton and Hamilton avenues to one-way streets.
The revision still has to be approved by the City Council before it becomes official. But while commissioners had several small quibbles (Chair Eduardo Martinez, for example, didn't like the way the chapters were organized), they generally lauded the programs and policies embedded in the finished product, which was crafted over the past year by planning staff, Commissioner Arthur Keller and former Vice Chair Susan Fineberg.
"I really think this element is not only quite good but excellent," Commissioner Samir Tuma said. "There's an awful lot of thought and detail going on here, and it's reflective of some of the more exciting programs out there and the work that we're doing."
Martinez concurred and praised the document's content.
"This is probably the one area of work that's received more scrutiny, more new ideas, more envisioning than anything else we've undertaken," he said.
The commission also supported the staff proposal to extend the document's planning horizon from 2020 to 2025, though several members said they were concerned about the prospect of the document becoming obsolete before the new horizon is reached. Mark Michael, who earlier in the meeting was elected vice chair by his colleagues, noted that many of the ideas that went into the revised document were included with the horizon of 2020 in mind.
The commission ultimately agreed to extend the horizon to 2025 but stipulated that the city should review the document in 2020 to see if everything in it is still relevant.