Taking a cue from Stanford University and Silicon Valley's high-tech giants, Palo Alto officials are considering a massive expansion of the city's tiny shuttle program in hopes of relieving traffic congestion and freeing up parking spaces downtown.
Under a proposal the City Council is scheduled to consider Monday night, the city's existing shuttle program (which consists of two buses) would be dramatically expanded at a cost of $1.4 million annually. The existing Crosstown Shuttle, which runs between the downtown Caltrain station and East Charleston Road, would see its service tripled so that it would run every 20 minutes rather than every hour. Staff is also proposing an Embarcadero Shuttle that would connect downtown to a potential satellite parking lot across U.S. Highway 101; a West Shuttle that would run between south Palo Alto and Stanford Shopping Center and that would connect senior facilities to California Avenue and the Town & Country Shopping Center; and an East Bay Commuter Shuttle that would only operate during commute hours and would connect downtown Palo Alto to a BART station either in Fremont or another location.
In a report released Wednesday, staff is suggesting that the city solicit proposals from shuttle-service providers "to build an expanded shuttle network, including new routes and more frequent service, with the aim of significantly increasing ridership within three years."
The idea of using shuttles to bring commuters to and from the city is far from new in Palo Alto and neighboring cities, though so far it has been largely the purview of private employers. Stanford's ubiquitous Marguerite shuttles receive much credit for helping the university meet its county requirement to keep car trips from increasing despite gradual expansion. And companies from local car manufacturer Tesla Motors to Menlo Park-based Facebook and Mountain View-based Google rely on shuttles to ferry their employees.
The timeline for Palo Alto's shuttle expansion would be concurrent with another major traffic-reducing initiative that the council will consider on Monday night -- the establishment of a Transportation Management Authority, a nonprofit organization that would collect fees from business districts and use the funds to administer traffic-reducing programs. The program would require seed funding from the city, but would "ultimately seek financial support from large employers and other sources for its ongoing operations." New development projects could be required to participate.
"The TMA's primary responsibilities would be to coordinate and market an expanded City shuttle program, to coordinate and market incentive programs aimed at increasing the use of transit, carpooling and bicycling, and to pursue additional incentives consistent with this mission," the staff report states.
The program could be modeled after existing efforts in Contra Costa, San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood and downtown San Mateo. In each case, businesses contribute to an association that sets traffic-reduction goals and funds initiatives that reduce transportation demand.
In the first phase of the plan, staff is proposing to hire a consultant and create a steering committee that would conduct a year of outreach to downtown businesses and residents. The committee will draft a mission statement, identify funding sources, "champion the value of a TMA in the community" and compile data to establish "baselines and current travel behavior," according to the staff report.
During the second phase, the committee and the consultant would create a work plan and a regulatory framework, create partnerships with the community and come up with regulations for new developments. Once established, the Transportation Management Authority would be overseen by a board of directors, with a representative from the city.
In developing the new agency, the city will have to come up with traffic-reduction targets, establish participation criteria for businesses and create "both prescriptive measures and ultimately performance targets for new development projects."
So far, the council has been enthusiastic about the new initiative. In September, council members Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd, Gail Price and Liz Kniss penned a memo calling for a more "comprehensive" approach to addressing the city's traffic and parking problems. They suggested that this approach include the creation of downtown districts to manage traffic reduction.
"The idea of considering downtown districts as a unit, with an experienced TDM (transportation demand management) contractor working directly with employers and commuters is a smart, and proven strategy to address the City's traffic and parking issues," the council members wrote in the memo.
The memo, along with years of pressure from downtown neighborhoods with parking shortages, prompted the council to hold a study session in December to consider a citywide "transportation demand management" program. At that time, members heard from experts (including representatives from Google, Stanford and the Contra Costa Centre) and agreed that the city needs to proceed with traffic-reduction measures as soon as possible.
"We have urgency in this city," Liz Kniss said at that meeting. "There's no question. We will have to bite that TDM bullet."