What a difference a week can make. After Monday's ill-advised 5-4 decision to spend $180,000 to conduct studies of a poorly conceived plan to shuttle workers from parking places east of Bayshore Freeway to downtown Palo Alto, the city council will have a chance for redemption.
At next Monday's meeting, the council will consider a proposal for implementing state-of-the-art technology tools that have the potential of revolutionizing the way parking is managed and paid for downtown.
The recommendations, based on a study recently completed for the city by a national parking and transportation consulting firm called SP+, include the use of electronic parking sensors that monitor how many spaces are available and where, dynamic signage and smartphone apps that convey that information to drivers, online permit processing, the ability to quickly pay for parking via smartphones, and several innovative and technology-based options for enforcement.
After years of tired and repetitive debate over the inefficiency and underutilization of downtown garages and staff resistance to change and innovation, these proposals catapult the discussion to a level worthy of a city whose residents are such intense consumers (and developers) of technology.
We hope the City Council endorses this direction with all the enthusiasm they withheld last week when Mayor Nancy Shepherd and council members Greg Scharff, Gail Price, Marc Berman and Liz Kniss voted to move the "satellite" parking concept forward.
With the parking technology recommendations being released just two days after that vote, one has to question why the mayor and city manager didn't make sure the council either dealt with both proposals together or at least knew of the latest proposal while debating the first.
Had that happened, we believe at least one of the five supporting the satellite parking concept would have felt safe joining council members Pat Burt, Larry Klein, Greg Schmid and Karen Holman in rejecting it. Councilman Klein raised that exact point, and we hope he makes a motion Monday for the council to reconsider its earlier action.
Part of the unspoken problem is that the council and staff are feeling immense pressure to respond to public frustration over the parking problems after years of inaction. The staff is responding to this pressure by serving up multiple strategies and options, which adds more pressure on the council to act merely for the sake of appearances rather than in response to sound ideas.
The frustration of both staff and council members was obvious Monday night. Staff was bringing back a plan that the council had earlier asked them to pursue, yet only one council member, Price, expressed any real enthusiasm for it. The four others who supported moving forward with the satellite parking concept were quick to point out their support was only for learning more information, not for the plan itself.
Good decisions aren't made under pressure, and ideally not piecemeal. In the long run, the community is better off taking a bit more time to tackle this problem in a well-thought-out, integrated way. It is great that the council and staff are responding to public demands for action on parking, but it is essential that our goal not be to simply create a list of disconnected "accomplishments" of dubious value.
Next Monday night's discussion on technology's role in helping to fix our parking problems is another opportunity for the council to weigh the trade-offs of quick action versus a more integrated solution.
The consultant recommends moving forward with both a parking guidance system (keeping track of and helping people find available parking spots) and a "revenue and access control" system (the process of controlling access to parking spots based on whether a driver or car has been issued a permit or paid a fee, and tied to how long the car is parked.)
By having a single vendor undertake the implementation of these two systems at one time, there is full integration and accountability, compared to phasing the project and potentially using two different vendors.
The consultant recommends a complete overhaul of the current system. It urges abandonment of the color zones, which do little more than legitimize employees moving their cars from one zone to another during the day, incentive and variable pricing to obtain full utilization of parking spots, the elimination of burdensome permitting rules and extensive use of online tools.
It's a good and overdue plan, and we hope the council repeals last week's action and supports the full scope of the consultant and staff's innovative recommendations.