Seeking to drive commuters out of downtown's residential neighborhoods, Palo Alto officials will shift their focus this week toward improving the city's garages, with the hope of making them both more efficient and more inviting.
The City Council is scheduled to consider on Monday a range of garage-centered, technological solutions to downtown's worsening parking woes, a problem that has dominated the city's public agenda over the past year. The discussion will occur just as the city is finalizing a proposed "residential-parking permit program" that will set time limits for employees parking on residential streets; soliciting proposals for an expanded citywide shuttle program; and exploring a range of "transportation-demand management" programs aimed at encouraging drivers to switch to other transit modes. The council also agreed Monday to approve a $180,000 design contract for a "satellite parking" program that would allocate 132 parking spots on Embarcadero Road for workers who would then be bused downtown.
While some of these programs have proved controversial (the contract for the satellite program squeaked by on a 5-4 vote Monday), the technological solutions are generally seen as "low-hanging fruit" in the great parking debate. The city's parking garages have been historically underused, with many employers buying permits but then choosing to park on the streets, leaving dozens of unused spots.
At Monday's council meeting, City Manager James Keene said the technological solutions that the city is pursuing will "make it faster to find spaces."
Some ideas, developed by planning staff and city consulting firm SP Plus, are relatively benign: new signs directing drivers to the parking structures; improvements to the city website's section on parking permits; and enabling the sale online of parking permits. Staff plans to proceed with these initiatives this month.
While the signage program will aim to bring more cars into garages, other proposals seek to provide drivers with information and flexibility. Some of these warrant further exploration, according to city planners, and will return to the council at a later date. These include the development of a parking app; more pricing options to increase the use of permit parking; and elimination of downtown's "color zones," which bar drivers from returning to the area once the time limit expires.
Among the boldest recommendations from SP Plus is giving drivers the option of paying for garage access beyond the time limit and enhancing enforcement of on-street parking through the use of license-plate readers.
One solution that the council will discuss Monday night is a proposed "parking guidance system" that counts cars entering garages and keeps track of occupancy. The system would also include constantly updating signs at entry points that can notify drivers of parking-space availability.
Planners are preparing a "request for proposals" for parking solutions that will include an architectural design of parking guidance systems, according to staff.
Another option on the table is what's known as "access and revenue controls" -- a system in which vehicles are time-stamped as they enter garages and information is fed to the parking-guidance system. The control equipment can have either an "active" or a "passive" enforcement mechanism, according to staff. An active system would alert enforcement officers when a citation should be issued for a customer who has stayed in the garage for too long.
The council will consider on Monday whether the city should immediately seek proposals for parking-guidance systems and then later seek proposals for access-and-revenue equipment. An alternative is to pursue both of these technological solutions at the same time, an option that would make the systems better integrated but would delay their implementation by several months, according to staff.
Even if all these proposals are adopted, officials believe the city will still need to move ahead with its broad spectrum of parking initiatives, targeting both supply and demand.
"Once we shift the balance (of parking) from the neighborhoods to our commercial cores, clearly we won't have enough capacity in our existing garages," Keene told the council Monday.
In recent months, garages have been filling up, Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said this week. For the first time in years, city officials have been receiving complaints from drivers who couldn't find parking in downtown garages, including the peripheral Cowper/Webster and Bryant Street garages. This could be partly because the city has been selling more permits to address the problem of underused garages, he said.
According to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment, the average occupancy of downtown garages has been creeping up in the summer months, from 56 percent in May, to 65 percent in June, to 81 percent in July.
Councilman Greg Scharff argued Monday that much like the Embarcadero Road satellite-parking program, the technological upgrades will at best only provide a partial palliative.
"I don't think there's any indication that what we discuss next week will solve the issue," Scharff said. "Technology alone won't solve it."