Palo Alto, a city that takes pride in its high-tech savvy, is now looking to technology to help it solve the vexing and increasingly urgent problem of insufficient downtown parking.
The City Council on Monday authorized staff to pursue a request for proposals to explore a range of technology solutions aimed at making downtown garages more efficient. The list includes "parking guidance systems" featuring vehicle-counting equipment that would inform drivers near garage entries about parking availability. The system, which staff estimates will cost around $400,000, features loop detectors that add or subtract the number of spaces available as cars enter and leave garages.
An even more expensive and potentially impactful investment under consideration is "access and revenue controls," a system that enables the time-stamping of vehicles driving into and exiting garages and can provide real-time information to drivers about occupancy at various parking facilities. It would also add flexibility to the parking process by allowing employees to transfer their parking permits and give visitors the option of paying to park beyond the regular three-hour time limit. The equipment has an estimated price tag of about $1.6 million, according to Jessica Sullivan, the city's parking manager.
The council voted 7-0, with council members Pat Burt and Gail Price absent, to issue a "request for proposals" that would include both types of technologies. The council also considered but ultimately rejected an alternative recommendation in which one request for proposals would be issued for the parking guidance systems and another one would follow several months later for the revenue controls. That alternative would have allowed the city to move ahead faster with soliciting proposals because the request would entail an integration of different technologies.
City staff estimates that the streamlined management and efficiency brought by both types of technology would make available about 60 parking spaces.
"It provides us the ability to maximize utilization but it's really a management strategy. ... It's really about more efficiently and effectively managing the inventory we have," Sullivan said.
Unlike last week's meeting, when the council reluctantly endorsed by a 5-4 vote a contract to design a "satellite parking" site on Embarcadero Road, Monday's proposals earned the council's support with relative ease. The city plans to unveil early next year a "residential parking permit program" that would set time limits for commuters' cars in downtown's residential neighborhoods -- a move that aims to bring some relief to residents in areas like Downtown North and Professorville. The move will also, however, displace hundreds of cars from the neighborhoods. With just a few months to go until the program's implementation, the council has yet to solve the riddle of where these cars will go.
Technology is one of many initiatives that the city is pursuing in addressing what many consider to be the city's most pressing problem. In addition to the permit program and the garage technologies, the city is also creating a downtown "transportation demand management" (TDM) program aimed at getting drivers to switch to other modes of transportation. Last week, the council approved a $499,880 contract with the firm Moore Lacofano Goltsman to develop a "transportation management association" that would administer the TDM program.
Based on a recent count, staff estimates that there is an employee "demand" of 1,851 parking spaces in downtown. When combined, the new initiatives aim to cut this demand in half. About 966 workers would still need to park in neighborhoods, she said. This means the commuters would occupy about 18 percent of the spots on Palo Alto's residential streets.
"We really do see this as an integrated strategy," Sullivan said. "One program is not going to fix this problem. We really want to consider all of these initiatives and move them forward."
The council agreed and swiftly directed staff to proceed with the request for proposals. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss called the technology "an investment we really need to make in our city."
"I can't think of any reason why we wouldn't move forward as quickly as we can, given the demand we have and the growth we anticipate," Kniss said.
The city will also consider adding parking meters to downtown streets and installing gates at downtown garages. It will also explore gate-less solutions such as license-plate readers and meters at garages, Sullivan said. The latter options were added into the mix after downtown businesses raised the concern that "gates might be a deterrent" for business, Sullivan said.
Councilman Marc Berman was more than a bit skeptical about the notion of gates discouraging people from coming downtown. Just about everyone has parked at a garage with a gate, he said, and people generally don't "turn around and go home because they were scared because they couldn't enter a parking garage."
"Gates aren't fire-breathing dragons," Berman said. "And we and our visitors aren't Ammish people who aren't familiar with technological stuff."
Councilman Greg Scharff also defended the council's decision to pursue the more cautious alternative that integrates the various systems into one comprehensive request for proposals.
It would be a "scandal," Scharff said, if the council immediately went ahead with one system only to have to rip it out or modify it months later when the next one comes online.
"We're in Palo Alto. We have high standards. We expect it to go well," he said. "I think we want to be thoughtful with this."
Councilman Larry Klein agreed and proposed that staff consider "tightening" the timeline for implementing the technologies. Under the current plan, the request for proposals would be issued within three to six months.
"This is a difficult problem that we have to act on," Klein said.