News

Palo Alto City Council looks to technology to fix parking problems

Officials consider installing garage sensors, revenue controls to help solve downtown shortage

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.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

> Palo Alto, a city that takes pride in its high-tech savvy,

Certainly the private sector is tech-savvy, but the city government has shown little in the way of understanding what a computer is, other than as an expensive door stop.

There is a lot of parking lot techology out there. Google a little and you will find many solutions. Will be interesting to see what the Transportation people come up with--given their lack of the use of technology, by and large.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 19, 2014 at 11:31 am

Sounds impressive to the rubes but, hey, gang, realistically:

(1) How many new parking places will this geewhizzbangdoodad build?

(2) How will (can) they be a cheaper alternative to parking for free on residential streets?

(3) Is it really a good idea to encourage drivers to use their devices while driving? That's illegal, you know.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 19, 2014 at 12:11 pm

>> Palo Alto, a city that takes pride in its high-tech savvy

OMG, you've got to be joking. That's the funniest thing I've read here in years.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Do not add parking meters!

The installation of parking meters in Palo Alto, downtown or otherwise is just going to add to the eroding feel of community. Look at downtown Redwood City, it's already starting to feel like San Francisco. Contrast that with Mountain View that does have a relaxed feeling. Parking meters really suck, particularly in a downtown that really needs to be re-designed or something because there are so many traffic fatalities.

Design downtown right, add parking structures if necessary ... I repeat again ... one adjacent to the Aquarius theater covering that huge lot that is always full would be ideal. Then see where we are.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by speechless
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Last I heard, they are still ordering hardcover book in the new library.......


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 5 Coats
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 19, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Just build another garage for only employees of local stores.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2014 at 1:13 pm

"3 to 6 months for proposals". We can see how this is going. The RPPP program will be put on indefinite hold until the proposals are studied. This is exactly what the developers want. Free parking all day, every day. Nothing will change unless we throw the bums out.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Margita
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Some things I see in SF that could be implemented in Palo Alto include a parking garage that has a sign indicating how many spaces available on each level, and parking meters that can be operated with an app and a credit card. Looking forward to new ways of managing parking in Palo Alto.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 37 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 19, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Why not hire someone to count the number of cars used in each downtown garage during the week? Do the counting over a 3-4 week period of time to get an average. The cost will be minimal and we will find out if indeed, we have a shortage of parking spaces.My guess is not. Based on the observations of a man who has done some leg work on this and has written to both the Daily and the Post, there appears to be plenty of unused parking spaces in all the downtown garages. Will the city take a simple action? They'd rather spend a bunch of our taxpayer dollars to use to find out what a few people with click counters can do for little money, but that's NOT the Palo Alto Way.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2014 at 8:11 pm

> Why not hire someone to count the number of cars used in each
> downtown garage during the week?

Well .. you could do that .. but you could also buy a counter that will operate 7/24 and provide completely accurate results of garage activity for not very much money.

The point of this article, and the thrust of the City's actions, is that it's time to start employing technology--which is available from numerous vendors, to do the both the basic jobs of counting, and then the more complicated job of getting that information out to motorists who need to find a place to park downtown.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ben
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Palo Alto is high tech savvy, really?

Isn't the city going to spend $4M, yes, $4M, to put signs up around and in city hall too hard to find? People get lost in the garage under city hall, so says city hall.

City council and staff have danced around 'solutions' to the parking problems that they have created for years. Their eager embrace of 'technology!' because "We're in Palo Alto. We have high standards" is absurd. In a few years, after hundreds of thousands of dollars has been squandered on 'experts' and consultants, and probably millions on useless gadgets, we will be hearing from a future city council about how much smarter THEY are, but how the technology of yesterday failed them, it's not their fault, and of course, the solution of today did not live up to their "high standards" of tomorrow.

What is the cost of tried and true parking meters on the street, and in the parking garages?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Money, money
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 19, 2014 at 9:35 pm

No one on the staff last night knew how much money there is in the In-lieu parking fund.
Astonishing.
Makes me wonder whether they really collect it or is it another invisible giveaway to developers.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm

It is very hard to figure out how much Epiphany Hotel actually put in the
in-lieu parking fund.Anybody know? Also,when Holman brought up the very relevant issue of sign clutter all over the City, the issue was dismissed by Keene and the staff as not relevant since the consultant will take care of that- on this project.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Al
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 19, 2014 at 11:54 pm

>> ... how much money there is in the In-lieu parking fund.

Per the adopted FY2014 operating budget, the "Traffic Mitigation & Parking In‐Lieu Fund" will be just under $7.5 million by the end of FY2014. Expected revenue for FY2014 was $586K.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jaa
a resident of University South
on Aug 20, 2014 at 2:47 am

Well, thank-you Palo Alto for more of your "bright ideas" and installing that insufferable lime and yellow neon street sign, on an impasse, glaring right at the window of my absurdly overpriced studio. I once actually had a view of a tree and the sky. So what's next, a flashy digital sign directing traffic to that lovely castle the keep? This in the most historic part of downtown and now it feels like the freeway entrance. Finally, why is there always an assumption that technology will "fix" everything. It won't. Learning to plan and redesign a downtown in which human beings, not robots, want to live and work, actually, might be a better idea.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Aug 20, 2014 at 6:20 am

The most helpful feature I've seen in a garage was at Santana Row, where each parking space has a light visible from the end of the row. The light is either green or red to indicate its availability. I think there is other signage indicating availability of spaces on each level. Very helpful.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 20, 2014 at 8:45 am

@observer - I don't think the Epiphany Hotel had an in-lieu parking required. I think they were grandfathered as an existing structure that was renovated.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 20, 2014 at 12:11 pm

@Mike A. -- except when the "available" spots are bordered by two sloppily parked monster SUVs.
Those spots remain available until maybe a motorcycle comes along.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 20, 2014 at 12:51 pm

"Palo Alto takes pride in its tech savvy." Really? The web sites where they request citizen input don't work while they claim they want "citizen input." Even their public art web site doesn't work. Ask any techie who got involved in the failed attempt to wire the city for high-speed access.

And I love getting my Verizon bill where we pay the city $2.25 each and every month for wireless access while the other state and federal taxes and fees are each under $0.35! The only thing Palo Alto is "tech savvy" about is milking us for money.


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