Or it could be yet another reminder that when it comes to curing the city's traffic and parking woes, nothing is ever simple or straightforward.
The City Council on Monday rallied behind a proposal by four of its members — Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Councilwoman Gail Price and Councilwoman Liz Kniss — to develop a "comprehensive" transportation-demand management program in the city's major business districts with the goal of reducing solo car trips by at least 30 percent. Then, in a splash of cold water, the discussion devolved into a squabble over how best to launch this program.
After much debate, a motion, a substitute motion, an amendment to the original motion and an aborted attempt to table the discussion, the council finally reached a unanimous decision: to continue the discussion to another day.
The colleagues memo aims to add another program to the city's broad but slow-moving effort to solve the problem of too many cars, an effort that also includes considerations of new garages, residential parking-permit programs and the elimination of parking exemptions.
Their proposal entails hiring a consultant to create a "rigorous TDM (transportation demand management) plan" targeting four areas: downtown, the California Avenue Business District, Stanford Research Park and the East Meadow Circle area, which was added to the other three on Monday. After defining the boundary for each district, the city and its consultant would come up with a variety of car-reducing measures — including incentives to ride public transit, carpool and bike — and ways to pay for them.
Shepherd, who recently took a trip to the Contra Costa County Transit Center (which reduced solo car trips by more than 30 percent through a TDM program), characterized the proposal as holistic.
"Rethinking our districts as units — as a whole unit — and not just demanding that each individual business come up with a plan — that's the concept here and that's something where we can have takeaways from Stanford's Transportation Demand Management and many others," Shepherd said, referring to the university's reduction of its car trips by more than 30 percent under mandate from Santa Clara County.
But how does one begin? Therein lay the squabble. The four council members who signed the memo urged their colleagues to hit the gas pedal and hire a consultant, who would then help the city come up with a broad outreach plan to the many community stakeholders. Others, including Councilmen Larry Klein and Pat Burt, urged caution and argued that the city should do some community outreach before heading into a broad, multi-year initiative.
"This is such an important project that we should not just jump into it without our eyes being wide open about what we're doing, how much we're spending and how we're going to proceed," Klein said.
Klein proposed holding two study sessions, featuring stakeholders from the neighborhoods and the business communities and presentations from transportation-management experts, before hiring a consultant. As part of this process, staff would also come back with cost estimates and information about what exactly this effort would entail.
Burt stressed the importance of "getting it right" and characterized the proposal from the four council members as a "Ready. Fire. Aim" approach. Both he and Klein praised the memo's desired end, even as they challenged its proposed means.
"This is a big deal," Burt said. "If we're successful at it, (it'll be) one of the more important accomplishments we'll have for a long period of time."
Councilman Marc Berman agreed and said he doesn't have enough data to adequately discuss the broad proposal. Berman said he wouldn't feel comfortable approving a transportation management program based solely on a three-page memo and sided with Klein and Burt.
"Everyone hates the Palo Alto process until we try to short-circuit the Palo Alto process," Berman said. "Then we get beat over the head with that. I become very leery of doing that."
Councilwoman Karen Holman noted that the effort would affect "every person who lives and works in this community." It's very difficult, she said, to make a "don't rush" argument about an issue that is so urgent to the community. But she also stressed the importance of getting it right.
"If we do it poorly or if we do it in a rushed fashion, I'm concerned we won't have the community and business community support," Holman said.
Ultimately, the council decided not to vote on either Scharff's motion to hire the consultant or on Klein's motion to schedule the study sessions. After a debate stretching past 11:30 p.m., Kniss made a motion to table the discussion, which would effectively push it forward to a future meeting. At Klein's urging, she withdrew this motion in favor of his proposal: to have a council member from each of the two camps meet, resolve their differences, and bring back to the full council next month a proposal for kicking off the traffic-reducing program.
"The important thing is that we're studying TDM and looking at a way to make this happen in our community," Kniss said near the end of the discussion.