Editorial: The economics of downtown parking

Employees opt for free neighborhood parking, leaving garage permit spaces empty

A Planning and Community Environment Department study that will be reviewed by the City Council Sept. 12 shows that despite an overabundance of spaces in the numerous parking garages and surface lots scattered around downtown, Palo Alto has a parking problem.

Even with more than 3,000 spaces, including 1,200 that are open to the public anytime, hundreds of city workers park in nearby neighborhoods every day, which upsets homeowners and leaves a large chunk of the city's high-priced permit stalls unclaimed and unused.

And to top it off, city officials say that despite the largesse of parking spaces, visitors often don't recognize the purpose of the "architecturally pleasing" garages, and pass them by. Many visitors also don't know that they can obtain an all-day parking pass at City Hall, so they either move their vehicle every two hours or risk getting an expensive citation. All this means that in many ways, the system has failed the very people it was designed to serve.

The staff study makes some excellent suggestions that we hope the council will carefully consider. With Palo Alto already suffering from being labeled as a city where it is difficult to find parking, nothing could be worse than sitting on a cache of unused spaces while employees crowd neighborhood streets and shoppers struggle to locate parking.

This predicament is underscored by a utilization survey of each of the city's downtown garages. A similar study is underway in the California Avenue shopping district. The survey shows that most of the garages are running far below capacity. For example, the huge, 688-space Bryant Street garage is woefully under-utilized, with only 16 percent of its spaces occupied from 8 to 10 a.m. and 53 percent during the lunch hour, from noon to 2 p.m. At lunch, when conventional wisdom would expect that one could never find a parking space downtown, on average there are more than 300 empty spaces at the Bryant Street garage alone.

The city's top transportation official, Jaime Rodriquez, believes part of the problem is that customers cannot find the parking garages, perhaps believing that the well-designed buildings could not be dedicated parking structures. To counter such a trend, the staff has recommended that the city mount "way-finding" signs downtown pointing to the public garages and showing the number of spaces available. The signs would be displayed throughout the downtown area and at strategic gateway locations.

The city is already moving ahead to purchase a better system to track and manage parking permits, and is proposing a new pricing structure that will begin the sale of monthly permits for $45, rather than the current minimum-buy of $135 for a quarterly permit. Roof-level parking would be a low $30 a month and fleet vehicles would pay $100 a month.

We also are encouraged by the staff's commitment to consider additional residential permit parking districts similar to the one now in place at College Terrace, next to Stanford. Daytime parking there is limited to two hours without a permit, and prohibits reparking within the same block following the two-hour expiration. The staff said that although the program has been in place for three years, three streets have either opted out or are completing a petition to do so.

The big question facing the council will be whether to install a College Terrace-type system in Professorville, which residents petitioned for in July. Permits could ward off what resident Ken Alsman called "... the ever increasing problems caused by commercial district employees who use our neighborhood as their daylong parking lots." In a letter to Planning and Transportation Commission members, he said, "Our neighborhood is losing its intrinsic character with residential streets now lined bumper-to-bumper with employee cars from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We are directly being asked to subsidize the success of the nearby commercial districts with the quality and value of our homes and neighborhood."

Before the city adds another permit system the staff study suggests that basic questions must be answered by the city and the neighborhood. For example, a process must be created for a neighborhood to file a request; thresholds for neighborhood participation must be established; a decision will be needed on whether to establish a block-by-block or neighborhood-wide district; and the cost of the permits must be determined.

If a permit system was established in Professorville, an added benefit could be to push the current all-day parkers to use city facilities. That could do more than anything to help fill up the vacant spaces in the city's garages.

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Posted by millions of dollars down the drain
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm

How much money did the city pay for those parking garages? $100,000,000 or your tax dollars? What a waste. The city should sell them to a private company who can run them at a profit. A private company can be a lot more creative with their pricing and marketing than the city ever will be. Let the city use our $100,000,000 for more important projects.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm

< Many visitors also don't know that they can obtain an all-day parking pass at City Hall, >

Why on earth should they need to go to City Hall to get a parking pass to park on a lot near their destination? How many visitors are going to park in a convenient lot and then walk to City Hall and then walk back to put the permit on their car before walking to their destination? This is the most ridiculous system ever!!!!

Get pay per day or pay per hour machines at all lots asap and see if there is an immediate difference. I am willing to be there will be.

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Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2011 at 1:45 pm

The California Avenue shopping district only has two garages. Both are located on Cambridge Ave. One is across the street from the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper. The other is the Ted Thompson Parking Garage, further up the block, right next door to the Post Office.

These two garages are *three* hour parking, while the rest of the district: the street and the other lots, are two hour parking.

Each of the two garages has public and permit parking on both floors.
Each garage has only two levels.

The first floor of both garages is almost ALWAYS full. Neither are under-utilized. The only spaces often not taken are the handicapped places on the first floors of the garages.

I don't even try to get on-street parking anymore. If I want to park on the first level of either garage, often I can't find parking there at all, and I have to go to my second or third choices. Since the district is only 3 blocks long - it's not a long walk. It's fine.

But studies of shoppers parking habits show:
1- Customers prefer street parking first, right in front of a store, or as close to where they're going as possible.

2- Open-air surface parking lots, not covered, as close to the stores as possible, is the second choice.

3- Parking garages are LAST choice for most shoppers.

As for employee parking -

1) The cost of the permit, even on Cal Ave, is high for many and
2) The permit parking spaces in the Ted Thompson parking garage, on the *first floor* is ridiculously tiny.

Unless you are an anorexic man or woman, there is a good chance you may not be able to re-enter your car to leave after work, when you park in one of those permit parking only stalls.

The spaces located by the post, and closest to Cambridge Ave., is downright laughable. Want to be amazed? Go see how little room there is between cars, and imagine how in the world anyone can get back into their car. It never fails to surprise me.

That would be THE reason I'd prefer to park in a residential area, enjoying a nice walk, instead of 1) getting dents in my car from people trying to get in and out of their cars, or 2) getting a wrenched back, from gymnastic moves, just trying to re-enter my car.

How can anyone get into a car with 10", 15" or a generous 18" between spaces? We have to open our car doors & squeeze inside the door. I have seen (and photographed) as little as 10" between cars, on the drivers side. It is ridiculous. Cars and people are getting larger, but parking spaces are getting smaller.

A good resolution to the Ted Thompson garage problem would be simple: just repaint stall lines to reduce the size of the way too large space at the west end, and/or eliminate one space, making it parking for bicycles instead, or for a motorcycle. Doesn't seem that difficult, and it would solve a huge problem.

But with that said, parking in both lots are used - only top floors have more spaces, but not a lot.

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Posted by Shopping-Online-Beats-Shopping-Downtown
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2011 at 8:50 am

Just a reminder--when you shop on line you never have to worry about:

1) Finding a parking place.
2) Getting a ticket for violating a "color zone", or staying in the same spot too long.
3) Worry about getting your car damaged by an irate homeowner, or a hit -and-run "parker".
4) Getting mugged while walking to/from your car.
5) Paying for parking.

Palo Alto 's inability to deal with basic issues like "parking" should be helping Internet sales become more attractive by the day.

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Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I work downtown. Tons of my coworkers go and park in the neighborhoods. There seem to be two reasons:

It's hard to obtain a parking permit in the garages that are nearby.
The permits are expensive.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2011 at 11:42 pm

We need a permit system for our downtown residential area. It is an absurd that we never have a place to park near our homes. The street is always packed during the week. It is sad, really sad.

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Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 5, 2011 at 3:35 pm


How much of a subsidy should workers get?

Shoppers get a subsidy because they are supposedly spending money,
although I think they should be forced to pay something.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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