A transportation grant designed to provide 100 bikes for Palo Alto-bound Caltrain commuters unfortunately got tangled in a discussion at the Architectural and Review Board (ARB) last week, delaying approval of the sites selected for the automated stations where bikes could be checked out and returned as part of a pilot program.
The hang-up focused on proximity of some station locations to each other, including one near Lytton Plaza, which board members thought would not appeal to commuters who could walk there, they said. The ARB, which has a role because it must approve the aesthetics of new commercial development, ultimately decided to send the plan back for more study and will consider it again next Thursday.
It was an ignoble beginning for what is a substantial grant approved two years ago that will bring the city the beginnings of a bike rental program. It will add another option for commuters, residents and visitors to get around town. Similar programs are in place in many large cities, including Washington, D.C., Boston, Denver and Paris, and increasingly in other smaller communities.
The Palo Alto portion is part of a larger, $7.9 million Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Climate Initiatives Grant, which will pay to purchase 1,000 bikes for cities on the Caltrain corridor, including San Jose, Mountain View, Redwood City and San Francisco. The idea is for the bikes to make Caltrain more appealing for commuters, who could use the bikes to reach their final destination.
The bikes, all equipped with radio-frequency identification tags (RFID), will be available at the University Avenue station and at several locations downtown and California Avenue, as well as sites still to be announced at Stanford.
Users pay a deposit fee electronically and then get the first half-hour of use free, generally enough time to get to a rental station near their destination and return the bike. They then pick up a new bike for the return trip.
Rafael Rius, the city's traffic engineer, told the ARB that many potential bike station locations are not included in the pilot program yet because they are too far from public transit, would need approval from multiple public agencies or are under construction. They include the county courthouse, Mitchell Park Library, Main Library, Lucie Stern Community Center, the park-and-ride lot at El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, Heritage Park and the Downtown Library.
These stations will have to wait until another phase of the program, when it is hoped there will be adequate funds to expand beyond serving just commuters. The grant will pay for the program to be established and for the first bikes. It is expected that the ongoing program will be funded by corporate sponsorships and membership and rental fees, which would be used to maintain the bikes and operate the program and ultimately expand the number of station locations. That is when it might be possible to operate more stations outside the downtown core.
The plan is supposed to be on a fast track for city approval. Once the ARB approves it, it will be considered by the Transportation and Planning Commission later in August and the City Council in September or October.
When it was announced in 2010, the grant reflected the groundwork done by then-Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who had spearheaded a 2008 effort for the city to launch its own bike-loan program. But the City Council decided then to back out of a $65,000 commitment for a 20-bike program. Instead, the staff was directed to find opportunities for a regional bike-sharing program with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which is in part responsible for winning the grant announced in 2010.
At the time, Kishimoto, who served on the boards of directors of the VTA and the air-quality district, was a leading proponent of the regional bike-sharing program, which she found consistent with the goals of Palo Alto and the VTA to boost the number of commuters who use bikes to get around the city.
Kishimoto said transportation agencies wanted to provide train riders with a unified message -- that bikes are a viable option for getting around town and can solve the problem of the "last mile" by giving commuters a way to get to their ultimate destination once they step off the train.
Only in Palo Alto would a pilot plan to have 100 bikes available for rent in a few locations, paid for by a grant, require review by two city commissions and the City Council, as well as the staff time needed to attend these meetings.
This modest plan is appropriately aimed at in-bound train commuters to Palo Alto and should be embraced by the city as another way to encourage workers to get out of their cars.
It should be up to city staff members to select the best locations for this innovative pilot program, and to change them if they turn out to be underutilized.
We trust the ARB will lead the way toward quick passage of the plan, and its eventual approval by the City Council, while resisting the temptation to pick apart every detail.