As Palo Alto's office workers and downtown neighborhoods continue to battle it out over parking, a group of residents has formed a new group aiming to bring some civility and rational debate to the proceedings.
The new group, Green Planning Action, made its official public debut Saturday, when it hosted its first event a forum on parking named Growth without Gridlock. About 40 people, including downtown developers, land-use critics, citizen critics of the Maybell housing development and area residents, gathered at La Comida on a Saturday afternoon to hear transportation experts from outside jurisdictions talk about how they dealt with their own gridlock and parking problems.
The forum was organized by residents Elaine Uang and moderated by Adina Levin, who had also composed a white paper that lists various strategies other cities have adopted to deal with an influx of cars. The forum, called Growth Without Gridlock, included Brodie Hamilton, who heads Stanford University's wildly successful transportation program; Gary Heap, a transportation manager with the City of San Mateo; and Wendy Silvani, whose consulting form is working on transportation-demand management in San Mateo and in San Francisco's Mission Bay area.
Uang, who introduced the panel, said she decided to delve into the parking issues because of her own experience as a downtown resident. The city's, she said, boasts a vibrant and hugely successful commercial district, which is one of the reasons she chose to live there.
"With that, of course, comes a whole series of challenges," Uang said, noting that the lack of parking makes it hard for her to pick up her daughter from activities or for people to visit residents' homes during the day.
"I know the passions run high from every perspective on this issue," she said. "I really kind of felt there had to be a higher level of dialogue and a more strategic look."
Levin, who two years ago co-founded the group Friends of Caltrain, pointed to recent projections of downtown's commercial growth and said the trend is unsustainable when it comes to parking. A recent analysis by a group of Downtown North residents projected that downtown will have a parking deficit of 2,500 by 2016 and that parking woes will spread from Professorville and Downtown North to Crescent Park and parts of Old Palo Alto.
The problem, she said, is that no one wants to pay for the new parking structures that would be needed to accommodate the demand. A recent survey conducted by the city showed only 44 percent of likely voters supporting a bond for a new garage.
"The business community does not want to pay for the parking structures. Voters don't want to pay for the parking structures," Levin said. "We're in a real pickle. Tensions are really running high because this seems like a zero-sum game."
Saturday's panelists offered a few possible solutions. Hamilton, whose program is required by its agreement with the Santa Clara County to have no new car trips, unveiled a laundry list of programs Stanford had unveiled to achieve this goal. These include Caltrain GO Passes for all employees, an extensive shuttle network to accommodate riders, annual cash payments to members of the "Commute Club," which promotes carless commuting; and car-sharing services.
Though the program was focused on traffic congestion, Stanford officials were pleased to see the impact it was having on parking. Even as the campus population has grown, demand for parking permits has dipped by 2,000 since the programs were introduced. Hamilton said without the recent transportation-management efforts, Stanford would have had to build 3,000 additional parking spots.
Today, Stanford's "drive alone" rate (people who drive by themselves) is about 40 percent, down from the initial level of about 70 percent.
Heap talked about San Mateo's recent Corridor Study, which identified a downtown area ripe for growth and created a program aimed at reducing car trips by 25 percent. The nascent program, he said, is managed by the nonprofit composed of major property owners in the area. Each contributes funds to make the transportation program work. The city's role is to measure the impacts of the programs and enforce as needed.
Silvani stressed that there is "no cookie-cutter approach" to reducing parking demand. Every community's effort, she said, is a work in progress. An important component, she said, is having a system of shuttles, buses or Caltrain passes, that will allow a wide range of people to use them quickly or easily. Silvani, who runs a TMA at Mission Bay neighborhood adjacent to AT&T Park, said once the system is up and running, it generates its own momentum with new residents knocking on the doors and looking to join.
Silvani said the Mission Bay area has a 18.6 "drive-alone rate," even with the failure of San Francisco's bus system failing to provide the services it had promised.
"You have to decide you're going to start somewhere and go from there," Silvani said.