Faced with a glut of cars and parking that's spilling into downtown neighborhoods, four Palo Alto City Council members have issued a sizable challenge to the city's planning staff: Come up with a program that would get almost a third of solo car commuters to switch to other means of transportation.
In a memo released Wednesday, Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, and Councilwomen Liz Kniss and Gail Price call on city staff to develop a "comprehensive" transportation-demand management (TDM) plan, a system that will give drivers incentives to switch to mass transit, biking, car-sharing services and other means of getting to work. This plan would apply to three sections of the city: downtown, the California Avenue business district and Stanford Research Park.
If the full City Council votes to support the memo Monday night, it will task city staff with yet another program aimed at solving the city's complex and frustrating parking problems.
The city is already evaluating the prospect of building new garages; eliminating some of the parking exemptions that local law grants to developers; creating a framework for a "residential parking permit program" that neighborhoods would be able to adopt; and increasing the capacity of garages through a valet program.
The staff is currently tasked with returning, in the next 45 days, with proposed changes to the city's parking regulations, including elimination of a provision known as "transferable development rights," which grants parking exemptions to developers who perform seismic retrofits and historical rehabilitation.
The new memo proposes another strategy: reduce the number of cars. It calls parking and traffic "one of the toughest challenges facing the City at this time and a major concern for our residents" and argues that new garages, parking programs and elimination of parking exemptions "will not alone solve the issues of parking and traffic."
"The City needs a comprehensive TDM program that will reduce trips by at least 30 percent," the memo states.
The goal may seem ambitious, but the city doesn't have to look too far for success stories. Stanford University, viewed as a leader in the field of transportation demand management, used a comprehensive program to reduce its employees' rate of solo driving from 70 percent to 40 percent. Sparked by a mandate from Santa Clara County that Stanford keep commute-hour cars to the same number as in 2000, the program includes a fleet of about 60 shuttle buses, free Caltrain passes, and cash incentives through the Commute Club, whose 8,000 members shun solo driving.
Brodie Hamilton, who manages Stanford's plan, said at a community forum last month that as a result of its program, the number of parking permits the university has been selling dropped by about 2,000 despite considerable growth in campus population. The success of the program also obviated the need for Stanford to build 3,000 parking spaces, Hamilton said at the Aug. 17 forum organized by the group Green Planning Action.
The memo from the four council members also cites the Contra Costa Transit Center as a success story. Last month, Shepherd, Price, Kniss and Interim Planning Director Aaron Aknin traveled to Contra Costa to learn about the center's program, which according to the memo reduced solo car trips by more than 30 percent. The Contra Costa program is managed by a specially formed Transportation Management Agency funded by contributions from new commercial developments in the district area. Its strategies include BART fare subsidies, gas cars, special parking for carpools and car-share services for mid-day errands or emergency trips home. The memo suggests that Palo Alto consider the creation of such an agency.
The memo argues that while alternative transportation models are not a new idea in Palo Alto, the city's existing initiatives "are not comprehensive in nature, and have not been effective from a districtwide standpoint."
"The idea of considering downtown districts as a unit, with an experienced TDM contractor, working directly with employers and commuters is a smart and proven strategy to address the city's traffic and parking issues," the memo states.
The council members propose that staff should create a defined TDM boundary area for each of the three districts; come up with a funding mechanism for the districts (examples include assessments on existing businesses and impact fees on new developments); develop a request for proposals to contract out TDM services; reach out to Stanford for collaboration and integration of services; and develop tools to monitor and evaluate progress.
The memo acknowledges that the program's implementation will take a "considerable amount of staff time," at least in the short term but argues that these efforts will pay off in the long run.
"As the more comprehensive strategy takes effect, staff will not have to tackle individual issues to the same degree," the memo states.