Editorial: A long overdue downtown parking initiative

Technology will play key role in easing downtown parking mess

What a difference a week can make. After Monday's ill-advised 5-4 decision to spend $180,000 to conduct studies of a poorly conceived plan to shuttle workers from parking places east of Bayshore Freeway to downtown Palo Alto, the city council will have a chance for redemption.

At next Monday's meeting, the council will consider a proposal for implementing state-of-the-art technology tools that have the potential of revolutionizing the way parking is managed and paid for downtown.

The recommendations, based on a study recently completed for the city by a national parking and transportation consulting firm called SP+, include the use of electronic parking sensors that monitor how many spaces are available and where, dynamic signage and smartphone apps that convey that information to drivers, online permit processing, the ability to quickly pay for parking via smartphones, and several innovative and technology-based options for enforcement.

After years of tired and repetitive debate over the inefficiency and underutilization of downtown garages and staff resistance to change and innovation, these proposals catapult the discussion to a level worthy of a city whose residents are such intense consumers (and developers) of technology.

We hope the City Council endorses this direction with all the enthusiasm they withheld last week when Mayor Nancy Shepherd and council members Greg Scharff, Gail Price, Marc Berman and Liz Kniss voted to move the "satellite" parking concept forward.

With the parking technology recommendations being released just two days after that vote, one has to question why the mayor and city manager didn't make sure the council either dealt with both proposals together or at least knew of the latest proposal while debating the first.

Had that happened, we believe at least one of the five supporting the satellite parking concept would have felt safe joining council members Pat Burt, Larry Klein, Greg Schmid and Karen Holman in rejecting it. Councilman Klein raised that exact point, and we hope he makes a motion Monday for the council to reconsider its earlier action.

Part of the unspoken problem is that the council and staff are feeling immense pressure to respond to public frustration over the parking problems after years of inaction. The staff is responding to this pressure by serving up multiple strategies and options, which adds more pressure on the council to act merely for the sake of appearances rather than in response to sound ideas.

The frustration of both staff and council members was obvious Monday night. Staff was bringing back a plan that the council had earlier asked them to pursue, yet only one council member, Price, expressed any real enthusiasm for it. The four others who supported moving forward with the satellite parking concept were quick to point out their support was only for learning more information, not for the plan itself.

Good decisions aren't made under pressure, and ideally not piecemeal. In the long run, the community is better off taking a bit more time to tackle this problem in a well-thought-out, integrated way. It is great that the council and staff are responding to public demands for action on parking, but it is essential that our goal not be to simply create a list of disconnected "accomplishments" of dubious value.

Next Monday night's discussion on technology's role in helping to fix our parking problems is another opportunity for the council to weigh the trade-offs of quick action versus a more integrated solution.

The consultant recommends moving forward with both a parking guidance system (keeping track of and helping people find available parking spots) and a "revenue and access control" system (the process of controlling access to parking spots based on whether a driver or car has been issued a permit or paid a fee, and tied to how long the car is parked.)

By having a single vendor undertake the implementation of these two systems at one time, there is full integration and accountability, compared to phasing the project and potentially using two different vendors.

The consultant recommends a complete overhaul of the current system. It urges abandonment of the color zones, which do little more than legitimize employees moving their cars from one zone to another during the day, incentive and variable pricing to obtain full utilization of parking spots, the elimination of burdensome permitting rules and extensive use of online tools.

It's a good and overdue plan, and we hope the council repeals last week's action and supports the full scope of the consultant and staff's innovative recommendations.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 9:10 am

The satellite lot, as I have suggested on another thread, this should not be a shoppers/visitors solution but for targeted workers who will have a service that suits them.

The shuttles do not need to run all day long, but several within a couple of hours at the beginning and end of the work day, possibly off peak (think restaurant workers). These shuttles would be designated parking shuttles and not designed for any other use (except perhaps for the non commute return).

Think more of how workers get to SFO/SJC from satellite employee parking on the perimeter of the airport rather than how travelers get to the terminals.

As for the downtown garages and lots, I love the idea of technology to help you find a space.

But the sound of more price options and incentives to buy permits makes me feel very wary. What we need is to be able to pay and park by the hour. If all garages and lots had pay per hour machines and anybody could park all day on an occasional basis, it would make so much more sense than all these complicated systems, color zones, and permit only spaces that are never used.

We need simple practical solutions, and no need to make it so complicated that a one day visitor cannot find a place to park.

And while we are at it, remember that there is nothing to stop someone parking at Caltrain for $5 a day, paying at the ticket booth where they don't have to buy a train ticket, and then spending the day in Palo Alto without ever getting on a train. I don't think daily parking can cost more than Caltrain parking.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2014 at 9:40 am

It's glitzy, but how does it compete with all that free parking on residential streets?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 10:08 am

For that reason we have to have metered parking on all downtown streets including residential streets with exemptions for those homes without driveways. Those exemptions could be in the form of stickers for registered homeowners cars.

Even metered parking can have the first two hours free.

But, we can't have residential parking permits without improving occasional all day parking.

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Posted by 6Djockey
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 15, 2014 at 10:25 am

Although it requires further evaluation, the high-tech approach sounds like a much better approach than the shuttle approach going to be studied. Although the Council has approved "only" a $180,000 study of the shuttle plan, we know from past experience (like on Arastradero) that once they do a study they tend to follow up with more good money implementing it. Virtually all the comments following the story on approval of the study were negative and for many, varied reasons. Time to clean house and get a new Council.

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Posted by larry alton
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2014 at 11:04 am

Satellite lots make sense. Park your car nearby downtown for free and shuttle in. Downtown parking all day should be very expensive in prime real estate. Get these downtown worker cars out of sitting in downtown parking lots all day and let visitors use them. Technology is good, maybe it will help visitors find these hard to find downtown parking lots and open spaces.

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Posted by Residential Permit Parking is Comming
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 15, 2014 at 11:06 am

The Council made the right decision here. The City has committed to have in place a Residential Permit Parking (RPP) Program by January of 2015. This promise must be kept. This will pull about a 1000 cars out of the neighborhoods. Better technology and efficiency will not solve the Parking supply problem, only more parking spaces will. At over 66,000 a spot for structured Parking (Parking Garages) this is an inexpensive alternative, especially for service workers who cannot afford to pay for a parking permit, if one can even be gotten. The Weekly and the Council members who voted no didn't offer other solutions. The only way to resolve this problem is to take a multi pronged approach as the City Council is doing. That is (1) increase the Parking Supply, get people to use alternative transit (TDM) and (3) more efficiently use existing resources. The Council is taking the right approach and should stay the Course. The Council members who voted no had previously voted to have staff come back with this plan. Doing nothing and studying the problem will not solve this difficult problem. Concrete steps must be taken if we want to institute an RPP in January and get the cars out of our neighborhoods.

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Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 15, 2014 at 11:25 am

Even though he ultimately voted to approve the contract w/BKF Engineers, Klein tried to move the discussion re that contract to next week when there would be a more global discussion about parking. Kniss and Berman argued in favor of "doing something" and pushed ahead with the BKF decision. Beats me why anyone would vote to approve something about which they have substantive misgivings. For those who haven't seen it, the cover page of the handout at the CC mtg very clearly labels the contract a DESIGN contract and the detail inside reads as follows: "Begin design of a satellite parking facility along Embarcadero Rd - East of Geng Rd". Solving a problem by creating a problem doesn't make sense to me. Having a big picture discussion does make sense and I am glad that is scheduled.

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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Maybe our fair city should stop killing retail in favor of companies whose workers need all-day parking? Maybe our fair city should require companies to require their workers to park in the garages BEFORE approving more buildings with NO PARKING?

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Posted by ain't gonna happen
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm

I love how the council is stringing the residents of Downtown North and South of Forest/Professorville along. An election is coming up, so the incumbents want those residents to believe that they'll finally get parking permits next year. Ha! At the last minute, council will decide not to start the permit parking program. They'll say something like, "Until we fill those parking garages, we can't start the permit program." The parking permits won't happen because council (and anybody else who pays attention) knows that the staff will mess this up and it will become a debacle worthy of national news coverage. So council will chicken out at the last minute. But the Downtown North and South of Forest residents want this so badly to come true that they've stopped criticizing council members publicly, and are putting out yard signs for Scharff, Shepherd and Holman.

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Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Aug 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Palo Alto should just look at what Redwood City has done with their downtown paid parking program and do something similar but charge higher rates because "it's Palo Alto".

The nice thing about paid parking in downtown Redwood City is that you can park as long as you want but you will just pay a higher rate based on how convenient it is.

You can also extend your time if needed before it expires. That can be done with your phone with no need to revisit one the meter kiosks. It's a common program in other cities as well.

I think Pasadena was the first to implement it and it's been very successful. Check out 'The High Cost of Free Parking' by Donald Shoup.

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Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 15, 2014 at 2:37 pm

I recently returnes from Slovakia, Germany and Austria and can report that the parking sensors are in use all over Europe.
They are placed at the entrance to each parking level and instantly tell the driver what space is avaiiable .

Go for it.......

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Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 15, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Correcting myself: Klein voted AGAINST the design contract. Others on Council expressed misgivings but still voted to approve the contract. I doubt you read these things, LK, but I apologize for my misstatement.

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Posted by Traveler
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 15, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Senor Blogger, you are so right! European countries are in so many practical ways ahead of us (sigh)

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Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 16, 2014 at 5:42 pm

The criticism of the satellite parking study is off the mark. Both that study, and the consideration of high tech improvements to the parking garages, are necessary but not sufficient components of an overall attempt to improve the parking situation. Other components include residential parking permits, and traffic demand management. The complaint that the approval of the satellite study was somehow premature or uncoordinated makes no sense -- it is potentially an important part of an overall solution, and it is more than ready for a design study, in parallel with the other ongoing efforts regarding parking. The implication that the technical improvements regarding current use of parking structures would somehow render the satellite parking unnecessary is sadly mistaken. There is no way that even 100% utilization of the parking garages will come even close to solving the problem. When and if residential parking permits are implemented, the satellite parking will at least give some solace to the hundreds of downtown workers who will need to find alternative parking. Of course even if everything is done that has been proposed, the massive mount of downtown development that is in the pipeline will still overwhelm the parking problem, unless a moratorium on that development is soon put in place.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2014 at 8:39 am

> There is no way that even 100% utilization of the parking
> garages will come even close to solving the problem.

Because we have no idea how many more people might be working in downtown Palo Alto in the coming yeas—this is most certainly true. What’s also true is that we really don’t have good data on the current demand for downtown parking—which is a problem that the current CC has failed to address for decades.

This satellite lot is probably not a good idea—since it’s pretty clear that people are going to be dependent on the Shuttle to get them to the lot, and that means they will have to leave their job sites when the shuttle is available. After a significant number of people find that they have been stranded—requiring that they pay $15-$20 for a cab ride to get to their cars—those folks will probably stop using this lot.

With such a small number of cars being serviced by this idea--it's possible that people who get their too late will become annoyed at the waste of time trying to locate parking in this lot, and stop trying to use it altogether. The City would want to provide people on Highway 101 some sort of information about space availability before they go looking for parking on Embarcadero.

And then there is the problem of vandalism, and the personal safety of people using this lot. With its being so close to Highway 101, it will be easy pickings for thieves and muggers. It’s only a matter of time before the City will be forced to either spend a lot of money making that lot safe, or close it because they can not make it safe.

Restricting new development, and helping existing companies find new business locations should be a part of any long-term strategy employed by the City.

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Posted by iconoclast
a resident of University South
on Aug 17, 2014 at 8:58 pm

High tech silliness instead of low tech shuttle silliness. Neither solves an iota of the problem, but high tech makes rubes feel better.

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Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 18, 2014 at 10:03 pm

Please, NO satellite lot and absolutely NO parking permits. Parking permits would be a death blow for own town stores and restaurants. I have seen this used elsewhere. Suddenly, there were parking spaces everywhere, nut no one was parked in them all day.
Is this what you want? The entire area surrounding downtown to be empty all day. Shoppers must be able to park.

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 18, 2014 at 11:26 pm

@Sunshine - residential neighborhoods without cars everywhere? Sounds good actually.

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

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