Palo Alto looks to upgrade downtown garages

City officials turn to tech for ways to make parking more efficient

Seeking to drive commuters out of downtown's residential neighborhoods, Palo Alto officials will shift their focus this week toward improving the city's garages, with the hope of making them both more efficient and more inviting.

The City Council is scheduled to consider on Monday a range of garage-centered, technological solutions to downtown's worsening parking woes, a problem that has dominated the city's public agenda over the past year. The discussion will occur just as the city is finalizing a proposed "residential-parking permit program" that will set time limits for employees parking on residential streets; soliciting proposals for an expanded citywide shuttle program; and exploring a range of "transportation-demand management" programs aimed at encouraging drivers to switch to other transit modes. The council also agreed Monday to approve a $180,000 design contract for a "satellite parking" program that would allocate 132 parking spots on Embarcadero Road for workers who would then be bused downtown.

While some of these programs have proved controversial (the contract for the satellite program squeaked by on a 5-4 vote Monday), the technological solutions are generally seen as "low-hanging fruit" in the great parking debate. The city's parking garages have been historically underused, with many employers buying permits but then choosing to park on the streets, leaving dozens of unused spots.

At Monday's council meeting, City Manager James Keene said the technological solutions that the city is pursuing will "make it faster to find spaces."

Some ideas, developed by planning staff and city consulting firm SP Plus, are relatively benign: new signs directing drivers to the parking structures; improvements to the city website's section on parking permits; and enabling the sale online of parking permits. Staff plans to proceed with these initiatives this month.

While the signage program will aim to bring more cars into garages, other proposals seek to provide drivers with information and flexibility. Some of these warrant further exploration, according to city planners, and will return to the council at a later date. These include the development of a parking app; more pricing options to increase the use of permit parking; and elimination of downtown's "color zones," which bar drivers from returning to the area once the time limit expires.

Among the boldest recommendations from SP Plus is giving drivers the option of paying for garage access beyond the time limit and enhancing enforcement of on-street parking through the use of license-plate readers.

One solution that the council will discuss Monday night is a proposed "parking guidance system" that counts cars entering garages and keeps track of occupancy. The system would also include constantly updating signs at entry points that can notify drivers of parking-space availability.

Planners are preparing a "request for proposals" for parking solutions that will include an architectural design of parking guidance systems, according to staff.

Another option on the table is what's known as "access and revenue controls" -- a system in which vehicles are time-stamped as they enter garages and information is fed to the parking-guidance system. The control equipment can have either an "active" or a "passive" enforcement mechanism, according to staff. An active system would alert enforcement officers when a citation should be issued for a customer who has stayed in the garage for too long.

The council will consider on Monday whether the city should immediately seek proposals for parking-guidance systems and then later seek proposals for access-and-revenue equipment. An alternative is to pursue both of these technological solutions at the same time, an option that would make the systems better integrated but would delay their implementation by several months, according to staff.

Even if all these proposals are adopted, officials believe the city will still need to move ahead with its broad spectrum of parking initiatives, targeting both supply and demand.

"Once we shift the balance (of parking) from the neighborhoods to our commercial cores, clearly we won't have enough capacity in our existing garages," Keene told the council Monday.

In recent months, garages have been filling up, Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said this week. For the first time in years, city officials have been receiving complaints from drivers who couldn't find parking in downtown garages, including the peripheral Cowper/Webster and Bryant Street garages. This could be partly because the city has been selling more permits to address the problem of underused garages, he said.

According to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment, the average occupancy of downtown garages has been creeping up in the summer months, from 56 percent in May, to 65 percent in June, to 81 percent in July.

Councilman Greg Scharff argued Monday that much like the Embarcadero Road satellite-parking program, the technological upgrades will at best only provide a partial palliative.

"I don't think there's any indication that what we discuss next week will solve the issue," Scharff said. "Technology alone won't solve it."

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 8:53 am

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.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2014 at 9:48 am

@Resident - But the core of the issue is not occasional all day parking, it is that there are many hundreds of all day parkers that currently use residential streets. When a permit program comes in, those cars are going somewhere, and if they end up occupying core downtown spots, it will displace the people coming for retail and restaurants. That will be very bad for retail businesses, sales tax revenue, and palo alto residents who use downtown. There needs to be a system to balance parking use between workers and shoppers.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 10:05 am

Which is why we need metered parking on streets with exemptions (stickers) for those homes which do not have driveways for their own registered cars. Even metered parking can have 2 hours free.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 11:03 am

> the technological solutions are generally seen as "low-hanging fruit"
> in the great parking debate.

And yet, here we are in the middle of 2014 and there is no technology in place. These sorts of solutions have been promoted by any number of residents, as can be seen in the never-ending discussions of traffic and parking in Palo Alto.

There is no reason to wait ten more years for various studies and design proposals. One garage could be "wired" easily, and trials begun shortly thereafter. The one bug-a-boo here is that software is needed to properly manage the parking spots, and to develop an AP for smartphones, and other personal electronics (such as Glass).

Wonder if the Council will know enough to ask about the software when they are throwing away the public's money?

Like this comment
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 15, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Here's a money-saving idea: Have the Chamber of Commerce send out memos to all employers to circulate to their employees telling their workers to park in the garage.

How much do emails and paper cost??

The City has an abysmal track record with technical solutions. Their "Civic Involvement" cite is unusable, just to cite one example.

Please wire the consultant fee to my Swiss bank account and I can buy a cup of coffee.

Like this comment
Posted by Garry
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 15, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Great idea. Many times I've followed a stream of cars winding up the five levels of parking in the Alma St structure downtown. And then followed then back down as, one by one, we learn that the structure is full.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2014 at 12:27 pm

@Resident - I don't understand how your metered parking proposal makes sense. The goal is to remove day and hourly parkers from residential neighborhoods, and push them int downtown. But there aren't enough spaces downtown. The only way meters help is to drive the cost of parking so high people drive to the Stanford shopping center instead, but the will kill retail and lower city sales tax revenue.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 15, 2014 at 1:09 pm

> But there aren't enough spaces downtown.

Is this really true? Any number of people have posted comments about the empty spaces in Palo Alto municipal lots/garages. Here is a video I made some months ago:

Web Link

If there were better utilization in the downtown lots/garages, then some of the need for neighborhood parking would be reduced.

Like this comment
Posted by Luise Maier
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I don't use the parking garages because they are Spooky. I suggested that it would help if decals( animals,birds,etc)were posted so that a person could find their car. Better lighting and an attendant,for which I would gladly pay a fee. Satellite parking lot is a fantastic idea as long as you provide continuous bus service.

Like this comment
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Aug 15, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Patrol the parking structures to ensure that they are clean and safe.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2014 at 2:30 pm

@Wayne Martin - You are right that the first thing that should happen is the city need to make sure garages are fully utilized. But, I think you'll find them much more busy now than three years ago when you took the video due to all the underparked development going on. You could fill the garages with permit parking for workers, but you need space to handle the peak parking time when retail customers come into downtown at lunch, or in evenings.

Like this comment
Posted by perspectives
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Where exactly is this satellite parking lot/structure going to be on Embarcadero Rd?

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm

What is needed is more parking spaces in the garages. It seems to me that the space is not allocated very well. I suggest:
1) Smaller parking stalls for small cars only (enforced) on the lower levels. Put the big road hogs higher up. There should be small car only parking places on the city streets also.
2) The aisles in some of the garages are wider than needed. Narrow them and put in more parking places.
3) In the future, parking structures should have a larger footprint so that a larger fraction is for parking and a smaller fraction for the ramps (ramp size is independent of footprint within limits). It seems that the current garages have more than half the floor space for ramps and aisles.

As for technology, many cities keep count of the number of free spaces in the various garages and have displays on major roads with the information. Geneva Switzerland had such a system at least 20 years ago. Car drivers would then not waste time going to full garages.

Like this comment
Posted by perspectives
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 4:56 pm

I realize this is not the point of the discussion, but some of us "road hogs" actually need the passenger space. No need to lump us into a shamed "non-pc, un-cool, anti-environmentalist" category... Not everyone who doesn't drive a Prius is a blight on humanity.

Like this comment
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Aug 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm

It always surprises me how filthy the floors and doors are in the civic center parking on Ramona. Doesn't make sense that the city plans to spend a million or more to upgrade the first floor Civic Center rooms but can't take care of basic cleaning in the garage. I called the city a year or so ago and nothing's ever been done. It's disgusting. I don't understand how we can afford to make improvements when we can't take care of basic maintenance!

Like this comment
Posted by OffEmbarcadero
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2014 at 6:59 pm

So where are these proposed 132 parking spots on Embarcadero? In front of people's houses? In front of the schools? The parks? Is the idea to make the worsening traffic of late get even worse?

Like this comment
Posted by OffEmbarcardero
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Oops, I see on the other side of the freeway where it racks up every afternoon. So the idea is to reduce the lanes and create more traffic . . .

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 8:15 pm

> But, I think you'll find them much more busy now than three years ago

Maybe. But there have been a couple of letters to the editors of local papers within the past couple of months pointing out that the garages are not full, or even moderately so.

The point here is that the City can not provide any garage utilization data that is accurate, and deals with the busy parts of the day.

> It always surprises me how filthy the floors and doors are
> in the civic center parking on Ramona.

The City is raking in about $1.2M a year from parking permits--which it claims is necessary to operate the garages. Presumably cleaning is one of the costs of operating garages. The Civic Center garage should be maintained with this money, one would think.

It can't hurt to make a point of the lack of cleaning to the people claiming that they should be on the City Council because they know how to run cities. Might be interesting to ask the incumbents if they think the City is doing a good job managing these garages.

Like this comment
Posted by Ben
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 16, 2014 at 8:06 pm

How many new office developments has the city approved with few or no additional parking spots? Our city council, so eager to please developers can't say no. It seems to be a never ending cycle, but they just can't seem to understand the problem largely they allowed to happen, again and again.

Institute an enforced parking permit program in the residential areas, and paid metered parking everywhere else. Why pay to park in the garage when parking on the street is free? duh?

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

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