Few places in the world epitomize the juxtaposition of the global and local as does Palo Alto. Our region has the most active innovation "ecosystem" in the world. Yet we also have the luxury of some of the most livable and family-friendly neighborhoods, with walkable access to parks, schools, libraries and, for some, grocery stores and shops. Beyond the town, we are surrounded by thousands of acres of open space to give us clean air and water, and "room to breathe." Thank you for supporting the passage of Measure AA!
How long can we juggle the extraordinary pressure and demand from companies and people from around the world who wish to locate here with our desire to protect a healthy environment, walkable lifestyle and family-oriented community? This is the challenge of the next Comprehensive Plan for Palo Alto.
I propose some ideas and a framework for thinking about how Palo Alto can tackle its seemingly intractable problems of traffic and housing.
"Net zero" mandate. A "net-zero" mandate is very powerful. Stanford University has operated under this performance goal for decades, required to meet the standard of no net new trips (peak-hour) as it built millions of additional square feet. It is powerful in bringing innovation to transportation so that Stanford can expand. The results have been noteworthy, with the percentage of commuters coming in single-occupancy vehicles plummeting to 42 percent recently from 72 percent in 2002.
The net-zero goal does not operate in isolation. The county's general-use permit also required the building of significantly more housing units, for example. For Palo Alto, net-zero requirements to eliminate increased traffic and other impacts is a worthy idea but needs to be combined with an overall plan that includes honoring our height limit and taking into account the impact on local schools.
The good news is that "net zero" is not draconian. If you think about it, if there is a 3 percent increase in trip demand, our community needs to get 3 percent more efficient in how we get around. If we take 10 trips a day today, changing one trip a day from car to walking, biking or combining trips is a 10 percent improvement. Making one day per week into a "no car" day is 15 percent improvement. Well-designed net-zero goals for our city would help spur more innovation in both public policy and private-sector initiatives.
Jobs/housing balance and regional impact fee. The jobs/housing ratio is a reality. No one wants to be seen as anti-jobs, but once the unemployment ratio reaches a stable point, every job created adds a person who needs to live somewhere historically, one housing unit for 1.6 workers. In a large region, a good transit system can connect a job center with housing, but transit takes funding and all cities face the same challenge of providing schools, parks, libraries and other services for new residents.
I have long thought that a regional impact fee for net new jobs created through new office space is worth considering. Affordable-housing projects near transit and regional transit could draw upon this regional fund for subsidies.
Caltrain special district. High-density jobs such as those provided by Google, Facebook, Apple, Stanford and other core employers of our region usually require a "high-density" transportation network and/or high-density housing. The transit spine for the Peninsula is Caltrain. A bus rapid-transit system along a regional HOT (high occupancy toll) network and El Camino also deserves serious evaluation and support.
Since Caltrain's crisis in 2010, when it was looking at slashing service by 30 percent, it has rebounded robustly, increasing ridership almost every month since then; it now carries more than 57,000 riders on an average weekday. That's almost two and a half times the ridership of 24,000 in 2004. It still lacks a dedicated funding source, although its operating revenue now covers two-thirds of its annual operating expenditures. Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties all have relatively robust support for transportation measures and terrible traffic congestion. It's time to consider a Caltrain special district that cuts across parts of these three counties.
Bay Area transit coordination council. Finally, Bay Area residents need to rise up and call for an independent transit coordination council that will bring the 26 (!) transit agencies of our region together to coordinate schedules, fares and, where it makes sense, consolidation. There are precedents. According to Michelle DeRobertis of Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities, the Stuttgart region has 45 different transit operators in a metropolitan area with 179 municipalities and 2.4 million people. Since 1979, they have a coordinating agency that is responsible for the coordination of fares, schedules and planning. Its governing board has half of its members from political jurisdictions and half from the transit operators. This is different from our Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is governed solely by political leaders and has not had the political mandate to truly coordinate transit operations across borders.
"Balance" has always been the goal of the visions I have supported over the years, including through my work with the Palo Alto Civic League, which fought for residential values when business interests dominated, and my efforts as mayor in 2007, when my call to action was to build a green economy through innovation. Balance is an evolving act, based on a deep understanding of the forces in and around our city.
For Palo Alto to continue to thrive as an environmental leader and jobs center, we must contribute to balance in the region as well as to the balance within our borders.
Yoriko Kishimoto is former mayor of Palo Alto and now serves on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. She began as a neighborhood and transportation activist, serving on the comprehensive plan committee in the 1990s. She now works with nonprofits including Friends of Caltrain. She can be reached at email@example.com.