Palo Alto may be a haven for high-tech workers, but exactly how many employees come to the city everyday and how they get here has long been a mystery based on educated guesses, rough estimates and vague projections.
On Monday, the city took a significant step toward replacing some of the guesswork with actual data when it unveiled its long-awaited business registry, an online tool that requires every business to provide the city information about its workers and their commute patterns. Each business would have to pay a flat fee of $50 to cover administration expenses.
The City Council approved the registry in September 2014, with every council member agreeing that the information about local employment trends is critical to the city's efforts to reduce traffic and alleviate downtown's parking congestion. The council is now considering whether to cap office development and it has recently funded the launching a Transportation Management Authority, a nonprofit that will offer incentives to workers to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. The employee data is expected to assist with both efforts.
The new registry is starkly different from the city's prior effort to gather data on local businesses. In 2009, the City Council tried to institute a business-license tax that, in addition to gathering information, would also require each business to pay a portion of its gross receipts to the city. The idea died when voters struck down the proposed tax in November of that year.
The new registry, by contrast, focuses on information rather than revenue. It requires every employer with a "fixed place of business" in Palo Alto to register annually. It does not apply to businesses that are located in other cities but operate locally.
In a statement announcing the new registry, city staff noted that Palo Alto is now joining "nearly every other city in California" in requiring the employee data. The information, according to the announcement, will "help to inform and measure the effectiveness of programs to reduce traffic congestion and parking issues, as well as help inform zoning decisions and public safety planning and response efforts."
Mayor Karen Holman said in a statement that the availability of this data is "vital to developing and implementing effective transportation measures to reduce solo driving and traffic congestion, and will give us a clearer picture of the mix of businesses in Palo Alto as part of our zoning and planning decisions."
Businesses have until March 31 to register, though there will be a grace period of 30 days to "inform and educate the business community about the requirement before any enforcement actions are necessary." The announcement noted that most businesses will have "the necessary data readily available and be able to fill out the questionnaire and pay the fee online in a few minutes."
Yet the roll-out wasn't without its hiccups. The Weekly's first attempt to register culminated in an error message near the final step, which staff attributed to a software update that was happening just as the information was being entered. The issue was quickly resolved.
Information about the business registry and a link to registration is available here.