Palo Alto's newest parking-permit program is expected to bring a measure of relief to downtown residents who have seen their leafy neighborhood streets fill beyond capacity by cars belonging to weekday commuters.
But for many of these commuters, the long-awaited program could usher in an era of disruption, confusion and higher costs. When the program makes debuts Sept. 15, these drivers will be forced to either buy permits, find other parking destinations, switch to other means of transportation or move their cars every two hours.
In some ways, the disruption is the point. Amid commuters' uncertainty, Palo Alto officials hope to steer drivers who currently park in the neighborhoods toward one of more than a dozen programs the city has queued up. These include valet parking at downtown garages, parking-guidance systems that inform drivers about garage occupancy levels, a new signage program to guide drivers and a new website dedicated to parking.
The City Council is scheduled on Monday to discuss these and other, longer term initiatives, such as construction of a new garage on a city-owned lot at Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street and introduction of paid parking for visitors to downtown garages, which currently have time limits but no fee requirement.
A new report from the Planning and Community Environment notes that the city is preparing to solicit bids for a study that will analyze parking occupancy and turnover at downtown garages and make recommendations for pricing. Currently, the report notes, "It is much cheaper for an employee to park in downtown Palo Alto than it is to take Caltrain, and pricing is a significant motivator for many when making a travel-mode choice."
The consideration is key as the city pursues its ambitious goal of reducing the number of people driving solo by 33 percent.
"Making parking more expensive or limiting parking availability in one area increases the incentive for parkers to shift to other transportation modes or to find other places to park," the report states.
Among the most ambitious efforts are those aimed at encouraging drivers to ditch their cars altogether. The city's newly formed Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the number of cars on the road, has been holding meetings this year with downtown stakeholders to discuss rideshare services, carpooling options and other ways to get people to switch modes. In recent meetings, the group's steering committee has been considering pilot projects that can be launched in the next six months to a year. These include ridesharing options for downtown employees and individual trip-planning services in which consultants help employees figure out which transit options would best serve them.
Other experiments include giving free Caltrain passes and commuter pre-tax benefits to City Hall employees who choose to eschew their cars. So far, 117 city employees are signed up for the Caltrain program, while around 50 take advantage of the commuter benefits, according to the report.
Because free City Hall parking for employees is seen as a major barrier to employee participation, the city is now considering a new "feebate" program. This would give employees a "small financial incentive each day" to not drive solo.
The report underscores the sheer size and complexity of the city's effort to tackle a topic that has consumed more time and energy from the council than any other. So far, the city has commissioned more than a dozen different consultants and vendors for assistance, with the permit program alone requiring four different firms. Other consultants are building the new parking website, creating a wayfinding program and evaluating a long-term vision for the local shuttle services.
But while dozens of seeds have been planted, not all are bearing fruit. A proposal to create a satellite shuttle for downtown workers at Embarcadero Road, for example, was placed on the back burner after an analysis showed that the new 125-space lot would create a significant traffic problems at Embarcadero and East Bayshore Road, according to the report. Planning staff is recommending not proceeding with the satellite-parking program at this time, though there remains an interest in long-term improvements, including redesigned roadways, landscaping and a pedestrian pathway.
The city's plan to team up with high-tech firms to add a new route to the the city's small shuttle program has also sputtered. A proposed West Shuttle route between south Palo Alto and Stanford Shopping Center now seems unlikely to materialize any time soon because the city has not received the private support it was banking on for the new service, according to the report.
Instead, staff is now proposing to launch a five-year shuttle plan that would use newly collected commuter data to come up with "new and possibly dynamic routes," according to the report. The city is also working with an app developer to create a mobile app that would track the city's existing shuttles, a program that is expected to be available in the fall.
The council will have a chance to discuss all these programs on Aug. 17, as well as hear an update on the new Residential Preferential Parking program. Online permit sales for the new program are set to launch on Saturday, Aug. 15. And on Sept. 10, covers will be removed from the roughly 100 signs that have recently been planted in the downtown neighborhoods, establishing a two-hour parking limit for cars without permits. Five days later, the first six-month phase of the new program will officially launch, marking a new era in downtown parking, for better or worse.
"I do think we will see an improvement," Transportation Planning Manager Jessica Sullivan said during an Aug. 4 meeting. "It may not be like we want it, but we will find out."