After years of pleading and planning, downtown Palo Alto's long-awaited parking-permit program officially kicked off this morning though it will be more than a month before any tickets are actually issued.
The decision to delay enforcement of the new program was prompted by underwhelming permit sales to downtown employees, who under the new program would need to buy the permits to park on downtown's residential blocks for longer than two hours.
As of the end of last week, only 379 permits were purchased by employees through the city's online system far fewer than the city had anticipated. Residents in the permit area which stretches from Alma to Guinda streets and from Palo Alto to Lincoln avenues (with a section between Alma and Bryant streets going further south, to Embarcadero Road) have bought 2,269 permits. By Monday, the number of overall permit sales had climbed to 3,345, said Jessica Sullivan, the city's transportation planning manager.
Based on the number of parking permits, "We suspect that there are folks who still don't know about the program and/or have had trouble purchasing a permit," Sullivan told the Weekly.
"We want to make sure these people aren't penalized," Sullivan added.
This means that the city's warning period, initially slated to last two weeks, will now stretch for four weeks. It also means that citations won't be handed out until at least Oct. 19. In the mean time, the city has scheduled in-person assistance for residents and employees seeking to buy permits.
Sullivan stressed that the program isn't being delayed. Covers have recently been removed from the roughly 800 signs that were planted throughout downtown neighborhoods. The signs notify drivers about the new two-hour time limit for those without permits. Sullivan said the streets will be patrolled and people without permits will be receiving warnings. She called it "a typical practice when we create a new parking district to give a few weeks of warnings."
"In this case, we are just making the period of warnings a bit longer than usual so we can be sure everyone has had enough time to purchase permits," Sullivan said in an email.
The city will also have two representatives from its customer-service contractor on hand in the City Hall lobby, near the Utilities Department's customer-service window, today, Sept. 15, to help guide people through the permit process, which requires either proof of residency or proof of downtown employment. By limiting permit sales to these two groups, the city hopes to remove from the residential neighborhoods cars belonging to Caltrain commuters, Stanford University students and others who officials believe use the neighborhood streets to avoid paying parking fees at other lots and garages.
The city's enforcement contractors will also be putting notices about the parking program on the windshields of cars parked downtown. The hope is that "both the informational notices, as well as the in-person assistance will generate additional registrations over the first two weeks of the program."
While city officials say that the program remains on schedule, the delay of the enforcement component has caused concern among some of the residents who have helped shape the program.
Richard Brand and Neilson Buchanan, who are part of the stakeholders group that helped design the new program, expressed surprise and frustration over the weekend about the fact that the group had not been notified about the latest change of plans.
One concern is that by not issuing citations, the city has no way of accurately gauging the effect of the program on drivers' behaviors. Because the first six-month phase of the program is aimed primarily at gathering data, the extension of the warning period means that it will take longer for the city to get the information it needs to design the second phase of the program.
"What this really means is that data collection doesn't really start until behavior has really changed," Buchanan told the Weekly. "My guess is that the real parking patterns aren't going to emerge until two weeks after people start getting fined."