The much-anticipated and long-delayed launch of a broad strategy for alleviating parking problems that have plagued neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Palo Alto for many years had a bit of an inauspicious "soft launch" this week.
While some 800 parking signs throughout downtown neighborhoods were unveiled, notifying drivers they could not park for more than two hours without a permit, problems with the online system for purchasing permits led city officials to extend a planned two-week grace period for enforcement through at least mid-December.
Lower-than-expected permit sales, which totaled only 379 issued to employees as of the end of last week, suggested to program managers that there had either been inadequate outreach to local businesses or glitches in the permitting system, or both. By Wednesday, employee permits issued had risen to 900, but that's still far below the estimated number of cars that have been parking on residential streets. More than 2,800 permits were issued to residents within an area of approximately 4,000 housing units, according to City Planning Director Hillary Gitelman.
Though the glitchy start-up was disappointing and embarrassing, pushing out the enforcement date was a wise decision with little downside, especially given how long downtown residents have already had to wait.
The success of the program, which received final City Council approval last December, depends on finding the appropriate balance between permits issued to downtown workers and to the residents of the adjacent neighborhoods as well as determining the appropriate ultimate geographic boundaries and permit price points for the program.
During the first phase, which is focused on gathering data and is set to run for six months, residents will be able to get up to four permits for free, with an option of purchasing additional visitor permits for $25 each. For employees of downtown companies, the permit costs will be either $233 or $50, depending on their income level. Cars that don't have permits will be subject to two-hour time limits; violators will be fined $53.
In the second phase, the city will set limits on the number of permits sold to employees. It will also give each household one free permit and begin charging residents $50 per year for each additional permit. Employees in the second phase will also have their permits restricted to particular areas within the downtown district with the aim of dispersing vehicles evenly within neighborhoods.
In the first few days after the parking restriction signs were uncovered this week there was a noticeable decrease in cars parked within the restricted neighborhoods but also indications that some employees were simply parking farther out in unrestricted areas. One resident described the change and open parking spots as a "miracle," while another just outside the permit area said her block on Kingsley Avenue was "deluged" with cars.
The problem of pushing the current parking problem out into other neighborhoods has been a concern since the downtown permit-parking system was first proposed and one that will need to be addressed as data is gathered during the initial phase.
Residents outside the restricted area, which stretches from Alma to Guinda streets and from Palo Alto to Lincoln avenues (except for a small section between Alma and Bryant that extends all the way to Embarcadero Road), have the option of signing a petition to establish a similar parking program in their area, but we trust city officials will also take action if significant problems develop.
A key part of the program, and perhaps why the program during the first few days seems to have had the desired effect of opening up more spaces, is that permits are only available to residents who can show proof of residency within the restricted area and to employees with proof of employment downtown.
Other drivers who are suspected of having a significant impact on parking downtown, including Stanford employees and students and Caltrain riders, will not be eligible to buy permits and will be forced to use pay lots or find other parking solutions outside of downtown. How this works will be a major test for the new program.
It will be easy for residents, business owners, employees and Caltrain commuters to find things to complain about in the early weeks of this program and there will surely be a need to recalibrate some of the program's features. But for now, we can celebrate the launch of a system that should bring not only an improvement in the parking situation but also increased incentives for using alternatives for commuting.