News

In search of the new commute

Can budding Palo Alto nonprofit change the way people get to work?

In late August, Wendy Silvani met with a group of employees from The Epiphany, an eight-story hotel that in many ways epitomizes Palo Alto's problematic prosperity.

The chic, remodeled building on the downtown corner of Hamilton Avenue and Emerson Street — converted two years ago from a convalescent home — was among a recent wave of new hotels that have popped up in Palo Alto. The hotels have pumped tax revenues into the city's General Fund, allowing Palo Alto to hire more librarians, pave more streets and throw a design competition for a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101.

But for residents in downtown neighborhoods, The Epiphany spelled trouble. Under Palo Alto's zoning code, the hotel should have included 200 parking spots. Instead, it provided zero but contributed "in lieu" fees into a parking-assessment district fund, as local policies allow. In 2012, when hotel-management firm Joie de Vivre was going through the architectural review for the proposed renovation, Professorville neighborhood resident Ken Alsman filed an appeal arguing that the city and the hotel should do more to "stem the onslaught" of cars that would start parking on neighborhood streets.

"Neither the city nor the business community is doing anything effective to protect our neighborhoods or ... to provide the additional parking needed to support downtown uses, their clients and especially their employees," Alsman wrote.

Alsman conceded in his appeal that he was unlikely to prevail, given that the conversion was already in process. In that, he was right. In March 2014, The Epiphany and its restaurant, Lure+Till ("the go-to restaurant for the modern pioneer," according to its website), opened their doors to the public. This year, Oracle's thrill-chasing co-founder Larry Ellison bought the hotel, adding it to a portfolio that also includes a Hawaiian island and an unspecified number of yachts.

Unlike the hotel's new owner, The Epiphany's roughly 100 employees aren't yacht collectors. About 80 percent are low-income workers. Some live far from Palo Alto, work odd shifts, don't speak English or all of the above.

Silvani went to The Epiphany to talk to them about their commuting habits. As the city's new Transportation Management Association (TMA) consultant, she is working with a group of downtown stakeholders to form a nonprofit organization whose goal is to steer people away from their cars and toward other modes of transportation. While Alsman's appeal failed, the gist of his and other residents' complaints about parking and traffic congestion has been heard by the City Council, loud and clear.

More than half of The Epiphany workers showed up for one of the two sessions, which included a translator. About 20 workers signed up for the Caltrain Go Pass, which entitles them to unlimited rides on Caltrain and which can only be purchased by employers. An additional 17 workers received help planning a commute that didn't involve them driving solo to work, according to the city's notes from the meetings.

Silvani said the meetings happened at the request of The Epiphany, which had recently invested in Caltrain's Go Pass program. Because the program requires companies to buy Caltrain passes for all eligible employees, participation becomes more cost-effective as more workers enroll.

But for many employees, particularly in the hospitality industry, getting to the train can be a pain. Silicon Valley's transit system is an uncoordinated patchwork of independent operators, making it hard for commuters who have always relied on their cars to imagine alternatives.

"The truth is, figuring out your transportation options can be very confusing," Silvani told the Weekly.

A handful of the hotel workers said they lived near the Caltrain Tamien Station in San Jose and didn't realize that they could drive there (which, she noted, would take them between six and eight minutes) and take the train to work. One employee who lives close to a Caltrain station said she prefers to drive because she has to drop off her daughter at daycare before work. At the meeting, Silvani and the woman determined that it would be more efficient for her to backtrack from the daycare back to the station (a four-minute walk) and then catch the "baby bullet" train to Palo Alto. The switch would save the woman between 15 and 20 minutes each way, Silvani said.

Riding Caltrain also made more sense for a woman who had been relying on SamTrans, San Mateo County's primary transit provider. A six- to eight-minute walk to a train station and a ride to downtown would get her to work faster than her normal 45-minute bus ride. Some people, Silvani said, "didn't stop to think that they might be able to actually use that Go Pass."

Epiphany General Manager Lorenz Maurer, who himself takes Caltrain whenever he can, said the hotel has been actively seeking to help employees get to work. The mission became more urgent in September, when Palo Alto rolled out its downtown Residential Preferential Program, which set a two-hour limit on street parking for all cars without permits. The Epiphany responded by joining the Go Pass program, in which the passes are bought in bulk at a discount. As of this month, 30 percent of the hotel's employees have signed up. Maurer is aiming for 50 percent, but he knows it's a challenge. For most restaurant workers, he said, the last train on the schedule — which stops at Palo Alto around midnight — leaves too early.

The scarcity of public transit at late hours is an additional hurdle. These factors in part explain why a recent survey commissioned by the TMA found that more than 70 percent of the downtown's hospitality, retail and restaurant workers prefer to drive.

"It's a maze of transportation agencies and time tables, and it's not always easy, especially if you're not fluent in English," Maurer said.

Before joining Palo Alto as a consultant, Silvani helped set up a TMA in San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood and headed the Emeryville TMA, which operated the city's free "last mile" shuttle service, Emery Go-Round. Today, she is a central player in a Palo Alto organization that doesn't really exist yet but that is expected to solve the city's urgent and complex problem of too many cars. Since February, Silvani has been meeting monthly with a steering committee of downtown stakeholders and transportation experts to discuss ways to reduce the number of people driving to the city. Eventually, this small group is slated to blossom into a full-fledged traffic-fighting nonprofit, offering commuting services and incentives to area employers, who in turn fund its operations. (Read Group crafts a roadmap for new anti-traffic nonprofit) Today, it is a group of passionate experts and stakeholders talking about pilot projects.

Traffic: How bad is it?

Council members and staff often discuss transportation in either hyperbolic or existential terms. In a recent interview, City Manager James Keene called transportation "the biggest and most intractable problem that we have in the city." Councilman Pat Burt last month framed it as the one issue on which many other hinge.

"So much about what we'll do as a community going forward is dependent on whether we can solve transportation issues in our community in a way that enhances the quality of life," Burt said. "Other decisions will be determined for us if we can't solve the transportation issues."

So how bad is it and why is it so bad? The numbers tell the story. On a typical day, people who live in, work in or come to Palo Alto drive (or ride on buses) 8.2 million miles, according to the city's Existing Conditions report. That's an average of 53.3 vehicle miles per person. The per-capita vehicle miles for the Bay Area as a whole is about 20, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional planning group. About 6.6 million (or 80 percent) of the Palo Alto miles are for trips by people who live outside of Palo Alto and are coming to a destination — work or other — within the city. In other words, Palo Alto's traffic problem is caused largely by those who live elsewhere.

With the city in an economic upswing, just about every major commuter route is packed during the peak morning and evening rush hours. City data show that where El Camino Real intersects Embarcadero Road, Page Mill Road, Arastradero Road and San Antonio Road, traffic functions at Level of Service D on a scale of A-F, with F being the worst. In transportation jargon, D refers to "a less stable condition in which small increases in flow may cause substantial increases in delay and decreases in travel speed" — in other words, drivers are waiting 35.1 to 55 seconds at the intersection.

University Avenue between El Camino and U.S. Highway 101, Page Mill Road between El Camino and Interstate 280, and San Antonio Road between El Camino and 101 all get an F grade (which by definition is "considered unacceptable to most drivers").

It's not uncommon for a southbound 280 commuter who gets off at Page Mill who is heading to the Stanford Research Park or California Avenue to spend more than 10 minutes just on the exit ramp, crawling in a tedious procession that stretches all the way back to the highway proper.

The council is looking to the TMA to be a key change agent in all of this. In August 2014, the council unanimously approved a $499,880 contract for a consulting team that includes Silvani and the planning-consulting firm MIG to help establish the new nonprofit, one that according to a staff report would "help identify specific needs for various transit programs, provide a centralized location for transportation information, identify and create funding mechanisms for various transit programs, and advocate for use of those programs." The association would also collect data and track programs' effectiveness in reducing the number of workers driving solo.

The TMA idea sprouted out of a 2013 memo from four council members, which called for a dramatic reduction in single-occupancy car trips within three years. The council members, then-Mayor Greg Scharff, then-Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, former Councilwoman Gail Price and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, argued that the city "needs a comprehensive TDM (Transportation Demand Management) program that will reduce trips by at least 30 percent." Such a program, according to the council, could include things like shuttle services, subsidized Caltrain passes and "shared-economy" solutions that would make cars available to people on a short-term, on-demand basis.

"Stanford has reduced trips by 40 percent or more through a comprehensive TDM program, and with the right focus and attention Palo Alto could have similar results," the memo stated.

Before penning the memo, Kniss, Price and Shepherd visited Contra Costa Transit Centre, which offers members a range of incentives for not driving alone, including BART fare subsidies, carpool services and a commuter voucher for a taxi service that could take workers on the final leg of their journeys. The programs are managed by a Transportation Management Agency, the memo noted, and Palo Alto's review of its own transportation-demand-management options should "consider a TMA and explore ways to capture funding and participation." Contra Costa's TMA was initially funded by large businesses. Members join on a voluntary basis.

No one expects a 30 percent reduction in solo drivers to be simple to achieve. Some people don't believe it's realistic. Unlike Stanford, downtown Palo Alto does not have a central authority but rather exists as a diverse patchwork of stakeholders, many of whom have different and conflicting needs. To solve downtown's parking and traffic problems, the TMA has to target downtown's largest and smallest employers. And many of the area's tech giants, whom the TMA surveyed, are already offering their workers significant incentives to take alternative commutes.

Silvani outlined goals and an approach for the TMA at the stakeholder group's January kick-off meeting: the effort needs to be data driven; it needs to make "all modes of travel easier"; and it should address the entire route from home to work, including what's known as the first and last mile.

"There are very few trips that are door-to-door other than driving your car," Silvani said. "We have to consider the whole journey."

In the months since, the group has attacked its assignment with gusto. A steering committee composed mostly of business owners and managers has met nearly every month to adopt the organization's vision, share the latest data and consider pilot programs. A March survey of businesses was its first significant achievement. Performed by the surveying firm EMC Research and verified by a supplemental phone poll and through data from the businesses themselves, the survey showed that solo drivers tend to work for small companies; they are most likely to be from the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries; they tend to be older; and they are much more likely to commute from south of Palo Alto than north.

South Bay residents make up 33 percent of the commuters; Palo Alto residents 22 percent; Peninsula residents 20 percent; San Francisco denizens 10 percent; and East Bay dwellers 7 percent. The remaining 8 percent come from elsewhere.

Nearly two-thirds of commuters from the South Bay and the Peninsula drive alone, while another 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively, take Caltrain. By contrast, only 18 percent of commuters from San Francisco drive alone, while 70 percent take Caltrain.

Older commuters are also more likely to drive alone than younger ones: Among those aged 50 and older, 70 percent drive solo, while among commuters ages 18 to 49, the solo-driving rate is 51 percent.

When asked about switching to public transit, nearly half of the solo drivers said they would make the switch if the service were "faster or more frequent" (26 percent "strongly agreed" and 21 percent "somewhat agreed" with this sentiment). Similar proportions said they would take transit if it were easier for them get to a transit stop and if the schedules were better.

These results are already shifting the conversation about Palo Alto's new traffic programs. As Transportation Planning Manager Jessica Sullivan explained to the City Council in August: "The commute survey data tells us that potentially first-mile solutions are going to be more effective for us in Palo Alto than last-mile. In other words, if we get people to Caltrain (from home), that may be a more effective use of our time and energy."

Setting the bar

The EMC survey offered plenty of hopeful signs for the city. It indicated, for instance, that downtown Palo Alto already has a reasonably low drive-alone rate: 55 percent. During a March discussion of the survey results, Tom Patras of EMC noted that cities nationwide often make goals of 60 to 70 percent. Silvani said drive-alone rates of 50 percent are considered "very good," according to meeting minutes. Stanford has a rate of 48 percent, among the lowest. LinkedIn and Google are around 55 percent. By contrast, Santa Clara County has a rate between 70 and 80 percent, according to Adina Levin, a steering committee member who is active with the group Friends of Caltrain.

Fifty percent of the surveyed solo drivers agreed with the statement, "I would rather not drive to work, but I have no other good options" (27 percent "strongly agreed"; and 23 percent "somewhat agreed"). And 60 percent said they "need to drive because I make other stops, such as for school, kids, or other errands, before or after work."

Given these obstacles, the TMA group has been struggling with the council's 30 percent goal. At its September meeting, the steering committee debated this figure and reached no resolution. Brian Shaw, a steering committee member who heads Stanford's hugely successful TDM program, said he's "had a problem with the 30 percent reduction goal since day one," according to meeting minutes. Rather than a single number, the goal should be "the desired end result of your activities and resource spending," he explained. At Stanford, this effectively means little-to-no traffic and employees who don't feel forced to drive to work every day.

Gil Friend, the city's chief sustainability officer, argued that the 30 percent goal should seen as "a floor," rather than the end.

Russ Cohen, president of the Downtown Palo Alto Business Improvement District, told the Weekly that the TMA steering committee has wrestled with whether the number is "reasonable or arbitrary." Cohen said he doesn't believe that the association's success should necessarily hinge on whether it can meet that target.

"If we move the needle at all, it's a success," Cohen said. "I think a lot of work is getting done and getting done fairly quickly and efficiently."

Silvani, for her part, is undaunted by the council's 30 percent challenge. Reducing downtown Palo Alto's drive-alone rate — from 55 percent — by 30 percent would bring it to 38 percent. This, she noted in September, translates to changing the behaviors of 1,650 downtown workers. Over a four-year period, that's about 400 employees per year: difficult, but in her view, very doable.

"When we look at things like the Caltrain Go Pass program, if we can make that attractive to another 100 to 200 people by selling it to employers who qualify, whose employees live along the Caltrain corridor and for whom it's a really good deal ... we're halfway there already against a measuring stick," Silvani said.

In establishing the Palo Alto TMA, Silvani finds herself in a slightly different predicament than in her prior efforts because she is effectively dealing with a clean slate. One of the things that makes the Palo Alto's project different from those in Mission Bay and Emeryville is that in both of those cases, membership in the group was mandatory for large-property owners in the designated area. In Palo Alto, the organization doesn't fully exist yet and participation from Palantir, Philz Coffee, Watercourse Way and other stakeholders is completely voluntary. There is no captive audience.

Yet the Palo Alto experiment also has its own advantages. It benefits from what Silvani described as a "highly motivated community" and a corporate culture that is already getting away from cars. People here have a "high degree of interest" in shuttles and other types of services, she said.

"Transportation is changing the way that businesses operate," Silvani told the Weekly. "If you talk to the business people, they have flexible time when they didn't use to. They have to have policies where if Caltrain is late, employees can turn around and work from home. Transportation has started to drive corporate policy."

This is particularly true in the downtown tech community. The list of 26 companies that now participate in the Go Pass program includes A9, Clipboard, Palantir, Groupon, IDEO, RelateIQ and SurveyMonkey. In March, when the City Council was considering an annual cap on new downtown development, several high-tech executives made a case to the City Council that — contrary to popular belief — their companies are not responsible for downtown's festering parking and traffic problems. Steve Ehikian of the software company RelateIQ said that about 60 percent of the company's workers live within two miles of the office and generally walk and bike to the office. For the remaining 40 percent, the company offers subsidies so employees can take Lyft and Uber to Caltrain. It also pays their Caltrain fare.

"My takeaway, just looking at RelateIQ, is that if you can focus office development near arterial transit hubs like Caltrain, we owners can figure out great ways of actually minimizing and reducing congestion," Ehikian told the council during a March hearing.

Robert McGrew, a Palantir employee who now serves on the new TMA steering committee, made a similar point and noted employee surveys that his company jointly performed with RelateIQ and SurveyMonkey. The survey of more than 1,000 employees showed a 38 percent drive-alone rate. A separate survey by the company A9 found a 40 percent drive-alone rate. It's not just the big companies that are seeing this trend, he noted.

One small company, Bonafide, had a 12.5 percent drive-alone rate, with just one of its eight employees driving to the office.

"It's premature to say the office workers are the cause of this (parking and traffic) problem," McGrew said at the March meeting.

Though some residents were skeptical about these self-reported numbers, the TMA's survey fully backed up McGrew's position. It showed that downtown's tech workers actually have a drive-alone rate of 33 percent — better than Stanford students or commuters to the Google campus in Mountain View. Cohen, of the downtown business association, credited the survey for shattering long-held misperceptions.

"The big myth was that the tech community is fraught with single-vehicle occupants, and that's certainly not the case," Cohen said.

Lyft off

Every downtown employee already works within walking distance of the University Avenue Caltrain station. Many, however, don't live near the tracks. Hence, what traffic planners call a "first mile" problem.

To solve this problem, the steering committee spent its summer debating possible "first mile" solutions. On July 29, the group interviewed service providers that might help with the effort: MuV, Scoop, Carma and Lyft, the San Francisco-based commuter service best known for cars with pink mustaches.

According to the meeting's minutes, Curtis Rogers of Lyft described the different first- and last-mile services his company already offers. A pilot project in July 2014 with RelateIQ, now known as SalesforceIQ, gave RelateIQ employees who live in San Francisco credits so that they can get Lyft rides to Caltrain. Initially, 14 people signed up, according to Rogers' presentation. That number has gone up to 35 people — the equivalent of an entire parking lot, he said.

Rogers in July pitched two different products to the committee. One, Lyft Line to Palo Alto, would serve workers who live within a specified radius (typically 5 to 7 miles) of downtown and bring them to and from their workplaces. The other, Lyft Line to Caltrain, would allow workers who live within a specified distance from a Caltrain station to share rides to the station. The average cost for each service would range from $5 to $15 per ride, according to the meeting minutes. Employers would offer their workers coupons for Lyft rides and, if the firms choose, condition these on workers giving up their parking passes. These coupons could be customized according to time of day, so that rides during the critical commuting hours would be cheaper, as an extra incentive.

Rogers said Lyft would aim to register 275 participants in Lyft Line to Palo Alto and that it would take charge of marketing the programs to all downtown employers, according to the minutes. The company also hopes 75 additional people would enroll in Lyft Line to Caltrain, with the marketing efforts aimed at the 26 employers that currently participate in the Go Pass program.

Ultimately, the committee agreed to explore working with Lyft, citing its track record and experience in other cities, though one member urged a more competitive approach in which the city would give each potential vendor a route and sees which does the best job.

Members asked Silvani to gather more information about Lyft's willingness to launching Lyft Line to Caltrain.

When asked why Lyft was chosen over other providers, Sullivan said that Lyft is the "furthest along in terms of being able to provide what we are looking for, which included the analytics on the back end to provide us with information about the rides, and the ability to deploy something at the scale we needed."

No formal agreement has been reached between the company and the city, but Lyft has been reaching out to employers to discuss both services, Sullivan said.

Seeking the new commute

For Palo Alto, the birth of the TMA and the fresh data about commuting patterns come at a particularly opportune time. Not only is the council updating the city's Comprehensive Plan — the foundation for all major policy decisions, including those involving transportation — but broader shifts are also happening in the field of transportation and in the region.

This idea of replacing your car key with a bundle of on-demand transportation services is an increasingly popular vision known as "Mobility as a Service," or MaaS. The concept was born in Helsinki, Finland, and recently caught the attention of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a regional policy group.

Earlier this year, Joint Venture launched an effort to promote MaaS as a traffic-reducing strategy. The effort is being undertaken by the group's Climate Prosperity Program, which is chaired by Palo Alto City Manager James Keene. According to its website, the group has already held 55 meetings with "ecosystem stakeholders," including large employers, mobility-service providers and government entities, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox. It has sought to develop an app to support MaaS and, in the coming months, the Joint Venture group plans to test pilot projects, persuade employers to conduct feasibility analyses for MaaS pilots, identify commute barriers, and author a white paper with findings and recommendations.

But for the program to truly succeed, someone has to step up with real projects and show that MaaS can work. Keene wants Palo Alto to be that someone.

"I do think we are going to have to serve as a sort of a point in the spear here and effectively pilot some alternatives to be able to get some momentum," Keene said.

He acknowledged that this will probably require some seed funding from the city beyond the half-million dollars it already invested in the group's formation and the ongoing shuttle expansion.

In some ways, Palo Alto is the ideal location for experiments in transit coordination. Its downtown Transit Center services Caltrain, VTA, SamTrans, the AC Transit, Stanford's Marguerite program and the city's own tiny shuttle fleet. Each marches to the tune of its own drummer. When the council discussed last month new goals for the Transportation Element, members agreed to add a goal stating Palo Alto "recognizes the regional nature of our transportation system and will be a leader in seeking regional transportation solutions through long-term planning."

Becoming that leader could be a challenge. Like many other large downtown employers, the City of Palo Alto recently began to participate in the Go Pass program, launching a nine-month trial in February 2014. Last November, the council agreed to budget $80,280 for the Go Pass program for its 446 eligible city workers downtown. In the pilot phase, employees were asked to give up their parking permits in exchange for a Go Pass, and about 50 agreed to do so, according to a November staff report. That requirement was scrapped from the current phase, with the intent of getting more people to switch to Caltrain. Now, Keene said, the city has a little over 100 people using Go Passes. The big question, he said, is: How do we dramatically ramp that up?

"It's critical now," Keene told the Weekly. "We have difficulty recruiting people now who five years ago we could've closed the deal with. But they live in Berkeley and the drive is difficult."

People's commute habits might already be changing due to factors outside of the city's control. During a citizen committee's discussion of the Comprehensive Plan in September, Friend gave a presentation suggesting that recent trends are calling for a more fundamental rethink of local transportation policies. He noted that car purchasing for people between 18 and 30 years old peaked in the 1980s and has been coming down in recent years.

"Millennials are not buying cars. Many aren't even getting driver's licenses," Friend said. "Some people seem to have figured out that having the second-largest investment in your life sitting idle 95 percent of the time may not be a good use of capital."

At the same time, technological changes are rapidly and radically transforming the industry. Friend noted that the cost of battery storage and electric vehicles has been dropping, even as self-driving cars are preparing to enter the field and both state and local governments are adopting ambitious greenhouse-gas-reduction targets.

"The convergence of these trends will likely drive a sea change in transportation in the next 10 to 20 years," Friend said. "One of the big challenges this committee has is that we basically plan based on the past. We extrapolate on patterns. Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance in this case. We need to figure out how to plan for the future that is extremely different than the past we're used to."

Friend argued that to solve the problems the city should pursue two strategies: The first is no longer incentivizing what the city doesn't want (namely, free parking throughout downtown's commercial core). The second is making convenient the types of services that the city wants to encourage.

It's not enough just to raise costs, Friend said. It's equally important to make it easier for people to access the services they need. Friend is now in the midst of putting together the city's first Sustainability/Climate Action Plan, a document that the council is set to review and ultimately adopt next year.

'"The driving design question as we see it as: How can we make more convenient for anyone, anywhere at any time to not drive alone? Or not drive at all," Friend told the committee. "For us, that becomes the test question for all the strategies we're looking at."

Comments

22 people like this
Posted by Elaine Uang
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2015 at 9:46 am

It's very gratifying to see Palo Alto move forward on this initiative. 2+ years ago I helped organize a community forum, Growth Without Gridlock (Web Link), with Brodie Hamilton, Gary Heap and Wendy Silvani, to explore ideas for managing traffic, parking and transportation challenges. As we noted then, good transportation policy begins with good data collection and collaboration with local businesses. Two years later it's nice to see Palo Alto proactively moving in the right direction to manage the transportation situation and help people of all income levels find better ways to get around.

I hope the TMA tries many new things soon and finds success (and even failures) with their program launches. THere's no silver bullet and we can learn from all of our tries. Above all, I hope the TMA finds the stable funding it will require for operations and increased programming, as it is a much needed tool in our local planning toolkit. Thank you to all the former and current Palo Alto electeds for showing leadership and moving forward the TMA and TDM efforts. I hope you will continue to support in the near term.


16 people like this
Posted by Sandra
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 16, 2015 at 9:55 am

A wonderfully thorough article that articulates our issues and some really interesting -- and potentially game-changing solutions. So pleased to have a group of committed, intelligent and thoughtful people working on this seemingly intractable problem. It's good to see some hard data around who's driving, where they're coming from and when. Let's make decisions made on data not on emotional impressions that demand more parking -- making our region even more congested. It's not easy and I thank all those who are working hard on finding solutions.
I see a glimmer of hope here.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2015 at 10:15 am

I think it is wonderful to hear how by helping one by one to improve their commute. This is very worthwhile and good to hear.

I think it is useful to hear these stories and how others can be helped just by hearing others' stories.

People who work regular shifts at regular times in regular places are the ideal candidates for public transportation. Helping them see alternatives to driving does help.

However, how does it help those who perhaps work irregular hours, whose shifts change each week? I know that people who are permanently subbing at different schools each day around the District for example, are people who are going to find public transportation difficult.

I would genuinely like to see out of town (Baylands and near 280) parking lots with shuttles that go directly to downtown without stopping at every block get workers to their jobs from the highways and other entrances into the town.

I would also like to see shuttles that cross the Mountain View and Menlo Park borders but still designed as shuttles rather than VTA/SamTrans bus routes.

I would also like to see better designed shuttles to get to our middle and high schools, not just for students, but for teachers and administrators to use also.

This article shows what a good start looks like. Thank you.


10 people like this
Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 16, 2015 at 10:15 am

It's exciting to have data about the transportation patterns and needs of commuters. This is generating practical ideas about how to reduce traffic and parking demand. Looking forward to getting started with programs to provide more cost-effective commute options.


32 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 16, 2015 at 10:31 am

Chip is a registered user.

This is useful information. It doesn't excuse the City's practice of allowing a hotel developer to buy his way out of providing 200 parking spaces by adding "in lieu" fees. It doesn't help the overall downtown traffic congestion as drivers circle blocks searching for parking that isn't there. I think we'll see more downtown residential front yards turned into dedicated parking spaces by homeowners whose nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, and guests need a place to park.

Maybe PA can pass an ordinance that PA North residential tenants may not have cars & rent exclusively to bicyclists?

I think I'll shop online instead of in downtown stores or confine myself to Stanford Shopping Center for retail needs. Town & Country Village is a mess of congested parking & it's car lanes built in the '50s are too narrow for today's SUVs, mini or maxi vans & long bed trucks.


15 people like this
Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 16, 2015 at 10:42 am

@chip - why should in-lieu fees only be able to go to parking that encourages people to drive, rather than to programs that help people commute without driving. Since traffic is also a big problem, doesn't it make sense to invest in solutions for commuting that reduce traffic?


19 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 16, 2015 at 11:34 am

This is not a Palo Alto problem. It's a Silicon Valley "problem", a result of economic success. A regional transportation strategy, with politicians able to execute it (good luck) is what we need or the traffic/economic success will only get worse. MASSIVE transportation and vision is needed or nothing will change. Electrifying the train is all well and good but what we really need are thousands of miles of subways, light rails, trains and gondolas. Listening to fellow Palo Altans complain about the shadow a 51' tall building might cast is old and tiring and totally out of tune with reality. We need more housing in silicon valley and it will only come with greater density and height allowance. This is not a farm town anymore - get over it already or move to a farm!


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2015 at 11:37 am

I agree with commonsense. We need to stop listening to all the very short term, short sighted "visionaries" and come up with a well thought out strategy for the inevitable long term growth in this region. Denying it will only spell trouble in the long run. Look at what the past denial/planning has gotten us.


4 people like this
Posted by LizzyBell
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Housing, Jobs, Schools. When Palo Alto visualizes that their workforce also desires to be residents - living and working within 2 or 3 miles of their jobs and families will reduce the carbon footprint and bring noise pollution to a more tolerable level. Provide a housing bridge to the 80 percent of the low-income Palo Alto workforce who trim our hedges, care for our children, serve our food and clean our bathrooms. When coming from a 10 - 40mile distance, pumping gas costs less than stepping on a train or a bus. While many high-tech workers have the luxury to work from their laptops while sitting on the train, most service workers are not paid that way. Only virtually can we have our cake and eat it too.


3 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 16, 2015 at 12:38 pm

It is all about the Train which is already running to capacity at rush hour. Meanwhile...fleet of empty busses on El Camino.


25 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 16, 2015 at 12:58 pm

Chip is a registered user.

@ Adina-
My point is that it is a mistake to develop any project without adequate on site parking for the intended users, especially for a hotel or office building.

Joie de vivre made it sound good - convert senior housing (few of whose residents drive) which Palo Alto also needs to a hotel! Great!! It's only patrons will arrive & depart by CalTrain so parking isn't needed? Balderdash! Big local companies have 2-4 day meetings @ that hotel & half the attendees are employed at the local campus, no where near CalTrain, so those employees have to drive. We all know how good the bus system here is NOT. Many out-of-town hotel guests rent cars to travel locally & see sights. Where do they park those cars? Not at the hotel.

The concept of "in lieu" fees is wrong & adds to street congestion. A properly managed city budget will have provided for infrastructure maintenance without living off one-time payments from developers who want exceptions to zoning & building regulations. Eventually, it will all be developed so who'll pony up money then?


7 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:06 pm

Very good article; highlights the first mile/last mile issues all commuters face. Left out of the article is the fact that we have too many different public transit governing bodies which are sometimes in competition with each other (eg. is the Rapid Bus Transit proposal by the Santa Clara VTA to take over 2 lanes of El Camino Real exclusively for buses - which duplicates what Caltrain does).

And the article highlights locating work near the transit hubs, not residences, which is the opposite of what the politicians in Palo Alto seem to emphasize.

And maybe what should be required is that each employer in Palo Alto get taxed on each employee who does not have a GO pass or monthly bus pass to help fund the transportation management; this tax can then be used to buy train or monthly bus passes for the employees who cannot afford them.


9 people like this
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:22 pm

I am a small, voluntary, financial investor in the TMA. In fact, I may be the only investor except the City of Palo Alto. As a member of the public, I attend as many of the TMA meeting as possible. Here is my take.
1) The City's investment of $499,880 over a few years is irrationally small given the enormity of the traffic problems. The TMA as currently configured is a timid approach unbecoming to a city that claims to be world class. A fragmented employer TMA is a real challenge and requires massive front end investment and an inspirational leader.
2)The TMA goal should immediately include Town and Country and California Avenue commercial core; funding should be increased accordingly. Either Stanford University or the TMA should encompass Stanford Research Park.
3) Exactly what was the in lieu fee contribution from the Epiphany Hotel developer? Was it proportionate to benefits received. I will post the amount if I can find the information buried in the city website?
4) Palo Alto deserves a world class TMA including residents who live near the California and University Avenue commercial cores.
5) Within a few weeks city staff may propose a new garage on city property. If we are serious about climate change and traffic reduction, then a new garage is ridiculous allocation of resources. This capital could propel Palo Alto's baby step TMA into a serious endeavor.


30 people like this
Posted by Spoiled
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

Palo Alto is out of space. The city needs to halt further commercial development. Why don't all the spoiled, whining 24-35 year olds move to East Palo Alto where housing is affordable. But no, they want "it all" now. They also want rent control.


6 people like this
Posted by Anneke
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:50 pm

An effective and efficient multi-integrated regional transportation system is critical in enhancing everyone's quality of life.

As the article states, right now, each transportation system seems to operate independently from one-another.

It would be worthwhile to do a study of all the transportation systems:
o Their routes and stops
o Their times of departures and arrivals
o How many people are on a system
o And more.....

If we could better coordinate all these systems, we may already go a long way in reducing the present transportation system, which would then positively influence affordable housing, which in turn would enhance people's quality of life.





14 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:52 pm

What is missing is a rational regional plan to site industry near housing, and to get support workers from their homes to their jobs. Local "solutions" like TMA and the unsung failure known as TDM don't cut it, even if they actually worked within their geographical scope.

Moving software jobs is super easy (which will be the downfall of this boom that has everyone all tizzied up). Designating zones regionally for new industry is much, much simpler than scurrying about trying to slip in housing following a constantly changing, willy-nilly scattering of employers. And it would equalize the distribution of economic opportunity.

Why the institutional allergy to taking control?


18 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:52 pm

What about tolls for single out of town drivers during commute hours. Congestion tolls!


3 people like this
Posted by Bonnie Doon
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:56 pm

I would rephrase the title of this article: In need of no commute - how Palo Altans will encourage a new path to live and work within climate change.


6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2015 at 1:56 pm

"What about tolls for single out of town drivers during commute hours. Congestion tolls!"

And double tolls for PA residents commuting out, which is about half the working resident population. They occupy housing that could be used for the local workforce.


20 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 16, 2015 at 2:19 pm

For four years the winter weather has been pleasant, but if this year truly turns out to be the second wettest El Nino in the last twenty or thirty decades, I wonder how many will take the train if it involves walking 15 or 20 minutes in drenching rains? Also, VTA provides so few bus shelters along El Camino. Either from winter rain or from blazing hot cancer causing sun.


8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Serious question. How good is ZipCar for downtown residents?

I know people in San Francisco who consider it wonderful for their lifestyle.

Why are we not promoting ZipCar in new residential communities?

Why is there not a ZipCar for the residential units at JCC?

Car share programs will help those who want to commute by train or bus on a regular basis but still want car ownership benefits for weekends and evenings. Shouldn't this be part of the mix?


11 people like this
Posted by traffic and parking
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 16, 2015 at 3:18 pm

I think it's really important for the city of Palo Alto to see and understand that traffic and parking are tradeoffs. If you build lots of parking and you don't even price it, you encourage people to drive here and that creates traffic and congestion. The more parking you build, the more traffic you're going to get. If you want to reduce congestion, then you need to offer less free parking. I for one often take the train into the city precisely because I know I'm going to have a hard time finding parking. So I leave the car at home. If SF built plentiful parking garages everywhere, then why wouldn't I drive there?

That being said, you can't morally cut out all the parking if you're not providing real alternatives to driving. And that's where Palo Alto really needs to step up its game to make other modes of transit far more appealing. It sounds like Wendy and her team are doing a great job coming up with creative solutions and I hope they keep going with them. Let's pilot a bunch of things and see what works and what doesn't, learn, and move forward. We can't just stick our hands in the sand though and pretend that these tradeoffs aren't real.


9 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2015 at 4:47 pm

I moved here a few decades ago in part because Palo Alto was so easy to get around compared to other cities, and so calm. I can't remember the last time I've been to the University area since the boom, though. I miss my favorite restaurants but can't handle the traffic and parking problems. University Ave is now for Palantir and other tech employees I guess.


10 people like this
Posted by KenAgain
a resident of another community
on Oct 16, 2015 at 5:18 pm

A decade ago I appealed the hotel dreaming it might help wake up the City about the problems it was causing. It didn't. Development without meeting parking needs continues and Palo Alto continues to "Study" the issue. And the developers and commercial property owners responsible for paying for viable solutions continue to reap the financial benefits - even beyond the $500 million plus subsidy given to them by the City (the value of parking not provided).


9 people like this
Posted by out of control
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2015 at 11:06 pm

The in lieu fee actually paid by Epiphany is difficult or impossible to determine leaving it open to conjecture,absent disclosure by the City to clear-up confusion on this.

The absence of a complete fully operational regional rail system at the center of a public transportation system as exists in European countries cannot be overcome by a TMA program. As a society and a local community
here in Palo Alto we have not planned for,and have given away and lost control of our future.






4 people like this
Posted by Old Pro
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2015 at 7:25 am

Pro-tip:

When you hear/read "non-profit", realize that a non-profit is a structure to reward insiders with highly competitive compensation under the guise of social virtue. It's a great gig, revenue must be spent to have zero profit.

As such, nonprofits tend to raise money from government/donors, pay insiders very well, enable the insiders to feel virtuous, but only nibble at the edges of problem. They never never solve the problem. Indeed, it's in the insiders' interest for the problem to continue.

Here, do you think that this "budding Palo Alto non-profit" will change the way people get to work? Or will they collect monies from government/donors, and pay themselves very well to write airy communications and reports, do outreach, and make a barely perceptible change? Experience says the latter.


2 people like this
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 18, 2015 at 10:10 am

I don't think we have a traffic congestion problem, we have a traffic management problem. There is no coordination of red lights throughout the district. Why can't a commuter get from Stanford to the 101 or from downtown to the 101 without a red light? Seems to me that unclogging the arterial is the best approach that is low cost and readily available right now, while we waste millions on consultants and visionaries.

Fell and oak streets in SF are excellent examples. Timed right, at 25mph one can go from golden gate park to the city without ever stopping at over 10 red light intersections.

Not rocket science people.


2 people like this
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 18, 2015 at 10:37 am

Here is the best information I can find about the parking fees paid by the developer when the city approved conversion of the nursing home to a high end hotel.

In-lieu fees paid by Epiphany:
per page 2 on fWeb Link, they paid $486,000 in 2012 for 8 spaces. However, cash flow doesn't appear on the in-lieu list from the city dated March 31, 2013. It is nbt clear the city has been keeping good records, especially if in-lieu fees went into some general fund.

Bottom line: Hotel does not provide any on-site parking spaces for its employees and it is highly doubtful if hotel employees park in the commercial core garages and surface lots. TMD effort is wonderful, but low intensity. TDM does not preclude more and more non-resident parked vehicles pushed in the residential neighborhoods.

A related question is the valet parking program for Ephiphany hotel guests. The hotel (now owned by billionaire Larry Ellison) has leased private parking spaces built on the site of the Lytton Gardens residential care facility located in DTN residential neighborhood. Presumably Lytton Gardens guests and employees have not been displaced????? I wont even pursue the question of where hotel guests will park when the hotel is completely full. CalTrain parkinglot is by far the most economical option.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 18, 2015 at 1:22 pm

"However, cash flow doesn't appear on the in-lieu list from the city dated March 31, 2013. It is nbt clear the city has been keeping good records..."

Or even collectinf, if indeed the in lieu arrangement is still in force. City hall's record of collecting what developers owe the city is legendarily poor.


Like this comment
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 18, 2015 at 2:41 pm

Too many good posts to comment on all of them, but thanks to all of you who made them. Just a few. Lizzy Bell, thank you for your thoughts. Chip, many developers/builders are gaming the system with the 'in lieu ofs' and sadly, there seems to be very little oversight and accounting of them. It's a scam con game. Some people are experts at it and make their livings doing it. But more sadly, some people at City Hall are falling for it, either because of naivete, or because they also see a benefit in furthering their political careers by supporting it and then turning their backs and never following up on the results. Old Pro, I've been a skeptic also on non-profits. Of course they're non-profits because their books can always show all the money was used up, thus no profit. But I want to give this aspiring startup a break with conditions. Give us your business plan, people on your staff (with salaries), and how you plan to reach your goals and use the money. That should be a reasonable request!


2 people like this
Posted by Izzy
a resident of another community
on Oct 18, 2015 at 5:28 pm

As someone who commutes daily to Palo Alto, anything that can make this better would be great!


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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