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.
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."