News

Editorial: Getting out of cars

New Palo Alto initiatives take aim at single-occupancy vehicle commutes

Ask any employer in Palo Alto, large or small, tech or restaurant, what its biggest business challenge is and you'll get the same two answers: the lack of local housing options affordable to its employees and the hellish commute experiences that result. Both lead to upward pressures on rent and compensation, the two largest cost centers for most businesses.

In spite of all the wishful talk about reducing our large imbalance between jobs and housing by finding ways to build higher density housing, we are not going to build enough new housing to make even a small dent in the affordability or housing-jobs quotient.

With this reality, two important initiatives are underway to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuting. One, in the Stanford Research Park, has organically emerged through cooperative efforts of large employers who share the goal of making commuting more bearable for its employees. Among other strategies, this group is negotiating for special volume pricing of VTA bus passes and exploring a private bus service whose cost could be shared by multiple employers.

The other is the nascent downtown Transportation Management Association (TMA,) a nonprofit corporation the City of Palo Alto organized last year that will be seeking to reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles by 30 percent over the next three years.

With almost 75 percent of all downtown employees working for small companies with fewer than 25 employees currently driving solo to their jobs, there is a huge opportunity to decrease traffic and parking problems if good alternatives and incentives can be developed.

If successful this could mean that some 1,600 people currently driving alone to their jobs in downtown Palo Alto are coaxed into other methods (car-pooling, public transit, bicycling, etc.).

As a start, the idea is for the new TMA to immediately (as early as the next few months) launch a transit-pass subsidy program for low-wage workers, believed to be the group most difficult to organize because many work for smaller employers, but with the greatest potential for shifting into public transit and reducing the parking demands downtown.

Both of these transit initiatives will take center stage at Monday night's City Council meeting, where the council will hold back-to-back "study sessions" on each of the programs and then later discuss how the downtown TMA should be directed and funded.

Transportation management is an essential component of a multi-pronged effort by the city to address residents' concerns about overdevelopment, inadequate parking and unbearable traffic congestion. In addition to the current (and temporary) cap on office development and the ongoing implementation of the downtown residential-parking permit system, improvements to Palo Alto's free bus shuttle program and bicycle path system are also in the works.

While the goals of the new downtown Transportation Management Association are laudable, the group's approach to governance and funding needs more clarity, transparency and council direction.

The initial board of directors of the nonprofit consists of three representatives from large employers, Palantir, Google, and the City of Palo Alto; two from "medium"-sized employers, the Garden Court Hotel and IDEO; and one from a "small" company, Philz Coffee. (Google, which has no presence downtown, was apparently asked to participate because of its experience with transportation programs and since it has many employees who live downtown and commute to various Google facilities.)

We are disappointed not to see a larger board and more diverse participation from large employers that have many lower-paid service workers commuting long distances, including the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Holiday Inn, Westin Hotel, Town & Country Village and Whole Foods Market.

The TMA's funding strategy, still in the early stages of development, needs to protect small retailers and other businesses that can least afford new fees. Most similar TMAs fund their work through employer fees or taxes skewed to large employers, with some start-up help from the city. Here, City Manager Jim Keene is proposing the city initially provide $200,000 while Palantir and Google kick in just $10,000 each, the Garden Court and IDEO $2,500 and Philz $1,000.

We would hope to see the bulk of funding coming from large employers and the property owners who have become wealthy, having the good fortune of owning downtown real estate and, in many cases, not bearing any responsibility for either parking or transportation.

As always, the devil will be in the details as these transportation initiatives roll out. For its part, the City Council should use its financial leverage to ensure the new TMA operates with complete transparency, broad-based representation and with funding responsibility that falls squarely on those who can most afford it.

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Comments

36 people like this
Posted by commuter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2016 at 9:02 am

The city could do much better by providing safer and more convenient bicycle routes and public transit between residential areas and major employers. For example, the bicycle route under Hwy 101 in southern Palo Alto is very popular with Palo Alto residents commuting to Google and other employers in that area. However, that bike path is closed for months every year and the alternatives are so unattractive that most commuters just drive instead. The city has been talking about building a year-round bike path for years (even decades) but all we have now is "share the road" and "slow down" signs along San Antonio Road which car drivers just ignore. Public transit connections between southern Palo Alto and Mountain View are also minimal. Palo Alto needs to do much better to encourage non-car commuting in the southern part of the city.


26 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2016 at 9:26 am

Very interesting that I am reading this while it is pouring rain outside. I don't mean sprinkling, I mean getting very wet rain. To ride a bike in this or even to walk half a mile, would mean a very necessary addition to clothing and possibly, probably, a shower at work. The reality is that very few people will want to do anything but drive in weather like this.

How many places of work have mud rooms to store wet boots, raincoats, even umbrellas? How many places have a decent shower for employees?

I know we don't get many wet days, but when we do, we have absolutely no facilities to deal with it. School teachers won't allow wet umbrellas inside the classrooms because they make the floors wet and slippy.

If another rule about showers in places of employment so that people would be able to arrive sweaty from a bike ride, we might be able to get more people to think about getting out of their cars.


34 people like this
Posted by commuter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2016 at 9:27 am

Also, how about building a bicycle/pedestrian bridge from Midtown to the California Ave business district? Crossing Oregon Expressway on foot or bicycle has become increasingly difficult in recent years since some crosswalks were removed and the signal timings were changed to increase delays for cross traffic. The tiny tunnel under the train tracks north of Oregon Expressway is too congested for amount of pedestrian and bicycle traffic that it receives, as well as being too steep and narrow for wheelchairs. A new bridge over the train tracks south of Oregon Expressway would encourage many more people to visit California Ave (both the businesses and the train station) by foot or bicycle. This route would also be great for people commuting by bicycle from Midtown to Stanford and HP and the businesses around PARC. The city has talked about building this bridge in the past, but why hasn't anything happened?


28 people like this
Posted by commuter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2016 at 9:52 am

@Resident - how many rainy days does Palo Alto really get every year? I'm guessing less than 5%. If we can get a big boost in non-car commuting on the other 95% of workdays, that is a huge win.

How about encouraging classrooms and retail businesses to put a box near the front door to hold wet umbrellas? I see this often in rainy cities, but maybe rain is so rare here that business owners and teachers don't even think about it.


32 people like this
Posted by Grumpy Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Mar 11, 2016 at 10:13 am

A smarter idea is to create a special assessment zone encompassing the PA downtown and the Stanford Research Park. By doing this, these two areas are required to pay additional taxes to pay for all of this traffic congestion and added transportation costs. The biggest crime in this whole picture is that the commercial property owners benefit from the maximum profitability of their property, but fail to pay a proportionate share of the burden they put onto the city because of Prop 13. Thus, by instituting a special assessment zone, they will be required to pay into a special fund that would help pay for these traffic burdens and added public transportation.

The first step is to evaluate the problem and its source. The next step is to require the property owners who benefit the most to pay for the problem.


6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2016 at 11:21 am

Commuter - I agree with you completely. We don't have people putting umbrella stands and we should. We also need better places to store jackets and coats, rather than just on the back of the chair.

The point was really more to address the needs for showers in places of work. Someone arriving at work after a bike ride needs to be able to shower. This is particularly important if they are dealing with food. It is also important for people who work with people to feel fresh and clean. Even on a reasonable day, if you walk for a mile or so, you arrive at your destination needing to freshen up, leave a jacket and change of shoes. On a hot summer day, it is just as likely that someone will want to shower as on a day that is pouring rain after a bike ride.

If we are going to put in rules for parking assistance, I think we should also put in rules for requirements of shower facilities and secure cloakrooms.


66 people like this
Posted by larry
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2016 at 11:27 am

Downtown real estate owners that have built buildings without adequate parking should pay fees for the commuters in their developments who drive and do not park in their buildings.
This would repay the community for their lack of providing for the parking and encroachment on the others in the community (for instance, outlying parking, more parking, commute buses, etc.)


27 people like this
Posted by Dean
a resident of another community
on Mar 11, 2016 at 12:18 pm

ALL politicians avoid getting a REAL and Permanent solution to both the housing and traffic problems.

The problem is far too many jobs in a very small area. Building high rise buildings for the jobs create both the housing and traffic problems. The only REAL solution is for the Business License authority to use the practice of the California Alcohol and Beverage Control. Allow only so many businesses in any given area, depending upon the number of employees thereby keeping the businesses within a reasonable distance of housing and minimizing traffic congestion.

Oh, I forgot, the politicians have to keep the population density extremely high in order to get graft to keep them in jobs that should be there only for public service, not for creating millionaires.


16 people like this
Posted by bike
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 11, 2016 at 12:52 pm

I myself am a bike commuter. I like riding to work, I like feeling the nice weather here, and I like combining the commute with my athletic goal. But I have to say I tried very hard to maintain this lifestyle because our society is simply not ready for bikes. Pick a prescription from Walgreens on my way home? Someone will give you THE EYE. Pick up groceries? Sorry no bikes. Did I mention the numerous close calls I have everyday? Did I mention the fallen cyclists that are ruled at fault in a collision because that cannot talk anymore? I love riding to work, but I will discourage other people from doing so because it is just not worth the hassle.


17 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 11, 2016 at 12:53 pm

Maybe our city employees can sponsor a design contest for an iconic parking structure for the 100,000 or so cars that flood our fair city every work day?

Maybe the could stick said iconic structure out in the Baylands and use our under-used shuttle buses to ferry the workers back and forth to work?

That would sure beat cluttering our neighborhoods with parked cars, jamming our streets and further destroying our retail districts?

Let our city leadership set an example. Let them get out of their cars and only commute by bike or public transit until this happens since they're obviously not driving around in rush hour and and seeing the gridlock they created for themselves.


22 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 11, 2016 at 1:31 pm

Higher density commercial and/or higher density residential requires higher density transportation! There isn't any more space unless roads become double deck.

Rather than give developers exemptions from current density requirements, put them in a "transportation permit program". Charge them yearly for every new trip into Palo Alto they create that isn't on public transit.

... and apply a yearly tax on every underparked commercial property.




2 people like this
Posted by Mimi Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Cars are tooooo big for commuting. Parking takes up valuable real estate for cars that just sit there all day. Realistically though, we cannot force drivers to give up driving unless the alternative is more attractive. This means safer routes for bicyclists and pedestrians along with a mass transit system that is fast, convenient and comfortable. Huge hurdles.


20 people like this
Posted by commuter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2016 at 3:09 pm

@Mimi Wolf - safer bicycle routes are not "huge hurdles" if the city pays a little attention to it. No one will deny that the Bryant Street Bicycle Boulevard is much safer now than before the bicycle boulevard treatment and that works great for people heading downtown. Now if we could just extend the bicycle boulevard into Mountain View and add a similar a couple of east-west bicycle boulevards (from the Baylands to Stanford or farther), then the city would be in much better shape than it is now. The city already has plans to build these bicycle boulevards. We just need some motivation to go through with the plans. The existing "share the road" signs on San Antonio Road really do not cut it.


19 people like this
Posted by 55%
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 11, 2016 at 3:11 pm

There's all these comments about how inevitable and inescapable driving is, but here's a fact, even today 45% of all trips downtown are not done by single occupancy vehicles. Despite all the hysteria in these comments 45% of people find a way to not drive every single day. So let's stop pretending like we this is some impossible ask. Saying "but everyone will always drive" is a lot like saying "but everyone will always each cheeseburgers and fries." If people want or need to make a change, they will. Government's role here is to make that change easier and more palatable and to nudge incentives such that it becomes more worthwhile to do the thing that's better for society.


27 people like this
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2016 at 4:20 pm

This is a result of overdevelopment in a small area and overpopulation. It's ridiculous to blame this on businesses. They function on expediency, not lofty morals. The City Council lacked foresight was profligate and instead of taking responsibility,

they offload the blame onto innocent people who drive cars. Like driving cars is a sin now. What a despicable, inexcusable HOAX.
Then they come at us with asinine solutions like double HOV lanes which badly exacerbate congestion and they wonder why these people still won't get out of their cars.


The response? Push even harder. 4 person HOV. Maybe triple carpool lanes? Deny reality even harder. Suffocate traffic even tighter like a boa constrictor. Maybe THEN they'll stop driving? Hey it's worth a shot let's pour millions into it and continue to experiment recklessly with people's tax dollars.

Our leaders' incompetence is nakedly on display. They need to be replaced. Thankfully, this seems to be happening on a national level. Now, it needs to happen on a local level.


11 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2016 at 4:21 pm

"If people want or need to make a change, they will."

Yep. People are cusses. They tend to do what works for them regardless of what the social engineers sitting in their salons decree they ought to do. It's that simple.


19 people like this
Posted by Read the News
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Mar 11, 2016 at 5:52 pm

Hasn't anyone read about the people on bikes who have been killed lately? Even on weekends? It is just too dangerous to bike ride in the BayArea-- lack of bike lanes, narrow roads, citations given for riding on sidewalks....

And then there are the accidents where bike riders aren't killed, but injured, sometimes gravely. Those don't make the headlines.

I have been injured four times, the first of which was as a Student at UC Davis-- where bike riding is almost a religion. That put me in the hospital with a severe concussion for a week. That made the school newspaper because it was on campus.

The second was riding to work at Stanford, on Campus Blvd-- an associate professor ran a stop sign and hit me. Another concussion, another five days in the hospital, but the prof had to pay ( the first was a hit and run-- I have no memory of it due to brain shear; yes, I wore a helmet)

The third and fourth were on Palo Alto residential streets, riding home from work. Both were drivers who ran stop signs and made illegal left turns. One was a business leader talking on his cell phone, the other a newly minted foreign driver who left the scene without stopping.

Neither of the last two made the papers, even though I had to have surgeries for broken bones, torn tendons, and dislocated joints. The drivers were apprehended: I recognized one, got the plates of the other. Spent two years in court to get driver #3 to pay, even though he was a billionaire. Driver #4 had his new license suspended and his insurance company paid my medical expenses.

I finally started driving again when I could no longer drive due to permanent injuries to my knees.

Not all who drive CAN bike ride, though God knows I tried for 15 years!


2 people like this
Posted by Tim Buck II
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2016 at 6:22 pm

"here's a fact, even today 45% of all trips downtown are not done by single occupancy vehicles."

Assuming for the moment that is true, then apparently 55% of all trips downtown are done by single occupancy vehicles. How many is that, in round thousands?

What, exactly, constitutes a "trip downtown" anyway?


4 people like this
Posted by Grammar
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 12, 2016 at 5:24 am

"With almost 75 percent of all downtown employees working for small companies with fewer than 25 employees currently driving solo to their jobs, there is a huge opportunity to decrease traffic and parking problems if good alternatives and incentives can be developed."

What a poorly crafted sentence. It's unclear whether the driving solo refers to the 75 percent, or the 25 employees.

And the person who wrote this is an editor? Wow.


10 people like this
Posted by Problem is overdevelopment not grammar
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 12, 2016 at 1:10 pm

The sentence is clear, just a little too long.
It says that almost 3/4 of the workers in small downtown companies drive solo to work.
Fewer than 25 employees is the definition of small company.

The sentence has too much in it, but it is not hard to understand.


11 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2016 at 2:13 pm

The problem is every 50 sqft of office built for an office-space worker, creates the need for 500-1000 sqft of local living space. The problems created by this 15:1 leverage cannot be solved by whittling away at the edges of transportation and parking.

Palo alto need a massive restructuring of its housing, transportation and parking infrastructure, or it needs to reverse the trend in office development.


8 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2016 at 11:02 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Connecting (transit) Grids is a solution that has a chance of meeting needs.

We currently have many Wandering long routes that do not run or connect in a timely fashion. We need short routes that can drop folk at the time-stop transfer points of the more major routes.
Why does one get off Cal Train and have to wait 15 minutes for the bus to leave? Why does one ride on a bus to ECR, only to see the (5)22 bus pulling away before they have a chance to cross the street or debus?

Yes, there will be more rider transfers.
IMHO the PA Shuttles should only be the 'last (part) mile' connection to VTA or CalTrain not be a replacement or Alternate.


8 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Mar 13, 2016 at 11:46 am

SteveU says, "IMHO the PA Shuttles should only be the 'last (part) mile' connection to VTA or CalTrain not be a replacement or Alternate."

I completely agree with this. IMHO Palo Alto gets poor VTA service. It's disgusting since Palo Alto pays a disproportionate chunk into the VTA AND has to pay for its own shuttle service. Why pay twice?



Posted by Poochy
a resident of Old Palo Alto

on Mar 13, 2016 at 6:38 pm


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4 people like this
Posted by Russ
a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2016 at 7:31 pm

The formation of the TMA is a big step in the right direction. Is it a panacea for the multitude of parking and transit issues, specifically downtown, no. It is however, a mechanism that will be funded in large part by businesses and help serve those who can least afford permits. If Palo Altan's want to paint the blame on office workers, it is misguided. Statistics prove that. I hope that those who insist on opining blame will instead become part of the solution and get behind the TMA and its programs, especially now when it's in its infancy. Let's not poo poo an idea that has proved successful in other cities before it even begins in ours.


4 people like this
Posted by sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2016 at 10:59 am

On line commuter has the best solution. Put a huge parking structure right at a Freeway exit and have the City Shuttle stop at the parking structure then make the rounds (in more than one direction so that the ride is not too long) to all the large employers and areas downtown. It will need to be free or people won't use it.
The shuttles mist run frequently all day from early morning into the evening so that people can have supper downtown and then go home.
The shuttle must visit every residential neighborhood, not just the one area it is in now.


4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 14, 2016 at 12:10 pm

"Put a huge parking structure right at a Freeway exit and have the City Shuttle stop at the parking structure then make the rounds... "

Great idea. And we don't even have to build a parking structure, because we have 100+ acres of way underutilized land at the Palo Alto airport. The runway alone could host over 300 8-ft wide parking spots, and the tarmac a lot more. There's even an eatery as a bonus amenity.


4 people like this
Posted by commuter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2016 at 5:27 pm

A huge parking structure is going to cost a huge amount of money, like $50 MILLION to $100 MILLION or more. Who is going to pay that money? Can the parking lot operator really charge enough to recoup the building cost (like $20/day)? Will employers and business owners pay the money? Or is this just going to be another taxpayer (meaning city residents) subsidy?


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