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.