Palo Alto looks to new signs, sensors to steer drivers to parking garages

Council supports new 'wayfinding' system; guidance system in downtown garages

As downtown's parking landscape continues to shift, Palo Alto officials increasingly find themselves debating new parking-permit programs, new garages and new transportation options that would make cars unnecessary.

The latest parking debate, which took place Monday night, came down to a simpler question: Blue or green?

That was the question the City Council was trying to answer as it considered a new sign program that would make it easier for drivers to find local parking facilities and figure out which of them actually have open spots. After a lengthy discussion, the council concurred with the recommendation from planning staff and its consultant, and by a 6-1 vote, with Tom DuBois dissenting, threw its support behind new garage technology that relies on sensors and overhead LED lights to reveal open spaces to drivers.

The council also gave its go-ahead to a new "wayfinding" system that would use pylons, banners, and other types of signs to steer drivers to local garages, which historically have been underused. In the most contentious debate of the evening, the council voted 5-2 to make the parking signs blue, with supports of this option arguing that the color would give parking facilities a distinct "brand." Councilwomen Liz Kniss and Karen Holman favored green signs and argued that the color would be more consistent with the city's history and environmental ideals.

Despite some disagreements over details, all seven council members in attendance (Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Eric Filseth were absent) agreed that new signs and enhanced garage technology should be pursued.

Sue-Ellen Atkinson, the city's parking operations lead, said the current system is far from ideal, with some banners too high up to be visible, some monuments too low to be useful and some signs too ambiguous to function properly.

"Existing parking and wayfinding downtown is, at best, inconsistent and confusing," Atkinson said, noting one sign next to the letter "P" showed three arrows going in different direction. "When you're driving it can be downright confusing to decide to go left, right or straight when you're told to go in all three ways."

As part of the rebranding effort, the city had hired a consultant, Walker Parking Consultants, which came up with a design for the new signs. The city's Architectural Review Board reviewed those signs last fall and, following the consultant's lead, favored the blue signs over the city's traditional green. Both Councilman Cory Wolbach and Mayor Pat Burt supported the proposed light-blue signs because they would be more distinct and, hence, more functional.

"I've always been fond of 'Palo Alto green' but we want to distinguish parking signs from other signs," Burt said. "My first inclination was to stay with Palo Alto green, but I actually think it's pretty important that people know where the parking is and that we intuitively start associating a given color with a function."

A more critical decision that the council also made Monday night pertained to parking-guidance systems: technology that notifies a driver how many spaces are open at a given garage. Both the city's consultant and staff favored the most expensive option on the table: One that would detect every open space and mark it with a green light. Known as the single-space detection Automatic Parking Guidance System (APGS), the technology is expected to cost about $2 million.

The other two options on the table were a "facility count" guidance system, in which a sign displays the number of open spots inside a garage and a "level-and-zone count" guidance system, which counts available spaces by garage level.

Most council members embraced the single-space detection system, which is currently in use at the Westfield Valley Fair mall in San Jose. By a 6-1 vote, they directed staff to create estimates for construction and installation of an automated parking-guidance system and to solicit bids once funding becomes available.

"I can hardly think of anything that can pull out into the 20th century more than this would," Kniss said.

DuBois said he favored the less expensive option because that would allow the city to start the project sooner and finish it faster. He said he was concerned that the city is "running toward the most expensive solution."

"I'd like to know that we're doing some value engineering and trying to save some money," DuBois said. "I support the project. I'd like to see the project. I would like to see it sooner rather than later."

Though the council supported moving ahead with the parking-guidance system, staff acknowledged that getting the technology in place will take some time. The city has not budgeted for the project in its long-term capital-improvement plan, and staff is banking on future funds from parking revenues to help pay for the project. This could mean installing parking meters or increasing parking-permit fees for garage parking options that are expected to be evaluated in a parking-management study that the city is now pursuing.

Even though the new technology probably won't makes its debut for several years, council members expressed hope that once in place it would greatly improve the experience of parking downtown.

"It's the kind of thing that I think will make the public feel so much more comfortable about driving to downtown," Kniss said.

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19 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm

Firstly, please remind Kniss that we are in the 21st century.

Secondly, can we stop arguing whether signs should be blue or green and just get on with it. Isn't there a recognized color for parking signs at a state ordinance level, if not an international standard. Whatever is most recognizable by the vast majority of motorists should be the one that is used. We do not have to be concerned with image, just functionality.

Thirdly, will there be a better method of paying for parking? Will we get pay per hour machines, a payment by text method, a payment app?

Lastly, do we have a timetable for when this will happen. These things are needed now, not in 2 years' time, 3 years' 4, by Palo Alto standards we can talk for a long time and when the service arrives it can be years out of date.

10 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2016 at 3:29 pm

All I need to know is which facility has space. Let's see, that was 50 cars in and 10 out, and there were 5 to start so now there are 45 cars in the facility which holds 100, SPACE AVAILABLE!!! Don't always go for the most complex solution that takes years to implement. And I know a 20 century invention that works well, PARKING METERS!!!

7 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2016 at 7:13 pm

Again the rubes at 250 Hamilton bite on the most complex, glitziest, most expensive alleged solution in their sights. Does anyone else see parallels with the recent bike bridge fiasco?

@Midtown has the workable solution. If a driver is cued that space is available, she/he can find it. The key is knowing the hunt has a payoff in a particular garage.

6 people like this
Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 12, 2016 at 7:16 pm

Walker Parking Consultants? What do walkers know about parking cars?

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 12, 2016 at 9:03 pm

These are great ideas. Santana Row has both the exterior signs and the lights above the parking spots and it's fantastic! I think green would be more intuitive since green usually implies yes/go but anything is better than nothing. This will be money well spent.

4 people like this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2016 at 12:14 am

A system to identify open parking spaces in city garages makes sense, so when you drive to the top floor, you know to expect a space.

I don't understand the need for a special parking signs and "branding" for Palo Alto parking throughout downtown. The green on white Parking sign with a big P is completely standard, and well understood. A faint blue tree in the background does not give me the warm fuzzies. I wish council had considered dropping the special signs.

15 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2016 at 6:41 am

@Robert Neff The faint blue tree on the signs is important because it will indicate to everyone that Palo Alto is "special". That Palo Alto never, ever orders off the menu/catalog. That we always have to tweak the design/product to make sure that our city staff has enough to do.

Years ago I participated in a project with the city to address day parking in city garages. Instead of making people go to to city hall we asked why couldn't we just use the same system that Caltrans was using for their lots at the train station. It was "explained" that to use that anything Caltrans used just wouldn't work for Palo Alto. We had special needs and nothing as simple as a kiosk selling a ticket would work. And it would take a couple of years to conduct and investigation of all the existing systems and design and have built something that met Palo Alto's "special" needs.

This is the "Palo Alto Way". Always make the problem more complicated than it is. Always involve many more people than necessary in the process. Always bring in factors that have nothing to do with the problem. Always make sure that they process runs at least 3 years. Always have an excuse when they solution fails that you need more time and money to investigate. Always make sure you can't go back to they way it was before. Never, ever is the failure due to any city staff member. Always make sure you give the city staff member a big reward, bonus, plaque, etc just before we find out how big a mistake it was.


8 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2016 at 11:03 am

The city has allocated $20 million dollars to paint bicycles, ugly green rectangles and other graffiti all along our streets. And, the city says they will need to get grants because the $20 million won't cover all the costs!! The new Transportation Director, Joshuah Mello, is incompetent and adding to the uglification of Palo Alto.

2 people like this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 13, 2016 at 11:11 am

Is this really a big issue? A city of 70K residents with a total of two multi-level garages. Is it really that hard to figure out where to park?

The city's head of parking says, "one sign next to the letter "P" showed three arrows going in different direction. "When you're driving it can be downright confusing to decide to go left, right or straight when you're told to go in all three ways." That means that no matter which way you go, there is a public parking lot. Is that really confusing?

Doesn't everyone say that the parking garages are underused and there are always spaces open in them? The issue isn't that they're hard to find, the issue is that it's easier to park on side streets. First you need to make sure people are parking in the garages by getting them out of the neighborhoods.

If there is a true need to hand hold drivers to a parking space, all that's needed is a notification that there are spaces available in the garage. Lighting up each individual spot is ridiculous.

2 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 13, 2016 at 11:12 am

wow parking sensors.
They've been in european cities for years.

Like this comment
Posted by Kurt Buecheler
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2016 at 11:27 am

On meters, adding credit card parking meters seems like an expensive mistake. There is a lot of cost for the meter, cellular, credit card clearing, coin pickup, and maintenance. After all those expenses, there are a lot of ugly poles and the sidewalk are more narrow. If the city is going to charge for parking on and off street, we should use one of the companies where you pay by your cell phone. The city avoids a lot of expense and the service is more convenient. It's 21st century where meters are 20th century.

On parking space guidance, I have tried this kind of system at Santana Row and found it not to be all that accurate. Seems like a lot of money too. If there are several rows in a parking structure to choose from (like an airport) it might be helpful to know which aisle to drive down. But our parking structures "spiral" with one way up and and down. There is no value in the green and red lights. You drive by and can see of the spot is open or not. I just need a sign on the ground level confirming spaces are available in the garage. It also does not deal with on-street parking, which is preferred by many drivers.

4 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2016 at 11:33 am

If there is a problem with the current signage then let's start at the beginning. Let's fire the people and management that put up the current signage. Any one that had a say/impact/input into the current signage has to go. Let's never, ever contract again any outside firm that had a hand in the current signage.

Then lets hold a contest for middle school children to come up with alternative signage. The we can test it with simple cardboard signs. If it doesn't work we can try something else. And keep trying it with LOW COST disposable signs until we get it right.

But please don't have the experts spend millions of some new "system" that have never been used anywhere else and that will need constant maintenance and an increase in the number of city workers and then after it breaks down in a couple of years, the need for another investigation into alternatives.

2 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Apr 13, 2016 at 12:22 pm


I do not understand your comments.

These solutions have been in use for years so I don't know if you are being sarcastic or ridiculous.

Palo Alto is in the StongevAge regarding parking.

Like this comment
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2016 at 12:47 pm

I was referring to to Jim H's comment that:

The city's head of parking says, "one sign next to the letter "P" showed three arrows going in different direction. "When you're driving it can be downright confusing to decide to go left, right or straight when you're told to go in all three ways."

So either the signage is the problem or the head of parking doesn't know what they are talking about.

In either case I wouldn't want the city to once again go through a process that takes years to develop some custom signage system that once installed doesn't work and can't be maintained.

Look at what other parking garages use, pick the most widely used, reliable system on the market and use it without any customizations.

And whatever we do make sure we can get out of it once it fails and we recognize we've made a terrible mistake.


Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2016 at 10:55 pm

"wow parking sensors.
They've been in european cities for years."

They have also been in Mexico City for years.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 14, 2016 at 1:54 am

Whatever happened with those sensors currently under the cars parked on Hamilton in front of City Hall, or on the Ramona block south of University? I read we were supposed to get 500 of them, and a realtime occupancy app. Any progress? Or another bridge too far? Good thing we don't get snow here, or the plows would peel them right up.

Here's what I've gathered as the number of downtown parking garage spaces:

Civic Center Garage (CC) -- hourly 183, permit 509, total 692
High/Alma South Garage (R) -- hourly 77, permit 134, total 211
High/Alma North Garage (Q) -- hourly 0, permit 134, total 134
Bryant/Lytton Garage (S/L) -- hourly 381, permit 307, total 688
Webster/Cowper Garage (W/C) -- hourly 201, permit 388, total 589
800 High Street Garage -- hourly 10, permit 53, total 63

Plus at least a dozen surface lots, and 63 hourly spaces under Nola's (?).

Occupancy surveys are done intermittently, e.g. Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2016 at 8:00 am

I recently had a lunchtime appointment and arrived about 11.30 to look for somewhere to park near Cal Ave. I drove around a parking garage, a couple of lots and looked for street parking before eventually was lucky enough to see a construction vehicle leave just before 12.00 which enabled me to park. I suspect most of the traffic I encountered was also looking for parking. Anyone who suggests that we have plenty of parking space in our garages hasn't tried to park at lunch time. The fact that we have 2 hours free parking means that there is an attraction for people to bring a car when they might be able to walk or carpool and leave more spaces for those who need them.

Please get these parking apps, sensors and everything else as quickly as possible.

Also, please make free parking 30 minutes only outside retail. We have to do a better job of enabling people to park in Palo Alto, whether it is for a 10 minute errand, a 90 minute lunch appointment, a half day business meeting or a full day occasional parker.

2 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 14, 2016 at 9:04 am

@Resident. If you live in Palo Alto and were going to Cal Ave, why did you drive? Why didn't you walk, bike, catch a ride from a neighbor, or take of of the free shuttles to your lunch meeting?

If you are going to say that none of the above were convenient, then how can you expect others to do it? I see that many of the people that are vocal advocates of alternate transportation always mean that others should use it, not themselves.

We need more parking and that may very well mean some large parking garages that replace the surface parking lots already there. Yes it will take away from the openness of the area but you can't have it both ways.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2016 at 11:09 am

Marc, you have a valid point.

Unfortunately the time factor and the fact that I was en route to another meeting further afield were the reasons I had a car with me on this particular occasion. I have parked off Alma before now and walked and this would have made a lot more sense on this occasion but since I was arriving from the El Camino area (and had to leave to get back on ECR to get to my next meeting) I did something I don't usually do.

I am an avid walker and try to get about by foot as much as I can, but when I schedule several different meetings within a 5 mile radius and in completely different directions, it is hard to make it work without using my car.

Many of us do not have the luxury of being able to do one trip that takes over an hour each way for a short meeting and still have time to do all the other things

Seniors and regular commuters are much more likely able to use the methods you list. Unfortunately it is expected that those of us whose lives vary from day to day and yet are very busy are able to take long bike rides, long waits for buses or shuttles, and have plenty of time to do so, for several meetings around the area. Fortunately on this occasion I was able to shorten this one meeting in order to get to my next meeting on time. Sometimes I am able to take advantage of 2 hour free parking, other times I am not. Sometimes I do get someone to drop me off at a meeting but then they are adding two more trips in our already busy traffic around time.

1 person likes this
Posted by Money money
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 14, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Can you count the number of signs now at the entrance to the Bryant St.garage? Too many to read as you drive in.
I began to wonder about corruption in the city's purchase of signage when I saw the "Goodbye" sign at the exit. Really dumb, and expensive.
Some people are making a pile of money on the ridiculous proliferation of signs. We need to know who they are.

2 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 15, 2016 at 7:06 pm

Response to Money Money:
The former, fired, Transportation Director, Jaime Rodriguez, owned a sign company "Sign Cells." He ran the business during the hours he was supposed to be working for the city of PA. He also had an asphalt company and a company that designed the ugly green markings you see on our roadways. That's why we have so many signs!!

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

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