News

Palo Alto banks on new nonprofit to reduce downtown traffic

City Council invests $100,000 in new Transportation Management Association; acknowledges that more revenues will be needed

After talking for years about the need to reduce the rate of solo drivers to downtown Palo Alto, the City Council this week agreed to back words with funds when it voted to contribute $100,000 toward the city's nascent traffic-fighting nonprofit.

In unanimously agreeing to invest in the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA), the council acknowledged that the $100,000 contribution is not enough to make a difference in the city's commute patterns. Yet council members also agreed that the initial investment is necessary to jump-start the TMA, which they hope will ultimately expand and become a self-sustaining organization. Above all, the investment was a vote of confidence in the new group, which incorporated as a nonprofit in January.

The goal of the new nonprofit is to reduce by 30 percent the single-occupant vehicle rate by offering incentives to downtown commuters to carpool or shift to other modes of transportation.

A recent survey of downtown employers indicated that about 5,500 of them currently drive alone to get to and from work, according to the TMA's new business plan. This means to reach 30 percent, the organization would need to shift the commute patterns of about 1,650 employees.

According to the group's business plan, which the council enthusiastically endorsed Monday, Caltrain and regional transit agencies such as the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), Samtrans and AC Transit (which administers the two Dumbarton Express lines) will play a leading role in the effort. The plan calls for shifting about 1,000 commuters to transit by offering full (and later, partial) subsidies for transit use.

Rob George, district manager at Philz Coffee and president of the TMA's board of directors, said the group is now in negotiations with Caltrain about possibly allowing small downtown businesses to purchase Go Passes for their employees -- discounted Caltrain tickets that are typically sold in bulk to large employers.

The goal, George said, is to make the train "a reliable and affordable option to move in and out of Palo Alto."

The organization is also encouraging carpooling, having recently partnered with the San Francisco-based company Scoop, which offers an app that matches commuters on trip at a time. So far, the results have been promising. As of last Friday, 320 people registered for Scoop (above the TMA's target of 300), George said.

Other strategies include encouraging workers to use the city's shuttles and subsidizing "last mile" and "first mile" programs offered by transportation-network companies like Lyft. These programs would target workers who don't live near transit hubs and for whom Caltrain and VTA buses are not a viable option.

Though the TMA is optimistic about meeting its goals, the business plan also notes that attaining a mode shift is difficult because the cost of driving and parking is "by far the most 'affordable' as well as convenient option for many employees," which means significant incentives will need to be provided to get people out of cars.

"The vast majority of the 854 downtown employees are small and cannot afford additional costs of doing business such as subsidizing employers' commutes, whether by transit or other means," the business plan states.

The plan notes that if the discounted fares for Caltrain are achieved through the Go Pass program, transit will become affordable in the long term with little or no subsidy from the TMA.

In the interim, however, "significant investments must be made to bring about parity while, at the same time, realigning parking availability, location and pricing and creating more holistic home-to-work options," the plan states.

The council agreed, with no dissent, that the TMA's mission is critical and merits support from the city and that the biggest wildcard is funding.

Councilman Tom DuBois argued that the city and the TMA needs to do more to get a buy-in from local businesses.

"This is a tool for businesses to improve the impacts they're having downtown," DuBois said. "I think we need to find a way to encourage them to pay for more of it -- to really see the benefits to themselves of participating."

Mayor Pat Burt agreed that a great investment will be needed but argued that it's "wishful thinking that encouragement will somehow come up with adequate funding," noting that the city hasn't seen too much interest from the broader business community to contribute funds toward the traffic-reduction effort.

To that end, the city is now exploring two potential sources of long-term funding for transportation programs. One is a local tax measure that would appear on the November ballot, with the proceeds exclusively devoted to transportation improvements. A council committee is in the process of surveying residents and determining whether the tax measure would have a solid chance of passing.

Another option is parking revenues. Palo Alto is in the process of performing a study evaluating the possibility of having paid parking in downtown parking facilities.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss on Monday expressed support for this idea, noting that current parking meters typically accept credit cards and are fairly convenient and easy to use.

"Most of us who looked at this for a while, it's no question that parking is not free, however you look at it," Kniss said. "We have 'free parking,' but someone is subsidizing it."

The council ultimately voted 8-0, with Councilman Marc Berman absent, to approve a $100,000 contribution to the new TMA. Shortly before the vote, downtown resident Neilson Buchanan compared the newly formed organization to a "little pony," when compared with the "thoroughbred horse" at Stanford University, which has been wildly successful in switching students and faculty from cars to other modes of transportation.

Buchanan urged the council to "let the little pony run the best it can," even as he acknowledged that it would take much more than $100,000 a year to make a significant difference.

"I think the person having to step up with the money will primarily have to be the City in the early years," Buchanan said. "I hope that the next council will take a really hard look at giving the pony of the small TMA a chance to flourish."

George also stressed the critical need for the city and the TMA to work together on achieving a reduction in single-occupant vehicles while continuing to promote a vibrant downtown environment.

"There's nothing more exciting than thinking of a TMA that continues to grow and support as the city grows," he told the council.

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Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Best use of this money would be to avail of parking lots near 101 and 280 and have dedicated shuttles to downtown and other business areas. A dedicated shuttle which doesn't snake around residential neighborhoods but takes the riders directly to the areas in which they work would be an attractive alternative to the costly permits.

Go Passes would only attract those who live or work at easy distance to a Caltrain station and we know that first/last mile public transportation is almost non-existent.

Getting kids to school and teachers from Caltrain stations to their schools is something that is never discussed properly. We have 2000 students in each high school as well as the staff and faculty who are ignored when it comes to transportation discussions. This must be something worth investigating.

Also, what plans do VTA have? Has anybody from Palo Alto council done anything to investigate and lobby for better service?


22 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 16, 2016 at 3:44 pm

How about if the city just stops approving new under-parked buildings? That way the city can save $100,000.


16 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 16, 2016 at 7:23 pm

So confusing.... our city fights VTA's effort to bring improved bus transport to Palo Alto (along the El Camino transit corridor). And it fights to stop high density development along the transit corridors that could be served by public transport (office caps in these specific areas). Yet the city spends to try to reduce car travel.
Maybe I'm confused....but this seems directionless. Huge efforts are spent to try to stop development, which is as pointless as fighting gravity.
Please focus on improving transport before we choke and die!!!


11 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 16, 2016 at 7:56 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

Of that $100,000, how much gets wasted in creating a separate and completely redundant bureaucracy?


8 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 16, 2016 at 9:07 pm

It's going to cost someone WAY more than $100,000 if "successful."

Commuting to/from San Francisco by train costs $8 a day excluding parking so a full subsidy equals $2704 a year per person.

"The plan calls for shifting about 1,000 commuters to transit by offering full (and later, partial) subsidies for transit use." So subsidizing just those first 1,000 workers would cost $2,704,000.

It also alludes to the pilot carpooling program through which the TMA pays a small sum -- $1 for each leg of the commute or $2 a day -- for commuters, including city employees.

That translates into about $672 per carpooler for a 50-week year.

Palo Alto's population triples to almost 200,000 workers/commuters each day.

Let's say the program is "successful" and 50,000 opt for the carpooling subsidy.

That's $672 x 50,000 = $33,600,000 for just the carpool subsidy alone.

Do the math for the train commuter subsidy x $2704.

How much of a tax bite are we going to stuck with?


6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 16, 2016 at 9:21 pm

PS: The recent telephone surveys about whether we'd support a Palo Alto business tax per employee only asked about charges of $50 or $100 per employee.

So even if the business tax were adopted, we the taxpayers would STILL be stuck paying the lion's share of the costs of the TMA programs.


1 person likes this
Posted by relentlesscactus
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2016 at 12:14 am

A citywide streetcar system would do wonders. Palo Alto used to have one that run down University and turned down Waverly to Waverly Oaks where the streetcars turned in the cul-de-sac. Revive that. Many people will ride streetcars who will not ride buses. Smoother.


1 person likes this
Posted by midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2016 at 7:47 am

the only way to make real change to current commute patters is to ensure AFFORDABLE housing for low-wage workers who work in palo alto. most of the traffic on the evening in university (and willow road in menlo park) is headed to the dumbarton bridge as housing costs on the peninsula have pushed those earning less than $30.00 an hour to the east bay. further making traffic worse are the nimbys who have restricted traffic on streets that feed down town (like hawthorn and everett.


5 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 17, 2016 at 8:48 am

To reduce traffic downtown:

- stop approving new office buildings
- require any new buildings in the pipeline to provide not just adequate parking for new workers, but additional spaces to make up for current inadequate spaces. After all, at least some of the new construction is being done by people who benefited from the earlier inadequate parking requirements.
- use the 100K to develop parking lots at Embarcadero and 101, 280 and the Stanford industrial park with shuttles.
- subsidized CalTrain passes



5 people like this
Posted by Still more employees
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 17, 2016 at 8:51 am

>Of that $100,000, how much gets wasted in creating a separate and completely redundant bureaucracy?

And high paying jobs for some of the Manager's supporters? Expect some familiar names to board the gravy train.


Like this comment
Posted by cid
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2016 at 11:00 am

cid is a registered user.

UBER POOL TO WORK FROM A CITY-PROVIDED OFF-STE LOT.


2 people like this
Posted by Still more employees
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 17, 2016 at 11:44 am

How many jobs for Palo Alto Forward members can we expect?


4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 17, 2016 at 2:49 pm

City created the mess we are in. And what do we have to show for office glut? Meaning, what did residents got out of it? Page Mill road is F grade and what do the City leader do if not to approve more office buildings around California Ave. I am so tired of them talking out of both sides pf their mouthes.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 17, 2016 at 4:22 pm

"Neilson Buchanan compared the newly formed organization to a "little pony," when compared with the "thoroughbred horse" at Stanford University, which has been wildly successful in switching students and faculty from cars to other modes of transportation."

Mr. Buchanan does not have the whole picture. What switched students and faculty from their cars was not some appealing equine metaphor, it was a drastic reduction in on-campus parking spaces, coupled with high fees for the surviving spaces, coupled with the availability of abundant free parking on Palo Alto residential streets and a free shuttle service.

We should expect to hear from Stanford regarding our impudent withdrawal of those free parking spots through the RPPP.


Like this comment
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 17, 2016 at 5:40 pm

"We should expect to hear from Stanford regarding our impudent withdrawal of those free parking spots through the RPPP."

RPPP did not withdraw the free parking spaces, it relocated them to different neighborhoods.


4 people like this
Posted by homeowner
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2016 at 10:29 pm

Please TMA: traffic lights. Get some brains on traffic lights.
• why are all cars waiting long after a pedestrian has walked and disappeared?

Let's get some smart lights going: never should there be nobody traversing an intersection. It's wasteful, inefficient.

thanks, and good luck!


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

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