Palo Alto traffic-fighting nonprofit struggles to lessen congestion

Transportation Management Association hopes new funding sources will boost its efforts to discourage solo commuting

Two years after Palo Alto jump-started a new nonprofit charged with reducing traffic congestion and offering other commuting alternatives for drivers, the organization is struggling to make a dent in the rate of single-occupancy vehicles, according to a recent survey.

Hampered by inadequate funding, insufficient outreach and a surging economy that continues to bring in masses of fleets during business hours, the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association is heading into its third year of existence with plenty of plans but not much to show for its efforts in terms of actual traffic reduction. The organization's mode-share survey, which was conducted in May and released last month, concluded that the percentage of downtown workers who drive alone to work "hasn't changed much in the last two years." According to the survey, 57 percent of the respondents reported that they drove alone to Palo Alto, compared to 55 percent in 2015.

At the same time, the survey also showed a huge variation between employees in different industries and different points of origin. Tech workers -- who receive transit passes and other commuter benefits -- had a single-occupant rate of only 26 percent. In the service sector, on the other hand, the rate was 80 percent. Light-office workers were also very likely to drive alone, with 74 percent reporting having done so. Among government workers, the rate was 57 percent.

According to EMC Research, which conducted the survey, the results indicate that transit subsidies like Caltrain Go Passes (which employers can purchase in bulk for all their employees) work. While about 16 percent of downtown's employees reported commuting by Caltrain, the rate for large employers was 31 percent, while for government workers it was 24 percent. By contrast, only 3 percent of service workers and 14 percent of light-office employees used public transit to get to work, according to the survey.

The results, EMC Research noted, are "testimony to the effectiveness of providing no or low cost transit passes." To that end, Transportation Management Association hopes to decrease the single-occupancy rate among downtown's service workers by offering them transit subsidies -- an effort that began with a six-month pilot program in August. According to the survey, the program has enrolled 28 workers who earn less than $50,000 per year with free transit passes on Caltain, Dumbarton Express, SamTrans or VTA buses. The program is poised to expand with additional city funding, according to the survey.

So far, funding has been a major stumbling block. In its business plan, the TMA estimated that it would take about $2.5 million to achieve a 30 percent reduction in downtown's single-occupancy rate over three years or $3.5 million to do so over a five-year period. The three-year plan calls for gradual increasing in funding, from $120,000 in the first year, to $1.1 million in the second and to $1.3 million in the third. Single-occupancy rate is projected to correspondently drop by 3 percent after the first year, by 15 percent after the second and by 30 percent after the third.

While Palo Alto committed nearly $500,000 in August 2014 toward the TMA's creation, funding for actual traffic-reduction programs has been hard to come by. That could change in the year ahead, as Palo Alto looks to institute paid parking in downtown garages and to use the revenues to support transportation-demand-management programs. While the city has yet to complete the parking study evaluating the paid-parking proposal, City Manager James Keene made it clear earlier this month that this is the direction toward which he wants to see Palo Alto go.

"While those results aren't in year and the council hasn't take any action yet, I'm absolutely certain the recommendation we'll be making is a shift to paid parking," Keene said at the Dec. 12 council meeting.

Another source of revenues is a business-license tax, an idea that the council began exploring last year and that will continue to generate debate in 2017. In its final meeting of the year, the council approved the formation of a stakeholder committee that will analyze the city's transportation needs and funding requirements, develop a funding plan and lay the groundwork for the new tax, which could either appear on the 2017 ballot as a special tax (which requires support from more than two-thirds of voters to pass) or in 2018 as a general tax (which requires a simple majority).

Now, the city is in the process of sending out applications and soliciting members for the new 16-member task force, which will include a mix of employers, residents and transportation experts. Known as the Transportation Funding Stakeholder Advisory Committee, it will feature representatives from the Palo Alto TMA, from Stanford Research Park's own transportation-demand management group and from Stanford Healthcare, Stanford Shopping Center and the Palo Alto Unified School District (each of these groups will be appoint its own representative).

Other members will be appointed directly by the council. They will include a commercial property owner, two small-business owners (one from downtown), a transit advocate, a bike advocate, a medium- or large-business owner, an affordable-housing advocate, a member of a local nonprofit, three residents (one from downtown), and two non-voting "ex officio" members: a planning commissioner and a member from East Palo Alto.

While the parking fees and tax revenues should help the downtown TMA fund new programs, the recent survey suggested that many drivers will remain reluctant to swap their car keys for bikes or transit passes. Of those who drove alone, 72 percent said they prefer to drive to work and plan on continuing to do so (in 2015, the rate was 67 percent). Furthermore, 68 percent said they need to drive to work because they have to make other stops (school, errands, etc.) before or after work.

At the same time, 46 percent of the solo drivers said they would "rather not drive to work" but have no other good options (down from 50 percent in 2015) and 31 percent said they would take carpool or vanpool to work "if it was convenient, safe and easy to find."

The survey also showed that the TMA has plenty of work to do when it comes to outreach. Of those surveyed, 51 percent said they have never heard of the Palo Alto TMA, while 29 percent said they have heard of it but can't rate it. Of the 20 percent who did rank the association, 11 said they have a "favorable" opinion of the organization and 9 percent they have an "unfavorable" opinion.


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32 people like this
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 27, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Tech workers drive to work by themselves 26% of the time, but service workers do so at 80%. Question: Where are these different classes of workers commuting FROM? At first blush, I would guess that tech workers can afford to live closer to Silicon Valley, which in turn gives them more access to public transit, bike trails, and each other (for the purpose of car pools). Meanwhile, service workers are spread out among the exurbs, where the only reliable and timely way to get to work is your car on a highway. Have you ever tried to cross the bay on public transit outside of the limited hours of the Dumbarton Express? Exactly.

16 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 27, 2016 at 4:11 pm

Interesting that there is no survey mentioned of those who commute out of Palo Alto to work each day. I suspect that there are plenty who use Caltrain to commute out of town and there are plenty that drive solo out of town each day.

Why no survey to ask how many commute out and by what means?

31 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 27, 2016 at 8:49 pm

The city is planning to spend tens of millions of dollars for new parking garages, yet programs to bolster public transit go underfunded. What is wrong with this picture? The prices mentioned in this article are less than a million dollars per year to reduce traffic by 30%. I think this is a tremendously better investment than new parking garages. An employer tax for this price should be a much easier sell than making them foot the bill for the new parking garages.

9 people like this
Posted by Franklin
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 28, 2016 at 12:18 am

Thank God and the California High Speed Rail Authority for bringing Caltrain electrification to this area and eventually bringing the High Speed Rail. This high tech hub and innovative wasteland needed a Railroad Guru to patch up the misguided spending at the City of Palo Alto. I can't stand the gridlock and trafic along this funnel of corridor. I could get to work downtown faster on a skateboard during commute times.

22 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 28, 2016 at 7:04 am

Stupid TMA -- all it does is exacerbate traffic congestion by narrowing/removing lanes in an attempt to "discourage solo driving".

It is such an asinine BS concept -- that you can "discourage solo driving" by adding lots of unused bike lanes and whatnot. People have to get to work. No one has time to change their transportation methods.

TMA strategies are proven not to work, so instead of dissolving the TMA and cutting taxes some, they ask for more money so they can keep banging their head against a wall... its big government at its best.

10 people like this
Posted by solution
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 28, 2016 at 8:20 am

Two ways to decrease the traffic issue, don't build more parking garages, it's only an incentive for people to drive. Also, I have been talking to lots of city workers and many of them commute in from Gilroy, they don't have many options when it comes to Caltrains. Many of them need to be into work by 7 and the earliest train leaves at 6. I also think if there were a free shuttle around town or even if it just costed a quarter or a dollar to get anywhere in Palo Alto from the stations or freeway that would help. Have a big parking lot near Dunbartan for carpooling and then a shuttle from there. I'm just saying, I haven't seen any of these ideas on the drawing board. But seriously, PARKING GARAGES IS NOT THE ANSWER. It will only escalate the problem.

10 people like this
Posted by be positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 28, 2016 at 8:44 am

be positive is a registered user.

The TMA group should look at the time of day many service workers commute AND where they are coming from AND how much longer it would take to use public transportation to get to work. In addition, many of these workers have more than one job, making not using a car even more challenging. Add to that the fact that many/most service workers don't live in the same county and our counties don't coordinate public transportation.

17 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 28, 2016 at 9:30 am

A week or so ago I offered a ride to an acquaintance who was in a hurry to leave to take 4 buses which would take 2 hours to get to his destination a 20 minute drive away. He told me that because he was crossing San Mateo County line, there was no coordination of services. I was a little confused with his choice of route but to him it made sense primarily because of cost.

It is reasons like this that make transportation inefficient. This would not happen in European suburbs. People there do not make the same gripe about "what if I ..... (pick up groceries, change plans, meet friends, etc.)" They just get on with it. It is true to say that an efficient public transport alternative would not suit everyone every single day, but it would suit them at least a few times each week. But, it is a ridiculous state of affairs to say that we can't get a decent bus service that crosses a county boundary or that will take people to destinations such as airports in this area.

Regular commuters have to be good targets for efficient transportation. Also those needing to get to airports where the likelihood is that a car has a solo driver on our busy highways for the return (or outward if it is an airport pickup) cannot be innovated.

We have the advantage in this area of people doing reverse commutes and in fact some of these are barely noticeably different.

Why does it need Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, Redwood City, all working on their own to sort out this mess? Why don't we have a Peninsula transportation task force? Why don't we coordinate with the East Bay on good routes across the Bay? Why don't we coordinate with people who are making it work for Google, etc? Why don't we just improve transportation and then advertise and market all the good reasons to make it work? Why do we look on public transportation (or buses) as transportation for low income people who have all day to get to their destinations? Why can't we make buses clean, efficient and sensible alternatives to solo driving? Don't tell me it is the American psyche, as many of those solo drivers are people who have lived in areas of good transportation and have used it in the past.

Why build garages in downtown when we should be making parking lots at highway offramps with efficient shuttles?

Why not think outside the box and be innovative for a change?

4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 28, 2016 at 9:59 am

It is well known that Palo Alto being on the edge of Santa Clara County gives it last priority on VTA bus service. When I first moved here, we had cross-town bus service along Waverley Street. You can still see the abandoned bus stops along the street. Maybe if all the commenters in the post would write to VTA and ask for more service, it would have a chance of happening.

16 people like this
Posted by Bite the Bullet
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 28, 2016 at 10:49 am

I agree with the resident above: we need to coordinate with the other cities and counties in the Bay Area. One example -- we used to have bus service from Palo Alto to SFO. Then Samtrans dropped it. Why weren't Palo Alto (and VTA) coordinating this important connection. Just heard on NPR that San Fran is going to build Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Van Ness....but we can't get that organized on the Peninsula? Our best solution is to build more parking and make people pay??? We have to (ALL of us) change the way we move around our city and between our cities. The sooner we do it the sooner our lives will improve.

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Dec 28, 2016 at 11:15 am

Another factor that isn't being discussed is school drop off/pick up traffic. This significantly impacts traffic flow morning and afternoon.

Would bringing back school buses make an impact?

18 people like this
Posted by sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 28, 2016 at 11:29 am

And in all this fuss, Seniors who in many cases are no longer able to walk far or ride a bike must drive to shop etc. As a result of the parking permits, I can no longer park in my own city of residence. I have lived in Palo Alto over 40 years, but because I live away from the University Ave/Downtown and California Ave areas, I need to move my vehicle every 2 hours unless I shop at one of the big malls.
I have found another alternative--I now often shop in Los Altos where they still have sensible parking regs for everyone.
Palo Alto could solve this by insisting that any business that wants to set up shop (especially those with more than five employees) be required to provide sufficient parking for ALL employees on site. End the "buy out" program that allows developers to donate some money to the City in exchange for reduced parking requirements.
The City must find a way to provide FREE parking downtown and at California Ave for ALL PA residents. Stop the giveaways to developers.

14 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 28, 2016 at 11:41 am

@ Midtown're exactly right. the Transportation Board is a major part of the congestion problem. Their goal is to get people on bicycles at all costs. Their traffic calming measures only add to the problem. The latest perfect example is Middlefield @ N. California Ave. Almost impossible to turn left onto Middlefield from N. Califonia Ave. and then you have to avoid the bolsters in lanes that are too narrow for two vehicles. Two lanes into one from Oregon to Middlefield. Wonder what genius thought of that plan !!!!

17 people like this
Posted by SJW
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 28, 2016 at 11:43 am

SJW is a registered user.

If you don't build, they won't come. Try it!

15 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Dec 28, 2016 at 12:56 pm

It appears that some commenters haven't heard that VTA is CUTTING service in Palo Alto, not expanding it.
Also, TMAs do work, despite some uniformed comments here. Just look to Stanford to see how a TMA works well. Stanford Research is well along in setting up a multi-employer TMA.

It is time for Palo Alto and the TMAs to step up to institute paid parking to pay for improved transit in Palo Alto.

VTAis not going to do it

Posted by Abbey Downtown
a resident of Downtown North

on Dec 28, 2016 at 2:57 pm

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11 people like this
Posted by Who Pays
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 28, 2016 at 2:59 pm

Lot of facts missing from this article

1. Rather than just percentages how about some absolute numbers? How many tech workers commute daily? How many service workers? Percentages alone don't tell the story.

2. The residents need to stop paying for these impacts and the businesses need to pay their fair share. Our chamber of commerce needs to get off the pot and start encouraging businesses to contribute to the solution. The TMA should be primarily funded by business NOT the city (i.e. us).

13 people like this
Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 28, 2016 at 4:53 pm

Mama is a registered user.

Where did the wrong thinking come from that says it is the city and residents who should provide parking for the influx of workers from out of town? Any parking garages should be paid for by the big employers who have created our parking nightmare. No more development. The only new business should be small business retail on the ground floor level.

21 people like this
Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 28, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Mama is a registered user.

Where did the wrong thinking come from that says it is the city and residents who should provide parking for the influx of workers from out of town? Any parking garages should be paid for by the big employers who have created our parking nightmare. No more development. The only new business should be small business retail on the ground floor level. Y

15 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 30, 2016 at 11:07 am

Didn't we just spend $7,000,000 to "revitalize" California Avenue to encourage shoppers and visitors for our "second" downtown? The effort took way longer than expected and hurt a lot of merchants.

Now we're just getting more big offices, fewer stores and less parking.

12 people like this
Posted by Exasperated
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 1, 2017 at 10:18 pm

Palo Alto is overbuilt and traffic is the symptom. Too many office buildings and too many residences to house the people who work in those office buildings. And now they're talking about a housing "shortage" and building more high-density/low cost housing so more people can live here -- understandable but it came about because the city is in bed with developers and corporations.

Forget it, people, the problem will never go away. We live in a congested city with tall buildings flush up against the sidewalks and just like LA or SF we will never solve it. It is only going to get worse. Don't even try to solve the traffic, it's a complete waste of money.

4 people like this
Posted by Myrna
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 2, 2017 at 3:44 pm

@ Franklin: I work in Redwood Shores where there are many large businesses, including Oracle. There is a free shuttle at the San Carlos Train station that drops employees at work on Twin Dolphin Drive, the road where many of the offices are located, but it takes so long that few employees in my office take advantage of it. That's the problem. Unless your job happens to be within walking distance of the train station or there's a reliable shuttle or bus that will take you to your office within a reasonable amount of time, the train is useless. I don't see how HSR would help anyone who lives on the Peninsula commute to a job in Redwood Shores or Foster City. I live within walking distance of the MP train station, but filling up my gas tank is much cheaper than the price of a train ticket, and being on a very tight budget, I opt to drive.

HSR will share the stretch of rail with CalTrain from Gilroy to SF, but won't stop as frequently as CalTrain. If our roads are already clogged with traffic, even with CalTrain ridership at an all time high, I don't see how HSR will help, especially since it won't make frequent stops. Do the HSR proponents assume that most of commuters to the Bay Area live in Bakersfield?

8 people like this
Posted by Sandy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2017 at 11:49 am

The solution to all our traffic and parking woes? Incentives to encourage high tech companies, start-ups, peripheral industries, etc., to leave Palo Alto -- in fact, leave California -- so we could have our nice suburban town (and state) back.

4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 4, 2017 at 1:31 pm

If high tech companies are going to be incented to relocate, let the Electoral College map be their guide.

The average cost of a single-family home in the US is $250,000 -- and no, I didn't leave out a zero.

1 person likes this
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 7, 2017 at 4:38 am

Sandy, why do you get to stay? Why shouldn't Palo Alto just revert back to what it was before your house was built, and why shouldn't you then move away so Palo Alto can enjoy even lower density and traffic?

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

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