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.