Council offers a lift to traffic-fighting nonprofit | News | Palo Alto Online |


Council offers a lift to traffic-fighting nonprofit

City approves additional $200,000 for Palo Alto Transportation Management Association's pilot projects

It's a tiny nonprofit with a giant mission: solve downtown Palo Alto's ever-worsening traffic problem.

But even as commuters continue to clog up local highway arteries every day, the ambitious but underfunded Palo Alto Transportation Management Association sees some reasons for optimism. The numbers of employees who have used the Scoop carpooling app or signed up for public-transit subsidies have exceeded expectations. According to a recent report from TMA Director Wendy Silvani, new businesses have enlisted to participate in the transit program, and the organization is on pace to max out of passes in March or early April.

The City Council has invested plenty of hope in the TMA, with Mayor Greg Scharff proclaiming in his "State of the City" speech earlier this month that he and his colleagues will look for ways this year to help the organization "mature and thrive."

When it comes to funds, however, the council's investment has been more modest. Even though the council spent more than $500,000 to create the Palo Alto TMA three years ago (the organization incorporated as a nonprofit in January 2016), it has been loath to contribute the $3.5 million that according to the TMA's estimates would be needed to shrink the number of solo drivers by 30 percent over three years.

Those funds are expected to ultimately come from new fees generated by downtown's parking facilities and from a potential business tax, the details of which are yet to be hashed out.

As the association is entering its second year as an official nonprofit, downtown's rate of solo driving is stuck at about 57 percent, according to a recently conducted ridership survey (the rate was 55 percent in 2015). Yet the organization also reported 137 individuals had used Scoop as of Dec. 31 and 59 who were getting transit subsidies from the TMA as of January, with Caltrain passes accounting for 37 of them.

The number of employers participating in the subsidy program has also increased, with Lytton Gardens, Project Juice, Tea Time and Downtown Streets Team enrolling earlier this month. Coupa Cafe, which is one of 10 employers already participating, had about 20 employees enrolled in the program as of Feb. 1, the report notes.

Given the growing demand for fully subsidized transit passes, the limited funding at the TMA's disposal and the organization's belief that after a year of fully subsidized transit passes, workers will see the benefits of not driving, the organization is considering scaling back the subsidy to 50 percent for participants who have been receiving full subsidies for a year (new participants would continue to get full subsidies), according to the director's report.

Not all programs are proceeding as planned. Only 17 employees signed up for Lyft subsidies as of Dec. 31, below the TMA's modest goal of 25 workers. The TMA is continuing to refine the program, Silvani wrote in her report, "and will return to those employees who signed up for it to assist them in taking advantage of it."

Even with the challenges, the nonprofit is confident that given sufficient funding, it can meet its 2017 target of changing the commute behavior of about 450 workers, which would constitute an 8 percent reduction in solo drivers, the report states.

"If successful, the TMA will have achieved in less than two years what has taken cities like Seattle eight-plus years to accomplish," the director's report states. "We also believe that we can now scale programs to (1) serve additional downtown workers and/or (2) expand to other communities if provided funding to do so."

Last week, the TMA received another positive sign when the council reaffirmed its commitment to the nascent organization by approving two additional contributions of $100,000, one in the current fiscal year and one for fiscal year 2018 (which begins July 1, 2017). As part of the agreement the council unanimously approved on Feb. 13, the money would be administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and restricted to pilot programs downtown. The organization expects these funds to tide it over until permanent funding streams from parking revenues begin to flow into its coffers.

Though the council has yet to formally approve new parking fees for downtown, City Manager James Keene and transportation staff have long advocated for the policy change. The council is scheduled to review next month a new Downtown Parking Management study, which is expected to recommend parking fees as a strategy for addressing congestion.

In his "State of the City" address, Scharff alluded to the new fees as a possible solution to the TMA's funding problems.

"We all know that parking is tight down here, and the new garage that we're currently designing cannot fully address the issue," Scharff said, referring to the parking structure the council recently approved for the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street. "The parking management study will give us recommendations about better managing the parking supply we have and suggest ways we might generate revenues to support the fledgling Transportation Management Association."


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8 people like this
Posted by Res
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 24, 2017 at 11:53 am

We don't need "TMA strategies".

We need to kick out Google and Facebook so that they stop concentrating people from every corner of the globe in a small town that can barely accommodate them.

It's an overpopulation issue, not a "single-occupant vehicle" issue. You'll never solve the problem until you accept this fundamental truth.

2 people like this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 27, 2017 at 1:58 pm

While Lyft (and Uber, etc...) might lighten the demand on parking, it does not decrease traffic, unless it is used by more than one solo driver in the same car. I would assume that most people using Lyft are coming in on their own.

Also, the overall numbers look very meager. I would like to see data for how many workers drive into Palo Alto and how they all get here. "All" might be a reach, but a thorough study.

If I'm doing the math from the article properly, there are approximately 5625 solo drivers (if 450 represents 8%) and then there are a total of a little under 10000 total workers coming to Palo Alto every day (if 57% if workers are solo drivers)

Does anyone know how many people actually come in to Palo Alto on an average work day?

@Res - kicking out Google and Facebook would do nothing to help downtown traffic, which is what the article is about. Neither are based downtown. Not to mention that's not a great idea...

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2017 at 2:02 pm

I don't see anywhere in this article what is being done to help people park, or to move efficiently around Palo Alto in a car. There are lots of people who drive out of town for work, occasional business, shopping, recreation, etc. Palo Alto may end at the City boundaries but people's live cross those boundaries every day. The City should be working with its neighbors to get better accommodations for those who live and work in the region and not suppose that Palo Alto is just getting workers coming in every day which is the sole means of clogging up our traffic.

Has Palo Alto done anything in any official capacity to discourage VTA from reducing bus service in town? Has Palo Alto done anything to improve bus transportation to the next county? Has Palo Alto made it easier to park with modern technological signs, apps, parking payment methods? Has Palo Alto investigated making parking lots at freeway ramps with dedicated shuttles that serve downtown and Cal Ave as well as other business areas?

Until I see some improvements on these types of ideas I can't say that Palo Alto is serious about sorting its traffic problem.

4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 27, 2017 at 3:01 pm

What's being done to adjust the PA Shuttle times to coincide with school drop-offs in the mornings and pickups in the afternoon?? Having the PA Shuttle has already cost us the VTA bus routes for which we're now paying an increased sales tax and getting nothing for our money.

Fixing the shutting timing and routes sure wouldn't cost $3,900,000 or even $500,000 and would be guaranteed to reduce traffic during the morning rush hour and during the non-rush hour afternoons.

This is not a new idea; it's been discussed here for several years with nary a response from our Transportation Dept. or City Council or Mayor -- all of whom seem to be eager to throw $1,000,000 at a failed bike program, to add more unwanted roundabouts and sharrows and bollards.

Getting a response would be special.

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