Editorial: Return of the parking meter

Palo Alto considers shifting to paid parking on downtown streets, lots and garages

In 1947, at a time when downtown Palo Alto was bustling with retail stores serving the everyday needs of local residents, the city decided to install parking meters on University Avenue and some side streets.

It was an easy way to provide a new revenue stream for a growing town, a practice that was becoming commonplace in other mid-sized suburban communities.

But by the early 1970s, downtown was in serious decline. The success and novelty of Stanford Shopping Center, opened in 1955 and with vast amounts of free parking, had overshadowed downtown as the region's retail center. The city removed the parking meters as part of a strategy to make downtown more competitive and attractive to shoppers. (This was long before restaurants dominated downtown store fronts.)

That policy -- of providing free parking for time-limited periods -- has remained virtually unchanged for the last 45 years except for the creation of Palo Alto's four often-mocked and misunderstood color zones, designed to make it possible for a shopper to re-park in a different zone without getting ticketed.

Now, after more than 40 years of free parking, the city has just completed the most extensive analysis ever undertaken of its parking issues downtown. Two companion consultant reports are hot off the presses -- one laying out the current conditions and the other containing recommendations for a dramatic overhaul of the city's parking strategies. Together they total more than 150 pages and are rich in data.

The consultant, Dixon Resources of San Diego, strongly recommends that all parking downtown be converted from free to paid, with technology-enabled adjustable pricing and time limits that reflect the parking supply and demand in different areas of downtown.

Under the system proposed, higher hourly rates would be charged for on-street parking in areas of greatest demand, and lower rates would be set for less impacted streets away from downtown's central core and for city parking lots and garages.

The concept is to use pricing to influence behavior, with the goal of moving all-day or multi-hour employee parking into garages by setting those prices lower than street parking, essentially the opposite of the current system, which provides two or three hours of free parking and results in hundreds of cars being moved by employees to evade ticketing or purchasing permits.

The consultants recommend single-space "smart" parking meters, capable of accepting credit cards and mobile payments, on University and Hamilton avenues and the side streets connecting them. Pay stations -- kiosks at which parkers pay -- would be used on other streets and in parking lots.

Through this pricing strategy, more short-term parking will become available as all-day parkers will have financial incentives to either find alternative ways of getting to work or migrate to less expensive parking garages. Most expensive, the consultants recommend, should be the permits to park all day in the nearby residential neighborhoods.

The reports recommend that on-street parking be limited to two or three hours depending on the location, with hourly rates of $1.50 in areas of lower demand and $2.50 in the most congested areas. Off-street parking in lots and garages would have no time limit, and the initial hours of parking would be charged at a lower rate than additional hours. It suggests off-street hourly rates of $1 to $1.25 for the initial three or four hours, increasing to $2 per 15 minutes thereafter up to a maximum of $24.

While it recommends retaining the new reduced-price employee permits for low-income workers, it suggests that regular permit prices be greatly increased from the current $466 (only $2 a day) to be more in line with other cities with similar parking demands.

There is a lot to digest in the excellent work done by the consultants, and the community will get its initial opportunity to further understand the suggested strategy at a special City Council meeting next Tuesday evening. That night the council will also be reviewing the staff's recommendations for a new five-level parking garage on the existing city parking lot on Hamilton Avenue across the street from the Post Office, which would add more than 200 spaces.

The consultants also point out the pressing need for better city administration of parking and use of modern technology, including possibly including license-plate readers to make enforcement more efficient.

We hope the City Council enthusiastically supports these initiatives, which cap years of discussion and are consistent with adopted city policy to expand supply, create incentives to reduce solo driving, reduce the impacts on surrounding residential neighborhoods and fund a transportation-management program to encourage people to use transportation alternatives.


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15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 7, 2017 at 8:56 am

We need to have these meters linked to an available parking map app so that the vacant meters are visible to help us find elusive empty spots. These need to be linked to garage empty spots.

Silicon Valley technology must be used better here in Silicon Valley, after all we invent it here so we should be far ahead in our use of it!

32 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 7, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

I reiterate: this will serve to discourage me and others from choosing to do business in downtown PA. You can park for free at Town & Country, along California Ave. (for now), and in Menlo Park and Los Altos, more welcoming communities to commerce than our own.

16 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 7, 2017 at 12:16 pm

Further to my above comment, I would say that we do need to have 20 minute parking outside retail. We don't need to have to pay for an hour parking to drop off tax documents or pick up a prescription and similar 10 minute errands.

5 people like this
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 7, 2017 at 4:07 pm

Miriam - That's the whole point -- we don't want you to drive downtown. Take transit, ride a bike, walk, or go somewhere else.

7 people like this
Posted by @Downtowner
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 7, 2017 at 7:41 pm


"But by the early 1970s, downtown was in serious decline." It did not work to support businesses downtown then. Why would it magically work to help retail workers, restaurant workers, or shoppers/restaurant goers now?

10 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 8, 2017 at 10:15 am

Downtowner writes: "Miriam - That's the whole point -- we don't want you to drive downtown. Take transit, ride a bike, walk, or go somewhere else."

I hope that comment wasn't meant to be as dismissive as it reads. Not everyone CAN ride a bike or walk or take transit. And no one should be told to "go somewhere else". Ever. This community is doomed if that attitude takes purchase.

3 people like this
Posted by Paloaltogirl
a resident of University South
on Apr 8, 2017 at 10:36 am

@Miriam Palm
You are willing to pay for the gas and wear and tear on your car (never mind the pollution) to drive to Los Altos to avoid paying a buck fifty for parking? I live within walking distance of downtown but I must drive due to back pain. I don't mind paying for parking if it means I don't have to drive around and around looking for spaces. As a fifty nine year resident of Palo Alto, I'm not thrilled that downtown has turned into a destination for tourists from around the Bay Area and the world, but so be it. We HAVE to deal with the fallout.

5 people like this
Posted by Alice Schaffer Smith
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 8, 2017 at 10:34 pm

Why are we paying expensive consultants who don't know Palo Alto to solve problems. All this is going to do is get richer people to pay the price and poorer people will shop on line or not go downtown? . Dreadful idea.

As it is, there are already problems for those who want to go to lunch for an hour down town, finding a place to park.

Or to go to the movies in the afternoon as well as lunch (Seniors do do that sometimes!). 2 hour parking makes almost no sense (3 hour would be better). In addition, parking near shops which are far apart means you drive around for a parking place for several minutes, then walk from wherever you were lucky enough to find a parking place to wherever you are trying to get to, do whatever you are downtown for, and scoot back . You certainly can't go out for lunch and go to the Stanford Theatre or Aquarius in the times allotted now and with pay to park, adding even more of a burden.

Adding pay to park does nothing but add burdens to the merchants and the consumers, and line the pockets of consultants and parking meter manufacturers. We have better things to spend our money on.

2 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 10, 2017 at 10:58 am

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

Palo Alto Girl, nice to "meet" you. I have lived in Palo Alto since 1946. My car is twenty years old ... keeping it alive, also by choice.

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

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