Sometime between now and 2030, Page Mill Road will get new lanes, buses will run with greater frequency along El Camino Real, and the railroad tracks will no longer intersect with local streets at four Palo Alto locations.
Or so, at least, the City Council hopes.
All these projects are included in Palo Alto's new transportation vision, which the council unanimously adopted earlier this month.
The list of goals in the updated Transportation Element of the Comprehensive Plan includes reducing traffic congestion, improving local bikeways, adding transit options, protecting neighborhoods from traffic, and improving parking. At its core, it rests on two objectives that both complement and contradict each other: make driving more pleasant; and get people to stop driving.
When it comes to big-ticket regional improvements, the council's focus is clearly on the former. Its top priority is separating the Caltrain tracks from the city's roadways, known as "grade separation" — a project that will likely cost more than $1 billion and take years to complete. The council's Rail Committee is kicking off a campaign to solicit public input on grade separations, a project that was kick-started by a $700 million allocation to Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto from Measure B, a sales tax that county voters approved last November.
Another regional project, the county's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) program — which would create curbside boarding platforms along El Camino Real and enable faster and more frequent bus service — is also endorsed in the new Transportation Element. (The council stopped short of supporting a prior BRT proposal that would have featured dedicated bus lanes on El Camino.) And after some debate, the council backed earlier this month a proposal by Santa Clara County to add lanes on Page Mill Road/Oregon Expressway, provided these lanes are designated for carpools or buses.
But when it comes to local projects, the council's goal is to get as many people as possible to switch from driving to other modes of transportation. It's eyeing a set of policies, called transportation-demand management (TDM), that incentivize people to make the switch.
The new Transportation Element includes programs calling for the city to create formal TDM requirements for new developments; require new developments to pay transportation-impact fees that would be used for programs that reduce congestion; and require enforcement with "meaningful penalties" for non-compliance.
It also establishes targets that developers will have to meet in shrinking the number of solo drivers during peak commute hours. The targets are a 45 percent reduction downtown; 35 percent in the California Avenue area; 30 percent in Stanford Research Park and along El Camino Real; and 20 percent in other parts of the city.
On the issue of parking, the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Comprehensive Plan Update drafted a policy that new development projects should "meet parking demand generated by the project, without the use of on-street parking, consistent with the established parking regulations." In May, however, the council made a few moves to loosen the rules. Councilmen Adrian Fine and Cory Wolbach changed "meet" to "manage." The idea, Fine told the Weekly, is to recognize that the conversation should include — in addition to parking requirements — strategies for managing demand through TDM measures and paid parking.
The council also agreed to explore requiring less parking at multifamily residences located near public transit. Wolbach and Fine, the council's leading housing advocates, both led the charge on the new program. Parking, Fine said, is "a large cost to housing, and I believe this council is supportive of housing."
The proposal passed 6-3, with Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou in dissent.
"We can only encourage so many things with reduced parking requirements without creating other kinds of issues," Holman said. "We can't use that as the carrot to encourage the kinds of development we want in all areas."
Filseth said the big flaw in the proposal is that it fails to consider a critical question: Where is everyone going to park?
"All the good feelings in the world aren't going to create a place for the cars to go," Filseth said.
• This article is part of a cover story on the Comprehensive Plan coming into focus. Find out what else the council is looking to change in the areas of development, building height limit, housing and business.