It's been many years since it became obvious to almost everyone that parking problems and traffic congestion in Palo Alto, fueled by a robust economy and too much new commercial development, required bolder action and stronger leadership by city officials.
This week, the City Council reaffirmed its resolve to do just that and approved two important new measures that will move the ball forward in what is becoming a steady march toward a comprehensive parking and transportation plan for the city.
In approving the city budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the council adopted staff recommendations to greatly increase the cost of employee parking permits for downtown and California Avenue to bring them more in line with the fees charged in other cities and to use the revenue generated to pay for a variety of transit subsidies and other programs to reduce the number of commuters who drive solo to work.
It is the latest element of a multi-pronged set of city initiatives that now includes the construction of two new parking garages (downtown and California Avenue,) four neighborhood parking-permit programs (downtown, Evergreen Park/Mayfield, Southgate and College Terrace) and the fledgling downtown nonprofit Transportation Management Association (TMA) to promote and administer alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle commuting. The budget also includes major improvements to the city's bicycle routes.
Later this fall the council is expected to approve a transition to paid street parking in downtown Palo Alto along with the abandonment of the ineffective color zones, with the goal of completely overhauling the current pricing model and shifting all-day parking by employees to where it belongs — in parking garages — and freeing up street parking and most surface lots for short-term shoppers and visitors. By making the garage permit-parking rates cheaper than street parking, employees will naturally migrate to the garages, while street parking for shoppers and customers can turn over frequently without employees competing for those space.
There are a lot of moving pieces and variables to these plans, and policymakers acknowledge the need to treat the measures as experimental and be ready to make adjustments, just as changes were made to the downtown residential parking-permit system after it was initially established in 2015.
We urge residents and employers to defer judgment and withhold criticism about these initiatives.
If thoughtfully and nimbly implemented they hold the best hope of reducing traffic congestion and creating a parking system that puts financial incentives in the right place to benefit all constituencies.
Complaints that residents will be bearing the costs of transit subsidies for employees are misplaced. Funding for the TMA subsidy programs will come almost entirely from the parking-permit fees collected from employees, which in many cases actually comes from their employers.
Employers and their employees, especially those in lower-paid service jobs, have valid concerns that the cost of parking permits will make employee recruitment and retention even more difficult. But with the addition of new parking garages and subsidies for both transit passes and parking permits for lower income workers, it should be possible to limit these impacts while creating a better parking experience for employees and the customers on which business owners depend.
The council-approved budget anticipates about $480,000 in expected downtown parking-permit fee revenues going to support the activities of the new downtown TMA, which will use the money to subsidize train or bus transit passes for lower income workers, organize car pools and conduct outreach to employers. The goal is for these programs to change the commute methods for at least 450 downtown employees this year, representing an estimated 8 percent of those currently commuting solo to jobs in downtown Palo Alto. And that number is expected to grow substantially the following year.
After years of discussion and studies, the city staff and council appear to be getting this new strategy right and are moving carefully and deliberately to implement it.
Of crucial importance will be to provide lower cost permits for service workers and to overhaul the city's administration of the employee permit system. The process for buying permits and the communication with business owners has been awful, and the city must recover quickly from these mistakes.
Setting aside the debate over how much more new commercial or housing development Palo Alto can absorb, there is uniform agreement that transportation management needs to be our top priority. The new parking and trip-reduction measures being implemented are important steps forward.