A few years after Joni Mitchell wrote "Pave paradise and put up a parking lot" (1969), the San Jose freeway expansion interchange was halted by then Governor Jerry Brown at highways 680 and 101, which created the iconic "Monument to Nowhere" structure. Who could forget the picture of three isolated, independent freeway ramps hanging stoically in the sky over the farmlands of San Jose, ready for traffic yet to be generated.
This structure struck chords in me, a young college student born and raised in the Bay Area, who experienced the first Earth Day at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley. Nobody knew what to do, so students flooded the Miller Avenue intersection yelling at drivers to get out of cars. It was unfocused and idealistic, not even aspirational — for environmental causes, this was yet to come.
So, the halted freeway project, in my idealist world view, was a testament to the Bay Area was saying "no" to building a Los Angeles car-culture future. In those days, northern Californians were proud to solve transit issues with ferries, buses, and rail to get workers from home to work. We thumbed our noses at southern California with its gridlocked traffic, smog and overpopulation sprawled deep into the dessert. This was not good civic planning.
Saying "no" to building a car-culture future was short lived.
By the mid-1970s, "Silicon Valley" was officially coined, and the Palo Alto-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara economy began to compete with San Francisco's and Oakland's. Indeed, the Stanford experiment of building an innovation center to attract the brightest around the globe was firmly launched. Today, the then-stalled intersection structure is operational with double the lane capacity and filled with gridlock traffic every workday.
Silicon Valley has a love-affair with cars — just like Los Angeles.
Everyday my driving experience becomes more aggravating. I've concluded that either I need to learn to be happy sitting in traffic and stuck longer in my neighborhood during commute hours, or support city efforts that re-think mobility to reduce congestion. Sadly, technology alone cannot solve the problem of physically getting people from home to work — especially workers in the service and retail professions. The "Beam me up, Scotty" app has yet to be invented.
So in 2013, I along with other Palo Alto City Council members introduced the idea of establishing a transportation-management association (TMA) for the job centers of Palo Alto (downtown, California Avenue, Stanford Research Park) as part of a long-term effort to relieve neighborhoods from overflow worker parking and reduce solo-vehicle trips. We learned from the Contra Costa Centre Transit Village — a TMA established in the 1980s along the Pleasanton/Walnut Creek BART station — that using commuter subsidies like Clipper Card funding, gas cards, van pools, shuttles, taxis, flex (shared) cars and more, did reduce solo-vehicle trips by more than 30 percent. For over 25 years the Contra Costa TMA has delivered personalized counseling to workers on public-transit routes and a guaranteed ride home in emergencies.
Last fall I had a conversation with a California Avenue worker as she helped me update my passport at the copy shop. I learned that she commuted from Los Banos every day, three-hours each way on a good day. Another retail worker at Town & Country Village lived San Francisco. Connecting these commuters to public-transit pipelines — Samtrans, VTA, Caltrain, BART, ACE Train — needs to be more convenient and affordable. TMAs fill this gap. Just like in Contra Costa, we can do this too.
In an era where the state threatens removing local control from cities, a TMA can show us the benefits of working thoughtfully to create nuanced local programs and solutions that respond to conditions on the ground and in our neighborhoods. TMAs increase quality of life for everyone, one worker at a time by offering transit subsidies, commute routes, incentives and more to reduce solo-occupancy trips into job center areas. It solves the "first and last mile" commute conundrum and fills the gap between regional and county public transit, as we navigate not just how to get to work but how to move around our own cities.
Today, Palo Alto Transit Management Association (PATMA) is deployed and considering expanding into the California Avenue business district by piloting donor-funded transit passes with a determination to succeed. We need to support this effort. If done well, employers of all sizes that are struggling to recruit and retain employees will find relief as the TMA aids them with tailored programs and services instead of individual employers scrambling to come up with incentives on their own.
If the TMA leadership is thinking long term, it will build relationships with other TMAs in the subregion like Mountain View, or emerging TMAs in Menlo Park and Redwood City, as solutions cross city and county lines.
Let's stop the temptation to do nothing, hoping someone else can figure this out because, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone" and take this moment to exercise local control and build a "Monument to Somewhere" instead. We need this for Palo Alto, our region and the Bay Area.
A resident of Palo Alto since 1984, former Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd served on the City Council between 2010 and 2014. She is a retired operations officer, controller and accountant in commercial real estate and can be reached at [email protected].