Editorial: Not-so-free parking | News | Palo Alto Online |


Editorial: Not-so-free parking

Valet parking program needs audit, not a million-dollar extension

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Palo Alto has to be the only city that provides valet parking at no charge in a city parking garage — at a cost of some $15 per car parked — while at the same time saying that reducing car use is one of its top transportation priorities.

But that's what we've been doing for the last four years for the benefit of squeezing in about 50 additional parked cars each day. And last week the City Council extended and expanded the program for three additional years.

It's no secret to anyone with a parking permit issued by the city of Palo Alto that the entire parking system is a convoluted and confusing mess.

Here at the center of innovation and technology, we have a system that is astonishingly difficult to use. Most permit holders of residential and employee parking permits must either go to City Hall every six months, show their ID, pay and pick up their permit or they must contend with a buggy online re-registration system. Each area in the city with permit-parking restrictions has different rules and eligibility requirements. The online system is clunky, buggy and confusing. City "help" phone lines go unanswered and voicemail boxes are full.

We challenge City Council members to experience this system for themselves and discover how far behind we are in achieving state-of-the-art practices for efficiently managing permitted parking and garage utilization.

It is no wonder that with the complicated parking system, along with the controversies surrounding traffic-calming measures throughout the city, that the transportation staff is suffering from multiple vacancies and is currently without a department head.

Without the staff resources to operate five residential parking programs (downtown, Southgate, Evergreen Park, California Avenue and College Terrace, with another in Old Palo Alto soon to come) each with different rules, and employee permit parking in city garages and surface lots, the city has been contracting with SP Plus, a national company, to administer the program.

This is the same company that has been getting paid more than $300,000 a year by the city to operate its "free" valet parking service between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for the last four years in "Lot R," the garage located between Alma and High streets just south of University Avenue.

The valet program, which utilizes three attendants who report they double-park an average of about 50 cars per day during the three-hour period, was approved by the City Council in 2015 as a pilot. According to the city, it is costing between $14 and $22 per car parked each day. But the drivers pay nothing. Valet parking is a free service for those who have parking permits. When the garage fills up, the attendants put out signs directing drivers to park in the drive aisle and leave their keys.

Last week, on April Fools' Day and with no discussion, the City Council approved on its consent calendar another three-year, $900,000 contract with SP Plus to continue the program and potentially expand it to the Cowper/Webster garage and the Bryant/Lytton garage (which had the valet service until it was discontinued).

There was no analysis or data provided to the council showing the daily utilization of the valet parking or assessing the impacts of other city measures implemented since 2015: the elimination of the color-zoned street parking downtown, the effects of the downtown residential permit-parking program or the reduced car use claimed by the new downtown Transportation Management Association as a result of incentives to get downtown workers to use public transportation or carpool. There was also no analysis of how providing valet parking service for permit holders addresses the problem of the lunchtime surge in parking demand by unpermitted cars needing to park for under two hours.

The city rationalizes the exorbitant per vehicle cost of providing the free valet service by the fact it has been able to bump up by 150 the total number of permits it issues, thereby collecting fees that partially offset the expense.

The city's philosophy of limiting the number of permits it issues for parking garages and surface lots is misguided. Permits should be sold to whoever wishes to buy them and shouldn't be viewed as entitling the holder to a parking space. This would eliminate a huge administrative headache of maintaining waiting lists and the need for permit holders to repeatedly go to City Hall to prove their identity, pay for and pick up permits.

With every new city action, our Rubik's cube system of parking becomes less rational, more complicated and more disconnected from the community's needs. It badly needs review, simplification and automation, which should be Job One for the new transportation manager.


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16 people like this
Posted by A Guest From Woodland
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2019 at 9:15 am

We love valet parking. Ordinarily, we've only experienced it at hotel resorts & nice restaurants. Palo Alto certainly goes the extra mile when it comes to accommodating its residents & guests!

At $15.00 a pop + about $5.00 tip, we can simply drop-off our car & venture into town. No hassles driving around & around looking for a stall.

Palo Alto epitomizes 'small-town' class & no wonder it is getting so expensive buy a home here.

Everybody seems to exude money, even the food servers & various attendants so they must be doing quite well too. The affluence here is overwhelming and a testiment to the economic success of its inhabitants.

26 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2019 at 9:54 am

The city should not be subsidizing car parking. This just encourage more cars to clog our roads and pollute our air. Save the money, remove the subsidies, and let market forces take over. Without government interference in the market, downtown businesses may band together and build their own more efficient parking garages that are paid for by business contributions plus parking fees. Maybe carpooling will become more interesting. Maybe demand for public transit will increase and the VTA will start taking Palo Alto seriously again.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2019 at 10:31 am

The parking situation is undoubtedly difficult and confusing. At any one time someone who should have access to parking is unable to get it. Someone who is using a loaner car, a carpool where the driver is sick or on vacation and the other carpool riders cannot park, buying a new car means difficulties, etc. etc. On top of that all day occasional parkers or those who need more than 3 hours parking during the day for meetings are ignored as being a group that need to be catered for.

Every time I discuss the topic with neighbors or friends, a new problem seems to arise.

Thank you for writing this article. Hopefully it will be the start of a parking revamp.

7 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 12, 2019 at 10:34 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Stanford successfully dealt with this problem FORTY years ago!

[Portion removed; please only link to public URLs.]

9 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 12, 2019 at 10:50 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Recommended Parking and Transportation Policies
for Stanford University

March 24, 1975

The report recommends:
I. That: Stanford establish a parking and transportation policy
giving first priority in planning, design, regulations, and
expenditures to facilitation of pedestrian and bicycle
travel; second priority to group transi .; and the lowest
priority to private motor vehicle travel.
2. The establishment of a parking and transportation trust
fund to utilize all parking revenues for the improvement of
facilities for all modes of transportation, with preferences
to expenditures and support of non-automobile modes.
3. Mandatory registration of all vehicles at no charge.
4. That the campus be divided into parking zones: a Free Zone,
a Residence Zone, an Academic Zone, and a Vehicle Exclusion
5. Vehicle registration alone is required for use of the Free
6. Parking in the Residence and Academic Zones would involve an
annual fee and a parking permit.7. Priority for applying for parking stickers for the Academic
Zone descends from faculty to staff to students.
8. That all visitor parking be paid for at the time of use by
meters or in paid lots.
9. That responsibility for administering the parking and
transportation system be assigned to the Vice President for
Business and Finance.
10. That day-to-day operations be controlled by the Director of
Public Safety.
11. That a parking and transportation committee be appointed to
serve as a consultative body for the implementation of the
recommendations of this report and the continued refinement
and improvement of the system.
12. That an aggressive program be undertaken to plan and develop
alternative modes of transportation for the campus, primarily
for intra-campus circulation, utilizing the resources of the
parking and transportation funds.

13 people like this
Posted by It goes on and on
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 12, 2019 at 11:20 am

Peter- Palo Alto is not Stanford. What Stanford can build and achieve in a year or two, takes Palo Alto at least a decade. Look at the bike bridge over 101. The council has o discuss it, hire consultants, appoint study groups, get neighborhood feedback, wait until the watchdogs chime in with their ideas to derail the project and on and on it goes.

17 people like this
Posted by I Use The Valet Services ...Thank You Palo Alto!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2019 at 12:40 pm

One consideration...

It would be nice if the parking valets dressed in semi-formal wear as it adds to the overall prestige of Palo Alto.

6 people like this
Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 12, 2019 at 1:45 pm

Green Gables is a registered user.

Quit with the "prestige of Palo Alto" please, This use to be an regular town.

9 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2019 at 2:34 pm

resident wrote:

"Save the money, remove the subsidies... downtown businesses may band together and build their own more efficient parking garages..."

Better yet, maybe the tech offices will leave downtown altogether so retail and other resident-serving businesses can return.

6 people like this
Posted by neighbor1200
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 12, 2019 at 3:32 pm

neighbor1200 is a registered user.

Since all the parking regulation is subsidized, please stop extending RPP to blocks that don't need it.
The consequence is that we park our permitted cars on the street, rather than in the driveway, so that we don't subject contractors and visitors to parking police persecution. The city should be encouraging us to use our own driveway for parking, not the opposite as is now the case.
Use evidence-based information to decide what blocks need RPP. Ours does not. Most of the block is open; just our own cars with RPP permits are parked there. We have to use the street parking in order to keep our driveway open for our visitors without permits. This is backwards and a waste of money on signs, permits and personnel policing the block for the occasional miscreant who might park in one of the many open spaces for more than 2 hours. Please give us an opportunity to know what it cost the city each year to continue to extend the RPP program to our block before you continue to require us to be part of it. It is a waste of money to insist on RPP for blocks where it isn't needed. It is a burden on residents on those blocks, and the time, money and effort is better spent elsewhere. Many hours are wasted on this. Let's be realistic and stop over-extending RPP.

12 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 12, 2019 at 4:54 pm

Annette is a registered user.

How naïve of me to think that sneaking such things in on the Consent Calendar would be a practice that retired w/the last City Manager.

4 people like this
Posted by No Such Thing As Free Parking...Only In Monopoly
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 12, 2019 at 6:25 pm

> At $15.00 a pop + about $5.00 tip, we can simply drop-off our car & venture into town.

Palo Alto should be 100% valet parking. At $20.00 a stop, more people would walk, bicycle or take mass transit.

Then all of the traffic gridlock & parking issues would be gone.

Since PA is becoming known as an elite town, perhaps only the elite residents (or elite guests) should drive cars within the city's proximity.

7 people like this
Posted by The Public Interest
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 12, 2019 at 10:59 pm

Spend $900,000 to get $121,000 back?

9 people like this
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 13, 2019 at 8:40 am

Jim H is a registered user.

If the city and school district expect Stanford to fully mitigate all of their impacts on the city, then why isn't the city trying to get this expense paid for by the businesses that fill this parking structure and the other parking spaces around downtown?

13 people like this
Posted by Biker
a resident of another community
on Apr 13, 2019 at 10:28 am

Yet another way Palo Alto encourages, and makes it more convenient, to drive. All while talking the talk of sustainability.

18 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2019 at 1:45 pm

Valet parking is for people who buy parking permits, i.e. the office workers who are employed in a downtown office building.

This is a subsidy for the owners and businesses, who didn't build enough parking.

I think the council has it's priorities wrong on spending this money.

1 person likes this
Posted by Professorville Parking
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 13, 2019 at 6:05 pm

Professorville Parking is a registered user.


What was the availability of parking on your street before the RPP? I used to visit a friend in Professorville before the RPP and found it became increasingly hard over time to find a parking space with all the new downtown office employees and service workers parking there.

14 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2019 at 6:30 pm

"Stanford successfully dealt with this problem FORTY years ago!"

Yup. Bought a bunch of buses and kicked its parking woes off campus and onto the neighbors.

2 people like this
Posted by Research Park
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 14, 2019 at 3:02 am

Research Park is a registered user.

Then their are the huge number of employees who commute by car to jobs in Stanford's ever expanding office developments in their Research Park?

8 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 14, 2019 at 3:09 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The Stanford free shuttle allows thousands of both Stanford and non- Stanford people to move about the mid -peninsula without the use of cars. No other private or public entity provides nearly as much free congestion relief as does Stanford - and it is all paid for out of parking fees charged to those who drive to Stanford.

5 people like this
Posted by Research Park
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 14, 2019 at 3:06 pm

Research Park is a registered user.

And how many tens and tens of thousands of people commute to jobs on land owned by Stanford, both for-profit and nonprofit purposes, who don't use their shuttles? Not a judgement on the wonderful services offered by Stanford hospitals, regional ER, and clinics up and down the peninsula. But also not forgetting Stanford's ongoing role in continuing to add to the increasing traffic congestion and jobs housing imbalance. While it is hard to see how Stanford could function very well without their shuttle service around campus, which also connects to their outlying properties, as well as the practicality of providing an express commute service to Union City Bart, how many people not connected to or commuting to and from jobs on Stanford owned land use these shuttles?

3 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 14, 2019 at 10:38 pm

Crescent Park Resident is a registered user.

@Research Park. Every home, every business here contributes to the congestion. Stanford has worked aggressively to reduce commuter miles. Can we just acknowledge that? I don’t know of another entity here in Palo Alto who does. Do you? Besides installing electric charging stations everywhere, what is the City doing? Right now, they’re just saying no to denser housing - ignoring the realty that CA’s population is expected to go way up and those people have to live somewhere. Our city’s response? Anywhere but here.

8 people like this
Posted by Eliminate valet service
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 15, 2019 at 9:22 am

Eliminate valet service is a registered user.

Eliminate valet service. This service is not consistent with Comp Plan goals to reduce auto use. Check out the smart paid parking system in Portland. It works!

Eliminate reserved parking for Council Members. They should experience systems they put in place so they can understand what is and is not working.

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2019 at 1:35 pm

Posted by Green Gables, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis

>> Quit with the "prestige of Palo Alto" please, This use to be an regular town.

That was irony. I think. On social media you are seldom sure.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 16, 2019 at 9:11 am

Good to see you're back Peter Carpenter. Yes use the public system. Walk as much as possible. But, Peter, when prices become too high (real estate)I get the feeling that there will be a correction - downward. The big number: the level of humidity this summer. Palo Alto with global warming: the Sahara desert? Palo Alto: Paradise. In any case Atherton and Palo Alto are too flat lacking in visual appeal, a farm. Humidity.

Geroge Drysdale land economist and initiator

6 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 16, 2019 at 11:19 am

Palo Alto has had it right for deacdes, and has it right now - free parking. $15 per car ... per what? it's not unreasonable.

What is unreasonable is the way parking meters are done. How much money is stolen from people who use parking meters every time they use them? You pull up to park, feed money into the meter. You estimate how long you will be at wherever you are going and put in some more time. You feed in more money and never get any credit for it, but if you are late you pay many multiples of the cost of just putting in a few more quarters. What a racket. And it is just free money that goes on forever and that will cost more and more and more over time ... like how the toll on the Golden Gate Bridge is going up to $9.00.

I am sure Free Parking is just one of those things that the right-wing conservative Stanford intellectuals think is another form of communism and to be fought at all costs. The legacy rich kids with no talent must have jobs and income to keep up with their peers or the realm, so every aspect of life must be cracked open and a way found to suck increasing income streams from them to pay for the growth in our elite population.

Free Parking just makes life better. It is fairer, easier, more relaxed and it has worked. Whenever I go downtown I've never failed to find a place to park. Sometimes it takes a while, or sometimes I have to walk a bit. But when I really need to get somewhere in a hurry going to the nearest parking structure and driving to the top pretty much always works. Build a new if necessary and quit trying to make life impossible or unaffordable for people.

What is next. measuring our footsteps on the pavement and charging us for wear and tear. Or selling and naming parking places after the richest people in the city? Enough for the Stanford conservatives' dollar dictatorship.

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