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.