Frustrated by the city's confusing patchwork of residential parking programs, Palo Alto's transportation leaders are preparing to craft a uniform set of rules to govern such programs going forward.
The development of "parking availability standards" for the city's Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) programs is a key initiative in the city's new "Transportation and Traffic Workplan," which the City Council plans to discuss and potentially approve on Monday night. As part of the effort to reform the RPP system, the council will have to wrestle with a question that it has largely avoided thus far: How bad should the parking problem get before the city becomes involved?
According to the work plan, the Planning and Transportation Commission will begin discussing the availability standards this fall and winter before the issue goes to the council.
The discussion over parking comes at a time when RPP programs are becoming increasingly popular in residential neighborhoods. This Monday, the council is set to make permanent the Southgate RPP that made its debut two years ago. As part of its approval, the council also plans to raise the number of employee permits in the small district from 15 to 20.
As in the past, every household in Southgate will be able to buy up to six parking permits, which allow cars to park on the streets throughout the day. Cars without permits are subject to a two-hour limit between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.
The council also plans to approve on Oct. 21 a new RPP in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, just east of the Caltrain tracks. Residents there have complained for several years about Caltrain commuters using their blocks for free all-day parking. A survey by city staff confirmed that some blocks near the California Avenue underpass have parking rates of 95% or 100%; at others, the rate is about 75%, according to the city data.
To date, new RPP districts have been based more on popular demand than on objective metrics. To form a district under the present system, neighbors must present the city with a petition showing majority support. Once staff verifies that the neighborhood has parking shortages, the new RPP program is crafted based on community feedback and on experiences with prior programs.
The program has created some confusion and frustration for city staff, who are responsible for monitoring and — in many cases — modifying the disparate programs. It also creates some confusion for residents, who don't know what exactly to expect from their new program.
In August, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission struggled to decide whether to approve the proposed Old Palo Alto program, citing a paucity of data and inconsistent regulations. While the commission ultimately voted 4-2 to recommend approval, Chair William Riggs and Vice Chair Michael Alcheck both voted against the program.
"I'm worried if we continue to approach this with approval and start another pilot, the next one will be just as complex, without the right level of strategy," Alcheck said.
The idea of creating "parking availability standards" is also a key component in a package of reforms proposed by Wayne Tanda, the city's transportation consultant, in a report that the council reviewed and embraced in June. The report calls for establishing such standards for downtown and the Evergreen-Mayfield and Southgate RPPs. The standards would be based on residents' perceptions of the impact of parking availability on their quality of life, according to a June report. Once in place, the standards would be used to determine how many employee permits should be distributed and where the boundaries of the RPP districts should be set.
During the June discussion, Mayor Eric Filseth said he was "delighted" by the prospect of establishing availability standards for different parts of the city.
"I believe if we can establish that, that will resolve most of the customization that ripples through ... and will dramatically simplify the operation of this program," Filseth said.
In addition to developing the availability standards, modifying the Southgate RPP and establishing the Old Palo Alto RPP, the new transportation work plan also calls for moving ahead with a paid-parking system for public garages and lots downtown. As part of the switch, the council plans to approve in the coming weeks a new contract with Dixon Resources, the consulting firm that had recommended the switch in its 2017 review of downtown's parking problems.
In the coming months, the city also plans to award a new contract for Palo Alto's free shuttle program, a service that council members want to expand; revisit the city's plans for developing new bike boulevards; and implement bike- and scooter-share programs.
These initiatives will be spearheaded by the city's newly created Office of Transportation, which consists of 15.48 full-time-equivalent positions and which is headed by recently hired Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi.