For years, Palo Alto's elected leaders have talked about the need to expand the city's shuttle fleet, launch a bike- and scooter-share program and reform downtown's parking system, only to see their ambitious plans fizzle.
Philip Kamhi, the city's newly hired chief transportation official, is hoping to change that.
In his first presentation to the City Council since taking the high-profile job in late August, Kamhi laid out a plan for finally making progress on these initiatives. Just this week, Kamhi has talked to a potential participant in the city's new scooter-share program, which has failed to get off the ground despite two votes of support from the council in the past two years (the most recently approved pilot program will expire in March).
Kamhi said he is now finalizing the guidelines for the program, which will keep the city largely on the sidelines while private companies compete for riders (this is in contrast to Palo Alto's prior efforts, which focused on partnerships between the city and one major provider). The city's guidelines would include rules pertaining to how bikes and scooters should be parked as well as prohibitions on blocking pedestrian areas and access to buildings.
The bike- and scooter-share program is just one of a suite of initiatives in the Office of Transportation's work plan, which the council unanimously endorsed Monday night. The plan also includes launching a new Residential Preferential Parking in Old Palo Alto, completing the streetscape project along the Charleston-Arastradero corridor and approving a new contract for the Crosstown shuttle.
For Kamhi, however, perhaps the most critical initiative is changing the way the city interacts with its residents about transportation projects. With many residents expressing frustration, confusion and anger last year about road modifications along Ross Road, the city has scaled back its plans for new bike boulevards. The ongoing changes along Charleston-Arastradero are also facing a mixed response from the community, with some lauding the bike amenities and others describing the new lanes, medians and landscaping as confusion and potentially dangerous.
Kamhi said Monday that one of his major goals is to ensure that the city informs residents and hears their concerns before the project is implemented.
"I want to hear people and find out what people's pain points are. What's difficult in your commute? What's difficult about taking your child to school? I want to hear from everyone. Not just when there is a problem, but in general."
This, he said, means going out to neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking to residents. The city's traditional method of outreach — sending out postcards — may fulfill the legal requirements, he said, but it no longer suffices.
"I don't read the postcards myself," Kamhi said.
For new projects, Kamhi wants to make sure the city offers residents visuals of proposed changes and "temporary treatment" so that people can "really react to them," he said.
Kamhi said he also plans to re-evaluate the city's 2012 bike master plan in the coming months and consider all the "lessons learned" from the first phase of the implementation. This will include looking at data such as traffic counts, bike counts and collision reports.
The work will be undertaken by the city's recently formed Office of Transportation, which includes 15.48 full-time-equivalent positions and reports directly to the city manager (in the past, transportation was a division within the Department of Planning and Community Environment).
Kamhi, who had managed Palo Alto's complex patchwork of Residential Preferential Parking programs in his prior City Hall stint before accepting a job at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), said one of his major goals in the new position will be increasing staff's professional capacity and collaboration.
"I think that it will help with morale, which has been an issue in the past. ... I was one of the casualties of that previously, so I think I have good perspective on that," Kamhi said.
The council enthusiastically supported his goals and didn't offer any new transportation initiatives. Councilman Tom DuBois suggested that the city should also look for ways to promote electric vehicles and create a simpler process for residents who want to create Residential Preferential Parking programs.
"It's currently a high hurdle to get an RPP and residents have been meeting that. I don't think we should be making the hurdle higher," DuBois said. "I think we need to streamline our RPP implementation process so when we see problem spots, we can implement an RPP."
Others supported the city's plans to promote biking. Councilwoman Liz Kniss was among them and suggested that the city re-examine the 2012 bike and pedestrian master plan. She acknowledged that she and most of her colleagues drive to meetings.
"I'd just as soon not be pushed on a bike, but I think everyone else should be," Kniss said.
Some residents who spoke at Monday's meeting argued that the work plan focuses too much on parking and not enough on environmental sustainability. Elizabeth Greenfield questioned the city's efforts to making parking easier and argued that the council should be trying to steer people out of cars altogether.
"You have to disrupt your own status quo to get out of your car and experience the benefits," Greenfield said.
Mark Mollineaux, a Seale Street resident, urged the council to take dramatic actions and set ambitious goals to reduce traffic, even if it means making mistakes along the way. The city, he said, should "err on the side of making cars disappear." He cited the slogan on the city's Residential Preferential Parking website — "If you live here, you can park here" — an example of misguided thinking.
"That is a ridiculous vision to have — that in what is ostensibly a progressive city of Palo Alto you value the right to park over actually addressing environmental change," Mollineaux said.