Parking in downtown Palo Alto can be a befuddling experience, requiring visitors to negotiate confusing color zones, residential parking-permit districts and garages that — depending on location — might be filled to capacity.
The only consolation to drivers is the fact that parking remains free for those who only need to visit for two or three hours.
That, however, is about change.
In an effort to create some order and bring in some revenue, the City Council is preparing to approve a contract on Monday to revamp downtown's parking system and switch to paid parking. The $285,126 contract with the firm Dixon Resources will require Dixon to orchestrate the city's switch to paid parking, a transition that has been recommended by several studies and that has been criticized by some downtown merchants.
The council, for its part, has been generally supportive of the switch. Earlier this year, it enthusiastically endorsed a report from Wayne Tanda, a consultant with the firm Municipal Resources Group, that included 35 recommendations for improving parking downtown. A key recommendation is the development of specific steps to transition from what Tanda called "a parking program built around a rigid system of pre-paid permits" to one built around "dynamic monitoring of usage and the application of pricing."
Dixon, which in 2016 conducted its own review of downtown's parking system, similarly recommended paid parking as "more efficient and convenient for drivers." The new system would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of time drivers have to cruise to look for parking spots. The parking revenues would support the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, the nonprofit charged with getting people to stop driving solo.
This wouldn't be downtown Palo Alto's first brush with parking meters. Downtown had parking meters for about 30 years before abandoning them in the 1970s out of concern about competition from Stanford Shopping Center and other shopping areas where parking is free.
The 2016 study acknowledged some existing concerns that installing parking meters would discourage people from visiting downtown, but argued that there will also be a segment of the population that will be more likely to visit because parking would be easier and quicker to find.
"It is important to recognize that parking is a limited and expensive resource, especially in a vibrant downtown like Palo Alto, and paid parking can help maximize this resource through strategic rate structures and technology enhancements," the Dixon report stated.
In its earlier report, Dixon recommended a tiered structure with higher rates at the more centrally located garages. Rates would vary from $1.50 to $2.50 per hour under the proposed scheme.
Under the new contract, Dixon would shepherd the installation of garage equipment that would enable the city to collect revenues and track occupancy rates. Dixon would then evaluate the performance of the new downtown system and potentially expand it to other parts of the city.
Dixon will also put together a "Parking Action Plan" that incorporates the 35 suggestions from the Tanda report and make recommendations on enforcement, parking district boundaries and a new "wayfinding program" aimed at directing drivers toward vacant parking spaces.
The action plan will also consider strategies to encourage alternative modes of transportation, including walking, biking, public transit and ride-sharing services, according to the contract. It will also involve the creation of an advisory body to help improve long-term management of parking strategies and support the transportation demand management programs.
"The success of a parking program is often dependent on the supporting alternative modes of transportation being available, accessible and affordable," the contract states.
The proposed switch to downtown parking meters is part of Palo Alto's broader shift on parking strategies. Palo Alto's newly established Office of Transportation is also planning to revamp the city's network of Residential Preferential Parking programs. The goal is to both standardize and simplify the five existing RPP programs and make it easier for residents and, in some cases, employees, to buy permits.