Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shook up local commuting patterns, Palo Alto's parking policies were in a state of flux.
Over the past five years, the city has been creating — and modifying — residential parking programs, revising its strategies for where employees park and planning for new garages. While these efforts have lessened parking congestion on residential streets, particularly around downtown's and California Avenue's neighborhoods, visitors to the city's commercial districts still confront a dilemma: park for free for two or three hours or spend $25 for an all-day parking permit.
Now, with pandemic restrictions loosening and traffic expected to return, the city is taking a new approach. In the coming months, the Office of Transportation plans to advance what it's calling a Parking Action Plan, an effort to make parking policies throughout the city less rigid and more convenient.
In this endeavor, the city will have several new tools at its disposal. Over the course of the pandemic, the city concluded the construction of a six-level garage near California Avenue; the City Council hired a parking manager and approved the purchase of automatic license plate readers, technology for the city to monitor parking occupancy levels in residential areas, evaluate whether their new policies are working and make further adjustments as needed.
One model that the city is looking at is in Seattle, where prices for on-street curb space vary based on usage trends. If occupancy levels in a particular zone fall below 75%, the hourly rate falls by 50 cents; if more than 85% of the spots are taken, rates go up by 50 cents.
If Palo Alto adopts this "performance pricing" approach, rates would go up or down in specific zones, lots or garage floors, "depending on pre-set occupancy metrics, in line with the needs of select blocks or zones," according to a report from the Office of Transportation.
With the change, staff is hoping to create a more dynamic and flexible model than the one that exists today, with prices fluctuating based on location and time and visitors getting fresh options for extending their stays.
The action plan, which the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed last week, stops short of adopting metered parking in all commercial spaces — an option that the council had flirted with in the past. It would, however, create a hybrid system in which the city can charge for certain on-street parking spaces, while still allowing free parking in garages for two or three hours.
One of the major goals is to make parking easier for visitors during peak periods, said Nathan Baird, the city's recently hired parking manager.
"Folks who are aware of Palo Alto pre-COVID understand that at lunch and during dinner hours, it was very hard to find parking in our commercial areas," Baird told the commission on March 31. "While COVID has had a huge impact on that, we do expect those peak parking time to continue to be well served by our current system."
In addition to injecting flexibility into parking policies, staff is also looking to direct visitors and commuters away from residential streets and toward the city's often underutilized garages. In the California Avenue area, this means gradually reducing the number of permits that are sold to employees in the Evergreen Parking/Mayfield residential parking program — an endeavor made easier by the new garage at 350 Sherman Ave.
With the new policies, the city wants to encourage visitors to head for public lots and garages rather than circling around in search of on-street parking, according to transportation staff. And by allowing those who park in lots and garages to extend their stays, the new policy would obviate the need for visitors to face the all-or-nothing dilemma that they currently have to confront when they evaluate their parking options.
Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi suggested that injecting some flexibility into parking will become more critical in the post-COVID-19 era, with more companies adopting policies that allow employees to work remotely at least part time.
"This is a time where we're going to see that happen more, with people doing more flexible hybrid work schedules," Kamhi said at the March 31 meeting. "Part of what we're trying to do is adjust what we consider our inflexible current system and create more flexible options. We're trying to make sure we have more options available."
The changes in the commercial districts are just one component of the broad and wide-ranging parking action plan. Other policy proposals include giving employees more flexibility when it comes to the duration of their parking permits (currently, they are required to commit to a six-month permit), improving the city's communication to employees about RPP zones that have ample available parking and raising costs for employee permits in the residential zones to create another incentive for workers to park in garages.
While costs will be raised, supply will be lowered. The plan calls for "a 'quid-pro-quo' approach to reduce RPP employee permits where the addition of 'employee spaces' in garages and lots triggers the reduction of RPP employee parking permits."
For some residents near the commercial districts, the change is overdue. Carol Scott, a resident of Evergreen Park, urged the city to go even further and simply prohibit all-day parking for area employees on residential streets.
"Commercial parking does not belong in a residential neighborhood and the standard for commercial parking there should be zero," Scott said.
Commissioner Doria Summa shared that sentiment and suggested that the city should do whatever it takes to move commuter cars away from residential streets and toward public lots and garages.
"I'd like to optimize parking in the garages, including new garages, as soon as possible, understanding that it wasn't — even pre-COVID — anywhere near 100%," Summa said. "That's a big priority for me. Any of the reasonable technologies that we can use … let's try them out and use them."
While the planning commission didn't take any formal actions on the parking plan, members lauded staff's approach, including its near-term goal of adding new options for visitors to the city's two primary commercial districts. Commissioner Ed Lauing said the city should offer visitors more than two options for parking, while Commissioner Michael Alcheck called the plan to offer some free parking while allowing customers to pay to extend their stay a suitable compromise.