Getting to 'yes' | November 16, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - November 16, 2012

Getting to 'yes'

Stanford employees navigate ins and outs of alternative commutes, with programs easing the way

by Jocelyn Dong

There's a phrase that Brodie Hamilton uses to describe people's reluctance to switch from commuting by car to taking an alternate form of transportation: "Yes, but ..."

"Yes, I'd use alternative transportation, but it costs too much."

"Well, I'd use alternative transportation, but sometimes I need to get home if there's an emergency and I don't have a car."

"I'd use alternative transportation, but sometimes ... I have to use a car for work or errands, or I've got appointments."

Over the past decade, Stanford University's Parking and Transportation Services staff has heard it all. But they've used that knowledge to skillfully sway more than 2,000 commuters to give up their cars as a way to get to work.

That total — which represents 26 percent of Stanford employees — and the overall program have earned Stanford recognition and awards, including the "Best Workplace for Commuters" from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2002 to 2012, including the singular top honor in January.

Valerie Ojha is one employee who's helped get the university there. For 10 years, Ojha drove to her job at the Stanford School of Medicine. The 11-mile commute up U.S. Highway 101 from Sunnyvale took about 45 minutes.

She had occasionally given thought to taking the train instead of her car, but like most everyone, she was in the habit of driving and saw no need to change.

Then a car accident left her family with just one car, and suddenly, commuting by train made a bit more sense, she said.

"I've always had it in the back of my mind because Stanford gave such a great incentive," she said, referring to the free train passes the university provides its employees. "I said, 'OK, that's it. I'm just going to do it. And that was April 1 of last year, and I've never looked back."

Now, Ojha's commute still takes about 45 minutes, but it includes dropping off her kids at their school and chatting briefly with other parents, taking a 10-minute ride on Caltrain and briskly walking one mile from the University Avenue station to the medical center. When returning to the train station after work, she takes the Marguerite shuttle. Her husband picks her up at the Sunnyvale train station.

Finally getting on board with the train commute was a turning point for Ojha, and she is quick to extol the virtues of her new commute habit.

Before the shift, exercise was foreign to her lifestyle, as she is busy with two young children. Now she looks forward to her daily stroll from the train station.

"It wakes me up in the morning. It also gives me a sense of serenity walking out here," she said on one of her jaunts, dressed in a blue-and-white striped shirt and hoisting a purple backpack. "You see the sunlight hitting the dew on the grass. You see the fresh morning green grass in the spring. You hear the bird singing and the day waking up."

The train ride, though not long, has also brought unexpected benefits, she said.

"I've been reading a lot more than I ever have since I've had children," she said, referencing political books, historical romances and other literature.

Then, too, she's gotten to know other people by riding the train.

"What's fun about commuting, too, is you do see the same people over and over again, so you get to know them," she said. "When you're driving, everybody's distant. You're boxed in your own, separate compartment. People are just eager to get to work, and they don't care who's in the other car."

Given her own long-standing driving habit, Ojha understands that hesitation many feel about switching up their commutes.

"It's hard for people to do something they're not familiar with," she said. When contemplating taking the train, she worried about making the connection between the train and the Marguerite shuttle to get to work — a common worry known by transportation planners as the "last mile" connection. However, she quickly learned that Marguerites run continuously to the campus.

The potential unreliability of the train also gave her pause. In the first six weeks, she was delayed twice. "That was a bit of a challenge," she admitted, noting that she had to take a bus home once.

But since then, she said, the service has been consistent. Her flexible work schedule, admittedly, has allowed her to avoid consequences of arriving late to work.

"It would be more challenging for those without flexible schedules," she acknowledged. "If they had a delay in the morning, it might be risky."

Ojha also points out that, once on campus, she doesn't necessarily feel stranded. Stanford has programs in place to provide rides — whether by taxi or rental car — in emergencies.

One of the biggest pluses of Ojha's new commute has been the effect it's had on her family. Taking the train has given Ojha "transition" time on her way home that she never had before, she said.

When her family picks her up from the Sunnyvale train station, they have 10 minutes together before getting home and starting the evening routine.

"It was an opportunity for us to exchange events of the day. It was sort of a more relaxed transition into the evening," she said. "Before, from the moment I walked in the door, it's a high-pressure need to get things done and to get the evening progressing.

"When you're driving on a highway, and you get home, your transition is closing the car door and walking up to the front entrance. ... That was a big difference, and I notice a reduction in my stress level."

A few people who cling to their car habit say that Stanford promotes a culture of guilt about using a car.

Hamilton, director of the university's parking and transportation services, acknowledged the situation but denies that's the intent.

"I have had some people say, 'I see the banner when I come in to the campus ... I see your emails. I see the poster in the office and everything. I tell you, I feel a little guilty for not using alternative transportation.'

"We're not trying to guilt people into it. We've got a series of incentives, and we've got the one stick in the form of the cost of the parking permit," Hamilton said.

The program never forces people to make an immediate, all-or-nothing decision, he said, mainly because experience has shown that people want a safety net — for a time — as they try something new.

"One thing we found out in the early years ... was we've always allowed people to keep their parking permit," Hamilton said.

Even as the university provided free passes for the train and Valley Transportation Authority buses, the university didn't demand that the commuters give up their parking permits in exchange.

"We got a lot of people hooked in because they'd try it once a week, and then maybe go to twice a week. But they could still drive if they wanted to," he said.

Michael Gratz was one such part-time alternative-transportation commuter, and if there were anyone who could be excused for driving himself to work everyday, it might be Gratz. The executive director of the university's Hospitality & Auxiliaries, he maintains an all-hours-of-the-day-and-night schedule. When the university hosts special evening events, Gratz is on campus till 10 p.m. Morning meetings occasionally require him to be in before 7 a.m.

And, he lives in San Francisco.

But last March, Gratz took the plunge, agreeing to commute to work by train at least twice a week. The idea of giving up his car commute wasn't a sure thing, though.

"It was a huge mind-shift for me," he said. "You always think about, 'Well, what can go wrong?'"

But having grown up in Europe, where use of mass transit is much more common, and because he believes taking the train is a more environmentally responsible way to travel, he decided to give it a try.

The first hurdle he ran into didn't have anything to do with taking a train versus a car. It was getting to the train station from his home, a problem that transportation planners call "the first mile." It can be a major deterrent for people converting to alternative transportation.

"I do not have a good connection between where I live and where I take the train," said Gratz, a Noe Valley resident. "To take the bus is not convenient — not only would I have to change two buses, but it would add another hour on to my commute."

Instead, he drives 15 minutes to the station.

Parking can be a bit of a bear, with no availability close by the station. Sometimes he ends up three long blocks from the depot and has to run to make the train.

Like Ojha, he was initially concerned about entrusting his commute to Caltrain.

"The 'but' was: What if I can't get to work? What if I miss the train?" he said. "If I have to be at a meeting, what if I get stuck on the train?"

He was able to test that fear soon enough when the train did get delayed, with no estimate on how long it would take to start up again. Thinking about his network of co-workers, he called one person and explained his predicament. She came and picked him up.

Gratz now gets up at 5:30 a.m. to make the 7 a.m. train — a bit challenging, he admitted. Likewise, he must leave campus on time in order to catch the late afternoon trains back to San Francisco.

But paradoxically, adding structure to his life is exactly what has created the benefits he now cherishes.

"I love the idea of being early in the office," he said. During the 30-minute train ride, he can start work or attend to personal business. "I consider that to be quality time."

And while some people may find it hard to pull themselves away from work, he no longer finds himself tempted to stay late every night, so he now has a better work/life balance. The ride home has also become a way for him to decompress.

"That may be a tough sell, the idea that the train is relaxing," he said. But "it gives me a chance to really reflect on the day, and by the time I do get home, I feel I have an extra two hours that normally if I do commute by car, I don't have."

If he had kept driving — and starting and ending the workday slightly later — he wouldn't get home until 7:30 or 8:30 p.m., when stores are closed, and he's too tired to run errands.

Adhering to the train schedule has freed up his evenings in a way he'd never expected.

"So tonight, for instance, I'm going to take the 5:06 p.m., and I get home to the city by 6 p.m. Could I make an appointment after 6 p.m. if I wanted to? Yes, I can, because most businesses open till 7 o'clock. And can I still do some grocery shopping? Yes, I can," he said.

During the summer, he was able to walk his dogs while it was still light and chat with neighbors, something he never used to do.

"It puts your whole day at a different level. It helps you do other things you normally wouldn't be able to do," he said.

Given his sometimes-odd hours, he has learned to adjust his commuting to his work demands. On driving days, he's scheduled more meetings. On train days, he's communicated more by email.

Driving was more a matter of sticking to his comfort zone than overall efficiency.

"I think it's less efficient taking your car," he said, citing the impossibility of texting, reading or emailing while driving.

While not downplaying the challenges of commuting by train, he's found ways to turn the lemons into lemonade. For instance, he views his occasional morning dash to catch the train a form of exercise.

For those considering trying a new commute, he offered some advice.

"I do recommend you at least try it out and then form an opinion about how it really works and what are the pieces that you know make it better and some of the pieces you need to get adapted to. Take it for a test run and get comfortable with it, and then try to overcome the obstacles you kind of think exist or may not be real," he said.

Focusing on the positive instead of worrying about the negative has led Gratz to embrace his new commute routine. The biggest benefit to him has been peace of mind — so much so that in late October, he turned in his parking permit and is now commuting by train full-time.


Like this comment
Posted by Richard Dean
a resident of University South
on Dec 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm

I wonder if we will ever overcome some of the arguments above (need a car for emergencies, meetings, etc.).
The rise of America and the freedom to roam across its landscape, which came with the advent of the automobile, are inseparable. While adopting public transportation is effective and efficient, the loss of freedom that comes with taking a bus, lightrail, or subway is something to lament. The same loss in freedom has been happening with cars themselves (gridlock), so it seems like there is no alternative. Having just let go of my Prius for a fuel efficient motorcycle, I believe that smaller, more nimble, electric or motorized scooters and motorcycles might offer the best of both worlds:

They offer the freedom the car once provided (the ability to roam free was the early automobile's raison d'etre), reduce congestion, require less material to build, are more fuel efficient (especially in electric motorcycles, scooters), require substantially less lithium for batteries in electric models (which means the limited lithium resource could be spread across more vehicles and not limited to a small batch of all-electric 'eco-bling' vehicles like the Prius plug-in, Volt, Tesla, Fisker, etc.). Scooters/motorcyles also create opportunities to meet and greet strangers along the way, perhaps even more so than on the subway. Public transit can be used in cases when passengers and/or luggage is an issue.

Any thoughts?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Good for these commuters and thank you for writing their story.

As far as driving is more reliable, I would suggest last Friday evening as an example of how driving is often unreliable. All n/b routes in Palo Alto from 101, Middlefield, Alma, El Camino, Foothill and 280 were impacted because of an accident which occurred mid afternoon. Yes, trains can be delayed, but so can roads be clogged with traffic.

Also, it is good to hear about the incentives Stanford gives. But a lot of commuters to Palo Alto do not work for large companies with these types of incentives. There should be better incentives given by Caltrain too. Off peak discounts, free parking at stations after 3.00 pm, six month free passes for people who buy new condos near staions, etc. are all worthy examples of incentives that would help more people choose the train for their commute and once they get used to it would want to continue after the trial run.

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