Traffic-fighting nonprofit looks to expand services | May 19, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 19, 2023

Traffic-fighting nonprofit looks to expand services

Palo Alto Transportation Management Association hopes to distribute more transit passes, enlarge its geographic reach

by Gennady Sheyner

It's been a bumpy and circuitous ride for the Palo Alto Transportation Management Authority (PATMA), the nonprofit charged with encouraging commuters to ditch their cars and rely on trains, bikes, scooters and other active modes of transportation.

The City Council launched PATMA nine years ago as a way to reduce traffic and parking demand in the downtown area. Over the years, it has offered programs that provide free rides on public transit, cash incentives for bicycling, free refurbished bikes to low-income workers and after-hours Lyft rides. PATMA's goal from the start was to become a self-sustaining organization that would provide services for — and receive funding from — downtown employers.

That has not happened. The organization continues to be fueled primarily by public funds, which come from the sales of parking permits in the city's two main business districts. The next city budget allocates $200,000 for the organization.

At the same time, its mission, geographic reach and program offerings have changed since its early days. Even as the pandemic upended regional commute patterns and brought local transit agencies closer toward "fiscal cliffs," the Palo Alto TMA's range expanded beyond University Avenue to also encompass the California Avenue business district.

Earlier this month, the council's Finance Committee considered and largely supported a request from one of the organization's board members to bring its programs into other parts of the city.

"We're in rebuilding mode," Justine Burt, executive director of Palo Alto TMA, told the Palo Alto Weekly in an interview.

PATMA's figures reflect the recent disruptions. In March 2020, the nonprofit's clients activated 255 transit passes, which allow workers free rides on Caltrain and local buses, according to the organization's annual report. The following month, as the pandemic shutdown suddenly transformed work patterns, transit ridership plummeted and the number of activated passes fell to 37. While the number climbed back to 115 by last December, it remains below pre-pandemic levels.

According to the 2022 report, PATMA supplied transit passes to more than 50 businesses, a list that includes the likes of Sephora, Oren's Hummus, Bell's Books, Walgreens, Starbucks and Prot<0x00E9>g<0x00E9> restaurant. In December, the largest number of passes had gone to employees at the Westin and Sheraton hotels (38), Nobu (10), Coupa Caf<0x00E9> (9) and Patagonia (8), according to the report.

"PATMA's focus is really on the essential workers — on the people who haven't had the option to work from home because they've been stocking the shelves at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods," Burt said.

Earlier this month, Burt made a pitch for PATMA at a meeting of the council's Finance Committee, which was reviewing the nonprofit's budget. The organization, she said, helps address three council priorities: climate change (by reducing car traffic), economic vitality (by helping low-income employees get to work) and community health and safety (by encouraging active transportation). She also touted PATMA's role in reducing employee turnover at local businesses.

Nathaniel Duncan, general manager of the Palo Alto Patagonia store, said the programs were a stabilizing force during the pandemic. Duncan told the Finance Committee at its May 5 hearing that he typically hires between 30 and 40 employees per year. Since introducing PATMA programs, he's had "zero turnover." The workplace stability has helped the store grow from a $3 million business to a $6 million business despite the pandemic.

"This program for me has been a transformative asset to my recruitment and retention of employees," Duncan said.

The Finance Committee unanimously supported continuing the nonprofit's budget at $200,000, which is in line with the prior year but far below the $750,000 annual allocations that the city had provided to PATMA in the two years before the pandemic. Committee Chair Pat Burt (no relation to PATMA's executive director), who also serves on the boards of directors at both Caltrain and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, acknowledged that the Palo Alto TMA's mission has gone beyond the original intent of easing parking and traffic congestion and now encompasses the important goal of supporting the downtown economy by making it easier for businesses to retain workers.

"We always thought it was a good thing, but hearing these stories about how it's really affecting employee retention, I think is really valuable," Pat Burt said.

The organization also faces an unusual conundrum: It currently has more Caltrain passes than it knows what to do with. According to Justine Burt, a large tech employer recently donated some of its Caltrain Go passes to PATMA, raising the nonprofit's total to 216 passes. The nonprofit distributed dozens of passes earlier this year to service workers through an outreach campaign that she said involved knocking on doors and climbing stairs. It still has about 120 transit passes available on hand for employees in the downtown and California Avenue areas who have incomes below $70,000, she said.

In addition to offering service employees Clipper Cards loaded with monthly passes for Caltrain and the VTA, SamTrans and Dumbarton Transbay buses, PATMA also provides after-hours Lyft rides of 5 miles or shorter for commuters around University Avenue downtown and California Avenue.

It has also recently launched several bicycle programs for employees who live close to Palo Alto. Funded by a $100,000 grant from the Transportation Research Board, PATMA's new "Bike Love" program uses geocoding to give participating employees $5 when they enter zones around Palo Alto downtown or California Avenue on their bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters or e-skateboards.

The program sets a limit of $600 per year for each user, and the incentive dollars are "instantly redeemable at local merchants via reloadable Apple/Google Wallet Virtual Visa cards, a new type of payment card," the report states.

Employees who don't have bikes may also get some help from PATMA. Last year, the organization signed an agreement with the nonprofit Bike Exchange for a pilot program that provides refurbished bicycles (and, if needed, helmets, lights and locks) to workers who make $70,000 or less per year. The pilot served three downtown employees last year, according to the annual report.

According to its strategic plan, PATMA is also preparing to make its programs available to employers in other Palo Alto locations.

"PATMA could expand its reach citywide to serve essential workers in Midtown, and along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road," the plan states. "Both Midtown and El Camino Real are well-served by transit and offer a significant opportunity to reduce congestion and realize mode shift."

The biggest challenge, however, is funding. Because it currently receives funds from parking fees in the University and California avenue areas, its programs only serve employees in these areas.

PATMA's plan suggests that the city's recently approved business tax may help the organization establish programs that serve employees in other parts of the city.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 18, 2023 at 11:27 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Did the authors, CC, the Finance Committee and Ms Burt bother to read the many articles like the one Web Link today on the growing budget deficit,. esp. the section "No Rescue for Public Transit"?

Do they know the reasons that transit ridership has tanked -- remote workers, layoffs, increasing violent crime on public transit etc etc -- and did they consider them before allocating more of our money for commuters when commuting is down as can be seen by all the empty and closing offices?

Posted by DebbieMytels
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2023 at 3:56 pm

DebbieMytels is a registered user.

Commuting may be down for office workers who can work from home, but the "essential workers" who staff restaurants and retail shops don't have an option to work from home. As our downtown areas come back to life, we need to be sure that the shops and eateries that remain there are staffed -- and providing them with transit passes can make their finances easier and their lives more predictable. We need to support the continuation of the TMA and its programs.

Posted by OnlineName
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 18, 2023 at 4:08 pm

OnlineName is a registered user.

I agree in principle but doubt their ability to manage programs more successfully than in the past.

If you read the article you'll see the pathetucally low numbers of transit passes they managed to give out at the peak. I also remember all the stolen and discarded $4k bikes. At least this time they're using refurbished bikes.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2023 at 5:20 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

The Fastrak Express lanes are the only lanes moving on 101 at busy times. For anyone who has to drive them to get to work, they are stuck in traffic or have to pay!

Can't something be done about them?

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 18, 2023 at 5:48 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Surely PATMA is working on getting those essential workers free access to the FastTrak Express lanes rather than forcing them to bike or e-skateboard on crowded dangerous roads.

As for serving low-paid essential workers, remember how they gave bonuses and Lyct rides to city workers who've elsewhere to get their low numbers up?

While I do agree with the idea in principle, past programs were a huge waste of money with no oversight you had to wonder if their creators were getting friends if family stock from Uber, Lyft and all the bike startups.

Posted by marc665
a resident of Midtown
on May 19, 2023 at 1:20 pm

marc665 is a registered user.

Let me see if I understand this: PATMA (Justine Burt) gets paid $176,000 to give away $110,000 in various transit passes. Can some tell me why the various transit passes can't be managed by the city clerks' office? We have an Office of Transportation, why are they not doing this service?


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 19, 2023 at 3:22 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@marc665, excellent question!

Good to see the transit folks are carrying along the traditions started by Mr. Rodriquez and Mr. Mello.

I eagerly await the probing followup questions for Ms. Burt and those who approved this spending. Also looking forward to the photo array of all the "essential workers" walking, biking, taking scooters from the East Bay and South Bay cites where they live.

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