Guest Opinion: How much more housing can Palo Alto handle? | February 21, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 21, 2007

Guest Opinion: How much more housing can Palo Alto handle?

by Arthur M. Keller

We read the headlines that Palo Alto schools are filling up. By 2011, the school district is forecasted to exceed its capacity at all grade levels.

How much housing growth can the school district accommodate if it reopens closed elementary schools, expands our middle schools, reopens part of Cubberley as a small high school, and fills in open space or playing fields with portables?

What are the other impacts of converting part of Cubberley to a high school? Can our school district even afford that much growth? Will our schools be as desirable with that much growth?

How many residents can our parks, libraries, community centers, roads and other services support? The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) predicts that Palo Alto will have 80,000 residents by 2030, a one-third increase over today's population. What impact will there be on the quality of life in Palo Alto with that many people?

Palo Alto's current Comprehensive Plan, covering from 1998 to 2010, was based on 2,400 new housing units in that 12-year span. Palo Alto has already approved way more than 2,400 housing units and there are still four years left to go. We have been growing more rapidly than expected, as housing prices rise.

ABAG promotes regional growth by telling each county and city how much housing they should build. ABAG allocated 1,397 housing units to Palo Alto between 1999 and 2006. Palo Alto issued permits for 2,029 housing units and 1,987 housing units were actually built during this period. Compared with the ABAG allocation, Palo Alto was effective in building housing for very low and low-income residents.

However, the actual amount of low-income housing built was small compared with the limitless demand.

Palo Alto also has the most popular Caltrain station on the Peninsula, second only to the San Francisco terminal. Two-thirds of those using the Palo Alto Caltrain station are going to Palo Alto, with just one-third coming from Palo Alto. Most commuters are coming from or going to San Francisco.

So how does ABAG reward Palo Alto for building more housing than allocated and for greater use of Caltrain by those employed here? By nearly tripling Palo Alto's housing allocation for the next eight years in their draft allocation. ABAG used its latest methodology and plugged in the same housing requirements from eight years ago and got 3,713 additional new housing units for Palo Alto.

Why? The biggest factor (weighted 40 percent) is the prediction of 80,000 residents based on our policies promoting housing growth (some of which are no longer in effect) and the availability of transit.

Another factor (weighted 20 percent) is housing and employment growth near transit. That's right, transit availability is double counted. ABAG sure wants to promote transit use.

The premise that housing should be added to Palo Alto because there are jobs here is flawed. Only about one-third of employed Palo Altans work within Palo Alto, and about one in five of those work at home. People typically move into Palo Alto not because they work here but because of the schools.

But does transportation balance jobs and housing? At even the most transit-oriented housing developments in the area, fewer than 10 percent of the residents take transit. It is hard to force new residents to take transit and not use their cars. Few will take Caltrain unless they live nearby and work in San Francisco.

So more housing in Palo Alto primarily means more cars on our roads, more students in our schools, and more demand for our libraries, community centers, police and firefighters, and other services -- but very little increase in transit use.

For example, the New York City metropolitan area has more daily transit riders than any other area in the nation. Is this because of the density of housing in Brooklyn, Long Island, Westchester County, or New Jersey? No, it is because of the jobs density in Manhattan, where the jobs-housing imbalance drives the availability and usage of transit. Adding housing in Manhattan does not promote transit use.

To use transit, commuters must get from home to a transit station (the "first mile"), take transit, and then somehow get from a transit station to work or school (the "last mile"). This reverses on the way home.

When transit is efficient and available, and the "last mile" problem is solved -- people are motivated to get to a transit station from home somehow, even if they have to drive to get there. But the ability to get from a transit station to work or school is rarely under the commuters' control.

Palo Alto can collaborate with local employers and schools to make it easy to get the "last mile" from our transit stations.

Employers and developers can promote transit use when adding new jobs. Stanford strongly promotes transit use to meet a "no new net car-trips" requirement by Santa Clara County to mitigate Stanford's expansion in its most recent General Use Permit.

What if employers who expand satisfy a "no new net car-trips" requirement in part by paying in-lieu fees to underwrite expansion of the Palo Alto Shuttle to accommodate all school children who want to use it, and get credit for reducing all those car trips by parents?

As we plan for Palo Alto's future, we must consider all factors when we ask: How much growth in housing can Palo Alto accommodate?

Arthur M. Keller is a member of Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission. He can be e-mailed at


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