According to the National Citizen Survey 2012, which measures the opinions of residents from about 500 jurisdictions, Palo Alto scored much higher than most comparable cities in the broad "quality of life" categories. Last year, 94 percent of respondents rated the city overall as "excellent" or "good," the two highest ratings, and 95 percent gave the city these ratings as a "place to live."
At the same time, the city continued to score dismal marks when it comes to affordable housing, a thorny subject in a city with little undeveloped land and astronomical property values. Only 29 percent of the respondents gave the city high marks on "variety of housing options" (down from 37 percent in 2010 and 2011) and only 12 percent rated "availability of affordable quality housing" as "good" or "excellent."
Despite these issues, the survey should give City Council members plenty of reasons to smile when they discuss the results Monday night. In most broad categories, including the city's "overall appearance," "cleanliness" and "recreation opportunities," the city scored marks in the 90s — well above those of comparable jurisdictions. Public schools received the highest ratings from 92 percent of the respondents (the same as in 2011), and library services received high scores from 88 percent (up from 75 percent in 2008 and 83 percent in 2011).
Residents appear to be particularly happy with city services, with 88 percent rating them "good" or "excellent" (in 2011, 83 percent gave the city the top two ratings) — a score that rates Palo Alto "much above" benchmark cities. The city scored particularly well when residents compared its services with those offered by the federal government (which 50 percent rated as "good or excellent"), the state government (41 percent of the residents) and Santa Clara County (60 percent, though this is a major improvement from 45 percent in 2011).
The survey's executive summary notes that "on average, residents gave very favorable ratings to most of local government services," particularly when compared to their counterparts in other cities.
"Of the 31 services for which comparisons were available, 23 were above the benchmark comparison and eight were similar to the benchmark comparison," the survey states.
Traffic congestion, however, remains a sore issue for Palo Alto residents. In the new survey, 51 percent of the respondents gave the city high ratings in the "ease of car travel" category — an 11 percent drop from 2011 and a 15 percent drop from 2010. Compared with similar jurisdictions, the rating was below average.
In addition, only 47 percent rated the city's "traffic signal timing" as "good" or "excellent."
The problem may have helped influence the behavior of local commuters. The percentage of people commuting alone by a motorized vehicle dropped from 63 percent in 2011 to 55 percent in 2012, while the percentage of the people who have used a local bus in the prior 12 months has risen from 28 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2012. The percentage of commuters relying on the bicycle jumped from 11 percent to 20 percent between 2011 and 2012.
Not surprisingly, road conditions also attracted some criticism, as they had in prior years. Only 42 percent of the residents rated the city as "good" or "excellent" on "street repair," though 80 percent gave Palo Alto the highest two grades for "street cleaning."
The survey and the accompanying Services and Accomplishments Report, which the Office of the City Auditor publishes annually, have come at a time of relative economic prosperity in Palo Alto. The city's fiscal picture has largely stabilized since the Great Recession of late 2008 thanks to concessions from city workers, a reduction of employees at City Hall and rising sales-tax revenues. In the new survey, 67 percent of the respondents rated the city's economic-development services "excellent" or "good," compared to 52 percent in 2011 and 49 percent in 2010.
Residents are also feeling better than in years past about their personal economic future, though these numbers have plenty of room for improvement. In 2012, 22 percent said they expect the next six months would have a "somewhat" or "very" positive impact on their family. This is well above the 12 percent who felt positive about their economic futures in 2011 and the 5 percent who felt that way in 2008.
While 22 percent is hardly a reason to cheer, the survey notes that in Palo Alto "the percent of residents with an optimistic outlook on their household income was more than comparison jurisdictions."
Economic development appears to have factored heavily in residents' feelings about Palo Alto's overall service quality. The new report includes a "key driver analysis," which aims to identify factors that are most related to residents' ratings of overall quality of local services. In 2012, these were: economic development, garbage collection, public-information services, recreation programs or classes and street repair.
The analysis suggests that of these five drivers, street repair may deserve the most attention because it is the only one that is similar to benchmark comparisons. For the other four categories, Palo Alto "was above the benchmark and should continue to ensure high quality performance," the survey states.