Palo Alto Wants to Shift Drivers to Trains and Buses

Officials approve exploring an expanded shuttle system, new agency to manage traffic-reduction

After months of debate about new garages and permit programs, Palo Alto officials shifted gears on Monday in their search for parking solutions when they approved an ambitious initiative aimed at getting drivers out of cars altogether.

Buoyed by years of resident frustration over insufficient parking and a week of community praise about the latest remedies proposed by staff, the City Council voted unanimously to explore a series of “transportation demand management” (TDM) initiatives aimed at getting commuters to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. The package of proposals include exploring a downtown Transportation Management Association; providing of Caltrain Go Passes to City Hall workers willing to give up their parking permits; soliciting bids to dramatically expand of the city’s shuttle program and implementing various car-share and ride-share programs downtown.

The council’s vote authorizes staff to issue requests for proposals to the private market for consulting services relating to the new association and for a shuttle provider who could expand the existing two-bus program into a robust, citywide system.
The fledgling TDM program borrows heavily from similar efforts both in the private sector, where companies like Google use large shuttle fleets to ferry employees, and the public sector, where agencies like the City of San Mateo and Contra Costa County have set up “transportation management associations” (TMA) that coordinate traffic-reduction efforts. Much like elsewhere, the goal in Palo Alto is to encourage downtown employees to switch to Caltrain, buses and bicycles, thereby alleviating the city’s worsening parking shortage. In staff’s parlance, the TDM effort is one leg in the city’s “three-legged stool” of initiatives aimed at addressing the most urgent issue of the day: a parking shortage that has been frustrating residents for years and that is expected to get dramatically worse as new developments come on line in the coming months.

The other two legs of the stool are an increase in parking supply (largely through construction of new garages and lots) and a new “residential parking permit program” that would set time limits for commuters parking in downtown’s congested residential districts. Unlike these two stool legs, which aim to find new places for commuters to park, the TDM effort strives to get them to scrap their cars entirely.
In a memo issued last October, council members Gail Price, Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd and Liz Kniss urged the city to adopt a TDM program that would reduce car trips by at least 30 percent. They cited examples from neighboring agencies and companies, including successful TDM initiatives set up by Google, Stanford University and Contra Costa County. In the memo, the four council members noted that the new permit program, parking garages and tougher parking requirements for new developments “will not alone solve the issues of parking and traffic.”

“The City needs a comprehensive TDM program that will reduce trips by at least 30 percent,” the memo stated. “Stanford has reduced trips by 40 percent or more through a comprehensive TDM program, and with the right focus and attention Palo Alto could have similar results.”

That view was widely shared on Monday. Neilson Buchanan, a Downtown North resident who has long urged the city to alleviate the worsening parking congestion in his neighborhood, said he and other neighborhood leaders fully support the steps outlined by staff.

“It looks really good to all of us,” Buchanan said. “As we know more about it, it makes more and more sense.”

Today, the effort to lessen reliance on cars has some urgency. With the recently approved residential-permit program scheduled to kick off early next year, commuters who have long relied on free all-day parking spots on residential blocks will soon lose that option.

For Charles “Chop” Keenan, a downtown developer who has been heavily involved in setting up downtown’s existing parking assessment district, the measures proposed by staff were key to making sure the permit program would work smoothly. Keenan said he had been exploring the existing association in Contra Costa, which consists of two full-time workers and a temp and which he said succeeded in reducing car use by 30 percent. A similar structure could be set up in Palo Alto, he said.

“Clearly TDM and supply are predicate acts to having an effective RPPP (residential parking permit program), where we don’t just create chaos at the end of the day,” Keenan said.

Hal Mickelson, representing the Chamber of Commerce, thanked city officials for their continued outreach to the business community and asked them to focus on encouragements, rather than penalties, in the new program.

“We advocate carrots rather than sticks,” Mickelson said. “The business community believes that incentive and positive measures are going to work better and be easier and cheaper to administer with less controversy than measures that are prohibitory or restrictive.”

The praise, both oral and in written letters, came as a welcome respite for council members, who have spent at least the past three years fending off a storm of complaints from residents arguing that the city hasn’t done enough to improve the parking crisis downtown.

Councilwoman Gail Price said Monday it was a “a real pleasure this week to get so many positive emails” and called the new initiatives “exciting.” It’s nice, Price said, to be going into a direction with which so many people in the community concur. She noted that nonprofit transportation management associations of the sort Palo Alto is considering are already up and running in many communities, which should make it easier for the council to launch its own program.

“So much of it is already out there,” Price said. “Using the experiences that individuals and groups have already had, seems to me we can cut to the chase a lot faster.”
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss agreed and said the amount of support she has heard from the community has been “pretty stunning.” The city, she said, is far ahead of where it was a year ago when it comes to solving the problem of too many cars downtown. In recent weeks, the council had given its blessing both to the permit program that downtown residents have long clamored for and to the exploration of new garages at several downtown locations.

“For this three-legged stool to actually come into being is pretty astonishing,” Kniss said.

Once in place, the Transportation Management Association would collect fees from businesses in its assessment district and use the money to fund initiatives that drive down the number of car commuters. The association would also be charged with measuring the impact of its programs and possibly imposing penalties for those businesses that fail to meet traffic-reduction targets.

But even after Monday’s vote, it could be years before such an association actually takes shape in Palo Alto. Under staff’s proposed timeline, the first phase of the process would last about a year and would entail hiring a consultant, forming a steering committee, collecting traffic data and conducting community outreach. The committee and staff would then develop a work plan, come up with regulations for new businesses, develop the actual programs and hash out the details about the structure of the association, which would then be charged with overseeing the city’s newly expanded shuttle program.

Council members had plenty of questions about the new association, as well as about staff’s proposal to expand the shuttle program, which currently consists of two buses. Some, including Karen Holman, wondered whether the city would retain control over the shuttle program even after the TMA takes the reign. Assistant Planning Director Aaron Aknin said that the shuttle program would ultimately fall under the association’s authority, though the city would likely maintain a presence on its steering committee and thus exercise some influence.

“The ultimate goal is that the TMA is a self-sufficient association,” Aknin said. “If the shuttle system falls under that umbrella, they’d have more of an independent authority. Until we get to that point, the city would have the ability to make those decisions.”
Other council members stressed the urgency of having some programs in place before January 2015, when the residential parking permit program is expected to make its debut. Councilman Larry Klein urged staff to work backwards from the 2015 timeline rather than present long-term timelines.

“How do we help people who will be running around and looking for parking?” Klein asked, referring to the scheduled unveiling of the permit program.
Councilman Greg Scharff agreed.

“We’re putting in an RPPP. We need to work backwards from that and have as many options as possible,” Scharff said.

The proposal to expand the shuttle program also earned a unanimous vote, though Councilman Pat Burt questioned staff’s proposal for new routes and argued that the city needs to do more analysis before deciding on where to send the new shuttles. He pointed out that the “West Shuttle” route proposed by city planners would overlap on El Camino Real with the existing bus system operated by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

“I think there’s more to (the decision) than laying out a bunch of routes and presuming people will come,” Burt said.


(Featured image thanks to

Shelly Roberson


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