Nothing is more motivating than an agitated electorate. And with residents expressing increasing frustration with the City Council's approvals of new commercial development projects and delay after delay in addressing the traffic and parking problems they create and exacerbate, the Palo Alto City Council is looking for a way to establish its credentials as good transportation and land use planners.
That proved harder than one might expect Monday night, as council members struggled to find the right process for developing a so-called "transportation demand management" (TDM) plan.
TDMs are comprehensive incentive programs for discouraging commuting to work in single-occupant cars. They can include subsidized transit passes, creating easier options for bicyclists, car-pool match-up programs, car-sharing, vans and buses, as well as disincentives such as making parking more restrictive or expensive.
Large companies have long had such programs, either voluntarily or as a condition of development, and Stanford University is the often-cited poster child for successful transportation demand management programs. The university has had an elaborate and expensive TDM that has actually reduced peak-hour car trips even as substantial new development has occurred on campus.
But replicating what individual large employers have done in Palo Alto's multi-employer commercial districts is no simple undertaking, and will require the city itself to take on the responsibility for developing, funding and managing the program, as well as making sure it has the support of residents and businesses. That is a complex, ambitious and appropriate undertaking
Four council members (Shepherd, Scharff, Price and Kniss) took on this challenge in a three-page memo to their colleagues this week. They proposed that the city staff, using consultants, develop a "rigorous" TDM plan for four commercial districts: downtown, California Avenue and the Stanford Research Park. (East Meadow Circle, where Google intends to expand, was added at the meeting.) They called for a plan that would likely assess fees on the existing businesses and find other revenue sources to pay for subsidies of alternatives to driving to work for employees commuting into the city, with the hope of reducing solo car commutes by 30 percent or more.
With just one vote shy of the necessary majority, one would have expected easy passage of the proposal. But the rest of the council, while agreeing with the goals, warned of embarking on such an ambitious effort without greater clarity, better data and more public input, especially from the business community, which was completely unrepresented at the meeting.
Unable to agree on the right balance between pushing forward quickly and allowing for up-front community participation early on, the issue was deferred and will return in a couple of weeks.
It would be difficult for anyone to oppose the concept of a program to reduce commute traffic, but the reluctant council majority was right to question the process and we hope the delay will result in a better plan.
Council member Marc Berman correctly pointed out that moving forward without any data on the number of employees working in each area and their commute habits and needs is a recipe for trouble. Before going off and hiring a consultant to develop a plan, the council would be wise to engage the business community to help define the problem and identify possible solutions.
The city does not have a good track record of communicating effectively with business owners, in part because there is no business license required in Palo Alto and therefore poor data, and in part because the task has fallen on city planning and transportation staffers who aren't particularly skilled at public relations.
Outreach efforts on the ill-fated business-license tax and on the redevelopment of California Avenue, to take just two examples, were poorly implemented and led to much resentment by business owners.
More important than process, however, is clarity on the overall vision. The community should not and will not support efforts to reduce traffic without parallel efforts to control future development and a clear understanding that the purpose of these transportation measures is to help solve, along with additional parking garages and residential parking-permit programs, the unacceptable traffic congestion throughout the city.
The development of a carefully thought-out transportation demand management program is an overdue and welcome initiative. But it cannot be a strategy, as it has been at Stanford, for allowing substantial additional new growth. Nor can small businesses be expected to shoulder large new fees to fund construction of parking garages and commute subsidies for their employees.
Before city staff and consultants are sent off to create a TDM plan, let's get clear, with the help of residents and business owners, on what the goals are and how both the supply and demand side will contribute to achieving them.