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Stanford Research Park companies join forces to fight traffic

Coalition of high-tech giants to launch new shuttle routes, trip-planning services

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For Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard and other titans based at Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto, innovation has long been a way of life and the key to surviving and thriving in the competitive cauldron of the global market.

Now, these companies and other tech giants in the 700-acre corporate campus are merging their creative energies take on a common scourge: traffic congestion that is threatening their abilities to recruit talent and thus compete in the global economy.

Earlier this year, a dozen Research Park employers joined their landlord, Stanford University, in forming a Transportation Management Association, a group they hope will help them innovate their way out of the traffic mess.

In the months to come, the association will be rolling out new shuttles, carpool routes and a trip-planning app to give employees new alternatives to commuting alone in a car. The goal is to shrink traffic congestion, making life easier for employees who often have to spend hours every day getting to and from work.

For some of these companies, the efforts aren't entirely new. Lockheed Martin, the Research Park's largest tenant, has been offering its workers bus passes and biking incentives for many years. And VMWare, the second largest tenant, subsidizes public-transit passes, vanpools and biking amenities, said LindaMarie Santiago, the company's director of real estate and workplace.

"We are motivated to offer employees these programs because our people come from all over the Bay Area and commuting has become more complex," Santiago told the City Council on March 14, during a presentation of the fledgling effort.

To be sure, some companies' individual efforts haven't gone as planned. VMWare's recent launch of three new shuttle routes (two to San Francisco and one to the Tri-Valley region in the East Bay) floundered when the operator unexpectedly suspended the service, Santiago told the council.

"We are very interested in pooling employers and sharing long-distance shuttles with other Stanford Research Park employers," she said.

The effort at Stanford Research Park is rolling out at the same time as the City of Palo Alto is jump-starting its own Transportation Management Association (TMA), focusing on the downtown area.

According to Tiffany Griego, managing director of Stanford Research Park, recent interviews with some of the Research Park's largest tenants indicated that they are already deeply invested in transportation-demand-management efforts as a way to win "the war for talent."

Companies have commissioned shuttles to drive employees to and from locations as far away as Dublin and Fremont; installed bike rooms; unveiled vanpool services; and offered "guaranteed ride home" programs, in which employees who carpool or rely on transit are entitled to a taxi trip back home if something unexpected occurs.

Yet there is a general understanding that more needs to be done, the interviews revealed.

Even though the group is still in its infancy, it has already scored one major victory. In recent months, it has convinced the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which operates buses throughout the county, to sell Eco Passes in bulk to Research Park firms at a rate $18 per pass. Without the collective approach, most employers would have been required to pay $93 per pass.

This program is particularly significant because roughly half of the workforce at the Research Park commutes from the south bay, according to Jamie Jarvis, who was hired in January as the Research Park's transportation-demand manager.

Jarvis said the group plans to roll out a series of pilot programs in the months ahead, including an interactive trip-planning website, car-share services and a new long-distance shuttle service that would accommodate commuters from the western half of San Francisco who lack convenient access to Caltrain.

Most of the park's 150 companies do not have enough employees on their own to efficiently run a service, Jarvis said. But with multiple companies on board, the shuttles will not only be cost-effective but also more likely to be filled.

So far, the 12 companies (HP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, VMWare, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, SAP, Varian, Tesla, PARC, Nest, Tibco, Machine Zone and Lockheed Martin) have been meeting monthly to share data and discuss best practices. Though they make up only a fraction of the Research Park's 150 tenants, they employ 75 percent of the workforce, Griego said.

Kellie Drenner, SAP's manager for strategic partnership, said the company sees great value in the collective approach. SAP, she told the council, already offers free Eco Passes, emergency ride-home programs, carpools, vouchers for bicycle riders and subsidies for other transit services. The new group has not only allowed SAP to get significant discounts on Eco Passes and to consider shared shuttles, it has also strengthened each company's position in calling for broader transportation improvements.

"It goes without saying, we see value in speaking with a common voice in advocating for changes in regional-transportation systems," Drenner said.

Stan Nakaso, facility project manager at Lockheed Martin, voiced a similar sentiment. The company is motivated to offer employers new commuting options because "traffic congestion is a quality of life issue."

"We believe real participation in the program will benefit all employees working in the park," Nakaso said.

Griego said the group of employers is tackling the traffic problem with a "mindset of experimentation" and the understanding that flexibility will be key in making the programs a success. To help with the design of future programs, the group will survey employees about their commuting habits and attitudes toward different commuting modes in the coming months.

The effort faces plenty of challenges. Unlike the City of Palo Alto's downtown association, the Stanford Research Park group doesn't have a Caltrain station in its midst. The California Avenue station is a short shuttle ride away, but trains stop there far less frequently. And even though the Research Park has the advantage of a common landowner willing to provide seed money, its employers are a widely varied group. Griego noted that the smallest company at the Research Park has one employee, while the largest has 4,000.

Different companies also have different needs, which means the group will have to come up with a range of solutions to cater to everyone. Jarvis noted that while the Research Park's more established companies tend to draw most of their employees from the south bay, the newer ones often employing younger employees, many of whom live in San Francisco.

"That's an example of how each company has to look at its workforce and design programs for that," Jarvis said.

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19 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of University South
on Mar 17, 2016 at 9:35 am

This is great news and they should be commended for it. But it's also a sign of how far they have to go to match what the large downtown employers have been doing for years.

Every major tech employer in the downtown offers GoPasses, even though they are comparatively small. (Palantir, the largest of them - Palantir, has maybe 750 employees in Palo Alto, compared to 3500 at VMWare or SAP and 2500 at HP.) According to the city survey, downtown tech companies have driving rates below 40%. In the Research Park, it's at least twice that right now.

Can the city set a goal for the Research Park to reduce traffic to rates comparable to what the downtown companies have achieved?

The vast majority of Palo Alto's workers and an even greater fraction of its commuters work in the Research Park. Replicating in the Research Park the success companies have had with transit in the downtown is the biggest lever we have to reduce traffic congestion in Palo Alto.

10 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2016 at 10:12 am

@Observer - GoPass is for Caltrain only, right? Caltrain is obviously popular downtown because the trains are fast and downtown businesses are within easy walking distance from the train station. Are there shuttle busses to efficiently take employees from the train station to Stanford Research Park? Also, is there a way to get VTA and Caltrain (and other public transit agencies) to collaborate on a monthly pass that works on all their systems?

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2016 at 10:33 am

These are great moves.

Can they also be innovative and get some high tech methods to help people park in Palo Alto. We need some apps to show where there are empty spots in full garages, some signs to show when garages are full, some high tech meters and pay per hour machines to pay for several hours parking, perhaps being able to text to pay for parking rather than having to visit City Hall, etc. etc. etc.

10 people like this
Posted by Zipcars
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 17, 2016 at 11:16 am

Easy access to Zipcars would also be helpful for those who may need to run a quick errand or attend an appointment or meeting during the day.

11 people like this
Posted by Russ
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2016 at 11:41 am

Access to Zipcars and BikeShare already existsin Palo Alto, apps are being developed in combination with smart signage for our downtown parking garages and other technologies are on the way to help navigate where to park. Hang in there folks.

6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2016 at 1:24 pm

@Russ - bike share does not exist in the Stanford Park area, which is what this article is about. I do agree that bike share would be great to help car-free employees run errands during lunch or to travel between company buildings.

Bike share is so limited in Palo Alto that it is essentially useless except for very specific routes, like from the Caltrain station to city hall. For unknown reasons, there are no bike share stations on the Stanford side of El Camino Real.

2 people like this
Posted by Stalled
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Mar 17, 2016 at 3:42 pm

Why does this group not include the VA Hospital and Stanford? Stanford is taking over a lot of the buildings along Page Mill, Hanover and Arastradero and the VA Hospital recently expanded. Both groups use Page Mill and Arastradero heavily in the morning and evening. If Stanford were part of this group, maybe they can expand the Marguerite shuttle to include the companies. And Stanford benefits most from having the tech companies nearby, both from the revenue and their professors involved in the technology.

Like this comment
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 17, 2016 at 6:42 pm

It's great to see companies getting together to solve a mutual problem. I'm a little skeptical that TMA's efforts will work as well but let's give them a chance and collaboration with the Research Park could make a real difference.

5 people like this
Posted by Cheryl
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 18, 2016 at 9:59 am

Just want to say a heartfelt thanks to all involved in this effort!

Folks who figure out Emergency Ride Homes for sick folk who took public transportation and wave cow bells at Bike to Work day and write lots of polite emails. And sign the checks.

You rock!!

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