In 1947, at a time when downtown Palo Alto was bustling with retail stores serving the everyday needs of local residents, the city decided to install parking meters on University Avenue and some side streets.
It was an easy way to provide a new revenue stream for a growing town, a practice that was becoming commonplace in other mid-sized suburban communities.
But by the early 1970s, downtown was in serious decline. The success and novelty of Stanford Shopping Center, opened in 1955 and with vast amounts of free parking, had overshadowed downtown as the region's retail center. The city removed the parking meters as part of a strategy to make downtown more competitive and attractive to shoppers. (This was long before restaurants dominated downtown store fronts.)
That policy -- of providing free parking for time-limited periods -- has remained virtually unchanged for the last 45 years except for the creation of Palo Alto's four often-mocked and misunderstood color zones, designed to make it possible for a shopper to re-park in a different zone without getting ticketed.
Now, after more than 40 years of free parking, the city has just completed the most extensive analysis ever undertaken of its parking issues downtown. Two companion consultant reports are hot off the presses -- one laying out the current conditions and the other containing recommendations for a dramatic overhaul of the city's parking strategies. Together they total more than 150 pages and are rich in data.
The consultant, Dixon Resources of San Diego, strongly recommends that all parking downtown be converted from free to paid, with technology-enabled adjustable pricing and time limits that reflect the parking supply and demand in different areas of downtown.
Under the system proposed, higher hourly rates would be charged for on-street parking in areas of greatest demand, and lower rates would be set for less impacted streets away from downtown's central core and for city parking lots and garages.
The concept is to use pricing to influence behavior, with the goal of moving all-day or multi-hour employee parking into garages by setting those prices lower than street parking, essentially the opposite of the current system, which provides two or three hours of free parking and results in hundreds of cars being moved by employees to evade ticketing or purchasing permits.
The consultants recommend single-space "smart" parking meters, capable of accepting credit cards and mobile payments, on University and Hamilton avenues and the side streets connecting them. Pay stations -- kiosks at which parkers pay -- would be used on other streets and in parking lots.
Through this pricing strategy, more short-term parking will become available as all-day parkers will have financial incentives to either find alternative ways of getting to work or migrate to less expensive parking garages. Most expensive, the consultants recommend, should be the permits to park all day in the nearby residential neighborhoods.
The reports recommend that on-street parking be limited to two or three hours depending on the location, with hourly rates of $1.50 in areas of lower demand and $2.50 in the most congested areas. Off-street parking in lots and garages would have no time limit, and the initial hours of parking would be charged at a lower rate than additional hours. It suggests off-street hourly rates of $1 to $1.25 for the initial three or four hours, increasing to $2 per 15 minutes thereafter up to a maximum of $24.
While it recommends retaining the new reduced-price employee permits for low-income workers, it suggests that regular permit prices be greatly increased from the current $466 (only $2 a day) to be more in line with other cities with similar parking demands.
There is a lot to digest in the excellent work done by the consultants, and the community will get its initial opportunity to further understand the suggested strategy at a special City Council meeting next Tuesday evening. That night the council will also be reviewing the staff's recommendations for a new five-level parking garage on the existing city parking lot on Hamilton Avenue across the street from the Post Office, which would add more than 200 spaces.
The consultants also point out the pressing need for better city administration of parking and use of modern technology, including possibly including license-plate readers to make enforcement more efficient.
We hope the City Council enthusiastically supports these initiatives, which cap years of discussion and are consistent with adopted city policy to expand supply, create incentives to reduce solo driving, reduce the impacts on surrounding residential neighborhoods and fund a transportation-management program to encourage people to use transportation alternatives.