Each time a study or staff report is prepared to try and address the multiple problems with the parking challenges facing Palo Alto residents, employers, employees and visitors alike, the solutions seem more elusive.
But at least the latest report, prepared by a consultant whose work follows another consultant's effort just two years ago, makes clear that if the city does not invest the resources necessary to properly staff, simplify and manage its complex system of residential preferential parking (RPP) districts, the whole program is in danger of collapse.
On that, we agree.
Here is how the report describes the current state of the city's RPP program:
"For residents who still find their street occupied by parked vehicles, the system seems ineffective. For employers unable to obtain permits, the system seems flawed. For visitors who are not familiar with the city's zones, the system is perplexing. And for staff responsible for the administration of parking services, the workload of the RPP program is, at times, overwhelming."
With more than a quarter of the city's households currently in one of our five RPP districts and with two applications for new districts pending, this may be the city program with the most direct and regular interaction with individual residents, employers and employees. Almost 8,000 households and 1,000 employees have permits entitling them to park without time limits in a specific zone within an RPP district.
Each of the five districts — downtown, Crescent Park, Southgate, Evergreen Park-Mayfield and College Terrace — has different rules and pricing, and in the case of downtown, Southgate and Evergreen Park-Mayfield, employees are also entitled to limited numbers of neighborhood parking permits. That's in addition to the traditional permit system for employees wanting to buy permits to park in city's lots and garages.
With the best of intentions, over the last 10 years the city has tried to meet the needs and desires of residents and employees by crafting unique policies for each of these areas. That has left an understaffed transportation staff barely treading water in a morass of confusing and sometimes illogical policies and a bad online system that makes good customer service almost impossible to achieve.
Unfortunately, other priorities and staff shortages allowed the excellent 2017 study — focusing on downtown parking strategies — to languish after the Planning and Transportation Commission decided to largely reject its recommendations and have staff develop an alternative. That study was spot-on, in our opinion, and focused on installing high-tech parking meters now common in other cities and a dynamic pricing model that would eliminate the incentives for employees to game the system by moving their cars every two hours.
The new report takes a broader look at the operation of all five RPP districts. It also looks at the need to set "parking availability standards" that would determine how many employee permits should be issued in the downtown and California Avenue residential areas to achieve an appropriate number of open parking spaces during peak hours for residents. It also recommends standardizing the fees across the various districts and providing for automatic renewals for employee permits to avoid the current chaos of six-month renewal cycles.
Unfortunately, this new report is vulnerable to the same fate as the 2017 report — failure due to the lack of stable and adequate staff resources. It calls for extensive outreach to residents and the business community and the establishment of a working group to seek consensus on how to balance the interests of residents and employees, but to be successful that will requires strong leadership and support from the top — and adequate staffing.
The City Council was united Monday night in supporting the recommendations in the report and, as it did two years ago after the previous report, directed the staff to develop a work plan to implement them. Only this time it agreed to add the necessary staff to the budget, as urged by City Manager Ed Shikada.
Today's RPP system, with all its administrative flaws, has been largely successful at improving neighborhood parking conditions. The challenge ahead is making it a rational, manageable and modern system that doesn't create endless frustration and aggravation for those that are in it or responsible for running it.