To address long-simmering frustrations of Palo Alto residents and workers, city leaders are aiming to accelerate reform of neighborhood and downtown parking programs, starting in August.
The extensive to-do list that the City Council and the Planning and Transportation Commission will consider includes moving toward a new pay-by-the-hour system for public garages, planning for a new guidance system at the City Hall garage that will identify available spaces to incoming drivers, and streamlining local neighborhoods' "Residential Preferential Parking" (RPP) programs while also adding new RPP districts.
Some of the initiatives in the city's ambitious parking overhaul are more than two years in the making. Implementing paid parking in downtown was one of the central recommendations of the City of Palo Alto Downtown Parking Management Study, which the consulting firm Dixon Resources completed in early 2017.
Dixon found in its survey of downtown that more than 80% of on- and off-street parking spaces were full, leading drivers to circle around residential streets, garages and parking lots to find a spot. This, the report states, creates further congestion and may deter some customers from visiting downtown.
Introducing paid parking, the study argues, would "ultimately save drivers time and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions."
The Dixon report also noted that the revenue collected through parking can fund the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, which works to convince solo drivers to use other modes of transportation.
To set the stage for paid parking, the city plans to approve a contract with Dixon for a Downtown Parking Operational Study, which will analyze plans to move from the current system that mixes free parking and pre-paid permits to one built around dynamic pricing based on usage.
The study acknowledged concerns of some business owners, who have chafed at the idea of paid parking and argued that parking meters would drive customers to other locations where parking is free. Indeed, when Palo Alto took down downtown's parking meters in the mid-1970s, the main concern was competition from Stanford Shopping Center, where drivers don't have to worry about meters.
Dixon, however, concluded that paid parking, while discouraging some drivers from visiting downtown, could attract others.
"There is a segment of the population that may be more likely to go downtown and pay for parking if it means that parking is easier and quicker to find," the report states.
The council has yet to decide exactly what the new program will look like. One option brought up Wayne Tanda, a consultant with the Municipal Resource Group (MRG), is to allow cars to park in downtown garages for free for the first three hours (much like they do today) and then charge a "reasonable fee" beyond that time. Today, by contrast, cars that need to park for longer than three hours must pay $25 for a permit, regardless of whether they are using the facility for four hours or 15 hours.
The idea of installing guidance systems and revenue collection equipment at the City Hall garage and potentially other downtown structures received a significant boost last month, when the council passed a capital budget that includes the parking equipment on its list of infrastructure priorities — the council's first addition to the infrastructure list since its adoption in 2014.
City Manager Ed Shikada proposed adding the garage technology, which would include signals marking the individual available spaces in a garage, to the budget partly in response to the council's decision in February not to move ahead with construction of a new downtown garage. (The city is, however, proceeding with a new garage in the California Avenue area).
According to the budget, the $2.8-million project will be completed by summer 2021.
The city is also moving ahead with plans to revamp the online system for buying permits and managing citations for all of the city's parking programs. At its final meeting before summer recess, the council approved a $627,000 contract with the firm Duncan Solutions to develop, implement and maintain such a system.
Tanda had recommended that the new system allow employees who buy six-month permits to automatically renew them — thus avoiding the need for the kind of "mad dash" that permit seekers experience every half-year under the current program.
RPPs and chalking tires
The council largely embraced the 35 recommendations in Tanda's report, including one that calls for establishing standards for how much parking should be available to the public in various Palo Alto neighborhoods. He recommended that the city eliminate the inconsistencies between the different RPP districts, which currently vary in terms of how many permits are distributed and how much residents and employees are charged for permits. He also recommended that the city realign renewal dates for parking permits and replace the existing payment system for employee RPP permits (which are sold for six-month increments) with one that allows for monthly permits.
The standards should consider "the residents' perceptions of the impact of parking availability on their quality of life," according to a plan that the Office of Transportation released in June.
During the council's May 13 discussion of parking reforms, Mayor Eric Filseth strongly supported establishing the new standards, which he argued will help simplify the program.
But even as the city is preparing to move ahead with most of the reforms proposed by Dixon and MRG, there is one area in which staff is clinging to the status quo: chalking tires. In April, a federal court concluded that chalking tires is unconstitutional because it violates the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. Though the decision from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals only applies to the four states covered by the circuit court — Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee — it has prompted some cities to reconsider their chalking practices.
Even before the federal court had issued its decision, Dixon had recommended that the city move away from chalking and toward license-plate readers as an enforcement mechanism. Using the digital technology to track the location of vehicles is more efficient, Dixon argued, and helps cities provide "a more accountable and consistent approach to time limit management without having to invest in additional labor."
Tanda told the Weekly that the license-plate technology is in widespread use in Los Angeles and other cities. In Palo Alto, however, officials are not ready to abandon the quaint chalk system.
Shikada said he had spoken to Police Chief Robert Jonsen and City Attorney Molly Stump, who determined that because the decision does not affect California, the city will not be changing any procedures related to chalking.
Staff plans to discuss potential reforms to the parking programs with the Planning and Transportation Commission in the fall, before the issue moves to the council.
To help manage the growing workload, the new budget creates two new positions for the Office of Transportation: a parking manager and a transportation engineer. Shikada is also recruiting for a new chief transportation officer to lead the office, who may make further revisions to the work plan.
City staff is confident that once implemented, the changes will make a real difference on an issue that has frustrated residents and council members for years.
"Though it will take time to reorganize and scale all of the parking activities that will come in a parking work plan as a result of this report, the benefits to staff, customer service, public relations and the sustainability of the city's parking programs will be very significant," the new report from the Office of Transportation states.