Outreach kicked off on Wednesday afternoon, when TMA leaders stopped by the monthly meeting of the California Avenue Business Association to pitch the program to area merchants and describe the evolution of the TMA since its formation in 2015.
The organization, which the city launched in a bid to reduce the number of commuters driving solo, reached several key milestones in 2018: It achieved status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, raised more than $240,000 in private funding for organizational development and hired in June a new executive director, Steve Raney.
Its most notable accomplishment, however, has been the significant boost in the number of transit subsidies it's provided to downtown employees, particularly those in the service industry. The percentage of downtown workers who use alternative transit went up from 18 percent in 2015 to 27 percent in 2018, according to the city, while the percentage of employees who drive alone to work has slipped from 57 percent to 49 percent.
The Palo Alto TMA's flagship program — transit subsidies — saw a surge in demand in the latter half of 2018, according to Rob George, chair of the TMA board of directors, who provided an update to the City Council on Monday. In August, 117 downtown employees went to the TMA to get their Clipper cards filled. After that, the number climbed steadily every month, reaching 237 in December, according to the TMA's annual report, which was released earlier this month.
One reason for the growth is the TMA's decision to slightly relax the maximum-income limit, raising it from $50,000 to $70,000. This allowed the program to add several middle-managers to the ranks of service workers who signed up for transit assistance. These managers, in turn, were able to spread the word to their teams about the TMA, prompting other employees to join.
"We picked up some folks to rally their teams to come to the TMA and get transit passes," George told the City Council.
In downtown, the list of participating businesses has been growing and now includes major hotels, restaurants and retailers big and small, with the Sheraton hotel and the Apple store currently leading the way with 29 and 17 participants, respectively, according to the TMA report.
In addition to subsidizing transit passes, the TMA also offers commuters "after hours" discounts for Lyft rides before 6 a.m. and after 8 p.m., times when transit options might be limited. It offers $10 discounts to participating employees for such trips, with a limit of 14 trips per month. Slightly more than 100 daily commuters who used to drive alone now use these car-share programs, the report states.
To spread the gospel of alternative commute options, the association has gone door-to-door to explain its services. So far, it's reached out to 300 businesses, the TMA report states.
To date, the association has been funded largely by the city, which last year used $480,000 from its downtown parking revenues to support the association's work. More recently, it has also benefited from private contributions from area organizations and foundations, which have totaled $240,000.
It also received $100,000 total from Facebook and Palantir Technology — money that will be used to launch California Avenue's new program. In February, TMA officials will be visiting businesses to talk about their offerings. The goal is to have the new program up and running in early March, said Justine Burt, a consultant with the TMA who has been signing up downtown's participants.
Burt told merchants at the California Avenue meeting Wednesday that half of the downtown employees who drive alone have indicated that transit is not an option for them. In some cases, they need their cars to make deliveries; in others, they need them to pick up their children from school or get to their next job.
The TMA is trying to target the other half, for whom transit could be a viable option, Burt told the merchants — particularly, those who live near El Camino Real and other major corridors. The initial goal, she said, is to just get the employees to try alternative transit.
"A lot the people I'd talked to in helping them figure out what transit mode they should take, once they try it — even if they can try it for a month, they can then say, 'Does this make sense for me? Is there a benefit?' Then they might continue," Burt said.
One hopeful sign for the program's future is the availability of future funding from private sources.
"There are potential additional funders waiting in the wing to see, 'Does anyone actually take transit? Do you have people signing up?' As we've had each level of success, more funding has come in."
The TMA's chief benefactor, the city of Palo Alto, has also been generally pleased with the early results. During the Monday study session, council members lauded the program and suggested other ways in which the TMA can help the city address its much-maligned traffic challenges.
Councilman Tom DuBois suggested subsidizing parking permits for employees who regularly carpool, while Councilwoman Alison Cormack suggested that the city "lead by example a little bit more" by increasing city employees' involvement in the TMA.
Council members also broadly supported the TMA's new focus on California Avenue, where the city is preparing to break ground on a new 636-space garage to address the area's chronic parking shortages. Vice Mayor Adrian Fine lauded the TMA's "good progress" and said he is willing to continue supporting it. When Fine asked whether the California Avenue programs will largely mirror those downtown, George said they would initially, though the TMA would change programs based on demand.
George said that in his initial discussions with area merchants, he has already sensed great enthusiasm.
"This is excitement we didn't see in the early months at all in downtown, when we had someone walking through the door and talking about it," George said.
That said, the TMA is also mindful of its own limitations. Both Raney and Burt are part-time employees, and the board of directors is composed of volunteers, including employees from Palantir, Google, IDEO and the city of Palo Alto. (George, as the representative of small businesses, is a former Philz manager who now works for the restaurant Lemonade).
There are also more systemic challenges: those who cannot take transit because of their schedules and those who simply like to drive.
"Whether you're a poor kid working as a server or a guy who works at a tech company, you love your car," George said on Monday. "It may be the one bit of quiet time you get all day. That's something that will take us generations to solve, probably."