Palo Alto moves forward with initiative to reduce car trips

Last week, the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission got an update on the early stages of the formation of the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA).  In the last year, the Palo Alto City Council started a major initiative to address traffic and parking problems by investing in programs to reduce vehicle trips, in addition to strategies to manage parking more efficiently and build more parking supply.  To implement this trip reduction strategy, Palo Alto is starting a TMA, a nonprofit organization which will manage marketing and programs to reduce vehicle trips, such as shuttles, transit pass discounts, carshare, and other benefits, on behalf of businesses and residents.

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The update about the first steps to get the TMA started was provided by staff member Jessica Sullivan, and consultant Wendy Silvani, who staffed the successful, pioneering Emeryville TMA which currently serves 1.4 million annual shuttle trips to BART, and the Mission Bay TMA which has an 85% non-drive alone mode share.  

To start to get input and gather support for the program, the consultants have been interviewing various stakeholder groups including businesses, senior centers, and neighborhood groups, and asked the PTC for other groups to reach out to.  PTC members strongly recommended reaching out to the school system, including "safe routes to schools" leaders who have already made tremendous progress at restoring  the share of kids walking and bicycling to school to around half, up from a low of about 25%.

Commissioner Carl King expressed concern that the goal of the TMA, which is to reduce vehicle trips by 30%, based on a council directive, might be too aggressive.   In response, Commissioner Arthur Keller pointed out that Stanford has achieved deeper trip reductions than that over the last decade. (So have Google and other leading private sector programs, and Portland's Lloyd District).  As the TMA gathers information about the opportunities for vehicle trip reduction in Palo Alto, they could refine the goal based on data, in the way that the Cities of Mountain View and San Mateo have set their goals by analyzing how much the use of transportation alternatives could be increased.

Commissioner King strongly encouraged trip reduction methods to require participation. “In Palo Alto, we tend to be very polite” - but in order to get results, the program can’t be purely optional and without accountability.

A PTC member asked about the relationship between the TMA and the city. The Transportation Management Association will be a nonprofit with its own board. Silvani and Sullivan mentioned that the current thinking is that city staff will serve on the board - a PTC member suggested ex officio representation by a Councilmember and a PTC member.

Commissioner Eric Rosenblum asked questions about funding mechanisms, which were not answered very clearly by consultants and staff. Based on research regarding other locations, TMAs can be funded with a variety of sources. In areas dominated by new development, TMAs are often funded substantially by development fees. TMAs can also be funded via membership fees, fees for services, assessment mechanisms, and parking revenues. Parking revenues are a major source of funds for Stanford, as well as TMA programs in Boulder and Portland. 

King and other PTC members questioned the initial focus on downtown, when community members are concerned about traffic all around town. South Palo Alto neighborhoods have perennial concerns about getting fewer benefits than northern neighborhoods, and there is a particularly high driving rate at Stanford Research Park.

Based on case studies from other places, it would be desirable for TMA to evolve to provide programs to multiple areas across town - but this blogger thinks it would be a risk to try and serve all parts of the city identically, all at once. By focusing on a defined set of places that people come from and travel to, the TMA will be able to  create focused programs for clusters of people tailored for specific areas.  For example, a neighborhood GoPass would likely be more effective in the Downtown and Cal Ave areas than South Palo Alto neighborhoods two miles from the closest Caltrain station.

With regard to Stanford Research Park,  contributors to the high rate of driving likely include free parking, challenges with the schedules of the shuttles to/from Caltrain, and shuttles home provided only by the largest employers for a fee. So it is financially attractive for employees to drive.   The first things that Stanford University did when implementing TDM was to start charging for parking, add Caltrain shuttles designed based on data about employees needs, and provide employees with deep-discount Caltrain passes.  An alternative to charging for parking is offering “parking cashout” benefits - a cash payment in exchange for not using a parking space.

As for neighborhoods, there are examples of cities with successful residential TDM programs. Boulder offers a neighborhood EcoPass - a deep-discount transit pass that a neighborhood can vote to adopt.  Neighborhoods using this program drive 40% less on average than other Boulder neighborhoods.  Data about potential use, and active community buy-in should be needed to institute neighborhood programs.

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