Smart Solutions to Parking and Congestion: Addressing Palo Alto's problems head-on

Dear Palo Alto City Council Members:

I am writing to you to share Palo Alto Forward's perspective on the annual cap on office/R&D development to be discussed at your March 2nd meeting. Thank you for considering our perspective on this very important issue. 

Palo Alto Forward represents citizens who support more housing and better transportation options. We are concerned about increased traffic and parking, expensive housing, and the difficult retail climate. But implementing an office/R&D square footage development cap will not solve these problems and may make them worse.

Why? Because it’s all connected:

We are trying to balance two opposing forces:

  1. The Bay Area is growing rapidly. Palo Alto is not an island-- we have an opportunity to steer this growth intelligently within our city

  2. Growth brings some positives and negatives: positives: a more vibrant (more shops, restaurants, employment opportunities), diverse community; negatives: increased congestion and noise

Let's harness growth to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives.

Instead of the cap, let’s solve our problems head-on.

With respect to traffic and parking, a cap on future development will not manage additional traffic and parking impacts created by existing office/R&D space, and will only drive up rents and prevent our nascent TDM program from succeeding.

In trying to balance the positives of growth (sustainability, vibrancy and diversity) while reducing the negatives (congestion and noise), one of the primary tools is our newly created Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Program. This will take money from development, parking fees, and local businesses and use that money to reduce traffic and parking issues.

If we simply cap commercial growth, we have eliminated any incentive for anyone to participate in a TDM program. Businesses in particular are looking to expand while reducing rents. In exchange for this, they are willing to pay to mitigate the impacts of their expansion. If we are adopting policies that are expressly designed to cap growth (and keep rents high), what incentive does anyone have to participate in a TDM program?

In the early 1990s, Stanford was faced with a similar conundrum. They needed to plan for and accommodate future buildings improvements to support the university’s growing programs. However, neighboring communities successfully forced Stanford to keep the number of car trips in and out of campus constant. As a result, Stanford embarked on a major TDM program-- including large investments in shuttles, parking cash-outs for faculty and staff, subsidized transit (Caltrain and buses), bicycling program improvements, and education / marketing programs. The program has allowed Stanford to achieve its objectives while minimizing the impact to the community.  It has had the side benefit of making Stanford far more environmentally sustainable, and putting their dollars into transportation improvements versus more concrete parking lots.

If Stanford were simply not allowed to grow, there would have been no incentive for the TDM program, and we would have had a lose-lose situation… the same number of cars coming into Stanford without the ability for a world-class university to continue to be the innovation engine it has become. The negotiating tool that Palo Alto used with Stanford was wise: focus on traffic first, and force the university to invest to relieve this problem.

We need an equal level of wisdom in dealing with Palo Alto.

We have attached to this letter a data-driven proposal to deal with parking congestion in the downtown area.  A similar approach could be taken in other parts of the city.  Even this proposal will require careful data validation before adoption, but it at least directly confronts the problems you are trying to solve.

 
Sincerely,
Tara Nussbaum (Palo Alto resident), on behalf of Palo Alto Forward

Thanks to all of our blog readers who care about this issue.  If you'd like to read some of our analysis, please see our short policy paper on solving Palo Alto's parking and congestion problems.  We welcome constructive comments and would like to see a strong, data-driven discussion of all issues in Palo Alto.

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