New Vehicle Parking Policies for Downtown Palo Alto

Palo Alto City Council

Palo Alto is now studying ways to update its downtown parking policies to better manage growing business and residential development. Recent growth in both the number of downtown workers and retail businesses have increased demand for vehicle parking. Some residents feel that future development should slow down, or that new parking structures should be built to provide parking for more vehicles. We think it’s a classic resource management problem that can be addressed through better, more modern policies and new technology.

On July 16, the Palo Alto City Council rejected a proposal to implement a 6-month trial Residential Parking Permit Program (RPPP) in the city’s historic Professorville neighborhood, which lies just south of University Avenue. Permits would be needed to park vehicles there, and only residents would be able to purchase the permits. The RPPP was intended to prevent downtown workers from using the neighborhood’s streets as a conveniently located free parking lot, a longstanding concern of residents.

The City Council voted 6-2 to reject the trial parking permit program and instead directed city staff to study a more comprehensive set of solutions, including Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs for downtown businesses, the implementation of technologies able to monitor the availability of each parking space, and perhaps most controversially, parking meters. City staff has 6 months to complete such a study, which will be funded by $250,000 obtained as a public benefit from the Lytton Gateway mixed-use development. Similar concerns regarding vehicle parking were raised by the public during the development of that project, which was approved earlier this year.

Palo Alto’s Vehicle Parking Problem
Palo Alto’s downtown parking woes boil down to a simple fact that’s becoming ever more apparent: the city’s parking policies discourage efficient use of its own parking supply.

Workers choose to park in residential neighborhoods instead of city-owned lots and structures, leaving spaces in lots and structures empty while filling up residential streets with parked cars during weekdays. Parking downtown is, generally speaking, a hassle for most visitors for a variety of reasons: (1) it’s free on University Avenue, which means it’s almost always full during periods of high demand, and (2) the “2-Hour Zone” system that doesn’t allow parking for more than 2 hours in any one of 4 different zones forces visitors to either re-park every 2 hours or just park in the nearby residential neighborhoods.

University Avenue Palo Alto

It’s often impossible to find a parking spot along Palo Alto’s University Avenue.

Palo Alto could soon adopt parking policies to better reflect current market realities and take advantage of new parking technologies that can provide motorists with up-to-the-minute information on the locations and prices of available parking spaces.

The High Price of Free Parking
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) professor Donald Shoup has written an influential book called The High Price of Free Parking (2005), in which he argues that vehicle parking should be dynamically-priced such that 15% of parking spaces on a given block or a given parking lot or structure are unoccupied at any given time. If more than 15% of spaces are empty, the price should be lower. If less than 15% of spaces are empty, the price should be higher.

Donald Shoup

Donald Shoup is an expert on urban land use, transportation, and parking policies.

Such a system is considered by advocates for market-based parking policies as the holy grail of vehicle parking – an optimized and intelligent system that perfectly manages available parking spaces so that one is always available when and where a motorist wants to park – at the appropriate price.

This has already been implemented in parts of Redwood CitySan Francisco, and Los Angeles, but requires a more complex parking management system than currently available in Palo Alto – one that includes sensors in every parking spot, computer software that adjusts the price of parking according to demand, and smartphone/internet applications that provide the price and availability information to motorists wishing to park.

So what are some simpler solutions? Can Palo Alto move closer to a market-based parking management system without such technologies? How? Here are some ideas:

The Easier Things – no new technology needed
1. Charge to park a vehicle for more than two hours in city-owned lots and structures. How about $1/hr or $2/hr after the first two hours? Right now, motorists cannot even choose to pay to park for more than two hours – they must move their vehicle or risk getting a parking ticket.

Palo Alto Downtown Parking Zones

Palo Alto allows free parking downtown for up to two hours in each of 4 different zones.

2. Charge to park a vehicle in city-owned lots and structures on a daily basis. How about $3 or $5 per day? The price could be set by market demand (by periodically counting the number of parked cars in each lot of different days) such that about 15% of spaces are always available. Right now, motorists cannot even choose to pay to park for a single day or a few days per month – the only options are to park for two-hours or for an entire quarter year (with a parking permit). Monthly parking permits will soon be available, but this is still very limiting – either park for two hours or for one month.

3. Allow anyone or any company or organization to purchase daily or monthly parking permits in city-owned lots and structures, for anyone to use. Right now, only individuals can purchase the parking permits, and only for their own individual use. Why not let a company buy permits for 5 spaces that 10 employees can share? Or let an individual buy a permit for 1 space that he/she shares with 2 friends? Again, the price should be determined by market demand, such that about 15% of spaces are always available.

The Harder Things – new technologies needed
4. Charge to park vehicles on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto and on some adjacent streets. Currently, it’s very difficult to find a parking spot during periods of high demand (weekdays and weekend evenings), so motorists “cruise for parking” – driving up and down and all around searching (often in vain) for that perfect parking spot. This generates unnecessary frustration, traffic congestion, and increases hazards for pedestrians and bicyclists. How about $1/hr or $2/hr during high-demand periods? Some motorists would choose to pay and park, and some would choose to save a little money and park a few blocks away for a lower price. But when it’s always free, it’s almost always full.

What if 15% of parking spaces were always available, everywhere on University Avenue? That’s good for the motorist who wants to park, good for the business owner who wants parking to be available near his/her business, and good for everyone else – fewer cars to avoid for people walking or bicycling, and cleaner air for everyone.

5. Manage all of the city-owned lots and structures with market-based dynamically-priced parking, such that about 15% of all spaces in a given area are always available at any given time. Sometimes the price would drop to $0, when demand is low, such as late at night – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Smart phones and a website could inform motorists about where parking is available and at what price. This way, no one would need to “cruise for parking”. You just park where you want, when you want. It’s not necessarily free, but cruising for parking isn’t really either – you waste time and gas, and it’s just stressful. Check your phone or a website before you go out – and you can always know the price ahead of time.

Such policies might be politically difficult to enact right now, but that’s mostly because paying for parking is new concept in Palo Alto, and most residents are unfamiliar with actively-managed dynamically-priced parking systems. Other cities, including nearby Redwood City, have implemented market-based priced parking, overcoming a variety of objections from residents and business owners.

Residents of downtown neighborhoods would benefit due to reduced demand for parking in front of their homes. Workers and visitors would benefit as well, with conveniently available parking at all times. And everyone would benefit from reduced traffic congestion and safer streets – even people who never park at all.

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