Palo Alto, Choked By Famously Free Parking, May Consider Pricing the Curb

Smarter parking policies could lead to less congestion on streets such as University Avenue. The current volume of autos on University is 20,000 per day, according to the city. Photo: ## Masoner/Cyclicious##

For the first time in 15 years, Palo Alto’s outdated parking policies are being reviewed, and planners will consider recommending sustainable parking principles in the downtown core to better manage the supply. The affluent Silicon Valley city has not had a comprehensive examination of its parking strategies since 1997, when it installed four color-coded parking zones downtown. There is a two-hour limit in each zone but all curb parking is free.

“I think everything’s on the table right now. We don’t want to exclude anything at this particular state,” Jaime Rodriguez, the city’s chief transportation official, told Streetsblog.

The study will explore charging for on-street parking, installing SFPark-like meters and sensors and a number of transportation demand management (TDM) measures to discourage single-occupant vehicle trips. Advocates pushing for parking reform hope that Palo Alto will follow cities such as Redwood City or Boulder, Colorado, which have implemented innovative performance-based parking policies and benefit districts that helped spruce up their downtowns and boost business. Two other Peninsula cities — San Mateo and Burlingame — also charge for on-street parking in their downtown business districts.

Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh led the charge for a comprehensive parking study at the July 16 City Council meeting. A proposed residential parking permit program for the Professorville neighborhood was nixed in favor of the review. Some residents in Professorville and Downtown North have complained that downtown employees who take advantage of unpriced on-street parking on residential streets make it difficult for them to park near their homes.

Some influential merchants and residents are framing the problem as a downtown parking shortage. “There has always been a parking deficit in the downtown,” Barbara Gross, board member of the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, told the City Council. “Parking has a direct influence on the success of the business district and has overflow impacts on surrounding residential areas.”

Bending to this perception, planners will look into building more garages “on three or four sites downtown,” according to a document city staff distributed to the City Council. Meanwhile, advocates pushing for parking reform vow to fight the garages, saying there is no need for new spaces. The real problem, they say, has to do with the fact that downtown Palo Alto offers mostly free parking.

“How can there be a deficit if you’re giving it away for free? In other words, the problem is that you’re mismanaging your current supply,” said Irwin Dawid, who sits on the transportation committee of the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta chapter and writes for Planetizen.

In downtown Palo Alto, there are currently 1,100 free on-street spaces and about 2,194 off-street spaces located in four public garages. The city offers one-year permits to park in the garages at a cost of $420, and there is currently a waiting list. However, with the ever-present option of free curb-side parking luring some drivers, a number of spaces in the garages — including the ones for permit holders — frequently sit empty:

Graphic: City of Palo Alto

In an interview with Streetsblog, the city’s planning director, Curtis Williams, agreed that putting a price on curbside parking would improve the situation, but said winning merchants won’t be easy.

“The merchants in downtown Palo Alto have long held strong beliefs that free parking is one of the reasons they’re so successful here, and I know that’s not new to Palo Alto. We need to do a lot of education and work with them and probably gradually be able to roll something out,” Williams said.

Palo Alto installed 800 parking meters in 1947 but the City Council ordered them removed after the Stanford Shopping Center was expanded in the 1970s. As one of the first big malls on the West Coast, its abundant, free parking devastated retail stores on University Avenue.

Today, University Avenue retail is doing well, and downtown Palo Alto is suffering from the effects of its underpriced curbs. To muster the will to tackle this problem, the city could take a page from UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup. In his book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Shoup writes that “cities can create the necessary political support for market-price curb parking if they return the resulting revenue to the neighborhoods” through community benefit districts.

A report on U.S. parking policies prepared by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy notes that “in 20 to 30 special parking districts, in cities as varied as Boulder, Colorado, Los Angeles and San Diego, meter revenues support streetscape improvements to attract more retail business.”

A growing number of cities, the report said, are beginning to recognize the correlation between smart parking policies and safe streets that make biking, walking and transit an easy option.

“I do believe that the pricing should help people to number one, find available parking, and number two, ultimately help steer them toward other modes, but we also have to enhance the convenience and serviceability of those modes at the same time to make that transition,” said Williams.

Palo Alto already has a transit-rich downtown that is served by three transit agencies. The Caltrain station is the second busiest on the system and downtown gets high marks for being walkable and bikeable.

Palo Alto's Caltrain station is the second busiest station on the system. Photo: ## Masoner/Cyclelicious##

The city became a pioneer in bike facilities in the 1980s when it built the nation’s first bicycle boulevard on Bryant Street. Palo Alto currently boasts higher walking and bicycling numbers than many other cities in Silicon Valley, and earlier this month the City Council unanimously passed an updated Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan “to solidify its status as one of the most bicycle friendly communities in California, if not the country.” To the delight of bicycle advocates, the city council also recently approved a permanent road diet on California Avenue, despite calls from some merchants that the city first conduct a trial.

A Climate Action Plan adopted in 2007 acknowledges that free parking encourages workers to drive, contrary to the city’s goals. The plan envisions a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions “from 2005 levels by 2020.” Currently, according to a report prepared by Alta Planning + Design, “automobile travel comprises 36 percent of total GHG emissions within Palo Alto.” Shoup has long stressed that circling for parking is a major source of pollution and congestion on city streets.

“We’re doing a lot to encourage people not to drive,” said Rodriguez, the transportation chief, who added that the city has been encouraging companies to provide incentives for their employees to take transit, bike or walk, including offering free transit passes and housing subsidies to live close to downtown. Many already do. Palantir Technologies, he said, is one such company that offers those benefits.

Palo Alto has added six bike corrals for a total of 60 on-street bicycle parking spaces. The recently adopted Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan recommends the city "develop and adopt an official design standard and funding policy for the use of on-street parking spaces and/or red curb zones for ‘parklets’ and other non-traditional uses (e.g. bike corrals, bicycle stations)." Photo: City of Palo Alto

While the parking study will focus on a variety of options, including efficiencies in the garages and adding attendant parking, Rodriguez said he doesn’t think Shoupian principles may necessarily work for Palo Alto, but it’s something he plans to look into. The study will take about six months to complete and it will ultimately be up to the City Council to decide whether to reform the city’s parking policies.

“It’s an exciting opportunity from a parking management perspective because in a way it’s a clean slate, but it’s also difficult to implement change and it requires a lot of stakeholder input,” he said.

Andrew Boone, a volunteer advocate with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition’s Palo Alto team, recently wrote a piece for Peninsula Transportation Alternatives pointing out that “such policies might be politically difficult to enact right now, but that’s mostly because paying for parking is a new concept in Palo Alto, and most residents are unfamiliar with actively-managed dynamically-priced parking systems.”

“Residents of downtown neighborhoods,” he added, “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.”

This story is part of Streetsblog San Francisco’s coverage of Silicon Valley. Got a tip or story idea we should be covering in Silicon Valley? Email

  • Anonymous

    Palo Alto can do a much better job of balancing the supply and demand for parking.  This is about making alternatives more convenient and cost-effective than driving, not just about adding meters to the street. 

    Parking permits for employees in parking structures are expensive, and right now business can’t even subsidize these spaces for employees.   Once you invest in a parking permit, there is no incentive to take transit, even though downtown Palo Alto is served by Caltrain, VTA, and shuttles. Employees seeking parking flock to neighborhood streets, prompting calls for residential permit parking.  

    It is great that Palo Alto is looking at a wide range of solutions. 

  • Andy Chow

    I think types of parking needs to be distinguished: customer parking vs. employee parking. I think the 2 hour free policy is OK for most customers. Parking is not particularly hard to find in Palo Alto and that the merchants’ concern is real because of the proximity to the Stanford Mall.

    Because of the timing restriction, employees who want all day parking but don’t have a permit would have to park in the residential areas a couple of blocks away. Installing parking meters is not going to be acceptable either since the issue is not the length of parking but the people who park there.

  • I think the 2 hour free policy is OK for most customers

    the issue is not the length of parking but the people who park there.

    You contradict yourself. If you want customers to park in the spots instead of employees – the answer is meters. And strange but true, someone going to buy $1000 worth of stuff at the Apple store will try everything in their power to get their shopping done faster to save 25 cents at the meter. This gives the merchants turnover.

    I used to live downtown and most of the houses have off street parking so I puzzle at the residents who feel displaced by workers, but it is unpleasant for other reasons for a neighborhood to serve as a employee parking lot. While permitting on one hand allows downtown area residents to buy more cars because they are now easily stored on the streets, that might be the lesser of two evils.

  • Anonymous

    Glad to see PA considering charging for parking. Every time I go to University Av, I think: this street has potential to be *really* great if they would just realign the parking to be parallel (the angled parking wastes an incredible amount of space), add a cycletrak for bicycles, and put a price on street parking. Though they’re doing one of these things, I would like to see them look at the other two. In fact, this street, or at least a few blocks, would be the perfect candidate for a completely car-free street. The street is so walkable, so well serviced by public transit and bike lanes/routes, and there are almost no driveways that I just can’t imagine a batter place outside of a big city to try this. PA has led with bicycles before (like the Bryant St bike boulevard), so I would love to see them do it again.

  • Triple0

    Perhaps someone should invite Ms. Gross to Ben & Jerry’s “Free Cone Day” so she can understand the concepts of price and demand.  

  • Anonymous

    In the discussion of permits in Professorville, it turned out that only 11 houses in the study area did not have a driveway or garage.  Many people have driveways and garages but prefer to use them for purposes other than parking their car.  And so they want the city to grant them rights to the on-street space as well. 

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately University acts as one of the vehicle “through” streets to 101. The next through streets are Willow (corridor North) and Embarcadero (corridor South).  I don’t see how it it will be possible to eliminate that function. 

    I would love to see parallel parking, and the only way I see that happening is making it a lot easier for drivers to find open spots in the lots/structures.  Apps and signage to find the parking without circling might help.

  • I believe you mean Palantir Technologies, which is HQed in Palo Alto.

  • Absolutely I did. Thanks for catching that, Greg. 

  • Andy Chow

    If people were told that they need pocket change to park and go to the Apple Store, then they go straight to the Stanford Mall instead. The 2 hour parking limit is to discourage employee parking but allow customer parking so it would be more competitive to the mall.

    I am not against paid parking per se but I find the parking meter to be a very customer unfriendly way to pay for parking: need for exact change, risk of getting a ticket, etc.

  • mikesonn

    Exact change is an issue of yesterday. Noted in the third paragraph, the city will be using SFPark-like meters. RWC uses kiosks that take credit cards. These meters also allow you to use your cell phone to add time to the meter so the risk of getting a ticket is lower.

  • Anonymous

    Simple solution: turn 101 into a express rail + bikeway + BRT route.  You’ll still have space left over for greenway.  Problem solved.

  • mikesonn

    @djconnel:disqus +1

  • Anonymous

    @aslevin:disqus  Good point. But certainly a good chunk of the traffic on University is not through-traffic but local traffic visiting downtown. And Willow is only 0.5 mi (a couple minutes) by car, so I really think traffic can be redirected there. Of course, I know everybody would complain about the increase in traffic, and it surely would increase in the short-term. But in the long-term, people learn that driving sucks and either live nearer to where they work or vice-versa, or else find alternative ways to get around. People will use whatever we build, so if we build roads that are convenient, they’ll use those. But if we build great public transit, bike lanes, and walkable districts, they won’t drive (or at least as much).

  • Andy Chow

    But University is the only access across the Caltrain tracks to El Camino. Willow ends in Middlefield.

    Rather than suggesting something that is unlikely to happen, think about a scenario that could’ve happened: a freeway from the Dumbarton Bridge by the county border to I-280. This was planned a long time ago. Caltrain has gotten this level of ridership today just because it is already hard to access the freeway from downtown Palo Alto/Stanford area. You could match or beat the Baby Bullet if you drive from downtown San Jose to SF (under off peak traffic condition) but you can’t do it from Palo Alto.

  • mikesonn

    Wow Andy, the mental gymnastics you preform are astounding!

    And as for that proposed freeway, I’d love to see the plans for that if they do exist. I know 380 was planned (and most of the ROW acquisition completed) to extend all the way to Hwy 1.

  • Andy – Willow does not end at Middlefield.

  • Andy Chow

    It effectively ends in Middlefield (unless you’re on a bike) because you can’t continue on Willow to go to either downtown Palo Alto or Menlo Park. The idea of extending Willow to El Camino over or under Caltrain is DOA. If you’re on a bike, then you can get to Palo Alto via Alma.

  • Anonymous

    Willow doesn’t end at Middlefield, but it also doesn’t go through to El Camino, it stops at Alma before the tracks.  That freeway proposal was the subject of an infamous highway revolt in Menlo Park, and a lot of local residents are unfavorably disposed with pitchforks to the idea.

  • Anonymous

    @Andy: I do not for a second believe that the vast majority of motorists park (or would park) at Stanford mall and walk 1/4-1/2 a mile to downtown, especially since it’s along El Camino or Alma (the former being one of the region’s least walkable roads, and especially in that area where the interchange with University is designed like a ridiculous freeway, off-ramps and all), to save pocket change. Motorists will circle endlessly looking for a parking spot that saves them 30 yards of walking; the *last* thing most motorists will do is the option that requires the most exercise (the very act of being in a car breeds laziness), and especially for pocket change. Wholly unconvincing argument.

  • mikesonn

    @jd_x:disqus There is an Apple store in the Stanford Mall as well.

  • Anonymous

    @mikesonn:disqus Are we talking about the Apple store, or all business in downtown PA? I’m talking about them all. If Apple wants to have two stores so close and one is near free parking, that’s their call. Something tells me that *plenty* of people will still go to the one downtown, even with the difference in parking prices.

    But I’m talking about all businesses. In general, to say that we should be changing parking policy downtown because people are going to park at Stanford Mall and walk through the pedestrian hell that is El Camino just to save pocket change, is ridiculous and should have no bearing on the discussion. This may be true for a few stores that are in both locations (though even that I doubt), but not for most. As has been said, PA is a destination itself exactly because it is much closer to being a livable/walkable area than the rest of the surrounding area (even though it’s clogged with traffic), and people will still come there with a price on parking.

  •  jd – Andy’s implication is that people will shop at the mall instead of Downtown because of the meters. But other than the apple store, the mall and downtown have a pretty disjoint retail set….

  • mikesonn

    @jd_x:disqus I know you are. And murph is right. You go to downtown for the shops downtown and the mall for the shops at the mall. Andy is just splitting hairs, per usual.

  • Anonymous

    @twitter-14678929:disqus Yeah, I don’t think there is any evidence that that will happen, especially since many (most?) of the people downtown are there for food and drink and cafes, of which Stanford Mall can’t even come close to competing with.


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