Government, Transportation

Palo Alto’s parking debate has it backwards

Downtown Palo Alto/Silicon Valley

by IK’s World Trip, on Flickr

To address an ongoing parking problem in downtown Palo Alto, that city’s councilmembers are pondering how to expand parking supply in the short and long-term. Unfortunately, the city is addressing the wrong problem. Rather than address issues of parking supply, the city needs to start to work on demand.

A bit of context

Palo Alto, for those far from the Peninsula, is a leafy town with a couple of Caltrain stations and served by a combination of SamTrans, VTA, and AC Transit bus service. Its historic downtown core is exceptionally strong, with low vacancy rates, high office rent, and a pedestrian-focused feel. Just outside downtown is Professorville, a wealthy enclave in an already wealthy city. Though physically separated bicycle infrastructure isn’t terribly common, most downtown streets are calm enough to take a bike down without fear of getting hit by a car.

To attract business, Palo Alto has long had free downtown parking. Though there is a two-hour time limit at most locations, the garages and streets are free for anyone to use. Intriguingly, Palo Alto has no parking minimums downtown and allows businesses to purchase relatively inexpensive parking passes for its workers to park all day. This has encouraged dense development and discouraged the kinds of surface lots that plague other cities.

Now, this laissez-faire attitude about parking has arrived at its inevitable conclusion. Street parking is full, garages are full, and people are parking further and further from downtown.

It’s demand, not supply

Parking is a commodity like any other, and it responds to the laws of supply and demand. Raise the price, lower demand. Lower the price, increase demand. This is especially true for high-value spots right in the center of downtown, which fill up fast and tend to stay full all day.

In Palo Alto, offering spaces for free encourages driving to the exclusion of other modes. Some might be able to bike, walk, or take transit, but figure that driving will be faster, and so the share of trips made by car increases, to the detriment of the transit system and the city’s traffic.

Free parking becomes especially problematic when there are no parking minimums downtown. Don’t get me wrong. Parking minimums are deeply flawed policy, but they have a reason. Without putting a price on parking, developers will have every reason to dump the cost of the parking onto the public. Without the minimum and without the price signal, developers will build little parking while drivers have no incentive to walk, bike or take transit, save the hassle of finding a space. Parking minimums were introduced to force property developers to account for the parking demand they create, keeping neighborhoods like Professorville safe from the encroachment of personal vehicles.

Yet parking minimums are antithetical to growing a city. They mean that when a low-intensity use like a bike shop becomes a high-intensity use like a restaurant, the restaurant will need to knock over a neighboring building to build more parking. It means that when someone wants to subdivide an apartment, they’ll need to knock over another building to build more parking. This repeats and destroys the fabric of a vibrant city.

Disastrously, the city council, on the advice of staff led by City Manager James Keene, is considering reinstating the parking minimum downtown. This would strangle business and new investment in the city’s heart. It would be a tragic step backward for the city.

To help in the shorter term, Palo Alto is considering a new parking garage, to be built by a private developer, as well as valets. In the short and long term, the city wants to increase supply from the public and private sector without addressing demand.

Rather than spend millions on new parking spaces and inviting the wrecking ball downtown, Palo Alto needs to solve its demand problem instead.

The parking trident

A proper parking demand management system for Palo Alto will involve three prongs: pricing downtown, permits in the neighborhoods, and alternatives investment.

San Francisco, which has long had too much demand for its parking, has been experimenting with demand pricing, raising the cost of parking in high-demand locations and lowering it in low-demand locations. The aim is to keep one parking spot open on every block, an approach recommended by parking researcher Donald Shoup. So far, the experiment has worked, and the parking crunch has started to ease where SF Park is operating. Sausalito has also started to price its parking spaces based on demand, though the results aren’t in.

Palo Alto may not be in an ideological position to move to demand-based pricing, as parking can be an intensely emotional issue for municipalities, but perhaps it could charge a marginal amount for parking in garages and on the street. It is one of the wealthiest cities in the country, so a $0.50 charge per hour might not be too much to ask. It may not be much, but it will get the most marginal trips off the road and help fund alternatives. If parking demand still extends beyond downtown, the pay parking zone could extend further.

Residential parking permits are the second prong, as they give preferential parking rights to residents. The city would offer one residential parking permit per household for free and put a moderate price on each subsequent permit, perhaps up to a maximum of three. The holder of the permit would be able to park anywhere within their neighborhood for free and for as long as they wanted. Since they would be tied to the neighborhood, they could not be used to park on the street downtown. Residents of downtown would only have access to parking garage spaces, as they are less valuable to merchants than street parking spaces.

Alternatives form the third prong. The income from this new parking pricing scheme would be invested in alternative means of getting to downtown Palo Alto, as well as in downtown beautification. Broader bike share, better bus service and more cohesive and safe bike infrastructure on major thoroughfares would all help immensely.

Given the size of Palo Alto’s downtown businesses, the city needs to implement policies that reach beyond their borders to long-distance commuters. On the biking and walking side, some businesses offer incentives for workers to live within walking distance of the office. Palo Alto should work with businesses to encourage this kind of policy. More directly, Palo Alto could offer subsidized transit passes to participating businesses and neighborhoods. Allowing retailers, restaurants, and cafes to pool together and purchase such passes would help even more.

Zipcar, too, should get off Stanford’s campus and into the neighborhoods. Car sharing reduces demand for residential parking while encouraging walking and biking. It emancipates people from car ownership, if they choose to abandon their car, but still gives them the personal mobility offered by a personal vehicle.

Palo Alto thinks it has a parking shortage when it has excess demand. By addressing the problem the right way, managing its parking supply like any other resource, it will make better use of its space and cityscape. If it doesn’t, it will risk losing the walkable center it has worked so hard to cultivate.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

5 comments to Palo Alto’s parking debate has it backwards

  • Peter Smith

    don’t think there’s anything really controversial about what you’re saying, but i’d argue that Palo Alto is very much like Berkeley — super-early (in fact, maybe the earliert) to the bicycle game, then just stopped — about 30 years ago. They have installed a couple of on-street bicycle corrals, but there are no major roads into/from downtown with protected bike lanes. zero.

    show me a city with a car parking problem and i’ll show you:
    1) a city without bike access,
    2) a city with underpriced parking,
    3) probably some others.

    but i’d always go for reason 1) first — allowing people to bike into/from downtown Palo Alto should be considered a must.

  • […] Vibrant Bay Area: Palo Alto’s Parking Problem is Too Much Demand, Not Too Little Parking […]

  • John Murphy

    Peter – Bryant Street is *better* than a protected bike lane.

  • Peter Smith

    John — Isn’t that a bit like saying giraffes are better than cargo bikes?

    little neighborhood streets have little to nothing to do with bicycle access for the masses. without protected bike lanes on the major roads to/from places, we have next-to-nothing.

    and that has nothing to do with whether you or i or anybody else likes it — that’s reality on the ground today, in the past, and the foreseeable future.

    the way to fix that is protected bike lanes on the major corridors.

    on another note, i think Bryant street and all the others like it in downtown PA are not good for biking, and are much worse for walking. every single intersection is a life-threatening situation. really deplorable situation down there, but i guess if everyone is relatively rich, there’s no need to look poor by walking anywhere.

  • […] and instate price controls if it wants to really solve its parking problems. The issue is one of demand, not supply, at least if the city wants to keep its city center vibrant and […]