Durable Growth, Transportation

Steps forward and back in Bay Area parking policy

Circling for parking in downtown Palo Alto. Image by guilherme-pg on Flickr

Circling for parking in downtown Palo Alto. Image by guilherme-pg on Flickr

Parking is one of the lynchpin issues of urban design, and probably the one that gets peoples’ blood pumping fastest. So it’s no surprise that any parking news hits headlines, as it has in a scattering of cities around the region. And, with the traditional (and misguided) free downtown Christmastime parking starting up, it’s time for a round-up of parking news from around the Bay.

San Francisco

The latest parking adjustment came to the pilot zones of SFPark, and it seems prices have begun to stabilize. Prices only changed 4 percent, and 72 percent of blocks didn’t change at all. During the last adjustment, in August, prices changed 6 percent, and only 60 percent of blocks had no change.

Though the changes have led to opposition and misunderstanding, SFPark has been a great success in its pilot areas. Drivers get fewer parking tickets and pay less to park, and that’s definitely a win.

There are currently three blocks where parking rates are a mere $0.25 cents per hour at all times: the 400 block of 3rd Street (down from $3.50), the 100 block of Hayes Street (down from $3), and the 200 block of Van Ness Avenue (down from $3). Given that their occupancy rates average only 34 percent, these blocks are prime locations to evaluate whether parking is really needed. Though they now have somewhere around 40-50 percent occupancy, there may be higher and better uses for the real estate.

Walnut Creek

Moving explicitly toward a policy similar to San Francisco is Walnut Creek, which will adjust its parking rates to ensure 15 percent of its downtown street parking spaces will be available at all times.

The plan, though it doesn’t involve the incremental adjustments and data collection of SFPark, is nonetheless a progressive step in the right direction. Within the downtown core, rates will rise to $2 per hour. Outside of the core, they will rise to $1. Most garages will offer the first hour free, but the particularly busy South Locust Street garage will raise rates from $0.50 per hour to $1 per hour.

Given how controversial parking policy can be, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that two of the city’s major business organizations disagree on the changes. The Walnut Creek Downtown Board is entirely supportive of the plan, given that parking demand has climbed to above 100 percent at times. On the other side, Jay Hoyer, president of the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce, expressed some skepticism that downtown merchants really knew what they were getting. To Hoyer, the principal problem with parking downtown isn’t shoppers; it’s employees, which this plan does not address.

San Rafael

While Walnut Creek moves forward with full-scale parking reform, San Rafael is moving a bit more slowly. The city will hike all on-street parking fees to $1.50 per hour and add sensors under each space, starting January 6.

On the one hand, the hike removes any variability based on location or demand. The main drag, Fourth, will be priced the same as side streets, which is not currently the case. Indeed, the elimination of this variability was the reason for the only dissenting vote, by former planning commissioner Kate Colin. Off-street parking will remain between $0.75 and $1.00 per hour, though, so variability won’t be entirely eliminated from the system.

The new technology is the bigger news, at least for advocates of parking reform. The sensors will allow San Rafael to implement performance parking policies like SFPark, if the council chooses. With the technology in place, the only real obstacle is legislation.

Menlo Park

A plan to eliminate parking on a school route in Menlo Park gained commission approval last Tuesday. Though not a wholesale reform, the proposal presages a more nuanced understanding of parking than simply More is Better.

The proposal began when a resident complained that parents whose kids attend nearby Nativity School were parking in a bike lane, blocking a route for kids to attend Encinal Elementary. It would eliminate parking for a single block of Laurel Road, between Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues and tie a proposed expansion of Nativity to its installation of green bike lanes in the area.

While Nativity parents were unhappy with the decision, the change wouldn’t go into effect until after Nativity reconfigures its parking lot to accommodate more drop-off traffic, with city staff help.

For those used to fighting tooth and nail to eliminate any parking spaces, this is almost a dream, and it establishes an excellent precedent. At least here, the concerns of residents who want to bike along a street trump the desire by non-residents to store their cars there.

After recommendations from the Transportation and Bicycle commissions, the final proposal will go before the City Council.

Palo Alto

Unlike the sensible parking policies of its fellow Bay Area cities, once-progressive Palo Alto is moving away from the best of modern parking research and towards the discredited theories of the 1950s. For the most part, that means reestablishing parking minimums in its downtown core.

At the moment, parking in Palo Alto is almost entirely unmanaged. Though there is a 2-hour limit, parking is free, and downtown businesses are not required to provide spaces for employees or customers. The result has been extremely high parking demand that has started to overflow into residential areas.

Yet rather than deal with the problem of demand, as research says produces the best results, Palo Alto has reinstated parking minimums for new downtown development. The alternative proposal to price parking based on demand is apparently dead.

There is some hope. Palo Alto staff have proposed to expand the downtown timed parking zone and sell parking permits to residents within the zone. Owners of the permits will be able to ignore the limits.

But the city needs to rescind its parking minimums 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 intact.

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.

2 comments to Steps forward and back in Bay Area parking policy

  • […] post on parking policy missed a happy story from San Mateo. It seems as though that city’s council […]

  • In Menlo Park, city staff worked with the school to develop a solution for the school to reconfigure their onsite parking to provide the same number of spaces onsite for pickup, dropoff, and parent parking. The Laurel Street bike lane had already been identified in the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, the Downtown Specific Plan, and two Safe Routes to School Plans in the previous decade. The issue will be going before City Council this coming Tuesday evening.

    In Palo Alto, the situation is both better and worse. On Monday Night, City Council is holding a study session to learn from Transportation Demand Management experts about ways to address parking and traffic problems by improving incentives for people not to drive. The City does already have parking structures that charge ~$45 per month for employee parking permits. At the same time, however, the City has reverted to requiring onsite parking for new buildings – providing a full supply of free parking for those buildings, essentially bribing those users to drive.