There’s a cure for downtown Palo Alto’s parking shortage and traffic congestion, consultants say, and it’s called paid parking.
Palo Alto City Council members had enough interest in the idea to unanimously vote Tuesday to accept a study by the consulting firm, Dixon Resources Unlimited, and direct staff to evaluate ways to charge for parking.
Julie Dixon, president and founder of Dixon Resources Unlimited, told the council that switching to a paid parking model would best address the city’s goals of freeing up parking spots for shoppers and visitors and deterring visitors from traveling to the city by car.
“One of those numbers we really can’t forecast is… we truly don’t know how many people don’t come downtown because they can’t find parking,” Dixon said.
Paid parking is expected to generate revenue for the city within a couple of years, Dixon said. But the amount of revenue and how soon the city can earn more than installation and operating costs will depend on the type of paid parking system it chooses.
City Manager James Keene said the city should use the revenue to help pay for traffic management and reduction efforts.
If the council chooses to implement paid parking, consultants recommend a system in which the city divides downtown areas into tiers and charges more for on-street parking in locations highest in demand. Coupling this model with time limits will ensure vehicle turnover, she said.
Parking garages and off-street parking lots would charge a lower rate to encourage those seeking long-term parking, Dixon added.
“You don’t want them circling your downtown streets and causing traffic congestion,” Dixon said. “You want them to immediately go to a surface lot or go to a garage where they can park more affordably and stay for a longer period of time.”
On-street parking spots are for those who go downtown to grab a bite to eat or run into a shop, she said.
“Use your time, spend your money, go open up that space so somebody else can come and do the same thing,” Dixon said.
The city also needs to simplify how visitors can get a day pass to park in a garage, Dixon said. Pay stations in garages would allow visitors to buy an all-day pass for $24, for instance, and remove the inconvenience of having to go to City Hall to get a day pass.
In any case, council members indicated it’s time for the city to transition away from its free color-coded parking system that some call ineffective and complex.
Parking areas currently are divided into four color zones and motorists can park for free in each zone up to two hours per day.
Though the city first implemented color zones to encourage turnover in the shopping district, the system is no longer effective, according to the Downtown Parking Management Study.
Consultants found that some who work downtown would take advantage of the free on-street parking — instead of paying for a parking permit in a garage — by simply moving their vehicles every two hours to a different color zone.
Charging for on-street parking could be what it takes to get downtown workers into garages so that coveted spots in front of storefronts would be available for shoppers and visitors, consultants said.
Council members asked whether there was a way to offer free parking for two hours and allow the motorist to pay a fee to stay longer, but Dixon said available technology is not suited for such a system. This “pay to stay” model also wouldn’t encourage much turnover, she said.
Dixon suggested charging hourly rates of $2.50 for Tier 1, and $1.50 for tiers 2 and 3. Motorists could park in tiers 1 and 2 for two hours maximum and three hours in Tier 3.
The beauty of the system is that the city has the flexibility of tweaking the hourly rates depending on parking patterns, Dixon said.
The study found that comparable cities with paid on-street parking charge 50 cents to $1 per hour in Alameda, San Mateo and Sausalito on the low end and $2 per hour in Santa Monica and $3.25 per hour in Berkeley on the high end.
Palo Alto has long grappled with how to solve the parking shortage and traffic congestion in its vibrant commercial core.
Dixon said the study’s recommendations are intertwined and offer a comprehensive approach to improve the experience of those traveling to Palo Alto while also tying into programs the city has initiated.
City leaders have a goal of reducing the number of visitors traveling to Palo Alto by car. They also aim to add parking where appropriate and better manage existing parking. This month they approved two new parking garages, one downtown and one in the California Avenue commercial area.
The city also launched a Residential Preferential Parking permit program to help preserve parking in neighborhoods for residents; it took away 1,600 spots previously available to downtown workers.
Councilman Adrian Fine and others said Tuesday that continuing to offer free parking in the city undermines other efforts. Motorists won’t pay for a permit or seek alternative transportation if parking is free, Fine said.
Mayor Greg Scharff questioned why the city couldn’t just get rid of the color zone system and enforce two-hour free parking throughout downtown. He said he’s concerned that a paid parking system will drive up maintenance and enforcement costs for the city, and the system won’t generate enough revenue to pay for itself.
The cost is an estimated $1.2 million if the city chooses to go with a system that uses both parking meters and pay stations. The cost increases to $1.5 million if the city installs all meters.
Some council members leaned toward having pay stations, which are more aesthetically pleasing and which consultants say could generate 10 percent more revenue.
Drivers can park at single-space meters with time left on them and save money, while pay stations typically do not allow for that, consultants said in the study.
Response from residents and visitors on having to pay for parking is mixed.
Some agree that charging for parking might discourage people from coming to Palo Alto and thus free up spots for those who do visit. Others say that some visitors might feel more encouraged to come to Palo Alto knowing they can find a parking spot, even if they have to pay.
Resident Bob Moss told council members that charging for parking would be a “lousy idea” — one that didn’t work for the city in the past.
The city installed on-street parking meters in downtown in 1947 but removed them in the mid-1970s to make its commercial core competitive with Stanford Shopping Center.
Paid parking would drive Palo Alto shoppers to neighboring cities that do not charge for parking such as Menlo Park, Mountain View and East Palo Alto, Moss said.
Moss, who frequently attends meetings at City Hall, also questioned whether the new model would force him to pay to attend City Council meetings.
“All of the business is going to flow away,” Moss said. “We did it before. It hurt the city. It hurt the economy. It’s going to be bad for business. Don’t do it.”
Grant Dasher, who lives about four miles from downtown, told council members he generally supports the city charging for parking.
Dasher said he lives close enough to bike downtown when he’s not feeling lazy and that paying a parking fee could be enough to deter him from driving.
“If other people behave similarly, I think it would achieve the reasonable policy goal of relieving traffic downtown, but the problem is I don’t know if that’s a knowable outcome,” Dasher said.
Though the city would have to invest in a high startup cost for such infrastructure, doing so allows it to put a price on parking downtown, he said.
“We can ratchet (the price) up or down,” Dasher said. “We know that people respond to incentives.”