Mountain View reconsiders downtown parking and access management

On Tuesday evening, Mountain View City Council is reviewing its options to improve downtown parking and access, potentially including paid parking.   Recent experiences in nearby cities might be relevant for Mountain View’s decisions.

  • Ease residential parking permits.  Mountain View has a Residential Parking Permit Program, which establishes a process for neighborhoods to request limits on street parking. However, this program is under-utilized because an 80% supermajority vote is required for a neighborhood to establish an RPP district, a threshold that is much higher than other cities.  

    In neighboring Palo Alto, the city expanded its Residential Parking Permit system, with a simple majority needed per neighborhood, after persistent and vocal resident concerns that neighborhood streets were being used pervasively as “free parking” for downtown workers and visitors. Palo Alto sells permits for downtown workers to be able to park in permit zone streets, and the supply of permits is limited to ensure spaces available for local residents.

  • Transportation demand management for downtown workers. Palo Alto has seen notable success with its Transportation Management Association focus on downtown workers, particularly low-income workers who don’t receive the benefits commonly available to higher income workers at larger employers. In the last year, Palo Alto has helped over 300 workers downtown get to work without driving, through transit and carpool benefits, and employee retention has increased since workers value the convenient and lower-stress commutes.  Palo Alto small employers, who started out very skeptical of the value of these benefits, are now strong supporters, and the program is being expanded to the California Avenue business district.

    Palo Alto’s TDM programs and outreach for downtown workers were carefully tailored for the population, based on detailed research of the commute patterns and needs. A draft consultant study with a survey of downtown workers, focusing on workers at service businesses, showed an 80% drivealone rate, similar to in Palo Alto before the TDM programs. More detailed data would be very helpful to assess the commute patterns and needs, to create effective programs.

    Note: the funding for downtown transportation demand management needs to be different than the funding for TDM in an office park dominated by large companies.  The North Bayshore TMA can be funded by membership fees, however this is not practical for low-margin service businesses.  Palo Alto, and other TMAs in areas with low-margin small businesses, use parking revenues as a stable source of funding (see below). 

  • Paid visitor parking with variable pricing and modern pay-by-phone meters.  The City is returning to consider paid visitor parking, after rounds of other measures.  The cities of Redwood City and San Mateo offer examples of carefully managed downtown visitor parking with features that may be relevant for Mountain View.

    Both downtowns are very lively – decades ago, Peninsula downtowns lost business to malls with big free parking lots, but downtowns have regained popularity in the 21st century and currently thrive with paid parking.   These cities have continued to refine their program based on data; at the last meeting we attended in San Mateo, the downtown business association was supportive of the parking management system. In Mountain View, the downtown committee now says that they would be “open to considering paid parking, but implementation of paid parking should be based on continuous measurable feedback and provide benefits to the downtown.”

    In San Mateo and Redwood City, parking in the most convenient on-street spaces is higher-priced, and parking in less convenient lots and structures has a lower price, helping to generate turnover where it’s most helpful for businesses, and providing options for more price-sensitive visitors.  Redwood City prices range from 25 cents to $2.50 per hour depending on location and time of day; San Mateo prices range from 75 cents to $1.50 per hour.rwc-parking

    Both cities use modern meter technology allowing visitors to pay using credit cards, and to add time to the meter using a mobile phone. Modern meters avoid the need to carry small change and to run out in the middle of meal or errand to refill the meter.

In addition to these three measures: residential permit parking; TDM for downtown workers; and paid visitor parking, there are several other features that may be relevant to consider.

  • Funding Transportation Demand Management with parking revenues.  To expand its downtown TMA beyond the pilot phase covered largely by General Fund revenues, Palo Alto approximately doubled the price of full-price employee parking permits, to about $80 per month. Palo Alto uses these revenues as the largest revenue source for its downtown TDM program.  Increasing the cost of worker parking permits while offering benefits for transportation alternatives creates a better balance of incentives. Historically, the out-of-pocket cost of driving and parking has been much cheaper than taking transit.

  • Using revenues from in-lieu fees to fund transportation demand management. This has been approved in Redwood City and San Mateo.  The amortized cost of a structured parking space is between $300 and $400 per month; it costs less than this to help a worker (or resident) to avoid driving with transit or carpool benefits.

  • Providing a discount parking pass for low-income workers.  Palo Alto offers a reduced price parking permit for employees making less than $50,000 per year.  However, this offer is currently underutilized, because Palo Alto offers free zoned visitor parking, and many low-income workers move their cars every 2-3 hours to avoid the cost of parking permits and tickets. The car-moving dance takes time away from hourly paid work or break time. 

  • Gateway signs. Mountain View has digital signs next to the parking garages, showing the number of available spaces. But you need to drive to the garage in order to get this information. In San Francisco and San Jose, there are “gateway” signs posted at prominent entrances to downtown, showing the available space in multiple parking garages.  This allows drivers to head immediately to a garage with available space.

  • Considering the need for “Parking and access” In planning for its next round of downtown improvements, the City of Menlo Park, recently retitled its initiative “Downtown Parking and Access”, continuing to consider improvements to parking management, as part of a broader mix of ways to access downtown. Parking remains important, but is seen as a slice of a pie that has other slices (transit, bicycling, walking).