In search of the car-less commute
Cities, companies look to convince employees to try new ways of getting to work
On any weekday morning, upwards of 17,000 commuters — some in buses, others on bicycles, but the majority in cars — stream onto north Shoreline Boulevard and North Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View. By their sheer numbers, they could almost fill Shoreline Amphitheatre. Instead, they're on their way to Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and other companies whose office complexes populate the area between U.S. Highway 101 and the San Francisco Bay.
At peak hours, the line of cars on Shoreline is so long, it backs up on the off ramp from 101 north.
The traffic is only projected to get worse.
The Mountain View City Council in July approved a plan that allows companies in what it calls the North Bayshore Area to expand to 10.7 million square feet of buildings by 2030, or almost one-and-a-half times the current square footage. Conservatively, that growth could bring the number of employees trundling their way to work each day to 28,000.
The roads weren't designed for that much traffic. About 25 percent more cars could squeeze onto the streets, officials say, but after that it would be perpetual gridlock.
Mountain View's not the only city where traffic jams are a part of daily life. The Page Mill Road exit from Interstate Highway 280 south is a logjam on most weekday mornings. Ditto the Willow Road exit from 101 south in Menlo Park.
And it's not just highway intersections that transportation planners are scratching their heads over. Officials in Palo Alto are puzzling over traffic and parking downtown. Residents in neighborhoods near University Avenue have been clamoring for relief from downtown workers who park their cars all day along neighborhood streets, leaving residents to park blocks from their homes.
And when a 21,700-square-foot office building on the edge of downtown Palo Alto was approved by the City Council in May, it came with one fairly novel requirement: Its owners must manage how people working in the building commute to and from work. The city is banking on having at least 20 percent fewer cars parking there than would normally be allotted. And those workers ought to arrive by bike, carpool, bus or train — not park their cars on adjacent streets, residents have already said.
The Lytton Gateway project, as it's called, as well as other upcoming developments downtown, have triggered a study of parking and commute options that planners are hoping to get off the ground this fall.
Leave cars at home
In the Bay Area and nationwide, transportation experts have long examined roads, parking and public transportation, aiming to make them as efficient as possible. They've considered a raft of questions: Are there enough lanes? Are traffic signals timed to allow for a smooth flow of cars? Is parking sufficient for the demand? Are routes laid out so buses pick up the most people and deliver them as quickly as they can?
Increasingly, however, officials are turning to additional transportation tools to ease congestion, techniques that go squarely to one central goal: convincing people to leave their cars at home.
As with other efforts to get people to change their habits, transportation-demand management programs, as they are known, offer people both carrots and sticks — rewards and penalties — to motivate them to adopt new ways.
The toolbox includes passes for free public transit, shuttle buses, van- or carpools, car- and bike-sharing and even cash and raffles for those who convert to alternate modes of transportation.
Many of the larger companies in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View have started to tackle these issues. Ubiquitous Bauer's Intelligent Transportation shuttles and white double-decker Google buses pick up high-tech workers as far away as Marin and the East Bay and deliver them to work. Free bicycles, painted in primary colors, allow Google employees to get quickly from building to building without hopping in a car.
Palo Alto's Hewlett-Packard Co. lets its employees buy transit passes with pre-tax income and partners with rideshare.org to encourage workers to carpool.
Facebook, now located in Menlo Park, provides workers with free passes to ride Caltrain and runs shuttles from the nearest stations to its campus along Bayfront Expressway.
The efforts have shown decided results. More than 40 percent of Facebook's workforce take the train or bus, hop on Facebook-run shuttles, join van- and carpools, bike or walk, according to the company. In Mountain View's North Bayshore Area, 25 percent of employees at the four largest companies take transit or employer-run shuttles, while 6.4 percent use a car- or vanpool, and another 5.6 percent bicycle, according to a consultant's study released in October.
Some 61 percent drive to work by themselves.
"Compared to the typical Bay Area business park where 80 percent or more of the employees drive alone, the current modal share for the North Bayshore Area shows the effectiveness of the programs the existing employers use to encourage use of alternative travel modes," the report states.
Palo Alto, meanwhile, is contemplating how to work with its downtown businesses and their merchants group, Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, to make stores and offices aware of the many ways their employees could get to work. By banding together, they might even be able to make a car-sharing program or discounted transit passes available.
It's all about economies of scale, according to Jaime Rodriguez, the city's chief transportation official.
"If I'm a seven-person business, how can I take advantage ... and create a transit-pass program?" he asked hypothetically.
The city already has in place a commute-alternatives program for its own staff, but encouraging — or outright requiring — businesses to do likewise is an area under exploration, Planning Director Curtis Williams said recently.
The challenges the city faces in getting people to leave their cars at home are unlike those of private companies. In terms of the city's own employees, union contracts prohibit the city from taking away benefits, such as parking, that otherwise could be used as a means to get people onto trains, buses and bikes.
And some developers might balk at requiring tenants to run a transportation program, fearing it would scare off potential tenants because of the costs.
While companies such as high-tech security firm Palantir "are progressive on their own," Williams said, "other businesses think, 'Well, that's going to cost me money to provide transit passes for all my employees.'"
But offering commute options could be a perk for employees and help the business to attract workers, he said. The city's role could be to make companies aware of what they could offer, and at what cost, if they join with other businesses.
Unlike Mountain View, which surveyed the North Bayshore Area companies, Palo Alto doesn't yet have firm data on the driving habits of commuters, let alone its residents on the whole. To better assess these habits and devise a transportation-management strategy, the city is looking to start an annual transportation study, Rodriguez said. It could document both how people are getting to and from where they want to go and also, over time, how people shift from traveling by one mode of transportation to another.
While city planners look for ways to keep their roads and parking lots from clogging, they already have one local organization to look to when it comes to getting people out of their cars: Stanford University.
Partly by choice and partly because of limits imposed on it by Santa Clara County, Stanford's become a national leader in transportation-demand management.
The university has managed to keep the number of cars coming onto and leaving campus steady for the past 10 years, even while the campus population has grown from some 10,300 employees (not including those at the hospitals) in 2001-02 to about 12,700 during the last academic year. Add to that thousands of undergraduate and graduate students.
As part of a 2000 agreement with the county, which governs the conditions under which Stanford can construct new buildings and add more employees, the university agreed not to allow the amount of traffic to increase. Twice-yearly measurements show the university's succeeded: In 2002, 3,474 cars arrived during a peak morning commute hour of 8 to 9 a.m.; in 2011, the count was 3,081. The number of cars leaving campus one day between 5 and 6 p.m., the evening commute, was 3,591 in 2002 and 3,540 last year.
The success has been consistent but not necessarily easy. One year, the count of evening commuters exceeded the 2002 "cap" by 144 cars; however, the university only has to implement measures to ease the traffic if the surplus occurs in two of three consecutive years.
The commute counts may be the official measure of compliance, but the real success of its transportation program is seen in the number of people who no longer drive themselves to work, according to Brodie Hamilton, the university's director of parking and transportation services.
Today, just 46 percent of employees drive alone to campus, down from 72 percent 10 years ago. Those taking Caltrain to work has jumped to 21 percent from 4 percent. The bicycling population has grown to nearly 13 percent from 7 percent. People taking the free Marguerite Shuttle, Stanford's fleet of 41 red-and-white buses that roam campus and the Palo Area, account for more than 7 percent, up from 4 percent a decade ago.
Stanford's success has relied on introducing and expanding a host of programs that draw on psychology, access to transit information, publicity, new infrastructure and even giving people cash in order to convince them to commute differently.
"When I got here (in 2000), it had a good TDM program," Hamilton said, referencing some of its features: a program that guaranteed rides to a commuter in a personal emergency, the Marguerite service, and Clean Air Cash, which rewards alternate-commuters with money. "What we needed to do ... was enhance that."
One of the program's biggest successes has been a partnership with Caltrain to offer employees free rides, a ticket now known as the GO Pass. So many people took the university up on the offer that the Marguerite system, which stopped at the train stations, had to expand, he said.
"If you're ever out there from between 7 and 8 a.m., the train pulls up and they disgorge all those people, and they pile into the buses and off they go," Hamilton said of the seamless transition for commuters.
In fact, the number of rides Marguerite buses provide to and from the train has doubled since 2004 — growing from 212,000 rides to 449,000 last year.
Another major initiative for the program was the creation of the Commute Club, a way to offer recognition to alternative commuters.
"The idea was, 'Let's create this group, an identity, a sense of belonging, and people who are having a common cause, if you will: 'We're alternative-transportation users!'" Hamilton said.
To create a buzz and raise awareness, the department held a competition for the best testimonials from people who loved their alternative commute. It featured the winners on posters and postcards.
"It was like putting a face to members of the Commute Club," he said. Soon groups of people from departments contacted his office wanting to be featured as well.
"Now we're up to 8,000 Commute Club members. That sense of identity is there," he said.
In addition to recognition, cold hard cash has helped the Commute Club grow from an initial group of 3,700. Commute Club members receive $25 a month in exchange for not having a parking permit.
Stanford also has a way to nudge those not swayed by rewards, in the form of one fairly large "stick": the price of a parking permit.
The annual price of an "A" permit, which allows prime parking, is $792, more than twice of what it cost in 2001. A "C" permit, which allows parking farther away from most buildings, costs $309 a year, nearly three times the price in 2001.
With more than 20,000 parking spaces on campus, the university has been able to avoid building any parking for new commuters, according to Hamilton.
"Most of our parking now is replacement parking, or if a new dorm is built, we do need to meet that demand," he said.
The same agreement with the county that limits traffic has put a cap on parking at 2,300 new spaces — much to the dismay of visitors to Stanford who circle around for the better part of the hour looking for a slot.
As the numbers show, limiting parking and raising the price have been effective. Demand for parking has dropped more than 6 percent since 2002, even as buildings and employees have been added, according to a university report.
In spite of the successes, Hamilton admitted there have been a few bumps in the road to the alternative-commute lifestyle. About eight years ago, the university decided to mount a pilot program for its East Bay residents by offering free passes for BART.
"It was going to be a piece of cake. We knew we had 2,000 to 3,000 people living in the East Bay ... that would be eligible," Hamilton said.
But the response was underwhelming, to say the least.
"We had 11 people take us up on this," he said. "We said, 'Wait a minute; it's free!"
It may have been free, but getting to campus on public transit still felt too onerous for most people. The typical commuter would have to get to BART, then transfer from BART to another transit line, and then leave that transit line to hop on Caltrain or the Marguerite, Hamilton said.
"That was telling us that was a long way to come with maybe too many connections," he said.
It was either an idea that was before its time, or it was just not a good idea, he added.
So what lessons can be learned from Stanford's decade-long program?
"The biggest takeaway I would offer is: With the right mix of incentives, and maybe some sort of disincentive, you can change people's commuting behavior," Hamilton said.
There is no single service that has been responsible for the university's success, he said, but rather a vast array that have met the needs of Stanford's commuters.
Free transit passes, the Marguerite system and the Commute Club form the pillars of the overall program, but car-sharing, emergency rides home, help with planning one's commute, one-day parking passes and bicycle-repair stations, to name just a few additional services, all make the program work.
Hamilton believes, however, that not all of Stanford's services are directly transferable to other organizations, in part because of differences in location, budget and other factors. Stanford, for example, spends more than $5 million to run its program, he said. That doesn't cover infrastructure, such as the Marguerite shuttles.
Then, there's control.
"Universities, because they are like small communities on their own, have the flexibility to do things municipalities don't. We can control our parking. Very few universities don't charge for parking," he said. "We're in a situation where we can do that, and it works out very well."
Likewise, Stanford commuters rely on Caltrain, but a company located away from a train line would have to consider whether that option makes sense, as the business might have to run shuttles to get workers from the depot to the office.
Where employees live and whether there is a sufficient concentration of them there could also determine whether an option, such as a company-sponsored shuttle, would make sense.
The City of Palo Alto has been working on a few initiatives that could make life easier for train and bus commuters. A rental bicycle program, in which 100 bikes would be stationed at train depots and other strategic locations around town, is aimed at helping commuters get from public transit to their workplaces. That connection, known as the "last mile," can be one of the thorniest problems of public transportation, planners say. The timeline for deploying those bikes, officially part of the Valley Transportation Authority's Bicycle Share Program, is due at the end of the year.
The city's also rolling out bike corrals downtown — green rectangles the size of one car parking space that can fit up to 10 parked bicycles — to motivate more people to travel by bike.
In the bigger picture, the city is hoping to work with merchants, through the Palo Alto downtown association, to make small-business owners aware of commute options for their employees.
And the council took a huge step in pushing alternative transportation when it approved the expansion of Stanford Medical Center in June 2011. As part of an agreement with the city, the medical center pledged to provide GO Passes for free Caltrain rides to all of its current and future workers, thus stemming a potential flood of thousands of cars driven by employees. As of mid-December last year, 2,000 workers had already signed on.
Mountain View officials, meanwhile, are continuing to examine the city's options for the North Bayshore Area. Among those could be automated and magnetically levitated "pod cars" that run on an overhead track, akin to a monorail, from downtown Mountain View to the North Bayshore Area and NASA Ames, according to the October study and city officials.
It is also considering launching a Transportation Management Agency, a partnership of the city and employers that would organize transportation-management programs and institute incentives and penalties. Such groups, usually nonprofit organizations, have sprung up over the past several decades around the country and have been successful in getting people to leave their cars at home.
City planners intend to return to the council in January for direction on action steps, once stakeholders have weighed in this fall and a list of "preferred options" has been defined.
Jocelyn Dong, editor of the Voice's sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly, can be emailed at email@example.com.