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By Steve Levy

Reducing Congestion and Parking Challenges While Respecting the Mobility Advantages of Cars

Uploaded: Jan 20, 2015

I have never driven a car—poor eyesight. But I respect the enormous mobility and other advantages of car ownership. And I understand that residents will have different tastes and needs in their vehicle selection.

Currently my wife drives a plug in electric hybrid. Previously we had a high mileage non electric Prius. But for most of the time our kids were at home our car was a minivan. Our son drives a truck; his wife drives a high mileage small car.

I believe that climate change is real and that reducing carbon emissions is a good thing. But for Palo Alto and the region, my main interest in reducing car use is related to traffic congestion and delays and parking issues. We already have a number of existing measures to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. There are federal standards for increasing gas mileage in cars. The California Air Resources Board has several measures to reduce the carbon content in fuels, include fuels in the cap and trade emission reduction program and will adopt more measures if needed.

Palo Alto is now beginning an exploration of ways to reduce car use and better manage parking in congested neighborhoods. This is a worthwhile set of tasks but will not be easy to achieve. I favor approaches that increase mobility options with an honest recognition of the advantages and challenges of car use and options that make sense in terms of costs and benefits to residents.

I am hopeful that the ingenuity and good will of residents can find solutions that are respectful of and attractive to people who currently see cars as their only reasonable choice.

With the exception of CalTrain, there are currently no growing public transportation alternatives on the peninsula. In the early days of my professional life, we worked on a number of regional transportation projects. One of the hardest problems to solve was finding a way for fixed route bus service to work in areas (such as the peninsula) with diverse origin and destination nodes. It was hard to envision a service that would attract riders with these spread out nodes and our relatively low density.

That is still true today and is a reason why the automobile will continue to be a preferred mobility option for quite a while. But Palo Alto and the peninsula do have some promising alternatives to explore to reduce auto use without reducing mobility. One is expanding CalTrain service, both with the ability to serve more people in peak hours and by expanding service (currently curtailed) in midday times.

Another option is to replicate the success of the Stanford shuttle in other settings. I am not an expert in shuttles but could see more shuttle options serving the research park, both to and from public transportation but also as a way to get people to the California Avenue shopping and dining area without the parking challenges. I am hopeful that expanded service of some kinds (shuttles, better bike options) can reduce the need for car transport to schools.

The private company buses are playing a role in allowing people to live and work where they choose while not needing to drive long distances to work.

Land use policies throughout the region can reduce car use by supporting housing near services, shopping and dining. Lots or trips and parking needs are not at commute times. A bonus occurs when these land use choices also allow people to use public transportation to commute, noting that Palo Alto is the second busiest CalTrain station as a result of its proximity to jobs at Stanford and downtown.

As I observe my son who loves to drive and some of my younger friends, I see services like Lyft as a growing option. I just signed up over the weekend as we were having dinner with Dave and Lacey because I needed a ride back from a meeting in Orange County where Nancy was staying later (and Dave had been bugging me to give Lyft a try). It was easy to sign up and use.

I can envision these services as a growing option as residents age over the next 15 years and may want options besides driving to take short trips and for younger residents who can combine these services with living near work or transit to reduce car ownership and costs.

With respect to parking, I am open to hearing that more parking slots are needed in addition to any reduced car use we can achieve. I also believe that parking should come with a cost in congested areas. Many cities on the peninsula now charge for parking in downtown areas. We are all accustomed to paying for parking at airports and sporting events. I am hopeful but cautious about the prospects for the residential permit programs.

In the end solving the challenges of traffic and parking will take money as well as ingenuity to provide options that are attractive and not punitive. There is a necessary public investment component of maintaining and improving mobility in a growing region like the peninsula and Bay Area. I hope we make the investments but look closely at costs and benefits. These are not one size fits all challenges.