During the pandemic, Mountain View opened up Castro Street in downtown to pedestrians, keeping the downtown vital even as the pandemic raged. This change, made hastily in the middle of a crisis, is perhaps the best thing to happen to our downtown in decades. The success of the opening of Castro Street helps to lay bare one of the core truths of our downtown — that it succeeds in spite of, and not because of, cars. Currently many if not most people visit downtown using their car. Unfortunately for them, the experience is marred by the frustration of dealing with parking — on a busy night, you may be stuck for minutes simply getting to a garage. You then have to find an empty spot, walk down the stairs, and then walk anywhere from 100 feet to half a mile to get to your actual destination.
I would posit that a better world is possible. You should not need a car in order to enjoy the amenities that our city has to offer. In a better world we would have a plethora of housing built near our downtown such that anyone who wanted to could reasonably afford to live within easy walking distance; our streets would be so calm and safe that anyone would be comfortable riding their bike across the city on a Friday night; our buses would be frequent and fast enough that, rather than spending 10 minutes trying to park or waiting for an Uber that may never come, you could instead wait five minutes for the bus home; and visitors from up and down the Peninsula would be able to take Caltrain downtown and then walk or bike to their destination as their preferences dictated, without needing to clog up Mountain View’s roads with their cars. And, of course, we would still have parking garages, but they would no longer be the only option for most people.
But that is not the world that we live in. Few people live within walking distance of downtown, our streets are not comfortable or safe enough to bike on at night, and there is little transit serving downtown, especially at peak hours.
Unfortunately, the City Council has not prioritized fixing these issues. Instead, we are actively considering spending public funds on building up more parking. On Tuesday, Aug. 24, the council will be considering spending $24 million to construct a new garage, partially using funds extracted from an affordable housing development. In the best-case scenario, this garage will sit largely empty and serve as excess capacity to allow people to park slightly closer to their destinations. In the worst case, the garage will be full and we will have yet more traffic on our roads. More car traffic means more people dying in crashes, more children developing asthma from tailpipe emissions and tire dust, more greenhouse gases warming our planet, and more time wasted sitting in traffic.
If those reasons are not enough for you, then perhaps the expense of the endeavor will give you pause. Palo Alto recently built a 636-space garage for $50 million ($78,000 per spot), plus the cost of land and more than $1 million per year in maintenance — in contrast, this is probably enough to run two to three times the current Mountain View community shuttle’s service indefinitely, and even in 2019 the community shuttle had 750 riders per weekday — likely as many people as that Palo Alto garage will be serving.
Change is hard. Local businesses already operate on tight margins, and any change can feel like an unnecessary risk. But the fact is that the status quo is untenable — it is impossible to get new customers by adding parking, because adding parking means adding traffic, which makes it harder to get downtown, and a restaurant right next to a high-traffic thoroughfare is far less desirable than one on a pedestrian plaza. If we truly want to grow and invigorate our downtown while prioritizing the health, safety, and sustainability of our community, then the only logical choice is to immediately stop building new parking and spend the money we save on making it easier to travel downtown. A better world is possible, and there is no better time to start than the present.
James Kuszmaul is a Mountain View resident.