Live or work near transit? A tale of Palo Alto, San Mateo, SurveyMonkey, and housing affordability

Are you more likely to use transit if you live near transit or work near transit?  The answer, according to a recent study is “both” – with workplace playing a greater role than home location.   Researchers at the University of Denver studied the commute patterns of 3,400 people who lived or worked near three light rail lines in the Denver area.

Not surprisingly, the highest rate of transit use is found among people who live and work near light rail stations. People who both lived and worked within a 15 minute walk of a light rail station had a 62% likelihood of a non-car commute.

The next most likely to use transit were people who worked close to transit, but did not live close to transit.   People who worked within a 15 minute walk of light rail, but didn’t live near light rail, were 37% likely to have a non-car commute.    People who lived within a 15 minute walk of a station, but didn’t work near a station, has a 26% nondriving commute rate – higher than the 16% regional average, but lower than those who work near the station.  This study’s results very similar to earlier studies focusing on the Bay Area.


Palo Alto limits office near transit

This evening, Palo Alto City Council is about to implement a strict cap limiting new office development to 50,000 square feet per year in the areas closest to the city’s two Caltrain stations, and the El Camino Real corridor with bus service every 10-15 minutes.  Tonight, City Council plans to vote on the cap, which would stay in effect for two years or until the City completes its Comprehensive Plan update in the works.

While one of the goals of the cap was to address parking and traffic challenges, a recent survey found that 45% of the 10,000 employees who work in downtown Palo Alto commute by transit and other non-car modes, even before the implementation of new programs to reduce driving downtown.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto is not imposing an office development cap on the Stanford Research Park.  SRP is farther from transit, and currently has about an 80% car commute rate for its 23,000 employees.  According to the staff report, SRP has seen more office growth than Palo Alto’s other jobs areas over the last 15 years.  Palo Alto Council intends to eventually require SRP to reduce car trips – this is feasible, but more challenging and costly, since it requires an extra shuttle ride to connect to Caltrain.

Survey Monkey moves to San Mateo which encourages offices and homes near transit

In response to the office cap, fast-growing SurveyMonkey announced that they planned to leave Palo Alto, where their current headquarters is across the street from the Caltrain station, and move to Bay Meadows, a development in San Mateo adjacent to the Hillsdale Caltrain station.  The San Mateo location is about four times more spacious than the Palo Alto location.   The Palo Alto cap restricts annual office growth to the size of one current SurveyMonkey building.

Lawrence Santa Clara

A tabletop model of the Bay Meadows housing development in San Mateo. Bay Meadows, built at the location of the former Bay Meadows racetrack (demolished in 2008),is touted by developer Wilson Meany as comprehensively sustainable transportation-centered vi

Landing SurveyMonkey is a coup for the City of San Mateo, which planned the Rail Corridor area, from Hillsdale to Hayward Park, for transit-oriented development with a mix of offices and housing, in the mid-2000s, when Caltrain ridership was about half its current level. Tenants in the Rail Corridor area are required to have a plan to reduce vehicle trips, to share trip reduction investments, and to publish their results to City Council once a year.  It shouldn’t be hard for SurveyMonkey to comply with these conditions – the company has reported that over 60% of their 450 employees in downtown Palo Alto commute without driving alone.

Palo Alto has long been a place where start-up companies (including Google and Facebook) grow to adolescence and then move on – in office cap discussions, City Council members expressed confidence that the city would remain attractive to the next generations of startups, even as other places such as San Mateo and Redwood City increasingly provide office space in pedestrian-friendly, mixed use areas.

In addition to being able to keep their Caltrain commute, SurveyMonkey employees will have additional options to live near where they work.  The Bay Meadows development has apartments and for-sale homes walking distance from the offices.  Additional housing is being added elsewhere nearby in the San Mateo Rail Corridor area, and San Mateo is working on a new Downtown Plan that could increase the amount of housing and jobs available near the downtown Caltrain station and the 15-minute frequency El Camino Real bus line.

Tonight: San Mateo grapples with housing price spike driven by jobs influx

Even though San Mateo is adding more housing – market rate and below-market rate – it hasn’t been enough to keep housing prices from rising sharply.  An overall employment boom in the region is leaving San Mateo County with a severe undersupply of housing, like the rest of the region. Over the last 3 years, In the last three years, San Mateo County has added 40,000 new jobs but built only 3,000 new homes.   The housing crunch is resulting in spiking prices – a 49% increase in average rent over the last 4 years.

Also tonight, the City of San Mateo is holding a study session to explore a comprehensive set of options to address the housing crisis, ranging from more housing in transit areas, making it easier to add “in-law” units and smaller apartments, more funding for below market rate housing, and a variety of renter protection measures.

Palo Alto has a chance to update policies – key meeting October 20

Meanwhile, Palo Alto is in the process of updating its Comprehensive Plan, and has the ability to update its strategies relating to offices, housing and transportation.  The next upcoming citizens’ advisory committee reviewing transportation strategies is on October 20, with housing policies coming up at later meetings.

In earlier discussions about land use in Palo Alto, there have been proposals to increase the allowable housing in areas with the best transit access, in the Downtown and California Avenue areas.   The research reports suggest that merely living near transit does not create a huge boost in transit use – but there are many people who also have jobs in San Francisco and other job centers along the Caltrain line. Palo Alto could consider a variety of policies to attract residents who prefer non-car commutes – including the ability to buy or rent less parking (without the ability to park for free on the street!), and transportation benefits that come with the buildings, similar to policies implemented in San Mateo in Rail Corridor developments.

Palo Alto is also distinctive in having the highest ratio of jobs to housing in the region. An important question that wasn’t addressed by the Denver study is how much more likely it is for people to choose to live near work – if that option is available. Mountain View’s environmental study for its General Plan suggested that it helps – that adding housing in the North Bayshore area near Google, LinkedIn, and other employers would result in fewer vehicle trips.  Menlo Park and Sunnyvale are also studying plan options that provide more housing near jobs – there will be more information analysing the likely impact on car trips, given more options to live near work.


Obviously – and as the Denver study shows – not everyone who lives and works near light rail uses transit.  Nearly 40% still drive alone.  And not everyone who lives near a job center will work there.    The question isn’t whether everyone will use these options, but whether having the options available results in more people using the options.

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6 Responses to Live or work near transit? A tale of Palo Alto, San Mateo, SurveyMonkey, and housing affordability

  1. Pingback: A Misguided Fix for Traffic Congestion in Silicon Valley |

  2. Evans says:

    Those who lives near Caltrain but don’t work near transit, they will use Caltrain weekend if there is reasonable frequency.
    This is also very important because investment peak capacity (tracks, station, rolling stock.. etc) need to be depreciated by utilizing weekend passengers.

  3. markweiss86 says:

    I would not call Palo Alto’s measure a “stict” limit as you do. If you follow the link and read the footnote on page 2 of that document, the staff report, our Comp Plan had a cap in place that would have triggered a moratorium on further office space. Instead of enforcing such, we are re-writing the Comp Plan and having annual metered extensions to the already overbuilt downtown.

  4. markweiss86 says:

    “strict”, rather

    in my wordpress blog, “plastic alto” which covers everything from hip hop to TOD, I tend to edit in their favor errors such as this, but do as you see fit.

  5. Pingback: Race track turns monkey house | Plastic Alto with Mark Weiss

  6. markweiss86 says:

    My title which links back to yours is “Race Track turns monkey house”

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