New Palo Alto transportation study suggests options to reduce driving

Results are out for Palo Alto’s transportation survey which was conducted in May, and will be presented to City Council on Monday night. The results of the study suggest a number of options for Palo Alto to reduce driving, which can help inform Palo Alto’s consideration of transportation demand management (TDM) policies. On Monday, Palo Alto is also holding study session to report on preliminary progress on TDM, and to learn from Stanford, Google, and other leading TDM programs.

A majority of survey respondents – residents and workers – drive to work, with sizeable minorities using alternatives.

Carshare for mid-day transportation needs

Out of the most common reasons people gave for driving to work – both for Palo Alto residents and commuters – was needing a car during the day for personal trips.

Why commuters drive to work

Why commuters drive to work


Carshare is one of the approaches that Palo Alto is exploring. Having carshare services such as ZipCar and CityCarShare available can help employees run mid-day errands without having to drive to work, and can help residents manage with fewer cars per household.


Potential to increase bicycling

Among resident respondents, bicycle ownership is very high.

Bicycle ownership in Palo Alto

Bicycle ownership in Palo Alto

93% of residents noted having at least one bicycle within their household and 53% noted their household having four or more bicycles within their household. Bicycle use was also identified as the travel mode of choice for school-aged family members consistent with growing bicycle parking data at each school within the community.

The survey reported very high commuting to neighboring cities. “Of the 44% who work outside Palo Alto, almost 25% travel to neighboring cities of Mountain View and Menlo Park.”   There were also sizeable numbers of people who commute into Palo Alto from neighboring cities, where bike mode share is already relatively high for the US and the region.

The data on bicycle ownership, and commutes to and from neighboring cities, suggests greater potential for bicycle commuting, in partnership with the neighboring cities which themselves have strong policies and programs to increase bicycling and motivation to decrease traffic.

In terms of inbound commuting, 142 respondents (18%) commute from the City of San Jose. Following San Jose, top commute generators are the neighboring cities of Mountain View and Menlo Park (14% together). A nearly equal number of people (14%) commute from cities within the Peninsula like San Mateo, South San Francisco, Burlingame, San Carlos, Belmont, San Bruno etc.

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 3.28.36 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-08 at 3.27.01 PM


Improving access to Caltrain

For commuters, services that would help them choose not to drive include showers/changing facilities for people who want to bike or walk,  improved Caltrain service at the California Avenue  Business District, expanded bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and cheaper transit fares.

As Palo Alto’s  fleshes out its TDM strategy, cheaper transit fares can be provided by expanding transit pass discount benefits to more employer.  Caltrain’s bulk-discount GoPass is currently available for large employers and residential developments, not yet for TMAs or neighborhoods (Boulder, Colorado offers its bulk-discount pass to neighborhoods).  The rise of TMAs is an opportunity for cities to encourage Caltrain to expand the GoPass to increase mode share to more employee and resident groups.

And data collected by transportation surveys about about transit demand could be used to help encourage more service from Caltrain.

More than 50% of residents respond that they live within a mile from Caltrain, not even counting the San Antonio Caltrain station which is in Mountain View adjacent to South Palo Alto.  However, the survey does not report how close those resident’s workplaces are to Caltrain (in miles or Shuttle/bike time).  The survey does show that many commuters give poor transit connections as a reason to drive.

A creative way for a Palo Alto TMA to help reduce traffic would be to assess if there are clusters of residents who would choose not to drive if they had better connections from Caltrain to their workplace. Then, chip in to help improve shuttle schedules at the destinations in Sunnyvale and San Jose.

Residents near Caltrain


Shopping by bike?

Interestingly, the vast majority of respondents said that they do shopping by car. The survey does not differentiate among types of shopping trips. How many trips are big trips filling up a car with many grocery bags, and how many are quick trips to get a gallon of milk or some salad ingredients, with one person in the car?  Residents in Palo Alto express frustration at the amount of time it takes to drive 1-2 miles and find parking to run a simple errand during congested periods. It is possible that some of this frustration could be alleviated some attention to “safe routes to supermarkets” along the lines of the attention that has been paid to “safe routes to schools.”

More representative data

There were 3707 responses to the transportation survey, 77% from residents and 23% from commuters. The transportation survey was not random-sample and the results are not fully representative.  For example, the share of people living and working in Palo Alto is high compared to the census.   Also, the survey results show that more residents than in-commuters drive alone to work. This is different from Census results.

39% of residents noted working within Palo Alto or the Stanford campus. 44% of residents  noted working outside of the City, with Mountain View and San Jose being the two main commute destinations for residents

Also, East Palo Alto residents do not show up as a notable block of commuters. This may reflect under-representation in the survey. There are opportunities to help East Palo Alto residents commute to PA without driving as well.

The non-representative data from the surveys has some value, but over time it would be helpful help to have more representative surveys. One of the best practices of effective TDM programs is to survey people in the constituent groups, assess where they travel to and from, and identify incentives that would help them drive less. Palo Alto can take further steps validate these and other ideas suggested by this study, and conduct further studies that are more representative going forward.


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10 Responses to New Palo Alto transportation study suggests options to reduce driving

  1. Ben Lerner says:

    This TDM thing is just a way to enable more growth by making it so that developers don’t have to provide as much parking as their projects require. That lets them build bigger, denser, and more-profitable projects. I don’t want support for CalTrain to morph into a development booster. We need CalTrain for those commuters who prefer to commute that way. And to preserve the livability of PA downtown and its surroundings, we need a ballot initiative to strictly limit downtown growth. I’ll vote for that!

    • Adina Levin says:

      Hi, Ben. I think these things are orthogonal. It’s possible to change incentives so that fewer people drive, with or without new development. Right now it costs more for most people to take then train then to drive and park in Palo Alto, because parking is free for most Palo Alto employees, and cheaper than transit for most of the rest. When transit is cheaper than parking (for Stanford employees, SurveyMonkey employees, and other lucky ones who have GoPass, transit use goes way up. If fewer people drove there would be less traffic, and Palo Alto would be on the hook for fewer new parking structures.

      • Ben Lerner says:

        Hi Adina – In theory they are orthogonal, but in practice it doesn’t work that way. What happens is that we grow until we reach a “pain point”, then we mitigate the pain point via TDM programs (for this example), which in turn enables more growth in a perpetual cycle. If you like growth, then TDMs and the like are the way to go. But I personally don’t value growth and like this region the way it is (with minor adjustments). So I don’t see TDMs as a solution, but as part of the problem. If we break the growth cycle, then TDMs and other transit enhancers could enhance the quality of life, but not before.

        • Adina Levin says:

          Hmm… so are you recommending the converse? make driving and parking cheaper and more convenient than taking transit, don’t make walking and biking safer and more convenient? Supporting driving as the main transportation mode surely makes density nonfunctional. There’s evidence that this doesn’t fix traffic. And personally it’s not my favorite quality of life. But people differ.

  2. Naor Deleanu says:

    What about carpooling? I would think that a lot more people could carpool to work-and maybe more would if Palo Alto started to charge a market price for parking.

    • Adina Levin says:

      Yes – it would be great to have a carpool “pool” with other people who live or work in the same area. Right now big employers run these programs. A carpool program doesn’t work so well in a small startup where there are few people who live in the same place. Palo Alto does have parking permits but they are relatively low cost – $45/month. Until Palo Alto has residential parking permits, many will be tempted to park for free on the street for free. City Council will review an RPP proposal next Monday the 16th.

      Unfortunately because of the parking crunch, some Palo Alto residents are advocating to include more and more free parking in buildings, without “parking cashout” programs that would enable employees to be reimbursed for not taking a parking spot, and could eventually enable private spaces to become available in the public pool. So the city is fighting its traffic problem by trying to give away more free parking.

  3. Ben Lerner says:

    Regarding the problem of “distance from CalTrain”, aka the “last mile” problem: This is NOT a problem on the employer side of the commute, as many employers or industrial parks provide shuttles to/from transit hubs. Economies of scale make this an easy problem to solve. The hard problem is on the residential end of the commute where you don’t have economy of scale due to low housing density and varying commute schedules. Is anyone thinking about how to solve that problem?

    • Adina Levin says:

      Actually, shuttles and carpool programs have been available to large employers much more than small employers. Cities are starting to fix this with TDM programs that support smaller companies also. On the residential side, if there are clusters of people going to the same destination, carpools and vanpools help. You need a large enough pool of people with the same destination to make the carpool and vanpool matches. There are various efforts to try and use ad hoc ridematching for spread-out suburban locations – I don’t know if any are working – the success stories I know of are in more urban locations. Self-driving cars may eventually help a bit because they take less space on the road and less space for storage. But they fundamentally don’t solve the problem of peak hour traffic – even self-driving cars take up more room than transit, waking or bicycling. For transit, there aren’t great ways to serve very spread out communities. Walkable, compact neighborhoods are much more effectively served with transit.

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