Rancho San Antonio is the Peninsula's most popular open space reserve, drawing 700,000 visitors each year to its winding 24-mile network of trails.
But actually getting to the preserve is a problem that's getting worse. Despite serving as a natural resource for close to 1 million residents, Rancho San Antonio only has 315 parking spaces which are packed during peak hours. Visitors describe long waits in idling cars, hoping for a space to open up, leading to frustration and "conflicts," according to one report.
Last month, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space Preserve resolved to do something about parking woes at Rancho San Antonio, launching a study of the scope of the problem and whether bike and pedestrian access and "green" transportation options could bring some relief. Adding new parking lots is neither the first nor the preferred option, but will be considered in the study, according to district officials.
It's no secret why Rancho San Antonio has long been Midpen's most visited preserve, said Ana Ruiz, the district's general manager. It's highly accessible -- roughly 1 million people live within 10 miles of the park -- and has a diverse range of trails for leisurely strolls and challenging hikes. Add in good weather and attractions like Deer Hollow Farm, Ruiz said, and the park can get packed.
"There's all these reasons why people want to come out the preserve, and as a result visitation is quite high and continuously increasing over time," she said.
Studies dating back to 1991 predicted that the increasing population and development in neighboring cities was bound to overwhelm the handful of on-site parking lots off of Cristo Rey Drive in Cupertino. Some of the more determined park visitors found alternatives, relying on curbside spots adjacent to the park in Cupertino or near a trail entrance on Mora Drive in Los Altos Hills. That ended in 2016 when upset neighbors passed preferential parking zones for residents only -- further exacerbating the parking problems in Rancho San Antonio's designated lots.
Residents in Los Altos Hills circulated a petition arguing that allowing hikers to use street parking created hazardous parking conditions and increased the probability of "robberies, break-ins and vandalism." The petition had 12 signatures and the parking restriction it sought was passed by the Los Altos Hill City Council without debate as a consent calendar item.
The challenge of finding a place to park has been a longstanding problem that Midpen's leadership has heard loud and clear, said Curt Riffle, Mountain View's representative on the agency's board of directors. In some ways it's been gripes and complaints from both sides: he is among the visitors who drive to the park and have trouble finding a space, while the park's neighbors are fed up with the overflow parking and vehicles crowding driveways and streets.
"We want to be a good neighbor, but on the other hand, we have constituents we're trying to satisfy as well," Riffle said.
On June 26, the district's board of directors voted to launch a multiyear effort to finally solve these parking problems, with a so-called Multimodal Access Study to better understand: who is coming to Rancho San Antonio and where they're coming from; what parking is available at specific days and times; and the pros and cons of a long list of possible fixes.
Almost all of the short-term solutions in the report are aimed at promoting alternative modes of transportation -- education campaigns, trail access and new signs aimed at boosting bike and pedestrian travel, new bike racks and information in maps, brochures and on Midpen's website to "highlight non-motorized access." The district is also considering rideshare arrangements with Uber and Lyft for pick-up and dropoff, and a potential partnership with municipal shuttle services to add a stop at Rancho San Antonio.
Many of the ideas stem from a 2017 stakeholder meeting among representatives from numerous public agencies, including Lisa Matichak, Mountain View's current mayor. In an email to the Voice, Matichak said she agrees that parking can be a challenge at Rancho San Antonio and that it is concerning to see people start their visit to the preserve with an argument over a parking space. Her suggestions included a possible valet service during peak hours, similar to the model used in downtown Mountain View, as well as ways to connect large groups of regular visitors for carpools.
The addition of onsite or offsite parking is considered a long-term action that may be considered, according to the staff report. While it might seem like the most direct solution, Ruiz said it wouldn't be easy. Along with weighing the potential environmental impacts -- including the loss of open space -- a parking project would need to go through a lengthy public feedback process that would likely raise concerns about traffic, noise, visual impacts and loss of rural character.
If at all possible, Ruiz said the district should try to avoid encouraging more vehicle travel and promote alternative forms of transportation before considering paving over open space.
"Part of our mission is preserving and protecting our larger environment, and that includes looking at our contributions to greenhouse gas emissions," she said. "We want to look at ways to promote greener forms of transportation."
The yearslong reluctance to add parking has been frustrating to Mountain View resident Anne Cheilek, who said the dearth of available parking spaces -- along with parking bans from nearby cities -- amounts to restricted access to a public environmental resource. Adding ways to walk and bike to Rancho San Antonio does nothing for the residents who live too far away to take advantage of it, she said, instead benefiting the "multimillionaires of Los Altos."
"To the average park user in the (district) boundaries, access is determined by availability of parking. Not by buses, bike lanes or additional trails," Cheilek said.
The Measure AA bond, passed by the district in 2014, explicitly calls for improving access to open space preserves for all residents, and Cheilek said she believes that money could be used to create a parking lot at the park entrance at the end of Mora Drive in Los Altos Hills. The reluctance to add parking is perplexing, she said, and it feels elitist to say parking is unnecessary.
"If (the district) continues to refuse to add parking, this regionally funded greenbelt will become a playground for those wealthy property owners lucky enough to live within walking distance of the park boundaries," she said. "That would be a betrayal of the generosity of taxpayers from all over the region, who resoundingly voted in 2014 for the expansion of access to this beautiful regional resource."
Riffle said new parking lots are still an option and nothing has been ruled out yet.
"Let's explore all of our options and understand what is going to be the best cost-benefit (option) to us," Riffle said.
Many of the short-term measures are going live starting this year regardless of the report's conclusions, Ruiz said, and she acknowledged that walking and biking to Rancho San Antonio won't be an option for everyone. The hope is that it will chip away at the parking demands from residents close by and make room for those that have to travel longer distances. No one solution is supposed to solve the parking problems, she said, and it will take a myriad of measures to solve it.
"There are so many factors that it's going to require a range of tactics to move the needle enough," she said. "There is no one solution, other than the major step of putting in a parking lot."
Results from the parking study are expected to be complete by August 2020, and updates will be provided at openspace.org/our-work/projects/multimodal-study.