COVID-19 may have taken the edge off of parking problems in downtown Mountain View, but city officials say it's a timeless struggle that must be addressed, even if it means rolling out metered parking spots and handing out more tickets.
Mountain View City Council members on Tuesday weighed how to solve the seemingly intractable problem of trying to find a parking space around downtown Castro Street during peak hours. Many of the parking lots and garages in the "core" of the city's downtown are effectively at capacity, forcing drivers to either circle around looking for a space or relocate onto adjacent neighborhood roads.
Meanwhile, plenty of parking is available just outside the core, including hundreds of unused spaces in the parking garage at the corner of Bryant and California streets, suggesting that downtown visitors don't know it exists or don't want to make the longer trek.
Not only frustrating for customers, the lack of parking is a serious problem for business owners, said Councilwoman Lisa Matichak. She said there are stories of restaurant patrons who call in multiple times saying they're late for a reservation because they're on the hunt for parking, only to simply give up in the end.
"I don't think we can underestimate the amount of business that is being lost by our small businesses because customers can't find a parking space."
Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, the city's downtown parking district was crammed full of vehicles during the peak midday and evening hours, hitting close to maximum capacity, according to a recent downtown parking study. That 90% capacity is the break point in which parking becomes a chore and drivers tend to circle around searching for a space to open up.
The pandemic has since led to a decline in downtown activity and pushed downtown employees to work from home, depressing the peak usage of downtown parking to between 20% and 40%. The study notes, however, that the prime parking spaces are still in high demand, especially with the loss of parking spaces along Castro Street itself.
"Even with reduced parking demand from COVID-19, utilization in many on-street parking spaces is still high," the study found. "With many of the parking spaces directly on Castro Street closed for the sidewalk dining program, adjacent blocks on intersecting streets became the most convenient and popular."
A November survey found many of those popular spots are also full of parking violators. Of the hundreds of vehicles observed, 11% of cars ran over time restrictions, rising closer to 20% for those parked in two-hour spaces.
Council members generally agreed at the May 11 meeting on a framework for addressing parking woes, which lists a suite of options including more parking infrastructure, prioritizing public parking over private parking, and beefing up enforcement of parking restrictions. It could also include paid parking spaces, the revenue from which could pay for increased costs for ticketing vehicles in violation.
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said education and enforcement could help encourage downtown residents and employees to park in their designated private spaces, rather than taking up coveted on-street parking throughout the day. She said it could go a long way toward more evenly distributing vehicles in the downtown parking district, alleviating the need for a high-cost parking garage where the demand is highest.
"We would essentially create hundreds of new parking spaces worth hundreds of millions of dollars," she said.
Councilwomen Matichak and Pat Showalter also made a pitch for enforcement as a solution to parking problems.
Though there are currently no parking meters or costs for parking on the street in downtown Mountain View, that could change. Phil Olmstead, the city's parking study consultant, said many Bay Area cities including San Mateo, Redwood City, Walnut Creek and Santa Rosa have all adopted paid parking. He suggested that cash from parking fees -- while not the goal of the program -- can go to pay for improvements in the downtown district, transit upgrades and can even go toward paying for higher enforcement costs.
"The point of doing paid parking is not to generate revenue, it's really to manage your most prime on-street spaces so we can get that greater turnover and make sure that those front-door spaces are available to your customers and visitors," Olmstead said.
Councilwoman Sally Lieber took a more cautious approach, and said the city ought to treat enforcement as a sensitive issue. With parking durations as limited as they are, customers may be dissuaded from visiting downtown Mountain View if they're met with aggressive enforcement and an expensive ticket.
"It only takes a really short time to lose business in the downtown because of the perception that people are going to get a ticket if they're there," Lieber said. "And I think the two hours is really an issue. If you have lunch with a friend and go to one place, you're pretty much over your two hours right there."
Looking to increase the overall supply of parking, council members agreed to pursue partnerships that would make privately owned downtown parking accessible to the public, with an eye toward filling a current parking shortfall estimated to be between 100 and 200 spaces in the downtown district. Absent more parking supply and no parking management strategy, city officials say the parking deficit could grow to as large as 700 spaces over the next decade.
But questions hang over any aggressive plan to build more expensive parking spaces. It's unknown how many employees will permanently switch to telecommuting after the pandemic subsides, and over-building parking could encourage more traffic and run contrary to Mountain View's stated goals for bike, pedestrian and public transit use.
"Too much parking can incentivize more driving, create congestion and undermine goals of affordability and sustainability," according to a city staff report.
Whether that's realistic is another question. Matichak said many people travel into Mountain View's downtown from all over the region, and the vast majority drive there and need a place to park. Alternate ways to get to Castro Street, like Caltrain, are not convenient alternatives and ferry far fewer people to downtown than those who drive, she said.
Although a priority before the May 11 meeting, council members reaffirmed that changes are on the way for the city's Residential Parking Permit (RPP) program, which would clamp down on the extent to which visitors can park in the Old Mountain View neighborhood surrounding the downtown corridor.
No RPP zones have been created since 2016, despite two initiatives being filed to create them. The city's parking study suggested that the high costs for residents to buy annual permits, the required approval from a council committee and onerous petition requirements have all proven to be significant impediments.
Hicks said she believes each household in RPP zones need free permits to park on the street, in part because the streets are so narrow that it's hard to escape from driveways and garages. She said some streets are as small as 20 to 22 feet across, which is a problem when cars completely line the edges.
"When we're all parked up during a festival, people can't get out of their driveways if people are parked adjacent to the driveway and across the street, it's that narrow," Hicks said. "People get trapped in."
A formal downtown parking strategy is tentatively planned for approval in the fall.