No good deed goes unpunished -- that's the lesson from Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to Palo Alto and Stanford.
Stanford's excellent Marguerite Shuttle is rewarded by elimination of all VTA service to Stanford, which had already been whittled down over the years. Palo Alto is rewarded for the Palo Alto Shuttle by drastic reductions to VTA's 88-line bus. VTA previously eliminated the 86 bus.
After years of promising us that our 2000 vote for a half-cent sales tax would bring BART to San Jose along with other improvements (and that we could somehow be able to afford to operate the improved system), VTA is now applying some rationality and fiscal discipline to its operations in the face of difficult budget constraints.
VTA's new attention to bus rapid transit and community buses recognizes that bus transit is much cheaper to build and is more flexible than light rail, while community buses are important for shorter-distance transportation.
Public transportation systems in the United States are fragmented and historically have been starved in favor of the automobile. After World War II, many cities took out their trolley lines and replaced them with highways for buses and cars. These trolleys are now returning as light rail, but with dedicated instead of shared rights of way.
At the same time population pushed out into the suburbs, with low-density tract housing, as in much of Palo Alto. Palo Alto laid out a plan in the 1970s for "walkable communities" and neighborhood schools and services. Since then, many neighborhood schools have been closed and replaced with housing, supermarkets have closed and retail districts along El Camino Real have converted to more housing.
Proposition 13 immediately cut property taxes when it was passed in 1978, putting significant pressure on school budgets throughout California. One of the sacrificed services was school buses.
While some children now bike or walk to their high school or middle school, the Palo Alto Shuttle and the VTA 88 bus provide important alternatives to the congestion of cars driving children to and from school. The two morning Palo Alto shuttle buses that take students to Gunn High School and Terman Middle School in the morning are jammed.
Students now taking the VTA 88 bus to Gunn or Terman will likely instead be driven in cars, adding to traffic congestion on the already crowded Charleston-Arastradero Corridor.
It is with this background that we can understand why many parents are furious about the elimination of the portion of the VTA bus route east of Alma Street, which collects students and other passengers from Palo Alto neighborhoods.
In the next few years, hundreds of new housing units along the current VTA 88 bus route east of El Camino Real will be filled with potential riders. These include the Campus for Jewish Life and BUILD (with significant senior housing), the D.R. Horton housing that replaced Hyatt Rickey's, the Elks' housing development, two developments on East Meadow Circle, and Classic Communities on West Bayshore. Unless bus service is available when these people move in, they'll get used to finding other means to get to where they are going.
Will the reductions in service for the VTA 88 bus lead to increased use of OUTREACH paratransit, thereby costing more money overall? How will the greying of Palo Alto affect transit patterns?
We need a more comprehensive vision of transit and traffic planning instead of a piecemeal each-jurisdiction-in-isolation approach to transit planning. Palo Alto should focus on capacity and impacts for the morning commute, where the combination of work and school commuters compound congestion.
Palo Alto, Stanford, Los Altos Hills and VTA should collaborate to achieve a new goal of providing public-transit routes with enough capacity to accommodate every middle school and high school student who wants to take transit to school. Neighboring SamTrans considers serving school transportation needs to be part of its core mission; VTA must do that, too.
Palo Alto and VTA should collaborate so anyone who wants to take Caltrain to work can conveniently transfer from the train to a bus or shuttle to get the rest of the way. Stanford's Marguerite shuttle is a great model here. Palo Alto should enhance its promotion of walkable and bikeable neighborhoods through both land-use decisions and streetscape, particularly since more Palo Altans walk or bike to work than take transit. Palo Alto should also promote electronic alternatives to travel, such as telecommuting and home-based work. More than 2,000 Palo Altans already work at home.
When the Palo Alto Shuttle was started, VTA committed not to reduce service in Palo Alto because of the existence of the shuttle. VTA and Palo Alto need to coordinate so that any potential reduction in VTA service actually is replaced by enhanced by Palo Alto's shuttle service. Perhaps the subsidy now used to fund the VTA 88 bus could be given instead to Palo Alto to enhance shuttle services. Or VTA could implement a community bus program in partnership with Palo Alto as it has in Los Gatos.
Let's just not drive away current transit riders by leaving them stranded.
These decisions are not just about dollars. They are also about people, traffic congestion, and about getting our students out of cars and into shuttles and buses. The young students of today are potential transit riders of both today and tomorrow.
(The above appeared as a Guest Opinion in the May 23, 2007, edition of the Palo Alto Weekly).