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Palo Alto shuttle buses to feature local faces

Former Mayor Jim Burch responded to new unmarked buses by coming up with his own promo campaign

Jim Burch was somewhat taken aback last January when he saw a new Palo Alto shuttle bus with no signage on the outside telling people what it was -- confusing riders and not doing anything to promote the free shuttle service.

Nowhere on the side, front or back did it say it was a city shuttle bus -- unlike an earlier 2002-03 generation of the four-bus fleet in which the vehicles were adorned with vinyl film and large type on the sides. The city, after cutting one crosstown bus to save funds in an extra-tight budget year, left the new buses blank for the same reason.

"You couldn't tell whether they were meat trucks or what they were," Burch said. In addition to confusing people, they did nothing to promote ridership and get people out of their cars, he noted.

Then he saw a magazine ad showing a bus with a molded plastic image attached to the side, and it evoked his instincts from his past career in marketing.

Burch, also a former Palo Alto mayor and City Council member, decided to do something about the three naked buses, two of which were trundling back and forth on Embarcadero Road and one on a crosstown route.

But Burch took the idea miles past the prior markings. In addition to the large signage, with "FREE" prominently displayed, he mixes in photos of local people as "window art" for the new buses.

Each window panel will feature one or two persons with talk-balloons, most containing comments relating to the shuttle, some humorous or witty and some straightforward.

"I think I've forgotten my stop," longtime resident Virginia Fitton comments in one panel.

"Where did you leave it?" her husband, Don, replies.

The vinyl panels have tiny holes so people inside the bus can see out, similar to scenic or animal window images on recreational vehicles.

The new buses will make their debut Monday at 10 a.m. in front of City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave. On Saturday, volunteers -- many of them subjects of the window art -- will gather at a bus storage location in East Palo Alto to put on the vinyl images.

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt is fully on board with the concept, he said.

"This project is a perfect example of the kind of partnerships that make Palo Alto great," Burt said. The new signage "was born out of the enthusiasm and expertise of our own citizens, who have volunteered their time and creativity to make a city service better."

Burch's January idea turned into a major undertaking.

There are 35 Palo Alto residents featured in the window panels, from children en route to the Junior Museum and Zoo to adults of all ages, some cracking jokes as with the Fittons. But it took longtime Palo Alto photographer Theodore Mock 258 photos to get the final images, Burch said.

He said the subjects will not be identified by name in the panels -- making identifying them something of an in-joke pastime for the community.

Longtime resident Carroll Harrington and Michael Reuscher worked on the design, and Tango Graphics of San Mateo printed the vinyl panels.

Burch initially pitched his idea to city officials and secured funding of $7,000 for all three buses, including the side signage and the window images.

The shuttle bus service costs the city about $215,000 a year. The crosstown bus is funded fully by the city, and the Embarcadero buses are funded half by Caltrain and a quarter each by the city and Palo Alto Unified School District.

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