Palo Alto's small fleet of shuttles could grow substantially in the coming months, as the city prepares to unveil new routes and add buses to the existing Crosstown service.
The shuttle program is one of many initiatives that the city is pursuing to address excessive traffic and insufficient parking in the city's commercial areas. In the coming months, officials will be unveiling a new residential parking-permit program, upgrading garage technology, exploring sites for new garages and creating a nonprofit Transportation Management Association charged with reducing the number of commuters who drive solo by 30 percent.
Historically, shuttles have maintained a low profile on Palo Alto streets. Since the shuttle program came onboard December 1999, it has consisted largely of two routes: The Crosstown Shuttle that provides a north-south connection from Charleston Road to downtown Palo Alto; and the Embarcadero Shuttle, which links the east side of the city with the downtown Caltrain station.
In July, the city introduced a third shuttle: The East Palo Alto route, which is funded entirely by East Palo Alto but managed by Palo Alto and stretches from Woodland Avenue to the downtown Caltrain station.
Now, the city is considering further additions, with the goal of giving drivers a new option for getting around town. A new West Shuttle route would stretch from the industrial area around East Meadow Drive in south Palo Alto to El Camino Real and then, along the El Camino corridor, to University Avenue.
The West Shuttle would aim to accommodate different sectors, including residents and employees in the mixed-use area around Charleston Road and East Meadow, said Steve Crosley, a consultant with firm Fehr & Peers, which the city earlier this year commissioned to study existing shuttle routes and proposed new routes. The West Shuttle would connect downtown Palo Alto with south Palo Alto and, if all goes as planned, would be funded in part by employers in the area.
"We took a look at routing itself and found it does serve the populations currently not served by the Crosstown shuttle," Crosley said. "In addition, it creates a direct connection between south Palo Alto, the El Camino Corridor and downtown Palo Alto."
Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said the West Shuttle route could be set up to have fewer stops during the morning peak, creating an express service. He also stressed that the city is aiming to make the new shuttle routes "complementary" to other transit services, not competitive with them.
Fehr & Peers also recommended the doubling of shuttles on the Crosstown route between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
The Crosstown, which is funded completely by the city, is especially popular. But even though it runs past numerous popular destinations, including the Main Library, Channing House, JLS Middle School and Mitchell Park, the Crosstown shuttles run only once an hour, from 7:40 a.m. to 5:20 p.m.
Fehr & Peers found that the Crosstown route has "consistently moderate" productivity throughout the day, with a peak in the midday period. This suggests that it is "particularly popular amongst seniors or other individuals with midday mobility needs." By doubling service between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., service will be increased from every 60 minutes to every 30 minutes.
The firm also found that because ridership is particularly high on the shuttle's first run of the day, "there may be significant latent demand for this service prior to this time." Its report recommends testing additional service starting at 6:30 a.m. It also recommends adding an addition shuttle 10 to 15 minutes before the particularly crowded 7:40 a.m. and 3:05 p.m. runs.
The firm recommended making no changes to the Embarcadero route, which runs every 15 minutes and gets less ridership than the Crosstown shuttles. The Embarcadero shuttle is coordinated around Caltrain schedule and much of the ridership along this route consists of Caltrain commuters.
These recommendations remain tentative and subject to change based on further analysis and results of a rider survey that the city plans to administer in the coming weeks.
The city's Planning & Transportation Commission last week looked generally favorable on the proposed shuttle expansions, with Commissioner Greg Tanaka saying that the West Shuttle program "makes a lot of sense" and Vice Chair Arthur Keller urging staff to collaborate with other employers in addition to Google to participate.
Chair Mark Michael encouraged staff to consider routes that serve populations beyond students and commuters.
"The time of Palo Alto residents is quite valuable," Michael said. "This is a very prosperous and productive community and a lot of people are employed very gainfully."
If the city wants to get people out of cars, it needs to have adequate services in the late night and early morning hours, Michael said.
"You have to make it so people can come to City Council meetings and planning commission meetings and serve those groups who aren't just commuters and students," he said.