As one piece of a multi-pronged approach to improving transit options and addressing parking and congestion, city officials are in the process of finalizing a plan to expand the Palo Alto shuttle program.
Armed with a consultant study, the city's transportation department is proposing three changes to the existing shuttle program at an annual cost of more than a half million dollars, which the city council has partially provided for in this year's budget.
The current Crosstown shuttle, which provides a north-south connection roughly from Charleston and Middlefield in south Palo Alto to downtown Palo Alto, would expand to offer more frequent service between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., resulting in 30 minute "headways" instead of hourly. This route is currently heavily used by school children in the early morning and when school gets out, since it serves both JLS and Jordan middle schools. Planners believe mid-day usage by residents going downtown to shop or eat will significantly increase if the shuttles run every 30 minutes and result in fewer car trips to the congested downtown area.
The more significant expansion, at a cost of $400,000 a year, would be the creation of a new West Shuttle that would run from the downtown Caltrain station south along El Camino and then cut east to the commercial area around East Meadow near Bayshore Freeway, with an extension during commute hours to Mountain View's east of Bayshore where Google is located.
Finally, planners want to experiment next summer running an open-air trolley shuttle from Stanford Shopping Center to downtown only between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on weekdays, apparently aimed at providing shoppers a way to have lunch downtown (an idea we find difficult to fathom.)
No changes are proposed in either the Embarcadero Shuttle, which runs from downtown to east of Bayshore's offices on Embarcadero, or the new East Palo Alto Shuttle, which runs from downtown to the Woodland Avenue area on the west side of Bayshore.
To gather public input, city staff will ride the Crosstown shuttle for the next few weeks conducting a survey of riders to gather data and determine passenger destinations and transit needs. The city council will consider the final recommendations in late October or early November.
While expanding the availability of the free shuttle intuitively makes sense given the community's clear desire to reduce traffic congestion and parking problems, we have doubts about whether this proposal will resonate with the people it is aiming to serve commuters, shoppers and residents alike.
Unfortunately, since the current shuttle operator only keeps counts of total boardings throughout each run rather than on-off counts for each stop, consultants had limited data with which to work, and no survey research of the general public was conducted at all.
With the entire west side of Palo Alto currently un-served by the shuttle program, any expansion should clearly prioritize this part of the city. But as proposed, the new route simply duplicates the current VTA route along El Camino between the downtown Caltrain station and Meadow, and then follows Meadow east to the industrial area near Bayshore Highway, then to the JCC and to Charleston.
Planners say this route is partly designed to pick up riders of Caltrain baby bullet trains downtown and give them a way to get to their places of employment, and hope that companies can be persuaded to contribute funding to the shuttle.
Planning commissioners shared a healthy skepticism when reviewing the plan two weeks ago, questioning why the proposed West Shuttle was not connecting to the California Avenue Caltrain station or to the Stanford Research Park, and wondering if this route could better serve resident needs in addition to commuters. We find it hard to imagine that a San Francisco resident working at or near Google in Mountain View would consider this a viable way to get to and from work given that shuttles already connect the Mountain View Caltrain station with those companies.
The transportation department does not have a good track record of carefully listening to public input and being open to adjusting its own concepts based on what it hears, which perhaps explains the lack of outreach to residents west of the train tracks or any data supporting this routing.
The city staff would be wise to not only vet this West Shuttle route with the public, including those left completely un-served in the current proposal along the Arastradero corridor, but to present several alternative routes for consideration and public feedback.
We also hope for a thorough explanation of how we might integrate our shuttle system with the outstanding Stanford Marguerite and potentially contract with Stanford to operate our shuttle as a fully integrated community transit system.
Without these, staff should plan for a long night when this item comes to the council.