Palo Alto's tiny fleet of city-run shuttle buses may soon see a dramatic expansion, including a doubling of buses on the popular Crosstown route and a brand new service that would link the downtown Caltrain station with Mountain View businesses.
The City Council will consider on Monday night changes to the city's shuttle program, which currently includes three routes: the long-established Crosstown and Embarcadero shuttles and the nascent East Palo Alto Shuttle (the lattermost route came into existence in July and is funded primarily by East Palo Alto). The expansion proposal would double the frequency of the Crosstown shuttles and introduce a fourth route: the West Shuttle, which would whisk passengers between south Palo Alto and downtown and would also serve employees from the West Bayshore Business Park in Mountain View via a connecting shuttle.
Though the city's shuttle program is dwarfed by other bus services, including those offered by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Stanford University, the changes proposed by staff would create the most significant expansion for the program since its inception a decade ago. The proposal is one of many strategies the council is now pursuing to address the city's parking and traffic woes -- a toolkit that also includes a new residential-parking permit program in downtown neighborhoods, the creation of a new Transportation Management Authority to spur the city's efforts to reduce traffic, and the exploration of new downtown garages.
According to a report from planning staff, the expansion would be far from cheap. Increasing the frequency of the Crosstown Shuttle from one hour to 30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. would cost the city about $88,800 annually. Adding the West Shuttle route, meanwhile, is expected to cost about $400,000 a year, a total that the city hopes will be partially offset by contributions from employers in the West Bayshore Business Park.
Staff is also proposing, on a trial basis, a summer trolley that would run at lunch time between downtown Palo Alto and Stanford Shopping Center. The trial would cost about $20,000.
In forming its recommendation, the city's planning department hired a consultant to evaluate the existing shuttles and propose changes, including higher frequency and new routes. The consultant, Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants, looked closely at the two established routes and concluded that the Embarcadero line is essentially fine the way it is. The Embarcadero already has a relatively short headway of 15 minutes, the consultant noted. Connecting the businesses at the east end of the city to the downtown transit center, it gets 75 percent of its funding from Caltrain; its timing is designed to accommodate the train schedule.
The Crosstown Shuttle, by contrast, could see its ridership rise by 40 percent if the city were to increase its frequency. The north-south shuttle is by far the busier of the two main routes, offering connections from Charleston Road to the downtown Caltrain station by way of Middlefield Road. The route is funded entirely by the city and includes increased services in the morning and mid-afternoon to support Jane Lathrop Stanford and Jordan middle schools.
In analyzing the Crosstown Shuttle, Fehr & Peers determined that the ridership peaks during the midday period and that increasing frequency between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. would particularly help seniors and residents with mobility needs. A recent on-board rider survey conducted by the city confirmed riders' desires.
Furthermore, of the 116 riders surveyed overall, more than 70 chose "frequency of service" as the attribute of the shuttle system that they value the most ("on-time performance" was a distant second).
The consultant is also suggesting starting the Crosstown Shuttle service earlier in the day, sometime between 6:30 a.m. and 7:40 a.m., because ridership is so high during the first run of the day.
Though it hasn't even been approved yet, the West Shuttle proposal has come under some criticism already because it partially duplicates the service of VTA's Route 522/22. The VTA buses go up and down El Camino with frequencies that can be as high as 10 buses per hour in each direction. This redundancy was pointed out by Councilman Pat Burt in February, when the council first considered expanding the shuttle program. At that meeting, the council requested city planners to conduct more analysis and return with a more refined proposal.
Yet both staff and consultants believe the new route would capture new riders, redundancy notwithstanding. Fehr & Peers noted in its report that while the El Camino segment of the West Shuttle route is duplicative, the city's route would provide a direct ride from south Palo Alto along El Camino Real. Currently, residents in the south part of the city who don't live near El Camino have to rely on VTA's route 88 and 104 to get to El Camino. The transfer requirement and the infrequency of these buses "would all but discourage any transit use between south Palo Alto and the El Camino corridor," Fehr & Peers wrote.
The West Shuttle would start around the East Meadow Circle area and end at Stanford Shopping Center.
Furthermore, the consultants said, because the city shuttle would be free, it would capture "casual users of transit along El Camino who do not make the trip on VTA due to its cost."
During an August discussion of the shuttle expansion, city Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez told the Planning and Transportation Commission that staff is trying to accomplish three different things with the West Shuttle that currently don't exist within the community. One is to better accommodate Caltrain commuters during the peak hours by providing a service that is "complementary, but not competitive" with the VTA. Later in the day, the West Shuttle would aid school children by offering a route from Palo Alto High School to students who live south of Oregon Expressway. Crossing Oregon, Rodriguez told the commission, can be a deterrent for students who want to bike to school and who generally get driven.
"So what we're introducing is ... a brand new school-focused route that does not exist today," he said.
The third element would benefit the entire community by adding a morning bus service, Rodriguez said. The frequency would be increased in the morning to accommodate the higher ridership, much like what the consultant is recommending for the Crosstown Shuttle, he said.