An online survey to revamp the Palo Alto Shuttle program left many of the most vulnerable seniors who need the service the most at the curb until some members of the Human Relations Commission and city staff jumped in.
The survey, which was launched on Survey Monkey, will be used to develop a five-year Shuttle Needs Assessment and Service Plan to make the underutilized system more effective for school children, employees and residents.
The city opted to make the survey only available online to reach a wider breadth of people than with mail surveys, said Jessica Sullivan, transportation planning manager in charge of the survey. The city was mostly interested in hearing from people who didn't ride the shuttle, Sullivan added.
But with the survey only being in English and the lack of a hard-copy ballot for seniors and people without computer know-how seemed like a glaring gap to some human relations commissioners. So they and city staff put shoe leather to the pavement and gathered nearly 200 surveys from local seniors on paper ballots, commission Chairwoman Jill O'Nan said.
The human-driven effort had a significant impact on senior participation. The paper-survey takers alone represent about 10 percent of the survey's 1,982 respondents. That number doesn't include the unknown number of seniors who filled out the online ballot, either on their own or after the commissioners and city staff held four outreach sessions.
Avenidas senior center also sent out an email blast, which had an 80 percent click-through rate. The number of people who completed the survey out of that group is unknown, said Human Services Manager Minka van der Zwaag, who participated in the outreach efforts.
The city did make a significant effort to get the word out. When the survey was released, city transportation staff delivered a shuttle-survey poster to every senior facility in the downtown area and also emailed a link to the survey to contact persons in each facility. Staff also ran a newspaper ad for nearly two months and sent the survey link through the utility-bill insert to all residents and businesses in November 2015, Van der Zwaag said.
But the lack of more specialized efforts that take into account language barriers and disabilities perhaps illustrate how one size does not fit all. For O'Nan, the online- and English-only survey were red flags, she said.
"We often meet seniors who kind of missed the tech revolution. I couldn't see a lot of these folks filling out the survey online," she said. "My concern was borne out when many of the seniors asked us to sit with them, and read to them and help them answer the questions. It needed to be more of a conversation." Some seniors had vision and hearing difficulties, she added.
The commission was already keenly aware of seniors' needs for better shuttle service. During a January 2015 senior summit hosted by the commission, participants identified transportation as one of the biggest issues they face, O'Nan said.
When the commissioners learned of the online-only survey in November shortly before the survey was to close, they decided to investigate if seniors were properly represented. They found a significant gap in senior access to the survey and to transportation services, she told committee members last month.
During one meeting with seniors, O'Nan recalled a elderly woman in a tattered sweater. The woman lamented that she had nothing else to wear because she had no easy way to get out to shop for clothing.
"People are really struggling with transportation. She really wants the opportunity to be independent," O'Nan said of the elderly woman. "It's a very timely issue and it's growing. If we don't put services in place, we're really going to have some issues," when the city's expected "silver tsunami" hits.
The seniors were, however, "extremely diverse," she noted. "Some were right on it. Again, we just wanted to be a bridge," O'Nan added.
She praised the city transportation staff for extending the deadline to the end of December, and Shuttle Program Manager Ruchika Aggarwal for attending four focus groups with O'Nan and Commissioner Theresa Chen. Chen also translated the survey into Mandarin, O'Nan said.
"We covered as many bases as we could cover and with the holidays," O'Nan said, noting that they passed out the paper ballots at La Comida luncheon at Avenidas and held focus groups at Ventura Community Center, The Sheridan Apartments, Senior Friendship Day at Cubberley Community Center and La Comida.
Van der Zwaag did outreach at Webster House, and the paper surveys were later put into the online system by city staff, she said.
"The main focus was to piggyback on existing activities. We went to places where seniors congregate, to brown-bag lunches and when they come to pick up groceries from Second Harvest Food Bank," O'Nan said.
The effort also captured strong and diverse opinions, she added.
At The Sheridan, some home-bound seniors want more focus from the city on seniors with limited mobility. At Senior Friendship Day, where many participants are primarily Chinese speakers, Chen's Mandarin translation and the presence of a Mandarin translator helped the seniors take part in the survey, O'Nan said.
Sometimes in Palo Alto people mistakenly think that everyone is very smart, well educated and wealthy, O'Nan said. But there are many seniors with challenges, and the numbers are growing.
"Seniors are the second largest segment in Santa Clara County at more than 17 percent and they are fast approaching 20 percent. We have to make sure that we don't marginalize people," O'Nan said.