In an effort to increase bus ridership and prepare for an onslaught of commuters from new BART stations in Milpitas and San Jose next year, VTA officials announced this week that they are considering major changes to bus routes that could cut service to large swaths of the county, including Mountain View.
Conceptual designs for a new bus network, which were presented to the VTA board of directors Thursday night, come from an extensive study of transportation demand by the firm Jarrett Walker and Associates. Assuming the VTA's bus budget remains the same, the study found that the best way to increase the number of riders overall would be to cut infrequent bus routes in many neighborhoods in the North County in order to fund more frequent services throughout the rest of the county.
In a press conference Friday, April 8, Jarrett Walker told reporters that VTA is in a tough situation. The transit agency's budget has not increased along with rise in population in Santa Clara County, triggering a decrease in the quality of service and a plunge in the number of bus riders. In order to make the bus system a more palatable option for residents, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on frequent service to cut down on wait times.
But without expanding the budget, Walker says there needs to be a trade-off. If VTA officials want to increase ridership, it would require re-drawing bus routes in favor of densely populated areas in the county at the cost of losing less-traveled, infrequent routes to far-flung communities.
"All of the things being equal, if you have twice the density, you have twice the ridership potential. There's no way of getting around that fact," Walker said.
Shifting resources in favor of more popular bus routes isn't the only way to increase ridership, but it's certainly the primary option. VTA's buses already operate efficiently at a cost of about $185 an hour, which is on par with Samtrans and other Bay Area bus systems, Walker said. And because ridership tends to remain high throughout the day, he said, it wouldn't be cost-efficient to beef up service during peak commute hours.
Walker's firm put together three maps illustrating what a VTA bus network might look like in order to maximize ridership, which include frequent, 15-minute bus service along most major thoroughfares in the county and far fewer routes to outlying neighborhoods.
VTA could move forward with what Walker called the "90 percent" concept -- where 90 percent of the service is maximized for ridership, and 10 percent is focused on connecting less-dense communities. While it could increase ridership by about 10 percent over the coming years, about 15 percent of the county's population would no longer be within half a mile of a bus station.
Some routes would be maintained in the North County. A network focused on ridership would preserve bus service along El Camino Real through Mountain View and Palo Alto, as well as a bus route that travels from Foothill College, past the San Antonio shopping center through Highway 101 along Rengstorff Avenue. Also included would be more frequent bus service between the Mountain View and Sunnyvale Caltrain stations, since train service between those two adjacent stations is not very frequent.
"It is actually just about impossible to get between downtown Sunnyvale and downtown Mountain View, which is more and more of a problem as you build up both of those downtowns." Walker told the VTA board.
Board members generally agreed with the results of the study and the premise that there has to be a balance between bus frequency and its accessibility to residents throughout the county. But some members said it's going to be hard selling their respective communities on a new plan that would slash bus routes.
"You can imagine us going back to our community delivering that rosy message," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager. "I think all of us totally agree with the (analysis) -- it's hard not to agree with -- but implementing it is going to be very hard. It's going to affect lots of people."
In order to support such a plan, Yeager said he would need some assurance from the rest of the board and VTA staff that they would stick with it and see it through to implementation. He cited the Bus Rapid Transit project along EL Camino Real as a prime example of what can go wrong, and how VTA has spent millions of dollars on a project that's gone nowhere because of a lack of political will.
"If we are going to spend two years on this and untold staff hours, community meetings and heartaches trying to explain to our community what is best ... you really need to have the confidence of the board that we are going to proceed with this, and take the political hit that is going to be involved," Yeager said.
Walker stressed that the route maps drawn up by his firm should be seen as a starting point, and a catalyst for residents and city leaders to talk about what changes would be best for the bus network in Santa Clara County. He told the Voiceit would be false to say that VTA's resources would be shifted away from some communities if the board adopts the ridership-centric maps.
Los Altos Mayor Jeannie Bruins said she wants feedback from individual cities to play a big role in the bus route overhaul, and said the decision shouldn't be made at the VTA board level, isolated from public feedback.
"We shouldn't underestimate the effort we need to put into bringing councils along with us," Bruins said. "We need our colleagues back at home in all the cities that we represent to have that same political will."
Going forward, Bruins said the biggest challenge will be providing some level of transit connectivity back to areas left out of a leaner bus network. The solution could come from individual cities, Walker said, which can play a huge role in meeting the demand for public transportation on a smaller scale. He pointed to Mountain View's community shuttle service, which makes stops at several busy locations as an example of one solution to the connectivity problem.
By the same token, Walker said cities shoulder a great deal of responsibility for creating the current traffic conditions, and ought to be mindful of new developments relative to transit routes. He said it's typical for the regional transportation agency -- in this case VTA -- to take all the flak for poor service, when city planning could be focused more on high density developers along popular corridors.
"(VTA) controls the service, but equally important, if not more so, is the land-use pattern which determines whether anyone is near the service," Walker said.
So far, eight public meetings have been scheduled throughout the county to discuss the potential changes to VTA's bus network, including one in Mountain View on May 17 and in Palo Alto on June 16.
VTA staff also are working on requests for Walker to present the study and options for bus route changes to city councils throughout the county. The tentative timeline is for the VTA board to make a final decision by next April, prior to BART service opening in fall of 2017.