VTA considers complete bus route overhaul

New network would likely ditch most bus routes in Mountain View and Palo Alto, but increase frequency along major throughfares

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.

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21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Looking at this it appears to me that the only VTA bus routes we will have in Palo Alto will be the one that runs along El Camino. With this type of reduction in service how can we justify paying for anything that VTA wants to spend our money on? I tend to think that VTA should be aiming to get people to where they need to go. For us in Palo Alto we need to get to some of those short hops, particularly East/West and to get us to airports.

Gunn high school has a large number of students who depend on a VTA bus to get to school. This proposes scrapping it. What will that do to Palo Alto traffic? A large number of students need to get to Foothill college. Already that means somehow getting to Mountain View to take a bus that is often too full to take all the passengers waiting. Palo Alto needs a route to Foothill also.

A useful bus route gets people to their destinations without snaking around neighborhoods. If we don't have school buses, then VTA has to take up the slack or else we are going to have myriads of extra cars on the streets just as one example.

And the idea that Palo Alto is a boundary makes no sense. There are just as many people in North Palo Alto that need to commute to places like Mountain View as there are people in South Palo Alto (or Mountain View) that need to commute to Menlo Park or Redwood City. The fact that there is a Berlin Wall between San Mateo and Santa Clara counties as far as transportation and city cooperation is concerned does not help anyone at all.

The extension of BART to San Jose does absolutely nothing to help transportation in north Santa Clara County. The fact that we are expected to pay extra taxes to support this extension and then to suffer a reduced VTA service serves to prove that Santa Clara County cares nothing about the north part of the county apart from a tax dollar base.

Disgraceful attitude.

16 people like this
Posted by Biker and Driver
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2016 at 6:19 pm

Let's face it - Palo Alto neighborhoods outside of downtown and El Camino aren't sense enough to make buses viable. And we aren't going to make our R-1 neighborhoods any denser.

Empty buses don't do us any good - they just cause noise, pollution, and congestion. What we need is a frequent and reliable way for workers to get to downtown from places they can afford to live. That will free up space on the roads for cars for residents, for whom bus service is never going to work.

If we lose some of the empty buses around town to get more frequent service on El Camino, that's a plus.

18 people like this
Posted by Resident Rider
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 11, 2016 at 7:03 pm

The plan shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the North County citizens. North County is a public transit culture, full of buses, shuttles, trains, biking and walking.Despite this, VTA service is so poor that Palo Alto must pay for its own bus lines, independent of VTA. We double pay for VTA and Palo Alto buses.

This VTA plan is completely counter to the work and spirit of the Transportation Management Association to reduce car ridership in downtown Palo Alto by making it harder to get to and from Downtown Palo Alto.

No way to the first plan proposes killing the 35 Line, the only safe accessible VTA transportation down Middlefield Road, into downtown Palo Alto and the only line SAFELY connecting downtown and North Palo Alto with MidTown Palo Alto and South Palo Alto and Mountain View. #22 down El Camino is not safe and requires going to the train station, walking through tunnels, uphill on ramps and along dangerous traffic, crossing the train station to get to the awful, unsafe, inaccessible VTA "bus depot". This is impossible for mobility impaired, strollers, seniors, medically needy, and unsafe especially at night and weekends. There are lots of robberies at the Palo Alto train station, which is isolated at non peak hours, nights and weekends. CalTrain service should not be relied on for short local trips. It is expensive, requires waiting an hour to go a few miles, and not considered part of disability services. Eco passes are usually for VTA buses only, not for Caltrain. Relying on Caltrain over VTA buses will isolate local riders.

This plan will isolate Palo Alto even more, separating North and South Palo Altons from each other, from the rest of Santa Clara County and from neighboring San Mateo County.

3 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Apr 11, 2016 at 11:31 pm

The Network 90 concept (or 90-10) is only 1 of the 3 concepts the VTA is asking for feedback on. There are 2 other proposed network maps we are not seeing here. You can review them here at the VTA's website and provide feedback directly to the VTA.

Web Link

Both the Network 80 (80-20) and Network 70 (70-30) concepts maintain route 35 through Palo Alto down Middlefield. If you use route 35 and want it maintained let the VTA know you prefer either of those 2 other options. They are specifically asking for your feedback on that. The Network 90 concept is a lot more draconian but hopefully that won't be necessary.

Overall I think these are good proposals to make the VTA system more cost efficient and practical to use. Many of the existing meandering coverage routes are just designed to cover the most area possible with the least frequency of service. There is little priority on quick or direct service and that's a very bad way to structure a bus network.

If the VTA can restructure itself to make the core of it's network more efficient that can go a long way towards subsidizing routes on the periphery or ends of the network like route 35 with lower ridership. It's all like one organism, what strengthens the core grid network supports the periphery as well. I don't agree with framing this as a north County vs south County type issue.

23 people like this
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 12, 2016 at 8:28 am

Take a look at VTA's measure A website.
Web Link

Measure A, you'll recall, is the .5 cent sales tax we all pay in order to fund transit improvements. One of the eligible uses for Measure A sales tax revenues is "Funding operating and maintenance costs for increased bus, rail and paratransit services."

Unfortunately, in reality, all of the Measure A money is going down the BART sinkhole. It wasn't enough so we had to pass another tax, the 2008 Measure B. That STILL isn't enough and we'll face another sales tax proposition on the November ballot.

Vote NO.

2 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2016 at 9:21 am

Steve Ly,

So what's your point? Are you saying you don't want the VTA to restructure itself to make it's operations more efficient and provide better service to the majority of county residents and workers? Even if the BART extension was up and running and operating magnificently these types of overhauls would still be considered.

When a system isn't working you fix it. You don't let it just keep operating forever providing suboptimal benefits. Go to Google and look up other bus system overhauls by Jarrett Walker. They are optimally about improving service to make a system operations more sustainable, useful and easy to understand.

23 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Apr 12, 2016 at 10:23 am


The point Steve was trying to make is that the improvements we were promised weren't delivered. So, why should we vote for more taxes for improvements?

1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2016 at 10:27 am


How is this related to more taxes? The whole point of "restructuring" and these concepts (they aren't proposals) is see what various types of services would be available under the same level of funding.

20 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Apr 12, 2016 at 10:33 am


I wasn't commenting on the article, but rather a post made by Steve Ly.

There is another sales tax proposition on the November ballot specifically to increase VTA service. Since the last two asks for this didn't deliver Steve is suggesting everyone vote No.

For me personally, I take 22, 522 and 35 quite a bit. I would like to see the 35 remain. I'll let the VTA know that.

10 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2016 at 10:33 am

Under any of the plans, the 88 bus will either be cut or significantly changed. Will VTA continue to serve the commuting needs of Gunn High School students through the 88L and 88M.

One consequent concern about cutting bus service in Palo Alto and north county in general is that paratransit service eligibility is based on being within 3/4 mile of a VTA transit route. So cutting VTA bus service also involves cutting VTA's paratransit service, Outreach. With Palo Alto aging in place, reductions in paratransit service are of serious concern. See Web Link page 12 (H4).

10 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:03 am

Looks like all 3 plans extend light rail to Palo Alto along Alma. Did I read that correctly?

2 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:12 am


If you are referring to the dashed purple line I am pretty sure that's just a representation of the existing Caltrain line for reference.

6 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:20 am

@southbayresident - Thanks. That makes sense.

And FWIW I would like to see 22 and 522 replaced with light rail down El Camino.

4 people like this
Posted by Another rider
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:52 am

Agree with Resident Rider.
This is a most unfair and sad plan, looking to scrap 88 and 35, two very useful bus lines. It looks like we have no way of providing input unless we go to those meetings, of which only the last one is in Palo Alto. And that one is not in a very public-transport friendly location.
Having moved from the East Coast, I am shocked at the inadequate public transport system here, and how nonchalantly officials talk of cutting whatever exists.

8 people like this
Posted by Traveler
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 12, 2016 at 12:07 pm

In some places in Europe and other continents/countries, people adjust their lives to the bus schedule. E.g., if the bus only goes four times a day, they plan their errands around the bus schedule.

7 people like this
Posted by 35er
a resident of University South
on Apr 12, 2016 at 12:31 pm

"If you use route 35 and want it maintained let the VTA know..."

You mean both of us?

6 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2016 at 12:47 pm

The only bus I use frequently is the #35 to get to CalTrain either downtown Palo Alto or Mountain View. It is a 10 min walk from my home to the bus station. I used to bike to the Calif Ave Cal Train station, but since my bike was stolen there, I have stopped biking there. The #35 usually has only a few people for a large bus. Minibus service would be cheaper.
It seems to me that connecting the neighborhoods to a Cal Train station is important, and since the downtown Palo Alto station as well as Calif Ave are also in commercial areas, commuting, shopping and long haul could be served.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2016 at 1:04 pm

Bus services are there to serve a need.

I don't care about what happens in San Jose since I don't know anything about it. That doesn't mean I don't want an efficient bus service there, it means it is something I can't comment on from personal experience.

I do care about traffic in Palo Alto. I know that a bus serving the needs of Palo Alto students is a must or else we will have severe problems with traffic increasing as a result of present routes going away. Gunn is served by a bus route that many students use who would otherwise presumably be in a car. What would that do to traffic?

South Palo Alto sends students to Paly also and there is no bus service or shuttle that can get them to school. In my opinion, this is a disgrace. Teenagers should not be driven to school by parents - they should be learning their independence by learning how to navigate bus routes and by riding bikes or walking. That is my opinion although I know that not all will agree. But doing away with a local bus route is going to make more of those teens dependent on parental rides.

We don't have school buses. It seems we may not have VTA routes. I have no idea if Palo Alto can provide shuttles to take up the loss.

We desperately need good public transportation as an alternative to driving and this is a step in the wrong direction.

Public transportation has to be viewed as a service provider. It serves the community. If we lose any service we will all suffer because there will be more traffic on our already crowded streets. This is something that affects every single resident in Palo Alto. More traffic means that doctors will be delayed getting to their offices, teachers will be delayed getting to their classrooms, food will be delayed getting to our grocery stores, PAFD and PAPD individuals will be delayed getting to work to start their shifts, and so on, etc.

VTA must not cut service in one area to provide a better service in another. We must have better public transportation options in Palo Alto.

4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2016 at 6:33 pm

We need good bus transportation to Foothill College, Gunn, and the other schools along the Arastradero corridor.

Like this comment
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2016 at 6:47 pm

This map of route 35 looks to be out of scale which probably exaggerates it's appearance as a meandering "coverage route" near the end points however this is one case where I think it might help to add another detour into the route (specifically to serve Cal. Ave. Caltrain).

Web Link

That would finally provide some decent transit connectivity between Midtown and Cal. Ave. Caltrain (and the Cal. Ave. area in general for shopping or going to work). The VTA could just route the bus down Oregon, loop thru the station and back again to Middlefield. Obviously it wouldn't help to reduce detours but this might be a reasonable exception to that general principle.

Although an inconvenience for some riders it would be an improvement for Midtown residents who ride the 35 to connect to Caltrain in downtown Palo Alto or San Antonio. The connection to Caltrain at Cal. Ave. should provide shorter trip times in either direction and hopefully make the service more attractive. I don't think one more detour would kill it and besides I don't think there are many people that ride route 35 from end point to end point. It takes a full hour to go from Mountain View Caltrain to Stanford Shopping Center. Caltrain covers the same basic end points in about 15 minutes.

8 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 13, 2016 at 12:03 am

I use the 35 to get to downtown to the CalTrain station. VTA should not remove this line.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident Rider
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2016 at 7:53 pm

I agree, #35 from downtown to Cal Ave to San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View is good coverage for the route.
I agree, the trip from San Antonio to downtown Mountain View is not heavily ridden, at least not by people starting in downtown, possibly because there are two train stations in between.
I do not know how VTA could think that #35 down Middlefield Road and into downtown Palo Alto is a meandering bus residential line. This is the major thoroughfare through Palo Alto that connects North to South and Palo Alto to Mountain View. VTA likely thinks the only routes taken in Palo Alto are Alma and El Camino, but they are dangerous and Alma has no bus service. It's virtually only for cars. VTA does not understand North County at all.

4 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 14, 2016 at 2:36 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

And what about that absurd BRT lane proposal?
Is this retaliation for poo-pooing that?

Bus (and Rail) are the means to move people other than by private auto

Is this a plan to force us to Pay for(use) Uber-like services?

If this passes, I propose that there be a $1000 fine for any mention in a City meeting of 'getting people out of their car'

3 people like this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 15, 2016 at 12:28 am

Our transit connectivity is terrible. It works for me, riding the 522, because I can take my bike on the bus for the last mile problem, but otherwise my trip would be an hour longer. From Midtown Palo Alto, there is no service to California Avenue, or the Research Park, without diverting first to Downtown Palo Alto, miles out of the way. A mid-day trip that wants to get to the Light Rail in Mountain View requires the diversion to San Antonio Shopping center. Since the connectivity is so poor, few consider riding. The transfer penalty on VTA is 100%. If you ride the bus to catch a second bus, you pay the full fare twice, discouraging infrequent riders. Problems go beyond VTA. Palo Alto has a free shuttle system, plus the free Stanford Marguerite. Instead of the crosstown shuttle, should Palo Alto work out a subsidy with VTA for additional service on the 35? Meanwhile there is this other nearby place, San Mateo County, real close, and transit connections and transportation needs of San Mateo residents traveling to Palo Alto and we ignore it. Is San Mateo County mentioned in the Comp Plan transportation element? I'm fortunate that my employer is in Santa Clara county or I fear a transit commute would be an even worse fiasco.

Back to the VTA plan. I love the frequency of the service on El Camino, but there is poor connectivity away from the El Camino spine. I hope VTA can maintain service coverage, and that other services can become complimentary to VTA. One of the promises of Caltrain Electrification is more frequent (at least every 30 minutes) local service mid-day, with smaller trains. That could supplement the VTA network, especially Palo Alto to Mountain View/LRT to Sunnyvale. Could they develop a reasonable combined fare plan, too?

I hope we can fix it. I don't want to be stuck riding in my car when I get old.

1 person likes this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 15, 2016 at 12:38 am

to Resident Rider:

Yes, a route on Middlefield that goes off Middlefield to get to San Antonio Shopping Center or Downtown Palo Alto is a "Coverage" or Local route. Imagining a "Core" route like the 22 on El Camino that served Middlefield Road: The route would go from downtown Redwood City all the way to Sunnyvale on Middlefield Road, and then continue on Arques and Scott into Santa Clara, at least 4 times/ hour.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2016 at 12:13 pm

I see that VTA are advertising free rides on Earth Day. I suggest that we all swamp them with requests for route planning from where we live to where we work and see just how convoluted the routes are with the plans they come up for us.

Part of the trouble could well be that they are not getting "hits" from north county.

I would love to see how a 15 minute commute by car can be advocated by them if it takes over 60 minutes with a couple of transfers plus a 1 mile walk each end can be thought of as a better option.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Just done the one I would use, 3 transfers with 2 short walks between transfers plus 1/2 mile walk each end, total time 1 hour 48 minutes and total cost of $5.26 in one way fare.

1 person likes this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 4, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Learn More About VTA's Next Transit Network Effort at Upcoming Public Meeting in Palo Alto!

Rinconada Library
VTA is redesigning its transit network to make transit more useful and operate more cost-effectively, and maximize connections to BART. We want your feedback on what is important to you!

Join VTA’s Next Network project team in discussing transit network design choices and good connections to the new BART stations on Wednesday, May 18 at the following location:

Starting at 6 p.m.
Rinconada Library, Embarcadero Room
1213 Newell Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94303

Santa Clara County is growing, our travel patterns are changing, and it is time to reconsider our goals for public transit. With an in-depth analysis of the transit system in the works, VTA is asking how we can maximize this opportunity to provide transit service that is more useful, more cost-effective and better meets the needs of Santa Clara County, including maximizing connections to BART.

Learn more about why we've launched this effort and the alternative concepts we're asking you to help us consider by visiting Web Link or reviewing the Next Network community meeting schedule.

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