Amid ever-increasing local gridlock, a booming economy and a growing population, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has floated a concept plan that would cut all bus lines that circulate within Palo Alto, leaving just two that connect the city to San Jose.
VTA officials say they must make changes system-wide to increase ridership and revenues. One way to do that, they say, is to improve service along popular routes and trim bus lines with lower ridership. But the potential cuts have dismayed Palo Alto residents, who say service in town should expand, not contract, if VTA hopes to attract new passengers.
VTA ridership has dropped 20 percent from its 2001 peak, and transit-service quality is 15 percent lower than it was in the early 2000s, according to VTA's fiscal year 2016 Second Quarter Transit Operations Performance Report.
The amount of revenue that VTA takes in from passengers, known as "farebox recovery," hovers at around 13 percent of total revenue.
Traffic congestion throughout the region has added to VTA's sense of urgency, as city and county officials are increasingly eyeing efficient public transportation as a key part of the solution to roadway gridlock. At the same time, VTA is facing new transit innovations, such as the sharing economy, that threaten to eat further into its revenues and disrupt the way it does business.
On May 18, VTA officials unveiled the 2017 Next Network Plan, which outlines concepts for reconfiguring its routes. The plan listed three alternative concepts for Palo Alto. One would generally keep the status quo, maintaining the 35, 88 and 89 bus lines that students, veterans and seniors rely on to get around Palo Alto. The two others would eliminate some or all of those buses, leaving just two lines, the 22 and 522, that travel to San Jose along El Camino Real as well as express buses, which generally run only during the morning and evening commutes and serve specific employment areas.
Hearing that service could be axed was a hard blow for Palo Alto residents who attended the May VTA meeting, especially given that local officials and residents have long held that VTA spends far less on services for north county cities than it takes in from north county residents through taxes. A study conducted by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian's office found that Palo Alto and other north county residents have paid 16.35 percent of tax revenue stemming from a 2008 voter-approved measure, but they have received services paid by just 5.3 percent of the total funding.
Anger about the proposals stems not just from a sense of unfairness but also from the hard work and compromises that some residents have put into working with VTA to keep the lines running over the past decade. A case in point: Line 88, which Greenmeadow neighborhood resident Penny Ellson and others in Palo Alto worked to retain.
In 2007, VTA proposed to completely eliminate Line 88, but Ellson and former Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commissioner Arthur Keller labored for months with PTA volunteers, city staff, the City Council and Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education members to get VTA to keep the line, which serves Gunn High School students.
VTA did change its scheduling of the 88 to hourly, but the agency agreed to add the 88L and 88M lines to serve Gunn students better during school commute hours, Ellson said.
Now Ellson is frustrated by VTA's proposal to cut the bus route.
"I worked very hard to make sure they didn't eliminate this important line. I supported the compromise plan that was the only way to save this vital south Palo Alto service. Arthur Keller and I have worked together for many years with Gunn and VTA staff on coordinating bus schedules to align with school schedule adjustments throughout the year," Ellson said after the May meeting.
"After providing so much support and collaboration with VTA staff to grow student VTA bus ridership over many years as a volunteer, I was furious to see concept plans that eliminate a line that is now well used by Gunn students," she said, referencing communications and marketing work that she's also done to boost ridership.
VTA's concept plans for a revamped system countywide would skew resources even more toward San Jose, she said. In a map proposal, Line 22 is colored a bright red, which indicates service that arrives every 15 minutes or less.
No other line in Palo Alto has that kind of frequency, she said.
"In most versions (of the plans) Palo Alto has only one red line. It's one artery that runs straight to the heart (San Jose)," she said. "They don't acknowledge that Palo Altans need to go somewhere else."
Ellson said that residents have "reached a place where we need to disrupt" these agencies.
"As citizens, we've lost control of our money. I've really lost faith in VTA as a provider to our community," she said.
VTA officials stressed the concepts are just that -- concepts. They are a starting point to gauge public opinion about the goals VTA must meet to grow and stay in the black fiscally. The concepts as they are now aren't scheduled for review by the VTA board of directors, officials said.
The whole process got started in response to the scheduled 2017 opening of two new BART stations in Milpitas and San Jose. While redesigning that portion of the transportation network, it made sense to redesign the entire network, said Adam Burger, senior transportation planner at VTA Transit Planning. Typically, service plans are done in two-year intervals, but this process involves a complete redesign from scratch.
Stacey Hendler Ross, VTA spokeswoman, said that creating new connections with the added BART stations, however, isn't the sole focus of the system revamp.
"It's an opportunity to ... look at our whole system and see how it can be improved to meet those goals: farebox recovery, decreasing congestion and improving ridership," she said.
"People hear the word 'BART' and they think that's the big gorilla, but we're taking this as an opportunity because we know there is going to be such an influx (of people) into Silicon Valley because of the BART extension."
"There are two goals that transit agencies are asked to achieve. One is ridership -- to get as many people as possible -- and the second is to move them as rapidly as possible. It's a very business-oriented mindset," he said.
Burger acknowledged public dissatisfaction with some of the concept plans and said he understands why people feel as they do.
"It's completely fair of Palo Alto to look at public transit through their city lens. At the same time, VTA is looking at transit though a county lens, and those don't always match up," he said.
VTA officials maintain they simply don't have the funding to provide the kind of intracity service that residents want.
VTA's model makes the choice of increasing ridership by increasing the frequency of buses along popular lines but at the cost of reducing coverage of other areas.
In Palo Alto, all three intra-city lines have below-average ridership. Weekday boardings per revenue hour -- the number of passengers who get on a bus during one hour -- show that Line 88, for example, had 12.9 boardings per revenue hour, which is below the agency's standard of 16.3 boardings per revenue hour for community buses, according to the agency's performance report. (To see which VTA buses serve Palo Alto, click here)
But Palo Alto's routes are not the only ones that are under performing. Out of 53 lines countywide identified in an analysis done by VTA, 29 fell below the agency's performance standards.
VTA's most drastic concept plan, which aims for 90 percent ridership and 10 percent coverage area, would remove 35 under-performing buses countywide, 32 of which are local or community lines. Five routes would be created in South Bay cities, such as the Montague line, which would run between Mountain View and the Milpitas BART station when it opens, according to the June 10 "Transit Alternatives Report" by consultants Jarrett Walker & Associates.
Some of the factors that make Palo Alto and other affluent cities attractive places to live or do business actually work against them as locations for transit service.
A VTA-commissioned "Transit Choices Report" also by Jarrett Walker revealed that Palo Alto comes out at or near the bottom compared to the southern end of the county and around San Jose in terms of residential density; employment density; activity density and poverty.
That last indicator is significant because in wealthier communities most residents don't rely on public transit.
"It's tough when you are looking at affluent areas -- say, Los Altos Hills, for example -- to justify service when you know you aren't going to get a big return, although certainly Los Altos Hills' sales taxes fund VTA transit," Burger said.
Ironically, the City of Palo Alto's efforts to boost its mass transit service through the Palo Alto Shuttle and burgeoning transportation-management agencies that encourage workers to use Caltrain may also be contributing to the demise of VTA service in the city, at least from VTA's viewpoint.
"Palo Alto, Stanford and the Shoreline area of Mountain View show low boardings, but this partly reflects the abundance of local transit not directly provided by VTA," the study noted. "Stanford has its own extensive shuttle system. Palo Alto and Shoreline are also served by Caltrain shuttles and by SamTrans, apart from frequent services on El Camino Real."
Palo Alto's openness to alternative transit could play in its favor, however. The city rates fairly high for the number of households without vehicles, an indicator of persons who would most likely be looking for alternative modes of transportation, including mass transit, the study noted.
That means the city could be a transit market ripe for growth. About 65 percent of Palo Altans said they drove alone, a rate that is the lowest of any city in the study and certainly lower than San Jose's 77 percent and the county's 76 percent.
Palo Alto also has the highest percentage of public transportation use, tied with Mountain View at 5 percent (San Jose stands at 4 percent), and the lowest percentage of carpooling, at 6 percent.
Palo Alto out-bikes every other municipality -- its rate of bicycle use is 9 percent -- and far more people in Palo Alto walk (6 percent) and work from home (9 percent), according to the study.
A September 2015 survey about the city-run Palo Alto Shuttle revealed that 19 percent of respondents would like to use the shuttle but said they don't know how. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said they would be motivated to take buses if the vehicles came more often -- as frequently as every five to 15 minutes.
A nearly identical number, 52 percent, said they want "bus routes that drop me closer to my destination." And 47 percent want "routes closer to where I live," according to the survey.
The city concluded, "Opportunities to expand the shuttle's reach into new geographic areas and ridership markets include a focus on service," particularly serving seniors, students, Caltrain commuters, workers at Palo Alto businesses, and residents in the southwest part of Palo Alto.
For the moment, plans for the expansion of the Palo Alto Shuttle system are on hold, pending a firming up of VTA's plans, city officials said. Money, as always, is part of the sticking point.
Some in Palo Alto, including Mayor Pat Burt, are advocating for VTA to hand over millions of dollars in tax revenue -- for example, the 16.35 percent that north county cities' residents pay for services but two-thirds of which they don't receive.
While VTA is pondering service cuts, it's asking all county residents to vote for a 1/2-cent transportation tax that would generate $6.25 billion for VTA projects. The measure would include $1.2 billion allocated for local street and road improvements. Palo Alto, which started heavily investing in road repairs in 2010 and has brought most to above 79 on the Pavement Condition Index, could divert that money to other transportation projects of its choosing, such as light transit and bike systems. That funding could help Palo Alto grow its shuttle network, Burt said.
But there is a caveat.
"These dollars are supposed to be new dollars," he said, but they wouldn't amount to much "if they take away an equal amount" by reducing VTA service.
Sending tax money back to the city that generated it so that local municipalities can build out their own intracity transit networks has been talked about, but so far the idea hasn't been seriously discussed, Burt said.
Burger noted that Los Angeles Metro did take that strategy. LA Metro gave a large portion of funds from two voter-approved tax measures to cities to operate their own transit systems. Many cities developed their own local transit, and they hired non-union contractors, which stretched the money further than LA Metro could, he said.
LA pulled out of many of the local transit markets and increased frequency on their own major lines.
But there were layers of complications.
"You had dozens, maybe a hundred cities, operating their own uniquely branded services. So for the average rider, that was a lot of different systems to have to learn," he said.
If Palo Alto is going to put more into local service, that would allow VTA to focus more on what it does best: running the major cross-county connections and operating the larger buses.
"If a city can step up into an area that we don't do that well, which is that local circulator service, and provide that benefit to everyone, that can augment our service and feed into ours, and we can feed into theirs, and we are talking with the city about that," Burger said.
"One thing that is also good is when a city is filling a local need, it doesn't make sense to VTA to be in the same market competing with them, especially since the Palo Alto Shuttle and the Marguerite Shuttle are both free, and that's difficult for us to compete with because we charge $2 a ride. We don't want to duplicate and repeat in ways that are redundant and not cost effective for us, but we want to find ways that we can make all of our systems work together," he said.
One problem for the VTA is how to seem relevant in a world in which tradition is being thrown out the window by the rise of the sharing economy. The agency is acutely aware that it must step up to tech-center expectations.
"In the middle of Silicon Valley, people come to expect to take advantage of things that are new and to make their lives easier. VTA has to keep up with that pace, and we're sort of in a little microcosm here. We're under the microscope, so to speak, because this demanding population is our population. They are the ones developing those newer and faster things, and so we need to keep our development options up with what people expect," Hendler Ross said.
Bus services face increasing competition from transportation-network companies such as Uber and Lyft. These services are seen as efficient alternatives to waiting for the bus or making transfers, some residents said. (Read Taxi businesses struggle to stay afloat in the Uber age)
VTA conceded that these alternatives are taking a bite out of bus ridership. Although the agency does not have specific numbers showing the effects of Uber and Lyft, those options, along with corporate shuttles, "certainly carry a percentage of travelers who might otherwise be on public transportation," VTA Communications Director Bernice Alaniz said.
By some estimates, up to 15 percent of corporate shuttle riders would be on public transportation if companies did not offer shuttle service, she noted.
And other new technology sources, electric and no-emission vehicles, have also become an option for those who use or have used public transportation for environmental reasons, she said.
Some Palo Alto residents see transportation-network companies such as Uber not as competition for ridership, but as partners with city shuttles and buses, such as door-to-door services that could enhance paratransit, according to the Palo Alto Shuttle Community Survey.
Mass transit also still has a few aces it can use to capture riders if it plays them right. Residents don't necessarily see Uber and Lyft as safe alternatives. Some women at the May 18 community meeting said they would choose a bus or shuttle over Uber for perceived safety reasons. Parents such as Candice Yang said that there are also safety considerations for children, who would not use Uber and other such companies for their transportation needs. One woman said her elderly parents "were not going to whip out their phone and dial Uber."
But others said that VTA will have to reconsider its mission as a service rather than an enterprise.
"Their mission is their ridership," transportation watchdog and Palo Alto resident Elizabeth Alexis said. "But it's the wrong mission. Your mission should be that people can get around the valley. If your product is choosing the option of a dwindling system, then Uber really is eating your lunch."
Burger said that VTA is mindful that it will need to partner with such companies to help build a network of connections to meet riders' needs. And it cannot be all things to all people on its own, officials said. VTA is in the middle of studying how to better connect with Caltrain. It is also studying what is being done in Dallas, Texas, and Pinellas County, Florida, where transit is partnering with ride-hailing services for the shorter "first-mile, last-mile connections."
But even those services might not get enough cars off the road to make a dent in the gridlock that is to come. One thing is clear: Santa Clara County has grown 12 percent in the past 15 years, according to Association of Bay Area Governments.
"If that keeps up, we have the potential of reaching a horrible situation like Los Angeles. Something has to be done," Hendler Ross said.