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Don't sacrifice neighborhood bus system in Palo Alto

Original post made by Arthur Keller on May 23, 2007

No good deed goes unpunished -- that's the lesson from Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to Palo Alto and Stanford.

Stanford's excellent Marguerite Shuttle is rewarded by elimination of all VTA service to Stanford, which had already been whittled down over the years. Palo Alto is rewarded for the Palo Alto Shuttle by drastic reductions to VTA's 88-line bus. VTA previously eliminated the 86 bus.

After years of promising us that our 2000 vote for a half-cent sales tax would bring BART to San Jose along with other improvements (and that we could somehow be able to afford to operate the improved system), VTA is now applying some rationality and fiscal discipline to its operations in the face of difficult budget constraints.

VTA's new attention to bus rapid transit and community buses recognizes that bus transit is much cheaper to build and is more flexible than light rail, while community buses are important for shorter-distance transportation.

Public transportation systems in the United States are fragmented and historically have been starved in favor of the automobile. After World War II, many cities took out their trolley lines and replaced them with highways for buses and cars. These trolleys are now returning as light rail, but with dedicated instead of shared rights of way.

At the same time population pushed out into the suburbs, with low-density tract housing, as in much of Palo Alto. Palo Alto laid out a plan in the 1970s for "walkable communities" and neighborhood schools and services. Since then, many neighborhood schools have been closed and replaced with housing, supermarkets have closed and retail districts along El Camino Real have converted to more housing.

Proposition 13 immediately cut property taxes when it was passed in 1978, putting significant pressure on school budgets throughout California. One of the sacrificed services was school buses.

While some children now bike or walk to their high school or middle school, the Palo Alto Shuttle and the VTA 88 bus provide important alternatives to the congestion of cars driving children to and from school. The two morning Palo Alto shuttle buses that take students to Gunn High School and Terman Middle School in the morning are jammed.

Students now taking the VTA 88 bus to Gunn or Terman will likely instead be driven in cars, adding to traffic congestion on the already crowded Charleston-Arastradero Corridor.

It is with this background that we can understand why many parents are furious about the elimination of the portion of the VTA bus route east of Alma Street, which collects students and other passengers from Palo Alto neighborhoods.

In the next few years, hundreds of new housing units along the current VTA 88 bus route east of El Camino Real will be filled with potential riders. These include the Campus for Jewish Life and BUILD (with significant senior housing), the D.R. Horton housing that replaced Hyatt Rickey's, the Elks' housing development, two developments on East Meadow Circle, and Classic Communities on West Bayshore. Unless bus service is available when these people move in, they'll get used to finding other means to get to where they are going.

Will the reductions in service for the VTA 88 bus lead to increased use of OUTREACH paratransit, thereby costing more money overall? How will the greying of Palo Alto affect transit patterns?

We need a more comprehensive vision of transit and traffic planning instead of a piecemeal each-jurisdiction-in-isolation approach to transit planning. Palo Alto should focus on capacity and impacts for the morning commute, where the combination of work and school commuters compound congestion.

Palo Alto, Stanford, Los Altos Hills and VTA should collaborate to achieve a new goal of providing public-transit routes with enough capacity to accommodate every middle school and high school student who wants to take transit to school. Neighboring SamTrans considers serving school transportation needs to be part of its core mission; VTA must do that, too.

Palo Alto and VTA should collaborate so anyone who wants to take Caltrain to work can conveniently transfer from the train to a bus or shuttle to get the rest of the way. Stanford's Marguerite shuttle is a great model here. Palo Alto should enhance its promotion of walkable and bikeable neighborhoods through both land-use decisions and streetscape, particularly since more Palo Altans walk or bike to work than take transit. Palo Alto should also promote electronic alternatives to travel, such as telecommuting and home-based work. More than 2,000 Palo Altans already work at home.

When the Palo Alto Shuttle was started, VTA committed not to reduce service in Palo Alto because of the existence of the shuttle. VTA and Palo Alto need to coordinate so that any potential reduction in VTA service actually is replaced by enhanced by Palo Alto's shuttle service. Perhaps the subsidy now used to fund the VTA 88 bus could be given instead to Palo Alto to enhance shuttle services. Or VTA could implement a community bus program in partnership with Palo Alto as it has in Los Gatos.

Let's just not drive away current transit riders by leaving them stranded.

These decisions are not just about dollars. They are also about people, traffic congestion, and about getting our students out of cars and into shuttles and buses. The young students of today are potential transit riders of both today and tomorrow.

(The above appeared as a Guest Opinion in the May 23, 2007, edition of the Palo Alto Weekly).

Comments (7)

Posted by Rick, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 23, 2007 at 11:37 pm

The problem with the 88 bus is that it empty or nearly empty except for the school students.
It belches deisel smoke thru the residential streets while empty or nearly empty. Clouds of black smoke can be seen as they accelerate from stop signs.

Years ago Los Gatos worked with VTA to convert the big busses to small shuttles in the city. Palo Alto traffic dept. apparently taken no steps to do this.

The school peak traffic is a major problem that needs to work on and not much or anything has been done by the city to work or solve this issue.

There appear to be many different small shuttles running in this area and they are probably private company and others ?? that posssibly be tapped for a few hours a day to carry the students.??

Also the passengers on the city busses should pay that could be based on age and other factors. This would also provide a way to count the number actually using this service. I can't emagine anyone not being able to pay $.25 or $.50 each trip.

This tax money service was originally run to bring people to downtown to help the merchants then expanded some to the high school(s). Who knows how much is it costing the city.

Bus service is needed, but I don't feel the VTA is the way to go. I understand it costs the taxpayers between $5 and $10 per passenger trip on these little used routes. These busses use hugh amounts of fuel and probably get only a few miles per gallon if that.


Posted by Bus Rider, a resident of South of Midtown
on May 24, 2007 at 3:51 am

Certain promises were made when the half cent sales tax was passed. They included retaining VTA and Caltrains service in northern Santa Clara County in return for our support of extending BART through San Jose.

By alterning Route 88 and removing the Louis Road/Charleston section of the service, Santa Clara transit personnel are reneging on their promises. I will never vote another half cent sales tax increase for transportation again.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 24, 2007 at 8:59 am

This is all wrong. If some of the time the buses are full and other times they are empty, it shows that tweaking is necessary not elimination.

1. Make the loop mornings only to Gunn and pm back. That way the loop works when the school kids need it.

2. Use smaller vehicles on less used routes. These huge half empty buses use up a lot of fuel. A smaller fuel efficient bus would be better for VTA and the environment without taking away service.

3. Publicise routes much better. The schools for one never give parents details of bus routes when dealing with new students. I have personally called various schools asking them which bus routes they are served by and they never know. This information should be available in all school offices and the schedules available to give to students, existing or new, as a matter of course, in back to school packets or whatever.

Getting people into buses is something that concerns everyone, not just those who ride the buses. For every passenger the bus takes, it means one less car on the road. Getting teens to think of buses first before rides from parents gets them into a good habit that will last their whole life.

Cities worldwide with good public transit are expanding their systems, not cutting back. If our system was improved it would motivate people to use it. I feel sure that when someone hears a rumor about a service being downside, it makes them think it isn't for them so never enquire as to whether it would be something useful for them. We have to promote the service with good news rather than let it fester. This service is good for every person who lives in Palo Alto even if they never use it, because a good bus service is an asset to the community if properly marketed.

How many times do real estate flyers ever mention bus routes when advertising their homes? How many would even know if asked? They advertise proximity to schools, shopping, parks, highway access, why not public transport?

This is an attitude problem, not a use problem. We must get an attitude adjustment when it comes to public transport.


Posted by Senior, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 24, 2007 at 9:14 am

I am a senior citizen living on Louis. The route 86 was wonderful for me - it took me to San Antonio shopping center or Stanford shopping center. It was a good three hour outing for me two or three times a week. I do drive, but I prefer not to drive when not absolutely essential. During the christmas time, when the parking is a mess everywhere, I used to bank on the bus taking me to either of the two places.

They eliminated 86 and put in 88 .. well, it does not quite take me to where I want to go, but it takes me to Middlefield (after which I can take 35 to go SA ) or I get off at the train station and take Stanford's shuttle (bless them!)

Now they are eliminating 88 .. which leaves me no option but to walk to Middlefield Rd - which is not quite an option for my health. With this they are promoting the senior driving !!

I called / wrote to all relevant authorities, but I do not have any hopes of my requests being heard.

Sigh ..


Posted by less noise, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 24, 2007 at 11:16 am

Yeah, one less empty smelly noisy bus on the road. Now, if they replaced them with hybrid buses (anyone been to Yosemite recently?) then I might support them but until then RIP.


Posted by Danny, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2007 at 11:15 am

I feel sorry for those Gunn students and others who depend on this bus, but I've long been a proponent of bicycling and can't say I'll shed any tears knowing another fume-spewing bus is off the roads.


Posted by Richard, a resident of Midtown
on May 30, 2007 at 11:26 am

As another bicyclist I don't like to be behind the tailpipe of a stinky diesel bus, but I would rather deal with one bus than 20 cars. Furthermore, the VTA buses are much better than they were in the past. Their entire fleet runs on clean diesel, and they are in the middle of a project to convert to zero-emission buses. This is very expensive and could take money away from service, so they are doing it gradually, using funds and grants spefically for that purpose.


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