Seeking to reduce car congestion, Palo Alto officials approved on Monday night a plan to dramatically expand the city's shuttle fleet and signaled that bolder changes might be around the corner.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council approved staff's proposal to roughly double the service on the north-south Crosstown Shuttle; add a new "West Shuttle" route that would stretch from the downtown Caltrain station to Mountain View; and experiment with a seasonal trolley system between Stanford Shopping Center and University Avenue next summer. Council members also indicated that they want to explore a slew of other shuttle options, including additional service to Stanford Research Park and to underserved residential neighborhoods like Barron Park.
The council largely agreed that the city's tiny shuttle system, which currently includes three lines, is due for an expansion. Currently, the system consists of the Crosstown Shuttle, a route that stretches from Charleston Road in south Palo Alto to the University Avenue Caltrain station in the north, using primarily Middlefield Road as the throughway; the Embarcadero Shuttle, which goes from the east side of the city to the downtown Caltrain station; and the East Palo Alto Shuttle, which premiered in July and goes from the Caltrain station to the Woodland Park neighborhood in East Palo Alto.
The new proposal from planning staff and its consultants would add the West Shuttle and increase Crosstown service while keeping the Embarcadero and East Palo Alto shuttles unchanged. The council endorsed this plan and then went a few steps further.
Some members offered specific recommendations, with Mayor Nancy Shepherd suggesting a service to Gunn High School and Councilman Pat Burt saying that the city should look at the employee "nodes" at Stanford Research Park, where density may justify adding a shuttle service. Councilwoman Karen Holman, meanwhile, pointed to underserved neighborhoods west of El Camino, including Barron Park.
Many Barron Park residents, Holman said, go to Mountain View and Los Altos for their shopping because "there is no place to park downtown and it's hard to get across town." Adding shuttles in this area could make sense, she said.
Others reframed the issue. Councilman Greg Schmid suggested that information technology is making on-demand car services like Uber increasingly attractive. He called for staff to explore alternative technologies that the city can use to encourage such services.
"This is where the technology is going. This is where Silicon Valley is going," Schmid said.
Councilman Greg Scharff kept his focus on shuttles but much like Schmid he encouraged staff to think differently, and bigger. Scharff envisioned a program in which riding a city shuttle is "more convenient than a car," one in which residents don't need to rely on cars to get around and about everyone can be within 10 minutes of a shuttle stop. Though neither he nor any of his colleagues proposed actually launching such a system, they agreed that this is something worth exploring.
"I think we don't have to be a city where there's no way to get around without using a car," Scharff said.
Councilman Marc Berman agreed and also urged his colleagues to look at next steps. He went along with Scharff's proposal that staff come up with a plan for a "convenient, easy to use shuttle or ride-share system that provides mobility around the entire city and is more convenient than driving." The need, Berman said, is certainly there for such a radical solution.
"I think it's absolutely moving in the right direction of having a more robust shuttle system that can get everybody to stop using cars as much," Berman said.
Most of their colleagues, however, felt that such a program is far too complex to be included in the Monday vote on the shuttle expansion. After much debate about procedures, the council agreed to revisit this topic on Dec. 1.
The new services won't be cheap and Palo Alto officials hope they won't have to shoulder the entire load. Staff expects high-tech giants like Google and Intuit to help cover some of the cost of having a shuttle run from the Caltrain station to the Shoreline business park in Mountain View. The council's approval included a direction that staff look to the tech giants for private-public partnerships. Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said he has been discussing such arrangements with the tech companies. Some have indicated that they would like to transfer from having individual shuttle programs to the type of system the city is proposing.
"I think it's safe to say some of the employers are definitely willing to come to the table and help us out," Rodriguez said.
A bigger question revolves around schools. Councilwoman Gail Price and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss both referenced an agreement that the city once had with the school district in which the district would provide $50,000 annually to the city to support the shuttle service. That arrangement has not been in effect in recent years, Kniss noted, and revisiting it would be a "rational and reasonable request."
Several council members noted that the shuttles provide an important service to local students. In a recent on-board survey of shuttle riders conducted by the planning department, more than 30 percent of the 116 riders said they were using the shuttle to get to school.
Council members agreed that the school district should be asked to contribute. They were not certain, however, whether $50,000 is still the right figure. Holman called it a "years-old number" said there should at least be an inflation added to it.
Ultimately, the council decided not to include a specific figure but to merely direct staff to discuss with the school districts ways to reduce the vehicle traffic from students and to share the cost for the solutions. Council members also agreed that the major expansion proposed by staff is a good start but that the conversation is far from over.
"I think we all agree that we want to cut single-car trips," Schmid told the planning staff Monday. "What you presented tonight is a step in that direction."