Palo Alto's efforts to revitalize its free shuttle program got a major boost late Monday night when the City Council approved the Palo Alto Transit Vision Plan.
The shuttle plan recommended by city staff includes three routes: a new South Palo Alto route that will replicate Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's Route 88, which is being eliminated, and add some new stops; an expanded Crosstown route that will extend to Stanford and San Antonio shopping centers; and an expanded Embarcadero route that will service East and West Bayshore roads and Fabian Way.
The projected cost to operate the three routes is $1.8 million, including $625,000 per year for the South Palo Alto shuttle.
Currently, the Embarcadero and Crosstown routes cost $553,000 annually to run, according to a city staff report.
The South Palo Alto shuttle could give 156,000 rides, known as "passenger trips," a year, the report states; the extended Crosstown and Embarcadero routes could offer an additional 266,000 and 55,214 passenger trips, respectively.
By an 8-0 vote, with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss absent for the vote, the council's motion on Monday amended the staff's recommendation, directing staff to pursue funding for implementation of the South Palo Alto route and return to extending the Embarcadero and Crosstown routes at a later date.
The council also directed staff to look into a more dynamic "fixed-flex" model for the shuttle system. This model uses technology to modify shuttle routes on the fly; if someone is two blocks away from the standard route, the vehicle would be able to detour off the route, pick the person up and return to the fixed route. The VTA has implemented a pilot program of this model in north San Jose, though results are not yet available. Staff will also update the branding and marketing of the shuttle system in order to increase visibility and encourage ridership.
The plan comes on the heels of the VTA's recently approved transit plan, which calls for increasing the frequency of buses along its primary routes and reducing service to the county's more peripheral areas. In Palo Alto, this would result in the 522 Express bus on El Camino Real running more often and the elimination of the 88 bus, which would be replaced by the 288 and primarily operate during the start and end of Gunn High School's daily schedule.
Mayor Greg Scharff raised concerns about serving the entire Palo Alto population as opposed to the two groups — seniors and students -- who currently compose the shuttle's primary ridership. The staff's recommendation, he said, seemed only to increase serving seniors and students without including other community members.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, however, said the city should focus on improving current services to those particular sectors.
"Maybe instead of having a general shuttle run, you ... have a more focused strategy, a more focused audience and actually excel rather than trying to serve all people," he said.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, on the other hand, called the entire plan an "overreach." Though she said she admires the goals of the vision, she doesn't believe it is realistic.
"If your plan is to end up with something that's almost $2 million a year — great idea, but frankly, I don't see where that funding would come from," she said.
The transit vision, the city's Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said in response, serves more as a line of guidance and asked council members for direct input on how the staff should proceed with revamping the city's shuttle system. The specifics of the plan, he said, are still open to change.
Councilman Cory Wolbach brought up the potential benefits of a dynamic fixed-flex shuttle service, particularly for the seniors in Palo Alto.
"The idea of on-demand or flexible service ... where you either call up a shuttle or ask a shuttle to detour either because of a long-term or short-term disability — I don't see that as something we're necessarily going to do right now, but I want to make sure we're still thinking of how we can really modernize the system," he said.
"I think the goals are the right ones, and that's why I support this," he added. "It gets us going in the right direction."
For an "aging city" like Palo Alto, dynamic routes are key, Councilman Tom DuBois said. He suggested that charging for age-friendly services could be a possible source of funding.
The motion was amended to prioritize funding for the South Palo Alto route and developing a dynamic fixed-flex model.
Community members Immanuel Cherkas, Myra Cohen and Judy Lerner — all residents of senior community Moldaw Residences on East Charleston Road — spoke at the meeting and asked the council and staff to add bus stops at the intersection of Fabian and East Charleston as well as at the corner of San Antonio and East Charleston roads.
"We are very fortunate in Moldaw that we're provided transportation to doctors' offices, to dentists, but we can't have transportation for example to a bank, to a cleaner, to an alteration place," said 91-year-old Cohen, who has macular degeneration and vision loss. "Having a bus would alleviate so many of our concerns."
The transportation manager of Avenidas, a nonprofit that provides resources and programs for the aging, also encouraged the city to add a stop outside of Cubberley Community Center. Jyllian Halliburton said that the stop at the intersection of Charleston and Middlefield roads -- a block away from Cubberley and adjacent to a shopping center -- feels unsafe to people in their 80s "because people usually drive pretty fast."
Mello said in an interview later that staff will be considering the public comments made at the meeting as well as input from the council. The staff will try to secure funding from outside sources such as regional grants and Measure B, a Santa Clara County sales tax approved by voters last year that invests in projects enhancing transportation.
"I was glad to see we were able to get direction on where to move," he said of the council meeting. "The goal would be to bring that program to its full potential."
The development of a dynamic fixed-flex shuttle model, will incorporate the needs of seniors who are not technology-savvy or lack access to technology, Mello said.
"We may ultimately need to develop our own innovative solutions that's a mix of a high-tech dynamic-type service and a more traditional fixed-type service," he said.