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Palo Alto prepares to enter 'microtransit' arena with on-demand shuttles

City's new transportation program gets a $2M boost from Santa Clara County's Measure B

The city's free shuttle program, which included two lines, was discontinued in 2020 because of funding challenges. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

When Palo Alto officials launched a round of steep budget cuts last year in response to plummeting revenues, the public shuttles were among the first things to depart.

With little debate, the City Council voted in May 2020 to halt the 20-year-old shuttle program, which was designed to serve local students, seniors, Caltrain commuters and others seeking to get around town without an automobile. Though the move saved the city about $500,000 in annual costs, the elimination of the Embarcadero and Crosstown shuttles also took away a key transit option for hundreds of residents — one that has yet to be restored.

Now, the city is getting ready for a new shuttle program that will have little resemblance to the one it left behind. Rather than relying on fixed routes and set schedules, the small shuttles will run on demand and cover all parts of Palo Alto. Pick-up and drop-off locations will be scattered throughout the city and rides will be arranged through a phone app. For those who require assistance, door-to-door service will be provided, according to a report from the city's Office of Transportation.

Fueled by a $2 million grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the city is preparing to make a move into the "microtransit" arena next summer, with the goal of having the new shuttles hit the streets before the 2022 school year, Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said last month at a meeting of the council's Finance Committee. Having received funding through Measure B, the 2016 tax measure, Palo Alto's next challenge will be finding a vendor to run the service, which Kamhi suggested could be a challenge given the ongoing constraints in the labor supply.

"Frankly, it's hitting transit hard as well," Kamhi said.

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Palo Alto isn't the only Santa Clara County city moving toward on-demand shuttles. Milpitas has recently received a VTA grant to move ahead with an 18-month program called Milpitas OnDemand, which it plans to roll out in partnership with the consulting firm RideCo. According to a report that city staff released last month, the program would charge $2.50 per ride and is expected to see about 120 daily riders within six months of the rollout. The program, according to staff, is expected to "address the first/last-mile challenge in Milpitas and provide a convenient and affordable transportation option for Milpitas' residents, employees, and vulnerable/transit-dependent population." Much like the Palo Alto program, the one in Milpitas is receiving funding from the $6 million pool that Measure B designates for "innovative transit service models."

Cupertino already has an on-demand shuttle program that allows residents and visitors to both get around town and to reach places outside the city, including the Sunnyvale Caltrain station and Rancho San Antonio Preserve. Known as Via-Cupertino, the program charges $4 per ride, or $2 for seniors, students, low-income residents or individuals with disabilities. Much like in the proposed Palo Alto programs, riders use their phones to arrange pickups.

Cupertino's on-demand program, Via-Cupertino, was launched in 2019. Courtesy city of Cupertino.

The trend toward microtransit alternatives goes well beyond the Peninsula, with Sacramento and Napa among California cities to recently launch the new services. According to TransLōc, a subsidiary of Ford Mobility that focuses on microtransit solutions, programs that offer on-demand shuttles help improve accessibility, flexibility and safety. An October blog post from TransLōc cites a survey of 1,200 working adults that the company took in July, in which 71% of respondents expressed concerns about vehicle sanitation when riding public transit. A pre-booked seat on a small shuttle, the company maintains, could be a good alternative for riders who are not ready to board a bus full of people.

The company also noted that microtransit systems allow cities to go to "geo-fence" regions that are underserved by public transportation to create an on-demand ride-hailing service specifically for those communities.

"Riders who live more than a mile away from a fixed-route stop could rely on an on-demand microtransit service to pick them up and take them to the nearest stop," the TransLōc article states. "By acting as a feeder to fixed-route services, transit agencies will access a larger percentage of the population. That means more riders, fewer empty buses, and greater community engagement."

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Palo Alto's program cleared its first procedural hurdle on Nov. 8, when the council voted to accept the VTA grant, which requires a $500,000 contribution of local funds. Office of Transportation staff believe the program could support about 500 daily riders, which would exceed the usage of the now-defunct Embarcadero and Crosstown shuttles. According to staff, the two shuttle services had a combined daily ridership of 418 and 364 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In making its ridership projections, city staff also noted that despite a plunge in transit use during the pandemic, Palo Alto's downtown Caltrain station had the highest ridership in September 2020, with an average of 620 weekday riders.

That said, it remains to be seen whether Palo Alto's new project will generate the type of demand that local transportation planners would like to see. To promote the program, the service provider will be required to conduct a citywide launch campaign before the program is deployed, according to staff.

"This first outreach step emphasizes bringing awareness and comfort to potential riders through education and encouragement," staff wrote in response to council member Greg Tanaka's question about potential demand. "Additional outreach will be performed throughout the project lifespan and will focus on adjusting specific parameters to improve service operations (e.g. operating hours, passenger wait time) based on community feedback. In addition, as an incentive to try the service, the awarded contractor will offer free rides for one month at sign-up."

A key goal of the program is to provide a service to seniors and students, as well as residents who choose not to own vehicles. The city estimates that between 2014 and 2018 there were about 25,875 people in the city in an average year who were "transit-dependent." This includes 4,697 individuals with disabilities, 3,954 low-income individuals, 4,557 individuals who live in households without a vehicle and 12,666 youths between the ages of 5 and 18, according to the city.

"Before the pandemic, these populations who are without access to a private vehicle, who choose not to drive or cannot drive, relied on public transit including the City's two shuttle services and Valley Transportation Authority's (VTA) bus services," staff wrote. "According to the City's shuttles' on-board surveys, public transit is essential to performing their daily activities, such as attending school, buying groceries, and visiting family who live in a different neighborhood in the city."

For the council, the program represents the latest attempt to reduce single-occupancy trips, a goal that the city has been pursuing for well over a decade. To further the goal, the city launched in 2015 the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit tasked with providing alternative modes for transportation to downtown commuters.

The goal is also reflected in the city's Comprehensive Plan, which calls for development of strategies that "make it easier and more convenient not to drive" and that "complement and enhance the transportation options available to help Palo Alto residents and employees make first/last mile connections."

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Palo Alto prepares to enter 'microtransit' arena with on-demand shuttles

City's new transportation program gets a $2M boost from Santa Clara County's Measure B

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Nov 17, 2021, 12:04 pm

When Palo Alto officials launched a round of steep budget cuts last year in response to plummeting revenues, the public shuttles were among the first things to depart.

With little debate, the City Council voted in May 2020 to halt the 20-year-old shuttle program, which was designed to serve local students, seniors, Caltrain commuters and others seeking to get around town without an automobile. Though the move saved the city about $500,000 in annual costs, the elimination of the Embarcadero and Crosstown shuttles also took away a key transit option for hundreds of residents — one that has yet to be restored.

Now, the city is getting ready for a new shuttle program that will have little resemblance to the one it left behind. Rather than relying on fixed routes and set schedules, the small shuttles will run on demand and cover all parts of Palo Alto. Pick-up and drop-off locations will be scattered throughout the city and rides will be arranged through a phone app. For those who require assistance, door-to-door service will be provided, according to a report from the city's Office of Transportation.

Fueled by a $2 million grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the city is preparing to make a move into the "microtransit" arena next summer, with the goal of having the new shuttles hit the streets before the 2022 school year, Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said last month at a meeting of the council's Finance Committee. Having received funding through Measure B, the 2016 tax measure, Palo Alto's next challenge will be finding a vendor to run the service, which Kamhi suggested could be a challenge given the ongoing constraints in the labor supply.

"Frankly, it's hitting transit hard as well," Kamhi said.

Palo Alto isn't the only Santa Clara County city moving toward on-demand shuttles. Milpitas has recently received a VTA grant to move ahead with an 18-month program called Milpitas OnDemand, which it plans to roll out in partnership with the consulting firm RideCo. According to a report that city staff released last month, the program would charge $2.50 per ride and is expected to see about 120 daily riders within six months of the rollout. The program, according to staff, is expected to "address the first/last-mile challenge in Milpitas and provide a convenient and affordable transportation option for Milpitas' residents, employees, and vulnerable/transit-dependent population." Much like the Palo Alto program, the one in Milpitas is receiving funding from the $6 million pool that Measure B designates for "innovative transit service models."

Cupertino already has an on-demand shuttle program that allows residents and visitors to both get around town and to reach places outside the city, including the Sunnyvale Caltrain station and Rancho San Antonio Preserve. Known as Via-Cupertino, the program charges $4 per ride, or $2 for seniors, students, low-income residents or individuals with disabilities. Much like in the proposed Palo Alto programs, riders use their phones to arrange pickups.

The trend toward microtransit alternatives goes well beyond the Peninsula, with Sacramento and Napa among California cities to recently launch the new services. According to TransLōc, a subsidiary of Ford Mobility that focuses on microtransit solutions, programs that offer on-demand shuttles help improve accessibility, flexibility and safety. An October blog post from TransLōc cites a survey of 1,200 working adults that the company took in July, in which 71% of respondents expressed concerns about vehicle sanitation when riding public transit. A pre-booked seat on a small shuttle, the company maintains, could be a good alternative for riders who are not ready to board a bus full of people.

The company also noted that microtransit systems allow cities to go to "geo-fence" regions that are underserved by public transportation to create an on-demand ride-hailing service specifically for those communities.

"Riders who live more than a mile away from a fixed-route stop could rely on an on-demand microtransit service to pick them up and take them to the nearest stop," the TransLōc article states. "By acting as a feeder to fixed-route services, transit agencies will access a larger percentage of the population. That means more riders, fewer empty buses, and greater community engagement."

Palo Alto's program cleared its first procedural hurdle on Nov. 8, when the council voted to accept the VTA grant, which requires a $500,000 contribution of local funds. Office of Transportation staff believe the program could support about 500 daily riders, which would exceed the usage of the now-defunct Embarcadero and Crosstown shuttles. According to staff, the two shuttle services had a combined daily ridership of 418 and 364 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In making its ridership projections, city staff also noted that despite a plunge in transit use during the pandemic, Palo Alto's downtown Caltrain station had the highest ridership in September 2020, with an average of 620 weekday riders.

That said, it remains to be seen whether Palo Alto's new project will generate the type of demand that local transportation planners would like to see. To promote the program, the service provider will be required to conduct a citywide launch campaign before the program is deployed, according to staff.

"This first outreach step emphasizes bringing awareness and comfort to potential riders through education and encouragement," staff wrote in response to council member Greg Tanaka's question about potential demand. "Additional outreach will be performed throughout the project lifespan and will focus on adjusting specific parameters to improve service operations (e.g. operating hours, passenger wait time) based on community feedback. In addition, as an incentive to try the service, the awarded contractor will offer free rides for one month at sign-up."

A key goal of the program is to provide a service to seniors and students, as well as residents who choose not to own vehicles. The city estimates that between 2014 and 2018 there were about 25,875 people in the city in an average year who were "transit-dependent." This includes 4,697 individuals with disabilities, 3,954 low-income individuals, 4,557 individuals who live in households without a vehicle and 12,666 youths between the ages of 5 and 18, according to the city.

"Before the pandemic, these populations who are without access to a private vehicle, who choose not to drive or cannot drive, relied on public transit including the City's two shuttle services and Valley Transportation Authority's (VTA) bus services," staff wrote. "According to the City's shuttles' on-board surveys, public transit is essential to performing their daily activities, such as attending school, buying groceries, and visiting family who live in a different neighborhood in the city."

For the council, the program represents the latest attempt to reduce single-occupancy trips, a goal that the city has been pursuing for well over a decade. To further the goal, the city launched in 2015 the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit tasked with providing alternative modes for transportation to downtown commuters.

The goal is also reflected in the city's Comprehensive Plan, which calls for development of strategies that "make it easier and more convenient not to drive" and that "complement and enhance the transportation options available to help Palo Alto residents and employees make first/last mile connections."

Comments

Online Name's mom
Registered user
Community Center
on Nov 17, 2021 at 4:08 pm
Online Name's mom, Community Center
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 4:08 pm

It's good to see the City replacing the shuttle with SOMETHING, but I would rather the new program go back to the old pathway, with reenforced and more regular stops. I skeptical this microtransit program is going to be regular, timely, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective, in the way that you could make a shuttle line. Plus, if you talked with the shuttle drivers, the low ridership on the shuttle was due to a lack of retaining and hiring drivers, leading to very irregular and unreliable shuttle stops-- and this was all BEFORE the pandemic.

This just seems like a poor, unsustainable solution. Yet, I still hope it somehow works out.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2021 at 4:31 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 4:31 pm

My problem with this shuttle idea is that they show no ability to cross boundaries into our neighboring cities. What if someone wants to get to Target, or Costco or the movie theater, or someone from Mountain View wants to get to PAMF or someone from Menlo wants to get to T & C, or, or, or.

On demand shuttles sounds wonderful, but we do not spend all our time in Palo Alto. We are much more likely to want to go less than 5 miles but often the final destination is out of Palo Alto. Should this limit our ability to use a local shuttle?


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 17, 2021 at 8:26 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 8:26 pm

The Council cut the free shuttle program in 2020 because of a supposed lack of funds due to the coronavirus crisis. Yet now the City can afford to spend the exact same amount of money, $500,000, on transit services, but rather than restore the free shuttle service, it funds an "on demand" fee-based shuttle?

The City's hypocrisy, of course, is exceeded by the hypocrisy and snobbery of VTA, which was unwilling to help fund the free shuttle, but is now willing to give Palo Alto a $2 million grant because this project is sufficiently "innovative" enough for them to deign to assist.

VTA made sure that Measure B would do little to fund the buses which form the backbone of the public transit which VTA provides to Santa Clara County, but would instead funnel money to the unfinished San Jose BART line and provide some money to "innovative" transit, even as VTA continually moaned (years before the pandemic) that they had an ongoing fiscal emergency and had no choice but to cut lots of local bus service to balance their budget.

But if a service is sufficiently "innovative", then suddenly VTA has millions to spend on it. In this case, part of the "innovation" appears to be that the service will only serve those with smartphones, never mind that many of the seniors and other people who rely on public transit don't necessarily own or are comfortable making transactions on cell phones. And just how many shuttles and drivers will the City have to hire to be certain that a shuttle will always be there when someone places an order on their phone?


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 17, 2021 at 8:39 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 8:39 pm

By the way, has the City said what hours the on-demand service will be available? One of the weaknesses of the free shuttle was that it didn't run at night, and VTA has also cut a lot of night service over the last few years--telling people that this will help solve "last mile" issues getting to and from public transit won't help much if the service doesn't run late enough to get people back to their homes after they go out.


chris
Registered user
University South
on Nov 17, 2021 at 9:26 pm
chris, University South
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 9:26 pm

The 21 bus goes to San Antonio so this request shuttle should connect with the 21.

If they had spent $2M on the shuttle, they could have had a decent shuttle. This new plan is extremely cost inefficient. They could probably provide discounted Lyft rides for less.


Since_1978
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 17, 2021 at 9:34 pm
Since_1978, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 9:34 pm

Why not let Lyft and Uber provide these services? Why should the City use taxpayer funds to gift this service? If someone doesn't own a car, they can use the money they save to pay for their own transit. Cash welfare is a more efficient way to handle the most needy, and to address the effective marginal tax problem (a small increase in earnings might disqualify you for this benefit). $2 million should pay for 100,000 rides... It doesn't add up. This is just an incredible waste.


It.is.what.it.is
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2021 at 3:00 am
It.is.what.it.is, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2021 at 3:00 am

This is a dumb idea and will be super inefficient. Moreover, the senior citizens will never be able to figure out how to use the app.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 18, 2021 at 3:58 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2021 at 3:58 pm

If the routes are not regular, how practical will it be to book the return trip after I have finished my shopping/errand(s) and ready to go home? That is without a long walk or waiting in the rain or heat if I'm not physically able to stand for long?


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2021 at 4:39 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2021 at 4:39 pm

Uber and Lyft are not suitable alternatives. Not only do they not treat their drivers well, they are generally very bad drivers in a hurry to make another dollar and are not accountable or responsive to the public. I once had a PA shuttle driver cut me off when I was on my bike. I called the city and described him and the person I talked to knew exactly who it was. They had a chat with him and I never had a problem with him again. There is something to be said for having a small set of professional drivers operating your shuttles.


Cat Mom Leonorilda
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2021 at 7:42 pm
Cat Mom Leonorilda, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2021 at 7:42 pm

Not everyone uses phone apps, especially many seniors who will need this service. Isn't there a more inclusive way that the city could offer that would not discriminate against non-app users?


Keri
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Nov 19, 2021 at 3:56 am
Keri, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2021 at 3:56 am

Southwest Palo Alto (west of El Camino, south of Page Mill) and South Palo Alto were not served by the previous shuttle service. Hoping this new service will accommodate us residents in those areas.


Resident
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 19, 2021 at 4:06 am
Resident, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2021 at 4:06 am

Cars are fine, stop overpopulating the area.
They never give up with the War on Cars


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Nov 23, 2021 at 10:48 pm
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Nov 23, 2021 at 10:48 pm

As others have said above, this should be outsourced to Lyft/Uber, perhaps by subsidizing certain rides, or more likely by providing a real-person telephone operator-based interface to Lyft/Uber. Such systems already exist, where one calls a service, and the service sets up the Lyft/Uber ride for a person without a smartphone (sometimes even without a cell phone as well). The City could limit the geographical area of rides it facilitates if necessary.

A big advantage of such a system is that it would be easy and inexpensive to set up a pilot operation (with a limited number of phone operators) to see how well it worked in real life, and whether or not the demand was there. The ride services do now have categories of drivers trained to provide more time and assistance entering and exiting vehicles, so those with mobility difficulties could also be accommodated.


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