Council members unanimously approved a two-year pilot program for the free community shuttle service on Tuesday, expressing thanks to Google, which is footing the bill as a gift to city. The service hours are10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from noon to 8 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Four shuttles are set to run a loop around the city going as far south as El Camino Hospital, as far east as Sylvan Avenue, north to Shoreline Boulevard and Pear Avenue (near the movie theaters) and west to San Antonio shopping center. There are 30 stops, including the downtown transit center, Whisman and Middlefield roads, Rengstorff Park and the Senior Center.
Each shuttle includes free WiFi, bike racks, wheelchair lifts and space for 16 passengers. Member Jac Siegel was unimpressed with the signage on the buses, saying “I’d liked to have seen something that stood out a little more, personally.”
The approved route is similar to one proposed in August, but council members removed a leg between El Camino Hospital and Alta Vista High School (near Mountain View High High School) to increase frequency of service from every 38 minutes to 31 minutes on weekdays and from 75 minutes to 70 minutes on weekends. City staff had also removed a stop at Flynn and Tyrella avenues, and a stop at the DMV office on Showers Drive.
Three residents spoke to the council, all in favor of an alternative route with an eastern loop and western loop converging on Shoreline Boulevard and the downtown transit center for shorter connections to downtown from across the city. That route also added a leg extending to Costco and other stores in Charleston Plaza. Transit planner and resident Cliff Chambers, who helped design shuttle routes in Menlo Park, had also backed the two-loop option in an email to council members. City staff recommended against it, citing concerns that users would find it too complex, and that it would mean 47-minute intervals between shuttles on either loop, which would mean fewer people would be encouraged to wait for the shuttle without having seen a schedule.
“The two-loop option is very attractive in terms of providing more service,” said member Ronit Bryant. “On the other hand, it really reduces frequency of service. While some of us read service schedules easily I think most people would not be that quick to do it.”
For residents of the neighborhood around North Whisman Road, the approved single loop would “do little to make it faster to get downtown, which is a shame,” said resident Greg Coladonato. City staff estimated a 33-minute travel time between Easy Street and Middlefield Road and the downtown transit center for the single loop, but only 14 minutes with the two loop option.
Coladonato added, “As far as I can tell, the one-loop route is largely duplicative of VTA service,” including community shuttle line 34, which runs between Castro Street, Montecito Avenue, the Senior Center and San Antonio shopping Center. Line 34 was nearly eliminated by VTA because of a lack of ridership.
Council members decided to remove a stop for the shuttle at Alta Vista High School, partly because it is already served by VTA bus line 51 to Castro Street and Moffett Field, though only in the morning and afternoon.
While the single loop provides more frequent service, Chambers said forcing users to make indirect trips could mean lower ridership.
“The single loop requires significant out-of-direction travel to many key destination including downtown,” Chambers said. “For example, an origin and destination between Shoreline/Pear and downtown Mountain View would require long circuitous routing to get downtown and would discourage (use). This is true of many desired origins and destinations.”
“Downtown Mountain View will very likely be the primary destination for the shuttle and service should focus there and the two-loop routing accomplishes this,” he said.
City staff said the two-loop option would mean longer rides in some cases because of transfer delays. For example, a trip from the Senior Center to Grant Road could take 34 minutes at least, instead of 31 minutes on the single loop. A trip from El Camino Hospital across town to Montecito and Rengstorff would take 40 minutes on the two-loop route instead of 34 minutes. Chambers says transfers could be avoided with the two-loop alternative by “interlining” the two loops into a figure eight.
“Interlining means that the west loop counter-clockwise bus becomes the East Loop clockwise bus in a figure 8 configuration,” Chambers said. “Many community transit services have such a community center hub with interlined buses for passenger convenience. There are many transit marketing professionals out there who can make such as a system easily understood. In the long-term, it would help to build ridership.”
Making the two-loop configuration work might mean adding vehicles to reduce intervals. Chambers said that intervals above 30 minutes cause drops in ridership. At this point, Google has only offered to pay for four vehicles operating at any one time, with two backup shuttles, for a total of six.
Margaret Abe-Koga said she had often wondered why much Shoreline Boulevard has yet to be served by transit, something the two-loop option does much more of than the single loop.
Council members were reminded several times that the shuttle is a pilot program designed around public input.
“We’ve taken our best shot without an expansive study, it is a bit of a test,” said public works director Mike Fuller of the route design.
Transportation and business manager Linda Forsberg said, “We have done our best to meet the articulated needs of the community.”
A city survey which drew 248 responses indicated that most preferred intervals of 30 minutes for the shuttles, and 90 percent said they’d be willing to walk five blocks to and from the shuttle.
There have been a number of requests that the service run later on weekdays and weekdays. In August the city received six comments from people wanting it to run later. Mayor Chris Clark said those who use it to catch a movie may be stranded if their movie runs late.
City staff said they would run the shuttle as approved for at least three months before making any changes, and the City Council will get a full report on its performance in one year. City Manager Dan Rich said changes to the service could be brought to council for approval before then.