VTA board sets direction for more frequent buses, less coverage

On Thursday, VTA board members voted to affirm a staff recommendation to transform its bus network so that 85% of the service is designed to provide a high-frequency grid that will increase ridership, and 15% of service is designed to provide “coverage service” that reaches more geographical area, but serves fewer people (the balance today is about 70/30).


The goal of the “Next Network” system redesign is to increase ridership and revenue.the staff report for the study session is here,  and here is a website for the project.

The board also supported a recommendation to boost ridership by providing transfer discounts; currently people who purchase single-ride tickets need to pay twice when they have to transfer.   A “frequent network” grid might provide better service than more direct but much more infrequent routes, at the cost of more transfers.

However, cutting coverage harms people whose service is cut, especially youth, seniors, disabled, and very low-income people who don’t have other transportation choices.  According to federal law, transit agencies have a legal obligation to provide paratransit service only on routes serviced by fixed-route bus service. If the bus route goes away, so does the paratransit service.

At the meeting, several community members from Palo Alto came and raised concerns about the 88 route. Penny Ellson of Palo Alto commented that the route serves a number of schools, and was a key factor in the decision to locate senior housing.

To alleviate impacts on disabled people, VTA staff recommended potentially keeping paratransit routes even where buses no longer ran.  And in response to concerns raised by communities that would lose low-ridership routes, staff recommended options including block grants to cities to run local shuttle service, and experimentation with transportation network services such as Lyft and Uber, which might be able to provide access at a lower per-ride cost than fixed route buses, and using excess paratransit capacity for on-demand service.

The Lyft/Uber option sounded compelling to board members including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Council Member Johnny Khamis. But board chair Supervisor Cindy Chavez expressed concern about potentially undermining public transit (plus, the current pricing of TNC fares is provided thanks to venture capital subsidies; eventually those companies will need to make a profit and will presumably raise prices.)

Board members including Hendricks and O’Neill strongly supported the recommendation to reduce the cost of transfers, including transfers to BART and Caltrain. A board member suggested that rail agencies with higher farebox recovery provide VTA with financial compensation for providing feeder service.

Now that the board has decided on this direction, staff and consultants will present a service proposal in January, and solicit community feedback on that proposal, with final decisions to be made by the board in April.  The January proposal will also incorporate ways to use funding from Measure B to bolster service and provide substitutes for coverage routes.

Supervisor Yeager encouraged VTA to listen to community members calling out routes that are particularly valuable in serving youth, seniors, and disabled passengers. Staff noted that with the last network redesign, 45-50 changes were made based on community input before service maps were finalized.

Why is the proposal 85-15 instead of 80-20 or 90-10?  Staff answered that community feedback would likely result in keeping some more coverage service, bringing the end result closer to 80-20.

Here is a conceptual map of an 80:20 network – the actual proposal will be forthcoming in January. It will be important to review the proposal closely, and to speak up about the changes, including keeping routes that have a good reason to stay, and reasonable alternatives for routes that might go away.

Conceptual illustration of an 80-20 network

Update: the upcoming VTA meetings are:

December 8, 2016: VTA Board of Directors Meeting
Agenda will be posted to VTA’s website 72-hours prior. Expected to include discussion of use of Measure B funds.

January 5, 2017: VTA Board of Directors Meeting
Draft transit plan will be presented to the Board.

 January February 2017: Public Outreach Period
Draft transit plan will be released for public review and input.