June 2012

Innovative Solutions Meet the Needs of California's Rural Transit Riders

by Tasha Bartholomew

Seven days a week, 365 days a year, SamTrans Route 17 makes its way along the winding roads and past the scenic views of the California coast in San Mateo County.

Situated sometimes just yards from the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the San Francisco Bay Area, Route 17 is one of seven fixed-route  bus lines that serve several small coastal communities, including Half Moon Bay, Montara, Moss Beach, Pacifica and Pescadero.   

While SamTrans operates 48 routes throughout the county, the coast side is unique because much of the area is rural, isolated agricultural and farming land or preserved open space. Although ridership is low compared to other parts of the county, service is still critically needed in the area, said Paul Lee, bus contracts manager. Without bus service to the coast side, some people living in this region would be unable to get to work, go to school, visit the doctor or run any other daily errands.

According to Lee, SamTrans implemented service enhancements to Route 17 several years ago that included daily service until 9 p.m. and increased service during the morning and afternoon commute peak periods.  

In addition, SamTrans switched from cutaway buses to custom-made 29-foot Gillig buses specifically designed to increase passenger capacity and better maneuver the twists and turns of the roads in the area. On its other routes, SamTrans uses a combination of 40-foot buses and 60-foot buses.

“We tried to make adjustments that would best serve those people who are most dependent on public transportation,” Lee said. “Route 17 has been a great success for us because we’ve seen great ridership growth.”

Annual ridership on this route has climbed more than 100% over a five-year period:
•    FY 2007 – 53,258 riders
•    FY 2008 - 87,903
•    FY 2009 – 97,340
•    FY 2010 - 101,170
•    FY 2011 - 108,418

However, fixed-route service doesn’t always meet the needs of the community. In Pescadero, a small town with a population of 643 that is 14 miles in length, getting around can be a challenge for families without vehicles and migrant farmworkers going to work.

To help address the issue, SamTrans offers SamCoast bus service for the southern part of the coast, which provides dial-a-ride service for the rural area around Pescadero.

The transit system contracts with the nonprofit Pescadero Foundation to operate the service, which also runs seven days a week and rarely gets complaints, Lee said. He added that SamCoast ridership is usually heaviest during the summer months because students attend area youth camps and there is more seasonal work for the farmworkers.

Whenever SamTrans considers making major improvements or changes to its coast side routes, the bus agency consults with its local stakeholder committee that consists of representatives from the Cabrillo Unified School District, cities of Half Moon Bay and Pacifica, Peninsula Traffic Congestion Relief Alliance, San Mateo County government and Coastside Hope. The collaboration has helped SamTrans obtain funding to make much-needed enhancements to the coastside routes.

SamTrans also is in the process of assessing its overall bus service through the SamTrans Service Plan. The plan is an in-depth study of the SamTrans fixed-route bus system, which covers San Mateo County and parts of Palo Alto and San Francisco.

The study, which was identified as one of the key initiatives in the SamTrans Strategic Plan, will provide a foundation upon which SamTrans can fully understand its existing bus services and how it can continue to best serve its customers, given the appropriate level of necessary resources. The study will assess the efficiency of fixed-route bus services; identify areas for improvement and new markets for future growth.

The SamTrans Service Plan is ongoing with completion expected in fall 2012. Once completed, the plan will help identify future key transit investments and direct the delivery of long-term, financially sustainable bus service.

Tasha Bartholomew is the public information specialist, SamTrans


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