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What to Expect with the Draft Next Network Plan

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VTA is closing in on a full redesign of our transit network.  For the past 16 months, we’ve been working to identify the best way to do that. In the New Year, the VTA board of directors will officially sign off on a draft plan to be introduced for community feedback.   The plan reflects transit service that is somewhat different from service that is currently offered in Santa Clara County. Different and, we feel, more efficient overall.

At the heart of redesigning VTA’s transit network, is a basic question. What is the purpose of public transit?   Transportation agencies’ ultimate goals are to improve mobility and reduce congestion.  In delivering transit VTA strives to maximize ridership while at the same time provide geographical coverage to serve the majority of county residents.  Ridership and coverage are both beneficial, but fundamentally, they are at odds with each other when it comes to designing a transit network. 

Increasing ridership is achieved through putting more transit service in dense, walkable, busy places, whereas increasing coverage requires providing service to places regardless of the ridership potential.  With a fixed budget, increasing one means decreasing the other.   Right now, VTA’s transit system employs a 70/30 balance between ridership and coverage routes.  That is, 70% of our transit budget is spent on ridership and 30% is spent on coverage. 

After extensive research and community feedback, VTA planners proposed a balance of 85/15 Ridership/Coverage at a Board Workshop. The Board of Directors signed off on the draft plan concept that will be scoped with details and the resulting draft plan will be presented to the public.  The decision to move forward with the 85/15 draft plan reflected the Board’s desire to make transit more useful for more people and to improve the cost-effectiveness of operating transit.  It also reflected the comments we received from the public over the course of several months—particularly leaders of community organizations whose constituencies rely on VTA to get around.

On January 5, VTA will release the Draft Next Network Plan which will contain the first proposals for how to change transit service in Santa Clara County.  Then through February 20, VTA staff will be asking for public input on the plan. We are still working on the details but here are some changes in design approach that current riders (and future new riders) will see in the draft.

More transit in high-ridership areas, less in low-ridership areas

In accordance with the 85/15 balance, VTA will propose increasing transit service in dense, walkable areas and decreasing or discontinuing transit service in low-ridership areas.  The ridership levels and subsidies per rider vary dramatically throughout VTA’s system.  High-ridership routes record 30 to 40 boardings per hour of service and low-ridership routes record as few as 8 boardings per hour.  VTA spends about $2 per ride on high-ridership routes and up to $15 per ride on low-ridership routes.  In order to increase ridership and be more cost-effective, VTA will propose shifting service from low-ridership/high-subsidy routes to high-ridership/low-subsidy routes.  By becoming more cost-effective, VTA may be able to afford to operate more transit service overall.

A frequent grid

Frequency is freedom!  What makes traveling by transit convenient and reliable is knowing that the bus or train will come along soon; that transfers to connecting routes will be short and predictable; and that the service will be frequent all day.  The Next Network Plan will increase the number of frequent routes and build a grid of frequent north/south and east/west routes across the county. (“Frequent” refers to services every 15 minutes or better.) This will increase the number of homes and jobs with access to frequent transit and increase the number of people for whom transit is a viable travel option.  It also means that riders will spend less time waiting and more time going, making overall trip times shorter—even those that require transfers.

More rapid routes

VTA is planning to increase frequency on the Rapid 522, which traverses most of Santa Clara County, as well as introduce two new rapid services: Rapid 500 and Rapid 523.  Rapid 500 would be a fast connection between the Berryessa BART Station and Downtown San Jose.  Rapid 523 would be an upgrade to the Limited 323 Route and would extend to Sunnyvale in the west and the Berryessa BART Station in the east.  These routes would offer service every 15 minutes or better, all day, every day.

More midday and weekend service

VTA currently operates more transit service on weekdays than weekends, and more service during commute periods than during midday. Our transit system was designed with more traditional work schedule trends of Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM commutes, but those who look to transit as a travel option tend to have a wide variety of commute schedules.  Transit riders are largely retail employees, restaurant employees, students, senior citizens and traditional commuters.  Many of these jobs require traveling midday or on the weekend—a time when VTA services levels are low.  Despite this, the time of day when VTA buses are most crowded is between 2:00 and 3:00 PM on weekdays.  The Draft Redesign Plan will propose cutting back on commute period services and increasing midday and weekend services to better match the transit travel market.

Simplified service classes and better information

VTA currently operates 7 different types of transit service: local, core, rapid, community, express, limited and light rail services.  Our Draft Plan will simplify our route classifications and switch to describing routes in terms of frequency, which we think is more useful to riders.

The Draft Plan drops on January 5.  What do you think of the change in design approach?
 

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