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Santa Rosa plans to revamp bus service

Facing a sharp drop in bus ridership, Santa Rosa is hoping to win back riders by redesigning the bus system to be more convenient and efficient, especially along the city’s busiest travel corridors.

After months of surveys, focus groups and workshops, the yearlong effort dubbed “Reimagining CityBus” heads to the City Council on Tuesday for its input on which priorities should guide the long-range redesign.

Most cities revamp their bus routes every 10 years to make sure they are adjusting to the needs of the changing community. By that measure, changes in Santa Rosa are long overdue.

“We haven’t done a really complete review of the CityBus network in 25 years,” said Rachel Ede, city transit planner. “A lot has changed in Santa Rosa in 25 years.”

City planners are grappling with a 24 percent drop in ridership since 2011, most of that coming after the city cut routes and raised rates. In an effort to fill a $1 million budget gap, the city in 2013 increased full fares from $1.25 to $1.50, tightened transfer policies and eliminated or reduced service on several routes.

The less-for-more approach didn’t sit well with many riders. In 2011, the system provided?3.1 million rides, but by last year that had fallen to 2.3 million.

Figures for 2015 aren’t finalized but are expected to be slightly lower, Ede said. While some changes such as new fareboxes and transfer cards make her question the accuracy of year-to-year comparisons, Ede said it is nevertheless clear that the city’s ridership drop is real and concerning.

Santa Rosa is far from alone. Other regional transit operators have reported that the improved economy and lower gas prices have led to decreased transit ridership, Ede said.

Santa Rosa buses traveled 936,046 miles in 2014, carrying an average of 2.5 riders per mile traveled. Average daily ridership runs between 8,000 and 9,000, Ede said.

With the help of a ?$100,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the “reimagining” effort got underway in January.

The process clearly demonstrated that prioritizing high-use areas for the bus system is needed, said Steve Birdlebough, a member of Friends of SMART who participated in some of the planning exercises.

“The effort to serve the entire city with less-than-adequate service has not really worked out,” Birdlebough said.

It makes more sense to focus the city’s limited number of buses along the transit corridors used by most people and improve that service instead of trying to reach every corner of the city regardless of usage, he said.

That will involve trade-offs, including the potentially painful recognition “that some parts of the city are just going to get very skimpy service.”

Ede said she agrees the planning process to date has shown that some shift toward transit corridors is needed. But that doesn’t mean significant service reductions have to occur in outlying areas. There may be ways to reduce duplication of routes or find more efficient ways to provide similar levels of service to those riders, she said.

The city’s current system is based on the goal that 95 percent of areas with six or more housing units per acre should have a bus stop within a quarter mile. Such a “local route” model is important to riders who need it but often results in low average ridership, according to a city staff report.

A more urban model that focuses on moving more people faster focuses on “trunk routes” with more frequent, faster trips. Such models often enjoy high ridership but by definition are limited to high-demand areas.

Santa Rosa ought to shift from the first model toward the second, but how far and how fast is a question for the City Council and will need more study and public input, Ede said. The goal is to find the “sweet spot” between the two, she said.

Past long-range transit plans have envisioned dedicated bus lanes to speed up service. But Ede said less-disruptive methods, such as signal prioritization or stops that don’t require the buses to pull out of their travel lane, might accomplish similar goals.

Redrawing routes is another possibility. The city has several routes that run along the Santa Rosa/Mendocino Avenue corridor, but ?then branch off into neighborhood loops.

For example, the No. 1 route runs north along Mendocino Avenue then loops up and over Fountaingrove and back. Similarly, the No. 14 route to the Sonoma County Administration Center heads out toward Coffey Lane and Hopper Avenue before looping back.

Running more buses more frequently along key “transit emphasis corridors” such as Santa Rosa/Mendocino/Sebastopol avenues and linking those routes to areas where development is planned, such as the future Sonoma-Marin Area rail stations, might also boost ridership, Ede said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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