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Less than a year after launching buses to shuttle travelers between Santa Rosa’s downtown core and the nearby Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit stop, the City Council decided to end the free service, citing ridership data showing hardly anybody used it.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to discontinue the city’s ParkSMART shuttle effective March 1. The move came after city staff reported that recent ridership data indicated that only about 20 people rode the ParkSMART shuttle on an average day in September — a peak figure for the entire year that was well short of the city’s transit benchmarks.

“Based on the stop-level data, we can see that very few people are using the service for circulation downtown,” Yuri Koslen, a city transit planner, told the council.

The free shuttle, which began service in December 2017, was intended to connect the downtown SMART station in Railroad Square with Santa Rosa’s parking garages and other central city locations such as Old Courthouse Square, a roughly half-mile walk from the train depot.

The service struggled to attract substantial ridership, with average daily ridership at about 15 people until May before rising to 20 in September, according to city data.

All local public transit is subsidized, but city data show the average ParkSMART ride cost of about $47.50 per trip is much higher than the Santa Rosa CityBus ($6.10), Oakmont shuttle ($16.34), and Paratransit service ($31.39). The 12-seat SMART shuttle costs less per hour of service than the other three city transit systems.

ParkSMART would need to ferry five to eight riders per hour — an average of about 60 to 70 daily — and demonstrate a cost per trip of under $20 to be considered a success, Koslen said Wednesday. The city pays its ParkSMART contractor, MV Transportation, about $13,000 per month to run the shuttle. The ParkSMART contract allows the city to suspend shuttle service at any time in the contract. The council would have to revisit the deal before March 1 to revive the contract.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Chris Rogers suggested a number of reasons that the ParkSMART shuttle wasn’t working. Starting mere weeks after the October 2017 wildfires devastated the city, ParkSMART’s launch may have been lost in the shuffle, Rogers said. He also highlighted the cost of riding SMART, which is slowly but steadily recording more passengers, as a possible obstacle for the city shuttle’s success.

“Maybe it’s something that we just can’t look at until SMART increases their capacity and brings down their overall rates,” Rogers said. “I really do think that’s a large component of it — that the average person who would benefit from the shuttle is not actually taking the SMART train because it’s too expensive.”

Koslen also noted that Santa Rosa’s own public buses make numerous hourly trips between the SMART station and downtown transit mall and that SMART passengers using Clipper Cards receive free transfers to CityBus, making the ParkSMART shuttle “slightly redundant.”

The council’s vote authorized transit staff to develop other transportation options in Santa Rosa. Koslen said new proposals could include offering discounted garage parking to consistent commuters and allowing people to use garage and lot receipts to board a CityBus as well as better publicizing existing parking options near the downtown SMART station.

Steve Birdlebough, chairman of the Friends of SMART group, expressed optimism that any public discussion of the ParkSMART shuttle — even a conversation about its potential demise — might boost ridership in the coming weeks. However, his own experience pointed to the scarcity of passengers on the free SMART bus.

“I’ve ridden ParkSMART about four times,” he said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “I’ve been embarrassed by being the only rider along with the driver most of those times, but it is a nice service.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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