In a push to boost low ridership, VTA’s new service plan to debut with free rides
VTA's "Street Team Ambassadors" spoke with riders at Diridon Station on Thursday about the new service plan. Photo courtesy of VTA.

The Valley Transportation Authority’s service changes, which include greater frequency on its most popular routes and a new light rail line, debut Saturday. And, for the first four days, riders can try the new service for free.

The new service plan was geared partly toward boosting ridership, which has decreased in recent years. From 2015 to 2019, bus ridership dropped by 17 percent and light rail use declined 26 percent, VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress said.

Some of that drop mirrors a nationwide decrease in ridership as the economy ticked up and steered people toward car ownership and as ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft grew in popularity.

Also, recent rail line rehabilitation has led to slowdowns, which likely contributed to lower ridership, Childress said.

Work on the VTA’s new service plan began in 2016, when the agency hired a consultant to study ridership data.

“That assessment identified options for VTA’s strategy for increasing ridership, improving the farebox recovery rate, making our service more useful to riders and lowering barriers to transit,” Childress told San José Spotlight.

The authority devoted roughly a year and a half to community outreach, with traditional meetings, virtual meetings online, information booths and social media posts. Childress said the public seemed most interested in boosting VTA’s speed and efficiency.

“The overwhelming feedback was, ‘It’s too slow, it’s not often enough,’” Childress said.

This public sentiment prompted the VTA to focus 90 percent of service on locations with the most ridership. Twenty all-day routes are expected to have increased frequency and include the Rapid 522, which runs along El Camino Real from the Palo Alto Transit Center to the Eastridge Transit Center and the Rapid 500, which runs from Diridon Station to the soon-to-be-opened Berryessa BART station.

However, because the authority is still working with the same funding, boosting frequency of popular lines meant reducing service elsewhere. Transit activist Monica Mallon, who commutes by bus from Cambrian Park to San Jose State University, isn’t pleased.

“I’m going to be losing the route I take every single day to San Jose State,” Mallon said. “It’s going to be a lot harder for me to get around as someone who doesn’t own a car.”

Mallon added that although she can walk farther to make connections, she worries about seniors and people with limited mobility.

Through her own research, Mallon has determined that ridership increases with better coverage and says she thinks VTA is headed in the wrong direction with its new plan.

Childress said she understands Mallon’s frustrations but believes the VTA’s resources are where they need to be.

This is the most significant transit service change that VTA has implemented since 2008, officials said. The change shifts resources from low ridership routes, she said, so that 90 percent of VTA’s service is now focused on high ridership areas where it can serve more people.

Transit leaders say the changes will result in shorter wait times with 20 all-day frequent routes operating every 15 minutes or less.

“We’re not in the business to not have service on our street,” Childress said. “It’s a balancing act. We’re looking forward to this being a big improvement for the majority of riders.”

Childress said she hopes increased ridership from the most popular lines will boost revenue, allowing the authority to build back some of the other routes. Concerned riders are encouraged to call the VTA customer service line at 408-321-2300 or visit https://newservice.vta.org/ for help with trip planning. Riders can also download the Transit app for additional support, and VTA’s Street Team Ambassadors are planted at major transit centers to answer questions.

The four days of free rides, beginning this Saturday, is for all VTA service including bus and light rail.

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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