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Buying In to a Commute Without Keys

Ideas on how to induce more people to use Laguna Beach’s $2.2 million public transit system as a way to tame downtown congestion grabbed the limelight at a public workshop on Monday.

About 60 residents showed up at the Susi Q Center to offer feedback following an analysis of Laguna’s buses, summer trolleys, taxi voucher program and senior transit options presented by Steve Wilks of Vancouver-based IBI Group.

“I’m very enthusiastic about getting out of my car,” said Carol Nilsen, who earned applause when she asked Wilks whether his group’s expertise extended to inducements that compel people to leave their vehicles at home.

“The short answer is yes,” replied Wilks, though the city hired IBI for a different task, improving the efficiency of the system for current users. But Wilks promised to include analysis about luring new ones in the future. For now, the workshops were intended for floating ideas; making recommendations will come later, he said.

A number of residents reiterated Nilsen’s request that consultants look beyond current ridership to address the transit needs of locals, who might be enticed to hop a bus if their needs were better met.

Along those lines, residents suggested stops in front of the grocery stores, bike racks, and extending routes to Trader Joe’s in Crystal Cove and El Toro. Several asked for more consistent and reliable service and decried the difficulty of reading schedules whether on hard-to-decipher signage at stops or online. Others noted that the city buses’ lack of lunchtime service discouraged midday ridership.

Eric Sargeant said he represented a younger generation of technophiles in asking for a more appealing image for public transit. Besides providing predictable service and a schedule available using modern technology and apps, transit’s image could improve with branding, he said, citing, for example, Long Beach’s popular bright red Passport bus system.

Billy Fried proposed replacing decommissioned mainline buses with electric buses. They climb hills well, are lower and more easily accessed by seniors, and save energy, he said.

Howard Conn floated the idea of subsidizing a service like Uber.com, which maintains a fleet of individual cars and drivers that can be beckoned and paid for using a phone app.

A $500,000 OCTA grant will fund extending Laguna’s free trolley service to non-summer weekends beginning next year, but strong ridership is necessary to ensure its success, Council member Toni Iseman reminded the audience, since the funds get revoked if they can’t prove use.

Perhaps merchants could offer a discount to transit riders on Saturdays to help nurture a culture of bus use, said Rita Conn.

IBI’s study showed that the city’s mainline blue and white buses, which consume almost half of the city’s $2.2 million annual transit budget, are most used by commuting workers during rush hour and students heading to and from the high school. Ridership otherwise falls to a trickle, particularly between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Most were “captive” riders without a car who relied completely on the bus, Wilks said. Adult passengers pay 75 cents, while seniors and the disabled drop 30 cents in the fare box.

Yet mainline passengers account for less than 15 percent of total transit ridership. More than 600,000 riders crowd the free summer trolleys annually, the report, available online, says.

A flexible bus service for less traveled routes during non-peak hours might be considered, Wilks said. As an example, a bus might not run regularly to Arch Beach Heights offpeak, but a resident could make a call and it would pick them up at their home, rather that at a stop, within the hour.

Council member Steve Dicterow said he hoped consultants would address ways to make mass transit effective at alleviating congestion and incorporate the findings of related city studies.

“This is just the beginning,” said City Manager John Pietig, admitting he was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. The next workshop will field complaints as well as challenge participants to divulge what would get them to board a bus.

 

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