By Kellie Hall, Special to the Independent
Over 593,000 riders welcomed the Laguna Beach free summertime trolley last year, and this year, riders are already flocking to the popular service, Ken Fisher, deputy public works director, reported. The service, which rolled out Friday, June 27, and continues through Sunday, Aug. 31, saw a 2 percent increase in ridership last summer over 2012.
Only 85,000-95,000 people, in comparison, ride the regular Laguna Beach buses each year, Fisher said. Riders seemed unaware that the bus is also free during the summertime, as many said they preferred riding the trolley because it was free.
The trolley’s features may hold the key to getting people onto public transit and out of their cars. Riders unanimously preferred the trolley over regular city or regional buses. And most say they never use public transit.
“If I was a local, I’d take this thing all the time,” said Jason Wagner, visiting with his wife Amy from Las Vegas, Nev., where he figures commuting to work on public transit would take three hours.
The wait time for Laguna’s trolley, which comes in 20 minute intervals from 9:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m., was very short for the Wagners.
“That’s the key to me, frequency and reliability,” said Irvine resident Kedric Francis, who was riding with son Otis, 3. The Orange County Transportation Authority bus to Newport Beach only comes once an hour and “it’s not convenient,” Francis noted, adding that he never took the OCTA bus in the 20 years that he lived in Laguna Beach. Though he does board a Metrolink train as far as Union Station in Los Angeles for leisure, he does not take the public transit to work, Francis said.
Adolescents and pre-teens seemed to be the largest group of patrons during the day, enjoying the independence the trolley lends them during the summer. “It’s so much easier,” than the public transit bus they sometimes take, said Kailey Skelton, 14, of Rancho Santa Margarita, who rode the trolley with friend Abbie Douglas, also 14. The trolley takes them to their favorite surf spots and eateries without having to call their parents, Kailey and Abbie noted.
Cutting dependency on parents was a sentiment shared by teen trolley riders Natalie Johnson, Kalani Fajardo, Sydney Timsit, and Allyson White, all of Laguna Beach. The Visit Laguna Beach app was also deemed useful by the teens.
The app, which launched in July 2012, includes a trolley tracker which tells the position of all trolleys, as well as other information about Laguna Beach, said Ashley Johnson, director of brand marketing and communications for Visit Laguna Beach. Most interviewees knew about the app and had used it frequently.
Riders without a smartphone are out of luck, as there is no phone number to call to learn when a trolley is coming, Johnson noted.
Another potential inconvenience to riders is the abbreviated Independence Day service, when the trolley ends early at 7 p.m. People will have already settled in for fireworks viewing at that time, according to Fisher.
Considering that there is a “mass of humanity” descending on Main Beach for the fireworks, transit authorities worry that the trolley will contribute to creating more traffic rather than alleviating it. Laguna Canyon Road will become one way, with both lanes of traffic heading outbound towards Irvine after the fireworks show, Fisher stated.
Beyond convenience, a friendly environment also entices riders to board. The trolley has a “better atmosphere” and the bus drivers are nicer than on other public transit buses, Kailey said. A driver will call ahead to the bus depot when a passenger needs to catch a transfer and often pauses for passengers running to board, unusual practices for those accustomed to riding public transit.
When a group of around 10 pre-teen boys loaded the bus, the driver gently reminded them to keep their skim boards out of the aisle. One boy asked, “you wouldn’t throw any boys off the bus, right?” They exited a few stops later, with a loud cry for “fried chicken” at Albertson’s.
Teen-rider Audrey Salot rode the trolley with her friends. “It’s open,” she said, referring to the open-air design and friendly atmosphere that lures in even those riders most reticent about public transit.