By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to introduce an on-demand van service on neighborhood routes this fall.
With a first phase launching Oct. 18, the on-demand vans will replace the hourly trolley that previously serviced Top of the World, Arch Beach Heights, and Bluebird Canyon.
“The idea of on-demand service would be similar to the neighborhood trolleys in that the primary goal is to get people from the residential neighborhoods in the hills on those three routes to the downtown area,” Deputy Director of Public Works Michael Litschi said. “So you’d be able to request a ride from any closest stop to your house or the closest point on the trolley route to your house, and then you’d be able to go to another neighborhood route, or to downtown.”
The on-demand pilot program was budgeted at $753,000. According to the staff report, 80 percent of funding for transit comes from state and local grants, the rest comes from parking revenue.
Ridership on the neighborhood trolley has been low the past several years, “despite multiple marketing campaigns and service adjustments” according to the staff report. Ridership consistently fell below the minimum of 10 riders per hour requirement in an Orange County Transportation Authority grant. After receiving feedback from the community, staff concluded that residents were in favor of an on-demand service rather than the hourly trolley.
All city trolley services were suspended on March 20, 2020, because of COVID-19. City Council hopes to take advantage of the suspension of the trolley service to begin the on-demand trolley pilot program.
Residents will be able to request a ride using the TransLōc smartphone app or by calling Transit Dispatch at 949-497-0766. The average wait time is expected to be between 15 and 20 minutes.
The hourly trolley ran Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The new on-demand trolley service will run Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The pilot program will start without Sunday service but may bring it back depending on demand.
Children under 13 will need to be accompanied by adults, however, they will still be able to ride the afternoon trolley from Thurston Middle School to Downtown Laguna unaccompanied.
“We don’t tend to see many children under age 13 riding alone,” Litschi said. “The idea on age limit for on-demand is just based on best practice in the industry that, because it is a smaller vehicle, it’s not a large transit vehicle, it’s best practice to have a lower age limit. But for the trolley that would operate from Thurston Middle School, it would be the same rules as our existing trolleys so there would be no lower age limit.”
Laguna Beach resident Judie Mancuso asked the Council to hold off on getting new vehicles until they can get zero-emission trolleys.
“Hybrid should be the rock bottom, but bringing gas combustion engines into the neighborhood should be an absolute no-go,” Mancuso said. “With the state of where we are with everything in the world with the climate crisis, please don’t consider gas engines.”
However, Litschi explained that a global microchip shortage is making fewer cars available, even hybrid vehicles may be difficult to get a hold of.
“These vehicles being hybrids, fully electric wasn’t what the contractor proposed on,” Litschi said. “But, you know, as we’re looking at our fleet right now, that’s definitely something we want to see us get to, but the initial rollout, it was assumed hybrid vehicles. If possible, frankly, you know, the first couple months might not be because we want to get the service going, and serve the population.”
The on-demand program will allow for smaller, more maneuverable vehicles than the hourly trolley. City staffers plan to acquire two minivans that seat nine people, one minivan with a wheelchair lift, and a Ford Transit or similar vehicle seating 15. The vehicles will all be owned and maintained by LAZ parking as early as September.
“I’ve been looking forward to finding out what the old service will transform into,” Laguna Beach resident Elizabeth McGhee said. “I’ve been walking to work in town every day for the past year, so it will be nice to get a ride. Three miles is good for exercise but after work, it’s not so fun. And it’ll be really nice where I teach at the public library and the Suzi Q soon.”
McGhee added it’ll be a great service for students can use to attend different programs and events.
“This is really going to change, quality of life for a lot of people in Laguna, and it’s very well done,” Councilmember Toni Iseman said.
In other business, the Council also voted to create a temporary restoration site for the endangered Pacific Pocket Mouse.
A portion of the James Dilley Greenbelt Preserve will be used to establish a temporary enclosure to promote the recovery of the endangered mouse.
The San Diego Zoo has been breeding the endangered mouse since 2012. A group of 50 Pacific Pocket Mice was reintroduced to the wild inside of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park in 2016. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and OC Parks plan to introduce up to six more mouse populations in the wild, according to the staff report.
The restoration site is not expected to restrict public access or close trails.