I was going to walk to the recent Planning Commission subcommittee meeting on personal transportation options other than cars. Such as feet. But I was running late.
My interest in the topic is two-fold: I’ve sworn I won’t become an over-the-hill driver whose car keys, to paraphrase Charlton Heston, must be pried from my cold, dead hands. I’m also on the board of Laguna Beach Seniors. At the Susi Q, we wrestle with a shared parking plan that prohibits us from programming beyond the capacity of the garage. Persuade more people to ditch their cars, and we may be allowed to expand our classes and activities.
That’s the idea behind a small-but-steady marketing campaign we call “Car(e) Free Laguna.” It’s funded by a small grant from the city, which also offers senior discount bus fares and recently rejiggered the downtown bus routes to serve the Susi Q and Community Center. But there’s the rub: when local buses zip around town with one or two passengers, it’s painfully clear how little we like them—and I don’t just mean seniors with mobility issues, who have trouble getting to and on the bus.
At the meeting, we were told our blue-and-whites carry 90,000 passengers a year at a cost of $1.4 million, a.k.a. $15 per ride. Contrast this with the $1.1 million we spend in the summer to enable half a million tourists to ride around in trolleys rather than their cars. It helps that the trolleys are free and fun, but the secret of their success is that they go where visitors want to go. The rest of town, where most of us live, is poorly served by our fixed-route, fixed schedule bus system.
Do I have a better idea? No, I have someone else’s better idea, which I found by Googling “ride on demand transit.” The first of 10.9 million results—come on, Google, really?—was a Wikipedia page about Demand Responsive Transport, “an advanced, user-oriented form of public transport characterized by flexible routing and scheduling of small/medium vehicles operating in shared-ride mode between pick-up and drop-off locations according to passengers needs.”
Scores of small towns are finding ride-on-demand transit works well and is well worth the money. Is there any reason it wouldn’t work here? Well, yes. I found a mere 4 million Google results for something called “status quo bias.” Our species is hard-wired to prefer things the way they are unless all hell breaks loose.
In my personal life, I understand this completely. And on a scale that includes health care reform, global warming, gun control, and the village entrance, the problem of local transit is barely a blip. An expensive blip, to be sure. But even then, we can’t switch to a ride-on-demand system without test-driving it. And that means spending even more money we don’t have.
Pondering this conundrum, all I came up with is a two-bit solution: charge 25 cents for every trolley ride. Jolly the tourists along by rebranding the summer transit program as “The Two-Bit Trolley.” True, there will be collection costs. But if there’s one thing we know how to handle in this town, it’s quarters. And the $100,000 or so we should net can be used for transit demonstration projects.
If we ever succeed in creating a local transit system that’s popular with locals, we can thank the planning commissioners, staff, and citizens who are regulars at community meetings like the one I attended. While I can Google, I don’t have their wonky credentials, but they made me feel welcome. For a few hours, we defied the status quo bias and kicked around some really good ideas. Then we got into our cars and drove home.
Laguna resident Chris Quilter drives an 11-year old car less and less each year.