A proposal to cut back Tracer bus routes in town in favor of an on-demand system will have to see some adjustments before it goes back to the Tracy City Council next month for approval.
Tracy’s Short Range Transit Plan covers the entire city and looks at the efficiency of the existing Tracer service from the perspective of making the overall transit picture more effective with the addition of on-demand service.
Ed Lovell, management analyst with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees transportation, said the five-year Short Range Transit Plan is an incremental process, and he will present the council with a transportation commission recommendation to make that process more flexible and data-driven.
“It’s not just, ‘Hey, we’re going to flip a light switch and all of the changes are in place.’ We were going to do it incrementally over time,” Lovell said. “What the transportation commission recommended is, instead of going through that, let’s take some time to say, let’s try this system, see what’s working and then evaluate it on an annual basis and say, do we want to keep going with it? Do we need to make changes to it before we start implementing the next steps?”
Transportation Advisory Commission chairman Tim Silva said that the city is under an end-of-August deadline to submit its Short Range Transit Plan to the San Joaquin Council of Governments.
The plan explains how a “micro system” that involves an Uber or Lyft-type service and a reservation-based small bus system similar to the San Joaquin Regional Transit District’s Van-Go service would complement, and in some cases replace, the “macro system” that has the city’s Tracer fixed-route service as its centerpiece.
Silva said that he believes the public prefers a traditional fixed-route system, but the on-demand service is worth a try, especially if it shows the city where new routes are needed.
Concerns about the Short Range Transit Plan were the topic of a two-hour discussion at the May 21 Tracy City Council meeting and again at the transportation commission’s July 11 meeting. Silva said the plan the council will review at its Aug. 20 meeting is a compromise based on the original plan with the concerns of the council and the transportation commission incorporated.
“We want to keep the macro transit plan, the traditional style that we have now, and use the micro transit plan, for now, on the outside areas of Tracy where we don’t have regular routes, say like Tracy Hills,” Silva said. “Tracy Hills is asking about some transit out there, but we can’t justify putting a steady route out there yet, but we see that area coming and eventually we’re going to have routes going out that way.
“Until we get enough residents out in that area, we said, hey, let’s try this micro transit plan in the outlying areas of Tracy and let’s just see how it works.”
In the meantime, the city can collect information on the demand for public transit in those areas.
“Let’s get some hard numbers back from that, and some hard data,” Silva said. “Let’s see how it works before we put both feet into it.”
Jacob Hunter, one of the newest members of the seven-member transportation commission, said the commissioners agreed that the Tracer’s loops around town make some bus rides longer than necessary, but they also swing by parts of town that need the service.
“The underserved and the youth tend to benefit most from a transit system, and if we eliminate fixed routes, it takes options away from them,” Hunter said.
For example, Hunter noted that the original recommendation identified Route D – which goes south from the Tracy Transit Station to the Edgewood subdivision, then north toward Kimball High, and then to Lowell Avenue and West High toward Holly Drive and back to the transit station – as the first fixed route that could be eliminated. Eventually all six routes would be consolidated into three routes by 2023. In their place, the core of the “micro system” would be a concept called “personal mobility on demand,” which would allow riders to use a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft to get across town.
Hunter said that’s the type of recommendation from the original report that commissioners rejected. The revised report instead offers removal of a route only as a suggestion if the council, pending further study, decides that the route does not attract sufficient ridership.
“Now Route D will not be eliminated, but if for some reason it isn’t performing, there are alternatives there,” Hunter said.
Lovell said that the idea of cutting out established routes was carefully considered, with consultant IBI Group taking on a study that examined where and when the systems’ riders — 158,000 each year — boarded the Tracer fixed-route buses. The busiest line, Route F, averages 8.7 riders per hour as it goes from the transit station south on Central Avenue and Tracy Boulevard toward the Altamont Commuter Express station on Linne Road and then back up MacArthur Drive toward the transit station. Route D is the least busy route, averaging 3.9 riders per hour.
Instead of replacing the fixed routes, the on-demand system could work as an overlay to the fixed routes to reach areas that don’t have as many riders.
“The idea is, for those people, let’s provide an alternative service,” Lovell said. “So what council is asking us to do is instead of immediately replacing it, let’s do a pilot program.”
The pilot program for personal mobility on demand would go up for City Council review after its first year. The council would then review the number of riders using each aspect of the city’s transit system and decide how fixed routes and on-demand service should be adjusted.
“The one thing we’re trying to do with the on-demand service is we’re trying to fill some of the gaps that we know exist, but it doesn’t seem feasible right now to run a fixed-route system,” Lovell said.
For example, he noted that people say they want Sunday service, but there’s no data that could define just how people would ride the bus on Sundays.
“During this pilot program, we’re going to do on-demand service on Sundays,” he said. “That would help us gauge, what is the real need for Sunday service?”
He emphasized that the primary mission of the Tracer service is to provide transportation to people who otherwise would have no way to get around town efficiently. The next task is to convince everyone else that public transit is a good choice.
“There are people that depend on transit, and we’re trying not to take that away from people who depend on transit,” he said. “But how can we get people who have a choice in using transit to want to use it?”