Unplanned cancellations continue to plague GGT

Well that was fast.

Not even one day after permanently eliminating four morning commuter bus departures to prevent unplanned cancellations, Golden Gate Transit (GGT) had three unplanned cancellations, all on Novato’s Route 54. It amounted to a 30 percent reduction in service on a popular and necessary route, forcing some riders to stand for the almost 90 minute trip.

Wait, catch me up – what’s going on?

Ever since releasing their newest schedule, GGT has been cancelling departures on a number of commuter routes. It claims this is because of higher-than-expected driver attrition, but the agency’s drivers were apparently aware of the problem even before the new schedule was released. Rather than create a schedule that fits the driver pool available, GGT planned for the unscheduled cancellations.

The next driver class, which will graduate in September, are supposed to alleviate the pain. In the interim, GGT created scheduled cancellations on routes 4, 24, and 54. These scheduled cancellations, which went into effect today, were meant to put a stop to the uncertainty by right-sizing the number of departures to the number of typically available drivers.

Despite scheduling cancellations, the GGT’s online schedules haven’t changed. One presumes they’re also still on Google Maps. I don’t doubt this is confusing and frustrating new riders.

But it didn’t work?

Apparently not. With four scheduled cancellations and three unscheduled cancellations, GGT was apparently down seven drivers – far more than normal. Before this, GGT would only cancel up to three departures per day. This is unprecedented.

Consistent commuter bus schedules are vital to maintaining a one- or no-car household. By cancelling routes, GGT is forcing hundreds of families to reevaluate whether this service is reliable enough to use for a regular commute. It must, must staunch the bleeding now, before it does even more damage to itself. GGT worked hard for decades to build a reputation for reliability, and now it’s burning it down for no reason other than its own negligence.

GGT considers replacing Route 80 with expanded 70 and 101 service

What I propose should come of Golden Gate Transit's changes.

What I propose should come of Golden Gate Transit’s changes. The left two lines – 101 and 70 – are the target of GGT’s proposals.

For Santa Rosans who’ve stayed too late in San Francisco, they know the slog once the 101 stops running: 3 hours on Route 80 up to downtown, likely arriving well after midnight.

Ridership on the 80 has been steadily declining, with most of the trips on the service actually being intra-Marin trips – that is, from those who would be just as happy on a 70 or 71 as on an 80 – while ridership on the 101 has been steadily increasing. Simplifying the system by folding the revenue hours of the 80 into the 70 and 101 seems like a no-brainer.

Currently, there are 9 routes plying Highway 101, but GGT is looking at just its 3 Basic routes: 70, 80, and 101. The 70 offers local service from Novato to San Francisco, stopping at every bus pad in between. The 80 offers local service from Santa Rosa to San Francisco. The 101 offers local service in Sonoma and skip-stop service through Marin, stopping only at Novato, San Rafael, and the Spencer Avenue bus pad.

GGT wants to eliminate Route 80 and hand over its runs – typically in the morning and evening – to the two remaining services. Route 70 would cover its local service in Marin, while Route 101 would cover its local service in Sonoma, so that there would be no loss of service span or service frequency. In other words, the system will work better. SF-to-Sonoma riders won’t need to slog through all Marin’s local stops, and Marin riders will just see a number change.

To optimize the usefulness of the new service pattern, a timed transfer will be important at Novato to the 70 and local routes. This will give travelers between Sonoma and Marin access to all of the other county’s bus pads with a simple and short transfer. A timed transfer with Mendocino County’s Route 68 at Santa Rosa, too, will allow GGT travelers access to points far to the north of GGT’s service range.

The total net cost of this switch will be about $100,000 per year. While well worth the cost, it’s odd this isn’t a free change. The service hours and span of the 80 are simply being divvied up, not added to.

This is a similar plan to one Clem Tillier proposed for Caltrain: a local San Mateo train and a Santa Clara local that skips most of San Mateo’s stops on its way to San Francisco. Given the quasi-rail nature of GGT’s highway service, it’s not surprising that what would work well in for a rail line would also work well for a bus system.

Ideally, GGT wouldn’t stop there, and would partner with Marin Transit reexamine all their all-day highway routes. Route 71 duplicates Route 70 within Marin but doesn’t go into San Francisco. Route 36 duplicates it between San Rafael and Marin City, as does Route 17. Routes 4, 24 27, and 92 also operate all day along Highway 101 to San Francisco, but they run on different routes once they enter the City.

Perhaps some or all of these service hours would do better in the basic 70 and 101 lines, allowing greater frequency and reliability outside of just the interlining areas.

This is an all-too-rare positive step by GGT to streamline its operations and run a better service, and they deserve applause. The next step is a Title VI examination, required by federal law, to ensure the change doesn’t adversely affect minority populations, followed by as public hearings. Here’s hoping everything goes well.

High attrition the cause of GGT’s cancellations

This morning, no fewer than 5 Golden Gate Transit buses were cancelled: 2 runs of Route 24, 2 runs of Route 54, and 1 run of Route 27. Other routes don’t have email alerts, so it’s unknown whether any of those were cancelled. It’s also unknown whether any northbound trips will be cancelled this evening.

At least we know there’s a solution under way. Under the post on Golden Gate Transit’s (GGT’s) high cancellation rate on Route 54 and elsewhere in the system, customer service responded with an answer:

Golden Gate Transit’s goal is to never cancel trips on our routes, and we do everything possible to prevent cancellations. Unfortunately, we have fewer drivers right now due to a much higher attrition rate than expected. Because of this shortage of drivers, we have had more cancellations than we have experienced for some time. Employees are volunteering to work extra hours to minimize these disruptions in service. When Golden Gate Transit is forced to make a cancellation, we rotate routes so that one route is not harder hit than any other. We try to distribute cancellations as evenly as possible throughout our system. We encourage our customers to sign up for our rider alerts so they may get notification via email or text when there are cancellations or other service disruptions. Visit our website at http://www.goldengate.org to sign up for these alerts.

The current bus operator class graduates later this summer, with another class expected to graduate by the end of the year. Both of these classes are larger than most training classes, and will hopefully provide Golden Gate Transit the manpower it needs to prevent cancellations. We appreciate your patience while we work hard to alleviate this problem and want our riders to know that we are dedicated to bringing you reliable service.

While knowledge of the cause of the disruptions certainly doesn’t make them any better or tolerable, it’s good to know there is a solution in sight. Without dates we won’t know when this solution is coming, of course, but I suspect that by September things will look better.

Once the situation improves, GGT must go out of its way to repair its tarnished image. A week of free trips on the effected lines would certainly help, as would some old-fashioned PR outreach. Implementing real-time arrivals would help, too.

Alas, until then, GGT commuters should keep an ear out for cancellations. Follow and report missing buses on Twitter with the #missingbus tag. Email contact@goldengate.org to sign up for text alerts for select routes – 24, 27, 54, and 76 (other routes aren’t available). Keep your fellow commuter apprised.

Rider alleges staff issues at GGT will mean increasingly unreliable service

The other day on Twitter, Danny Skarka, a regular rider of GGT’s commuter route 54 (Novato), said his driver announced there was a looming driver shortage. The result, said the driver, will be unreliable service on the 54. Skarka followed up with a Google+ post, reproduced here in full:

This is what the driver announced this morning:

When the new schedule starts in June, our bus will not have a regular driver. Our bus, the 54, is considered “expendable” and when they are short drivers, our bus will be cancelled with no notice.

I felt sorry for the driver. The rider reaction was less than positive. The 54 has been plagued for some time. 

My assumption is not ALL 54s are expendable, but considering how full they get, canceling any one will cause a ripple effect of overcrowded buses. I have been on many 54s with standing room only. “Bus Surfing” at 60 mph and no seat belt. 

They are often short drivers. So this scenario will happen. I have already seem many cancelled 54s. 

Unfortunately GGT is not very tech. A Geo-aware mobile app (since we all have a smart phone on us ) where we can set what route we use would be wonderful. It could give us updates. We could refresh Clipper Cards much more easily without the delay seen now using the website. In other cities, the bus location shows up on maps so you can tell if you need to run to a stop to meet a bus. Tag data could tell us if a bus was full. Much can be approved. 

I don’t know the agencies challenges so it’s not fair to be overly critical. However, the same agency is raising bridge tolls, and charging for parking at ferries. So non-drivers are stuck with the monopoly.

I am considering starting a #MissingBus hash on Twitter for passengers to help each other. Something easily followed and contributed to. 

Comments please.

If true, this is a disturbing lack of regard for GGT’s customers and GGT’s mission. Reliable bus service is vital to a commuter. What will someone do if they usually take the last 54 and it never shows up?

I have an email out to Golden Gate Transit to find out how true Skarka’s assertions might be and to get some information on staffing and service hours in the June schedule and I will update if I get any more information.

Boost connectivity with integrated scheduling

The principal problem with Larkspur Ferry parking is really that it has poor connections to other modes, especially bus. Though there used to be a shuttle system in place, it didn’t do well and was cut years ago. While the Wave has taken a step toward reintroducing the shuttle, Golden Gate Transit has ignored regular bus service from the 29, as well as daytime and weekend trips to and from the ferry.

To help riders get a visual of their options, I’ve created an integrated bus/ferry schedule (PDF) for routes 17, 25, 29, and 228 – all of which serve Larkspur Ferry Terminal at some time or another. The Interurban light rail schedule (PDF) did the same thing with the Sausalito Ferry.

On the weekdays, what stands out to me is the very long connections for people coming from San Francisco. Though the 29 does pretty well for those heading to the ferry during the day – most require waits of only 10-15 minutes – it’s awful for connections from the ferry. Most connections are between 20-30 minutes, a couple leave only a minute to spare, and just a handful are in the sweet spot between 5 and 10 minutes. Optimizing the time points between the bus and ferry could boost ridership all on its own, without any need for new service.

Study the schedule yourself and you’ll see what I mean. And, if you’re a frequent ferry rider, print it out and keep it in your schedule book.

Bus commuter schedules no longer reflect demand

Though by all accounts Golden Gate Transit’s commuter bus system is quite popular, it is increasingly out of touch with the commute times of Marin’s modern workforce. Marinites leave for work later, but GGT continues to operate with early-morning service.

FiveThirtyEight recently took Census data and determined which metropolitan areas get to work the latest. The San Francisco metro area, of which Marin is a part, got fifth on the list, with a median arrival time of 8:17am but a 75th percentile arrival time of about 9:30am. The bottom of the range is about 7:45am.

Just after reading this, reader John Browne, a frequent rider of the last Route 18 from Kentfield, tweeted:

It turns out John Browne is right.

Using the same Census data FiveThirtyEight used (though without the math to convert it into the ranges author Nate Silver did), I plotted out the average departure times for Marin commuters taking all modes to work. Transit commuters leave work at roughly the same rate as others up until 9am:

Yellow is transit.

Yellow is transit.

The proportion of transit riders leaving home between 9 and 10 stays down after the drop from 8:30 to 8:59 while other modes pop back up.

A glance at the span of service for Marin’s commute buses makes it easy to see why that might be. On average, the last Marin stop for a Marin commuter line is about 8:27, while the average last departure is a bit earlier at 8am. In other words, if you want to get out of Marin by bus, you’re probably going to have to leave home before 8 or 8:30, and that’s exactly what shows up in the Census data.

GGT should reexamine the county’s travel demand and which final buses are the most crowded and aim to add service to those lines later in the morning. Adding to service span will scoop up riders that want to leave later, and can also give earlier riders the peace of mind that they can leave later if needed, helping shore up ridership earlier in the morning, too.

It’s not just tech workers that are leaving later in the day, it’s Marinites in general. Our transit system should start scheduling for that.

Marin’s transit ridership in step with national trends

Public transit ridership in the United States is higher than it’s been since 1956: 10.7 billion trips, up 1 percent from last year. While this indicates an overall trend toward transit, it’s been driven largely by high-quality transit: heavy rail like BART, commuter rail like Caltrain, and light rail like Muni Metro.

Marin County’s transit picture largely echoes the national trend, though this is not a new story for our county. High-quality transit, namely trains elsewhere but ferries here, continues a ridership boom, as has commuter bus service, but local bus ridership continues to slowly slide. Overall, Marinites are taking more transit.

Local bus

Golden Gate Transit’s Marin-only service has been bleeding passengers for the past five years, from about 4.1 million to roughly 3.3 million today. Including Marin Transit’s independent operations, such as West Marin Stagecoach and school service, local ridership ticked down by 0.7 percent over last year, to 3.4 million trips.

Regional bus

Golden Gate Transit’s commuter and basic routes to San Francisco, however, are doing quite well. For the past 32 months ridership has grown and, year on year, grew by 1.3 percent over January, 2013, to about 2.5 million trips. This, however, is still down from 2004’s 3 million trips.

Ferry service

All that changes when you include the ferries. Despite a steep price hike in 2003, ferry ridership has been growing like gangbusters. Even excluding Sausalito, whose figures are skewed by tourists, Larkspur’s ridership growth has been more than enough to offset the long-term decline in regional bus ridership.

Larkspur ridership grew by 7.3 percent in the past year, from approximately 1.5 million trips last year to about 1.6 million this year. Sausalito ridership grew twice as fast, 14.9 percent, though at around 750,000 annual trips it’s still a small share of total ridership.

The rapid growth in the ferry system continues a now-32 month growth streak begun in 2011. It shot through its all-time record, set in 1978, in 2012, and shows no sign of slowing down.

What it all means

The national trend toward transit is really a national trend toward quality transit. Buses that come every hour and take 4 times as long to get around as a car just don’t cut it.

Indeed, even as MTC has focused a huge amount of attention and money on moving people faster in cars, it has spent almost no time focused on moving people faster on transit. BART is the only major investment in the past half-century that has dramatically improved mobility through the Bay Area, but has now been expanded to areas that do little to boost ridership. Other booming systems are those that feel higher-class or that run as fast or faster than driving, such as Caltrain.

In that light, it’s no surprise Marin’s high-class transit service, the ferry, is doing so well. So too is it no surprise that commuter buses, which generally offer a nicer ride than local buses, are steadily growing as well. Combined, the two systems grew by 3.5 percent this past year, quite a bit faster than Golden Gate Bridge traffic, which is up 2.4 percent.

These and national trends should guide GGBHTD and Marin Transit as they choose their capital investments. Big investments in the bus system should focus on speed, for both the locals and commuters, and comfort, for the commuters. Signal priority, for example, which allows approaching buses to turn red lights green, would help make schedules more reliable and make the bus more competitive against the car.

Small investments should focus on usability and connectivity. Open-source real-time arrival data for all buses, for example, would be a huge boon for riders, dispelling the anxiety one gets waiting for an infrequent bus to come.

For ferries, their extremely fast growth rate means capacity problems are on the horizon. GGT needs to start laying the groundwork for more crossings from Larkspur. Ongoing problems with midday ridership will continue to be a roadblock to better service as well. Even faster-growing ridership at Sausalito may require more ferries to meet the demand.

Marin’s experience shows national trends are indeed applicable to our county. Investments in usability, in connectivity, and in higher-quality trips would capitalize on overall demand for transbay travel, while investments in frequency and speed could stop the slide of local service. Transit planners here would do well to learn from the successes of others.

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