Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Trouble with the Victor Valley Commuter

The Victor Valley Transit Authority used to run a bus line up and down the I-15 between various points in the Victor Valley and San Bernardino and Rancho Cucamonga/Ontario. The line provided timed transfers to Metrolink, as well as connections to Omnitrans at Ontario Mills and San Bernardino (and MARTA at San Bernardino, and RTA at Ontario Mills). The agency started the service in 2002, and provided generous schedules on both lines, and fares that were reasonable ($75/month, though a single round trip ran $9) and provided a half-off discount for Metrolink riders. The buses were large, comfortable Neoplan Metroliners with on-board restrooms and 110V AC outlets for laptops or other electronic devices. The service was funded on a two-year federal exploratory grant to study the feasability of such services.

Despite all of the advantages I listed above, especially when compared to a daily drive down the I-15 through Cajon Pass (seriously, I don't know how those people do it every day), the service didn't garner enough ridership to balance VVTA's budget and it suffered drastic cuts when the federal grant ran out in 2004. The service was finally discontinued entirely in 2005. So what went wrong? I leave that up to you.

Just kidding. This is a blog, of course, and so you know I must have an opinion on the matter.

The major problem with the Commuter was the routing on the High Desert side. The VVTA apparently conceived of this service as a sort of Metrolink Victor Valley Line, a transit service that was apt to attract what planners often call "choice riders"- the folks who have a car and can choose whether to drive or not. They were so certain of this aspect of their service, in fact, that the connections between the Commuter lines and the local bus system in the Victor Valley were few and far between. The primary stops for the bus line were the Park-And-Ride facilities at the Victor Valley Transportation Center (the Greyhound/Amtrak station, but mostly devoid of local bus service), Bear Valley Rd. and 395/Joshua Tree. When I rode the bus (as I was stuck up in Wrightwood for much of the summer of 2004), I would have my father drop me off at the Joshua Tree park-and-ride in the morning, and in the evening I would get off at the Bear Valley park-and-ride and walk the mile between there and VVTA's major transfer point at the Victor Valley Mall, where I could catch the 21 back home. A few off-peak services, mostly heading down the hill in the early afternoon, stopped at the transfer point at Victor Valley College, but they were the exception rather than the rule. The monthly passes sold on the Commuter were good on the local buses, and Commuter riders were entitled to free transfers on the local system even if they didn't have passes, but the actual buses rarely allowed transfers.

The fact of the matter is that transit-dependent riders are just that: transit-dependent. If you offer them a service, they will ride it. When the Commuter service did connect to the local bus system, there were plenty of eager riders to take advantage of it. Even Metrolink, which does attract choice riders, still sees approximately 17% of their ridership from the transit-dependent. That may not sound like a lot, but an extra 20% to a given route's ridership can make a very big budgetary difference. The sad bit is that it would not have been terribly difficult to make these connections. Instead of routing the bus up I-15 between the Transportation Center and the Bear Valley Park-and-Ride, it could have run up 7th street and stopped at the major Victorville transfer point at Lorene. At Bear Valley, the bus could have made a short loop around to the bus loop at the mall. These simple changes would connect the Commuter service directly to 10 of the 18 bus routes in the VVTA system, and put it within one transfer of every single bus stop in the Victor Valley. Suddenly, the car-free denizens of the area have a real opportunity to access jobs and services down the hill, and the VV Commuter has a loyal and productive ridership base.

The second problem with the Victor Valley Commuter was its practice of deadheading up the hill after morning service. On several of the evening runs, it stopped at Victor Valley College (just a few blocks from VVTA's yard) before barreling down the I-15 to pick up returning commuters. However, after dropping them off in the morning, on most runs the bus went out of service for the entire 60 miles back up to the desert. Want to go visit family in Victorville or Hesperia without driving I-15? Tough. After such a substantial drive, there is no reason that a vehicle shouldn't even be given the opportunity to haul some passengers in revenue service. Combine this with the fact that two of VVTA's transfer points, the Victor Valley Mall and Victor Valley College, are both on the way back to the yard, and you get a policy that is nothing short of ridiculous. An opportunity to haul passengers in revenue service shouldn't be denied, especially when the vehicle is traveling such a long way. Could it have saved the service? It couldn't have made it any worse.

Finally, when the service was cut in 2004, the cuts were made in a poor way. VVTA chose to preserve the earliest trips in the morning, and the latest trips at night, in an admirable attempt to ensure access to jobs in the L.A. area. The thinking was that, if you were taking the bus in to get to work at 8am, you could take the bus an hour earlier and still be able to keep your job, and likewise with the bus an hour later at night. Obviously, the agency forgot that they were trying to cater to "choice" riders, and that those riders were happy to exercise their choice when the service became inconvenient for them. Add two extra hours to my commute every day, and I'll be looking very carefully at my options as well. And, of course, these cuts made it even more difficult for transit-dependent riders to access the Commuter- you had to get up even earlier to make that long walk to the park-and-ride, and for some trips, there simply was no local bus service. In making these cuts, VVTA managed to alienate both choice riders and transit-dependent riders all at once, and the service predictably failed a few months later.

They did do one smart thing when they made the 2004 service changes, however. They added a stop at CSU San Bernardino. Not only is this a major trip generator in and of itself, as CSUSB is the nearest public university to the high desert, but it's also a major bus hub for Omnitrans routes in northern San Bernardino.

Anyway, I bring this up now because VVTA, SANBAG and the various desert cities are studying new I-15 transit service options. I plan on sending all of these observations to them, along with my thoughts on what that corridor needs. What we don't need is another Victor Valley Commuter. The residents and transit riders of the Victor Valley deserve better.

1 comment:

cph said...

At some point VVTA did offer reverse-commute service. I remember riding it a couple of times in 2003. The reverse-commute service had a different routing, ran straight to Victor Valley College and ended there.

I don't recall the ridership on the regular service, but reverse-commute ridership was nearly nonexistent. I was the only passenger the two times I rode it.

To "work", the commuter service really needed to connect to each train. Some trips could have run later in the morning, geared to commuters working in San Bernardino. But the service was just too sparse to begin with, and when it was cut back to one round trip per day, it was made even less useful.

If done right, the CSUSB stop might have added ridership. Instead, VVTA routed the bus so that it made all its stops in San Bernardino first, then went back up the hill to CSUSB.

In the end, VVTA never seemed all that committed to the service, and dropped it like a hot rock when the demonstration money ended.