From The GM – Page 3 – County Connection

Free Fare Bus Service from Creekside: An Organic and Smart Transportation – Land Use Outcome

Thanks to the City of Walnut Creek, County Connection will introduce a revamped Route 5 on Monday, August 18. This retooled service will provide direct and quick access between the Creekside neighborhood and the Walnut Creek BART Station. The route is anticipated to be popular, with buses hitting various stops every 20-minutes during peak travel periods. And, perhaps best of all, it will be free to all riders courtesy of the City of Walnut Creek, who will underwrite the fares for users.

There are 439 apartment units along Creekside Drive with an estimated population of just over 2,000 people.  The “new” Route 5 helps convert an established denser neighborhood into one that is transit-friendly and is an example of what urban planners commonly call, “smart growth” – meaning growth that is directed in an intentional and comprehensive manner.  While Creekside doesn’t represent new growth, the revamped Route 5 is a significant improvement to the quality of life for this established neighborhood and proves that the principles of smart growth apply to existing communities, as well as developing new ones “smartly”.

The “new” Route 5 is a good illustration of how a thriving partnership, like the one between County Connection and the City of Walnut Creek, can benefit public transit and the people who take advantage of our services. Without the City’s cooperation and partnership, service improvements like to Route 5 would not be possible. And of course, without the City’s financial support, the Route 5 fares would not be free.

The revamped Route 5 is also an example of good public planning. This retooled service is a result of the recently completed Adaptive Service Plan that County Connection produced earlier this year. This planning process looked at areas, like the Creekside neighborhood, to see how bus services could be improved and made more effective and useful to the public. With the implementation of the “new” Route 5, County Connection is bringing its Adaptive Service Plan to life and improving the livability of a neighborhood. It’s an organic, real and tangible example of good transportation and land use coordination of existing resources and existing development.

Serving Local Students

With the arrival of summer, County Connection once again is offering its Summer Youth Passes for youth ages 6 to 18 years old.  This special also allows two or more children to use the same pass making it even more convenient for budget conscious families.  County Connection has a long history of serving the youth in our area.

After the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, most school districts in California responded by reducing yellow school bus services.  This was one of the more popular ways for school districts to manage the declining tax revenues associated with Proposition 13.   School districts in Contra Costa County were among those that took this path.

However, students still needed transportation to and from school throughout the County Connection service area.  Thus, County Connection became a popular transportation option for many students.  On a typical school day, nearly 2,000 youth use County Connection for travel to or from school.

It is worth noting that providing this service was one of the main drivers behind the effort to create County Connection in 1980.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

To further facilitate this service, County Connection has well established working relationships with all the school districts and schools within our service area.  This helps us to provide smooth, efficient, and safe transportation for many students in our area.  In addition, most schools do a great job of marketing our services to their surrounding communities, which is beneficial to us, as it leads to additional County Connection usage beyond students going to school.

This just another example of how our partnering with the community is so vital to what we do at County Connection.  Ultimately, it’s the public that benefits from these partnerships.

Operation Restrictions

County Connection bus services geared toward students is not the same, however as a typical yellow school bus service.  In fact, the school districts have actually little say in how we operate these services.  In providing services that are used by students, County Connection has to adhere to some seemingly routine, but interesting federal regulations that most people are not aware of.

In short, federal law forbids public transit operators, like County Connection, from operating direct school bus service.  That means that we cannot operate on school property, that any and all services we offer must be available to anyone – not just the students going to a school, and that any service that serves a bus stop next to a school must also serve all other bus stops along that route.

What we can do is tailor schedules to school bell times and adjust routing to some degree.  The partnering with the schools also includes regular communications of various bell times and things like early outs, well in advance of each school year.

So, while we don’t operate school bus service per se, we do operate service that is very useful for many students to go to and from school.  This is gratifying for us to offer, and a service for which parents are very thankful.

Our Valuable Partnership With DVC

Diablo Valley College (DVC) has provided quality education for over 60 years and is one of three publicly supported two-year community colleges in the Contra Costa Community College District. The larger of DVC’s two campuses is located off Interstate 680 in Pleasant Hill. The newer San Ramon Campus serves the south county in Dougherty Valley. Between its two campuses, DVC serves more than 22,000 students each semester. The challenge both face is parking for its students, faculty and staff. The Pleasant Hill campus has approximately 2,000 parking spaces. This is where County Connection comes in.

County Connection has a long history of providing service to DVC. We consider DVC to be one of our most valuable partners. San Ramon Campus is accessible using County Connection route 35. In late 2010, a new County Connection Transit Center was opened at DVC Pleasant Hill. This project, which was funded in large part through a federal transportation earmark garnered by then Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher and supported by local Measure J funds, is vital to the modernization of the DVC campus. It allows us to safely and conveniently serve more people with public transit at DVC’s largest campus.

Currently, over 1,000 students and faculty use County Connection to access DVC Pleasant Hill on a daily basis. County Connection riders can use routes 9, 18, 20, or 28 to access DVC. All of these routes directly serve a BART station. These connections to BART allow students and faculty to use public transit regionally to access DVC. This is important as many DVC students come from outside central Contra Costa County. Of course people living locally can use County Connection quite easily to get to DVC too. Routes 314, 316, and 320 serve the Pleasant Hill campus on weekends.

Advocates for More Transit

Last year, DVC students attended a meeting of the County Connection Operations & Scheduling (O&S) Committee to talk about over-crowding on Route 20 between the Concord BART station and DVC. They came prepared, showing the committee photographs of the overcrowding and advocated for more service. As a result of that, the O&S Committee directed County Connection staff to add buses to Route 20 to accommodate the demand for service to DVC. These added buses – as well as the others on Route 20 – are often full.

As DVC continues to grow in terms of student population, public transit service to and from DVC will only become more vital.  To prepare, County Connection and DVC are in discussions about the creation of a DVC student/faculty fare pass for County Connection service. Also, we are looking at ways to enhance services to DVC in the future.

County Connection also plays another important role as a key partner with DVC when it comes to emergency response and/or evacuation. A number of DVC students have physical disabilities that require the use of County Connection LINK service to access DVC. Should a need ever arise to evacuate DVC during an emergency, County Connection LINK staff and DVC staff have processes in place to ensure the safe and timely evacuation of LINK users from DVC.

Our service to DVC also benefits the residents of Pleasant Hill that live near DVC. As the DVC parking lots fill, students and faculty that use County Connection to access DVC are not parking in the adjacent neighborhoods, which reduces potential traffic in the area and also saves scarce on-street parking for those nearby residents.

All of us at County Connection take pride in the role we play in making DVC a very valuable place of learning for the future leaders and producers of our community.

Our Valuable Partnership With DVC

Diablo Valley College (DVC) has provided quality education for over 60 years and is one of three publicly supported two-year community colleges in the Contra Costa Community College District. The larger of DVC’s two campuses is located off Interstate 680 in Pleasant Hill. The newer San Ramon Campus serves the south county in Dougherty Valley. Between its two campuses, DVC serves more than 22,000 students each semester. The challenge both face is parking for its students, faculty and staff. The Pleasant Hill campus has approximately 2,000 parking spaces. This is where County Connection comes in.

County Connection has a long history of providing service to DVC. We consider DVC to be one of our most valuable partners. San Ramon Campus is accessible using County Connection route 35. In late 2010, a new County Connection Transit Center was opened at DVC Pleasant Hill. This project, which was funded in large part through a federal transportation earmark garnered by then Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher and supported by local Measure J funds, is vital to the modernization of the DVC campus. It allows us to safely and conveniently serve more people with public transit at DVC’s largest campus.

Currently, over 1,000 students and faculty use County Connection to access DVC Pleasant Hill on a daily basis. County Connection riders can use routes 9, 18, 20, or 28 to access DVC. All of these routes directly serve a BART station. These connections to BART allow students and faculty to use public transit regionally to access DVC. This is important as many DVC students come from outside central Contra Costa County. Of course people living locally can use County Connection quite easily to get to DVC too. Routes 314, 316, and 320 serve the Pleasant Hill campus on weekends.

Advocates for More Transit

Last year, DVC students attended a meeting of the County Connection Operations & Scheduling (O&S) Committee to talk about over-crowding on Route 20 between the Concord BART station and DVC. They came prepared, showing the committee photographs of the overcrowding and advocated for more service. As a result of that, the O&S Committee directed County Connection staff to add buses to Route 20 to accommodate the demand for service to DVC. These added buses – as well as the others on Route 20 – are often full.

As DVC continues to grow in terms of student population, public transit service to and from DVC will only become more vital.  To prepare, County Connection and DVC are in discussions about the creation of a DVC student/faculty fare pass for County Connection service. Also, we are looking at ways to enhance services to DVC in the future.

County Connection also plays another important role as a key partner with DVC when it comes to emergency response and/or evacuation. A number of DVC students have physical disabilities that require the use of County Connection LINK service to access DVC. Should a need ever arise to evacuate DVC during an emergency, County Connection LINK staff and DVC staff have processes in place to ensure the safe and timely evacuation of LINK users from DVC.

Our service to DVC also benefits the residents of Pleasant Hill that live near DVC. As the DVC parking lots fill, students and faculty that use County Connection to access DVC are not parking in the adjacent neighborhoods, which reduces potential traffic in the area and also saves scarce on-street parking for those nearby residents.

All of us at County Connection take pride in the role we play in making DVC a very valuable place of learning for the future leaders and producers of our community.

A Model Private-Public Partnership

For nearly 20 years, County Connection has enjoyed a very positive and productive private-public partnership with Sunset Development, the owners of Bishop Ranch Business Park in San Ramon. As a result of this partnership, County Connection provides over 13,000 annual service hours in direct shuttle service between Bishop Ranch and both the Walnut Creek BART station and the Dublin BART station.

Sunset Development invests over $500,000 per year in fare and operational subsidies that help County Connection meet the BART trains at both stations during peak travel times.  This financial support enables County Connection to provide over 200,000 passenger trips on our Bishop Ranch shuttles annually. That translates to a lot less cars on I-680 during commute hours. Employees of companies located at Bishop Ranch have a great commute alternative that allows them the option to not drive to work, but rather relax or work as they let County Connection do the driving. Bishop Ranch workers ride free, because Sunset Development covers the fare for them.

The benefit of the private-public partnership, however, goes beyond the Bishop Ranch employees. Anyone can ride the Bishop Ranch shuttles. Open to the public, riders not associated with a Bishop Ranch employer simply pays the fare. With Sunset Development helping with the cost of operating the service itself, County Connection is able to run more buses in the I-680 corridor, providing the general public with additional service.

=In short, we offer a public service that is significantly supported by a private partner that benefits the entire public, not just those employed by the organizations that make up Sunset Development. This is an important distinction because this model is in contrast to what is happening in San Francisco. In the Bay Area, privately sponsored buses – not open to the public and not financially supporting public transit – are proving to be a potential competitor to public transit and are often controversial as a result. A recent guest editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle Why we protest the ‘Google’ buses by Michael Barnes discusses this trend. The County Connection partnership with Sunset Development is exactly what the author is advocating.

Sunset Development has been working with us since 1996! No one has ever tried to protest a County Connection bus heading to Bishop Ranch.

Another benefit of this partnership is that County Connection can identify the buses used for service to Bishop Ranch, as Bishop Ranch branded buses. This helps create the sense that users are riding a service tailored to employees of Bishop Ranch businesses. We also work closely with Sunset Development on the scheduling of the buses serving Bishop Ranch Business Park to help us provide the most convenient service possible.

County Connection is very proud and thankful for our long and successful private-public partnership with Sunset Development. It allows us to provide a better service to the public whether one works at Bishop Ranch or not. And, it enables the employers of Bishop Ranch to offer their employees an effective alternative to the daily congestion of I-680.

We believe that this serves as a model private-public partnership in giving the public high-quality mobility options that are cost effective and contribute to congestion management.

Is That Bus Really Empty?

Now and then I am asked, “Why does County Connection run empty buses?” One way to answer that is the comparison to highways and roads: sometimes they are wide open to the driver and seem ‘empty’ but other times bursting to capacity. But, that is an overly simplistic response. Here’s a more detailed explanation.

Route Design
Buses are driven on routes that go from point A to point B via prescribed routing and timetables that serve all the stops along a given route. Route design takes into account many factors, such as travel patterns, street patterns, and the location of various places. Most riders do not need to travel end to end. Rather, somewhere along the route the rider gets off before the route terminates, except in the case where the route ends at a BART station. As a bus traverses its route from end to end, the number of people on the bus at any single point along the way can vary greatly. Further, that variation changes throughout the day.

Recently, for example, a County Connection Route 10 (BART Concord/Clayton) trip departed the Concord BART Station heading eastbound along Clayton Road with 21 passengers on board. This particular bus can seat 38 and much more standing. As the bus made its way east on Clayton Road, the number of passengers on board dropped to three, as a result of people exiting the bus along the way. If you were to have observed this bus at that moment, you might think you are seeing an “empty bus”. Further along the route, however, more people got on this bus raising the passenger count to 14. By the time the bus reached its end point in downtown Clayton, the rider count on the bus was down to five people. This up and down pattern of passengers is very typical on County Connection buses.

On another typical Route 10 trip returning to Concord BART via Clayton Road, the bus departed downtown Clayton with four people on board. Somewhere along the way, the number of people increased to 23 on board. By the time this same bus pulled into the Concord BART Station, it had four people on board.

Let’s run through another example. County Connection runs Route 92X – an express service – between the Altamont Commuter Train (ACE) Pleasanton train station and the Mitchell Park ‘N’ Ride lot at Shadelands Business Park in Walnut Creek. This Route makes stops at Bishop Ranch in San Ramon, the Danville Park ‘N’ Ride lot off of I-680 and Sycamore Road, as well as the Walnut Creek BART Station. Though it is a very well used service, the buses are not at capacity the entire time while on the streets.

A typical trip on Route 92X leaving the ACE station in the morning often looks like this recent one, where 26 people boarded and were heading north. Most of those people departed at Bishop Ranch. The number of people left on the bus dropped to six. Further down the line up to 20 people were on this bus. By the time the bus reached the Mitchell Park ‘N’ Ride lot, however, there were only four people on board.

So, as you can see, the exact location where you observe a bus can lead to a wrong conclusion about how many people actually use that particular service.

Time Of Day
Time of day can be another factor. While a bus might carry a relatively high number of people on one trip, it might carry far less on the next. For example, perhaps between roughly 12:00 noon and 2:30 p.m. a bus on a Route carries a low number of passengers. That same bus on the same Route may later carry full loads between 2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. as students go home from school. Then, the next trip or two may see low numbers of riders only to be full again after 5:30 p.m. as people go home from work.

For example, let’s look at County Connection Route 35 — a service that traverses between the San Ramon Transit Center and the Dublin BART Station. After leaving our bus yard in North Concord, Route 35 went into service at 7:00 a.m. heading south from the San Ramon Transit Center. Fourteen people boarded and went to BART. During its eight and half hour run, it had one trip that carried only six people on a San Ramon Transit Center departure bound for the Dublin BART Station. However, it carried 11 people on the 12:00 noon trip to Dublin BART. At 2:00 p.m., this bus carried 17 people between the San Ramon Transit Center and the Dublin BART Station, while carrying 31 people on the return trip back to the Center. Then the bus completed its day and went out of service. This one bus and one operator carried a total of 123 people during its roughly eight-hour run.

So then, you might ask: “Why not use a smaller bus, when you know which times County Connection hits peak ridership?” If we had used different buses of different sizes, based upon the roller coaster nature of rider usage, we would have needed not one, but multiple buses going back and forth from San Ramon to our bus yard in North Concord and multiple operators on the clock. Given our resources and cost to take this approach with not only Route 35, but also all our routes, it would be cost prohibitive. This is why once we send a bus out into service, it is a better use of resources to keep the bus out even though not every trip the bus makes will be well used by the riding public.

So, perhaps the next time you see a bus that is not full, you might better understand that one person’s empty bus is another person’s full bus somewhere along the route.

How is a bus route scheduled?

Adhering to an advertised bus schedule is vital in the public transit business. Did you ever wonder how a bus schedule is established in the first place? The scheduling of buses is both art and science. Here are a few examples of the factors that make bus scheduling more complex than you’d think.

Two primary issues in the scheduling process are the path the bus will travel and how often service is provided. For instance, the longer the route, the lower the frequency of service to each stop. Related to this, is the route-choice taken between the end points of a route. The more straightforward the routing, the quicker the bus travels between end points. However, this also means people have to walk farther to reach the bus stops. What we are talking about is balancing speed of bus travel, with access to bus stops, and street coverage. Most of the time, route scheduling requires a balancing of these competing three conveniences – all of which are important to the traveling public.

Providing easy access and direct service is easier when local streets are laid out in a grid pattern, like they are in San Francisco. Balancing these factors in an area full of cul-de-sacs, dead end streets, and non-grid patterns, which are typical in suburban areas, is much more challenging.

One way to overcome the non-grid street challenges and fully address all three conveniences is to put more buses and routes into service. However, that requires a financial investment of public resources well beyond what is available or realistic. Instead, we must pursue the art and science of balancing access, coverage, and directness.

Another factor considered when scheduling a bus is what we call trip generators, which is the reason why you take the bus, like a destination. Trip generators for County Connection service include BART stations, schools, libraries, shopping, restaurants, medical offices and hospitals, and other bus routes.

With respect to these trip generators, County Connection takes into consideration the timing of BART train and regional route connections and school bell times. County Connection policy calls for a goal for 95 percent of scheduled buses in the AM commute period to arrive at BART stations between three and 15 minutes prior to a train departure to San Francisco. Likewise, our goal is to have 90 percent of scheduled buses depart BART within three to 10 minutes of the arrival of a BART train. We also meet the school bell times of middle and high schools in our service area. Sometimes, meeting a school bell time means that we can’t meet a BART train arrival/departure that is further down a given bus route, for that particular trip.

In short, scheduling County Connection buses involves making choices between competing demands. Meeting a school bell time versus meeting a bus connection, or providing access versus directness of routing requires both art and science to be applied to bus scheduling. Add in the scarce resources we have available to deliver important transit service for the residents of central Contra Costa County, and you begin to see the delicate balances required.

I hope this sheds some light into our scheduling process. Next month, I’ll give you the inside scoop on a related topic, when I answer the question, “Hey, why is that bus empty?”

Thankful for a great County Connection team

As I write this inaugural County Connection General Manager blog, I am struck by the thought that Thanksgiving is already upon us. On my Thankful List are all 254 employees at County Connection. Without their hard work and dedication, there would be no County Connection and no bus service in central Contra Costa County.

Public transportation service is very much a people business. As we like to say in the industry, “It’s All About the People!” Each person involved with County Connection plays a vital role in the delivery of our services each and every day. I’d like to briefly walk you through the organization, so you can see what it takes to ensure that we provide as valuable a service as we can.

Capable and caring bus operators
County Connection bus operators are some of the best-trained and safest bus operators in America. Upon hire, each operator goes through a demanding seven week training course before they are allowed to service the public. They also go through a minimum of eight hours of refresher training every year. Our bus operators are the front line folks, and public face of County Connection as they interact with the public and our passengers. They do us proud at County Connection as they operate a large piece of machinery through busy streets, and get thousands of passengers safely and timely to their destinations each day.

Top shelf mechanics and maintenance crews
The bus operators could not perform the great job they do, without reliable, safe, and well maintained equipment. Our maintenance staff ensures this is what they have and are among the best in the world. Today’s transit buses have an array of intricate pieces of equipment from wheelchair lifts to fareboxes, to communication systems, all controlled in part by computer systems. A bus mechanic is really a bus systems specialist with an understanding of complex technology. County Connection road calls for equipment failure is extremely low, and boasts one of the best maintained bus fleets in the industry. Our miles between road calls are often more than double the national standard.

Experienced support staff
Both our bus operators and mechanics are supported by the finest administrative staff in the industry. The scheduling of our fixed-route services is highly technical and complex. The scheduling process – which is computer aided – must take into account BART train schedules, school bell times, traffic conditions, rest breaks for our bus operators, as well other factors. Without good route schedules, our services cannot be reliable, on time, or even safe. Thus, our schedulers perform a critical function. Our customer service employees daily help countless individuals plan their use of County Connection, as well adjoining services like BART. Meanwhile, our marketing staff can often be found at events, like farmer’s markets, art fairs, or local schools, promoting County Connection and generating ridership interest.

Finally, we have a great support team that ensures that meeting agendas are posted timely and accurately, that inquiries from the public are responded to promptly, that our financial records are complete, accurate, and timely, and so on. These folks are dedicated to ensuring the public can understand what services we offer, how those decisions are made, and how they can participate in that.

Each year, we recognize a few employees that have gone above and beyond, and are more than outstanding in their service to County Connection. It is always a difficult decision, because there are often many deserving individuals. At our recently held 2013 Employee Appreciation Day we recognized a few outstanding individuals. Among them was our Chair’s Award for Excellence winner for 2013: County Connection bus operator Sheila Hunter. Sheila frequently receives unsolicited commendations from her passengers and has a great safety record. But, it was a unique and selfless moment in 2013 that contributed to her recognition. In short, she helped a wheelchair bound person that had fallen over get back upright, and tended to the individual until her ride arrived to pick her up and she wasn’t even a County Connection passenger!

This is the kind of spirit and initiative that permeates our employees at County Connection. It is why we are so successful as an organization and why I’m thankful this holiday season to be a part of it.

Rick Ramacier
County Connection General Manager