Failure's a Given When Solution Doesn't Fit the Problem
As Smart Shuttle gasps its last, what have we learned? How to transport only few, at high cost and not where they really need to go.

Op-ed article, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1999

It has been a little more than a year since Smart Shuttle became part of the San Fernando Valley transit mix. A demonstration project, Smart Shuttle was supposed to be the future of local transit, with minibuses delivering people everywhere they wanted to go, rather than depending on traditional, fixed-route service.

It hasn't worked out that way.

Smart Shuttle, as a concept, first appeared in the San Fernando Valley Transit Restructuring Study as a "service route" in the far northeast Valley. It was to replace "community services" to Juvenile Hall, Olive View Medical Center, Mission College and the like that were not supported by the underlying grid network or full-time fixed-route service. In other words, it was proposed for the Sylmar area to replace low-ridership MTA "tails" operating beyond the Metrolink station.

But Smart Shuttle, championed by the Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG) and operated by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), with federal funds routed through the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, ended up going far beyond.

Even when first announced, the service area extended far beyond the northeast Valley, as far away from Sylmar as Panorama City and North Hollywood. A second area, a significant part of the West Valley, received Smart Shuttle service at about the same time, with a "service route" connecting destinations (Cal State Northridge, the Chatsworth Metrolink station) already receiving substantial MTA Metro Bus service.

It didn't take long for the experiment to fail.

In its first few months, Smart Shuttle averaged fewer than eight passengers per hour across the east and west service areas combined. As a result, routes were significantly restructured to operate on major arterial streets, such as Van Nuys, Victory and Reseda Boulevards and Sherman Way. And because those arteries were already among the top 10 Valley streets in terms of MTA service ridership, the restructured Smart Shuttle became little more than a supplemental (and high-cost) service.

It would appear, then, that all that was being demonstrated was how to operate minibuses doing little more than transporting a handful of people at a greater per-passenger expense than existing MTA service.

This phenomenon repeated itself in South Central at about the same time, when Smart Shuttle began duplicating Metro Bus service on significant stretches of Vermont Boulevard, where the MTA operates its highest ridership line, system-wide.

The one way that Smart Shuttle could have differentiated itself never materialized to any great degree. Then-Councilman Richard Alarcon, in announcing the service, touted Smart Shuttle's ability to deviate from its route within a few blocks to better serve riders' needs. The operators, however, apparently weren't paying attention. I live half a block from an East Valley service route and have been unsuccessful in receiving pickup or delivery at my residence. In the West Valley, off-route service requires telephone reservations two hours in advance, according to the service brochure; East Valley operators, in my experience, are unwilling to even take a reservation.

In a report to the City Council's legislative analyst in July, LADOT's general manager, Frances Banerjee, identified all existing Smart Shuttle routes in the Valley and South Central as targets for replacement by fixed-route DASH service in June, when the project is scheduled to end.

If the agency responsible for the project is preparing to replace it after only nine months, how effective can it have been? Not very ...

Even after restructuring to operate on high-ridership streets, LADOT figures indicate the East and West Valley Smart Shuttles carried an average of 6.4 passengers per hour each. The South Central version did only slightly better, with eight per hour.

This transit debacle happened becasue an entity with no justification in dictating transit policy -- SCAG -- seized upon a concept proposed for a limited test for a specific need, and pushed for federal funds to "prove" it as a solution for greater transit needs than it was designed to meet.

LADOT is justified in replacing this "service" with DASH routes. These historically operate on streets with little or no transit service to connect regular destinations in a specific neighborhood. Neither LADOT or MTA is to blame for this expensive experiment in futility. They should think twice, however, before again following the lead of a non-transit agency like SCAG and wasting taxpayer money to chase a solution that doesn't fit the problem.

The Valley needs improved service, but it does not need badly structured, high-cost service that does nothing to improve passenger mobility. Smart Shuttle improved nothing and it is doubtful that it will be missed.

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