Lessons Learned: Sequoia Shuttle
While theory and research into how transit should work are great and fill the pages of the Journal of Public Transportation (free subscription - check it out) and the agenda of the annual Transportation Research Board conference in Washington, D.C. (great conference, lousy time of year (January)), there is no better way to understand how transit works than to study how it works in real life. This month's lesson learned comes to us from Visalia, CA and Sequoia National Park..
Visalia, CA is a city in California's central valley, population of about 126,000 and located about equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco. In addition to its abundant agriculture, it's other claim to fame is its proximity to Sequoia National Park. The community is served by Visalia Transit, a small operator that carried about 1.6 million passengers in 2011. Visalia Transit is a typical small town transit system in that it has a hub-and-spoke system of eleven routes using twenty-eight buses radiating out from a centrally located transit center. Operation is contracted out to a private vendor . Where it is not typical in that it operates service to a national park - Sequoia National Park - located about forty miles east of the city. Service to this national park is called, surprisingly simply, the Sequoia Shuttle.
Likeliest or Unlikeliest of Partners
The Sequoia Shuttle is a joint partnership between the City of Visalia and the National Park Service in which the park service leverages Visalia Transit's existing operations to have the City of Visalia run the logistics of the system for them. A total of six regular size buses and twelve smaller shuttle buses make up the service, with the six regular buses providing "commuter" service for tourists and employees from Visalia to the park in the morning and from the park to Visalia in the afternoon and the twelve smaller buses providing intrapark service approximately every fifteen minutes. The "commuter" service costs $15 for a round-trip (including park entry fee) and reservations are required. About 400,000 annual riders are carried in the park itself, with a further 11,000 carried between the park and Visalia. It is important to note that while the park is open year-round, the Sequoia Shuttle only operates in the summer months from approximately Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Sometimes Less is More - Branding
While most transit agencies love acronyms, my favorite being SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) in suburban Detroit , before the Sequoia Shuttle began in 2007, it was decided to call the new service something easy to understand. Since it is serving a national park, and therefore a significant number of international visitors (German, English, and Dutch residents are the top three groups of international visitors) who may not speak English well (in addition to serving people who do know English but who may rarely take transit), calling it simply the Sequoia Shuttle was a way to lessen confusion. While the name is simple, the way the bus looks is not - the Sequoia Shuttle has a unique look that is different from the other buses Visalia Transit operates and buses branded in this way are only used on the Sequoia Shuttle. While specialized paint schemes have not worked in other markets ( Los Angeles Metro "Rapid Red" buses being used on "California Poppy" local routes comes to mind), when it does work it works really well. It is hard to miss and misidentify Sequoia Shuttle's brand plastered on the side of the vehicle much like a "rap starts tour bus would be." Sequoia Shuttle buses even have open sun roofs to allow for giant-tree filtered sunlight to enter into the cabin from above. Diesel-hybrid buses are also used on the route to be environmentally conscious, and they, according to Visalia Transit, do surprisingly well on the 7,000 foot climb from the valley to the park.
A Further Partnership - With Local Businesses
One key to the success of the Sequoia Shuttle has been Visalia Transit actively working with local businesses, especially hotels, to drum up ridership for the shuttle. In fact, the shuttle stops at many local hotels, thereby making it very convenient for tourists to take advantage of the service. It is estimated that Sequoia Shuttle riders contribute $1.5 million annually to the Visalia economy.
Operations of the Sequoia Shuttle
Since the Sequoia Shuttle only operates during the summer months, one might wonder how they recruit the drivers. Are the drivers part-time seasonal help as they are in other national parks? The answer is no. Since the same contractor that operates the city bus service also operates the school bus service the seasonal nature of the Sequoia Shuttle matches perfectly with the seasonal nature of the school bus - thus, no part-time drivers are required and no seasonal layoffs are required. In actuality, the most senior drivers bid on the shuttle.
Overall the Sequoia Shuttle is considered a success, though to this point the shuttle's existence has caused no changes to the national park's parking plan. One reason why is likely due to the limited capacity of the shuttle. There are only five trips a day between Visalia and the park, and reservations are required. I would like to see more promotion of the service between Visalia and the park on the park's website (only a link is provided), as well as perhaps a similar service offered by FAX (Fresno Area Express) between Fresno and the park. It would be to the park's advantage of have more people arrive via transit, as traffic congestion causes pollution and lowers park enjoyment. Sequoia National Park should look to places like the Grand Canyon National Park, which has successfully eliminated private vehicle movement through large areas of the park.
Compare the Sequoia Shuttle with the ParkLINK Shuttle .