Lessons Learned: The Story of the ParkLINK Shuttle
“Lessons learned” is a series of occasional reports of the results of actual transit projects. Earlier we looked at the success of a shuttle serving Sequoia National Park . In this installment, we will look at the failure of a shuttle also serving federally-owned park land.
Overview of the ParkLINK Shuttle
The ParkLINK shuttle was a network of five buses (of which four were required for operations) that were used on three routes in the Santa Monica Mountains, including routes that serviced the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA). The mountains are located approximately twenty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Service began on July 2, 2005 and ended on November 18, 2007, and ran weekends only (with some holidays) from approximately eight A.M. until sunset on headways ranging from one to two hours.
The ParkLINK shuttle cost approximately $1.7 million, with the majority of the funding coming from the Mountains Recreation and Conservancy Association (MRCA) and Category Three ATPPL (Alternative Transportation In Parks and Public Lands Program) funding from the federal government. Although it was hoped that ridership would be over one hundred passengers per day, at its' peak (not counting the first two months) ridership was only eighty passengers per day. Thus, the park service was paying approximately $30 per passenger transported despite a very reasonable operating cost of less than $60 per hour.
Goals of the ParkLINK Shuttle
At the beginning of the ParkLINK Shuttle four major goals were identified. The first goal was to provide alternative access to parks. The SMMNRA desired to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the park visitation, which had historically been overwhelmingly white and affluent. Second, the shuttle was supposed to reduce park vehicle impacts, thereby improving air quality. Third, the shuttle had to provide a high-quality visitor experience on board and at bus stops. Finally, the shuttle was going to serve as a model partnership within the Santa Monica Mountains. While at the project’s beginning all goals were equally emphasized, the primary goal, both of the shuttle and the park, eventually became the need to increase the number of park visitors who came from underrepresented groups.
Did the shuttle achieve its goals? Due to the fact that the shuttle operated mainly within the park boundaries and that many members of the targeted underrepresented groups do not have reliable access to automobiles, success of the first goal was always dependent on the actions of other transit agencies. The ParkLINK Shuttle took the first step towards realizing this goal by working with Los Angeles Metro to increase connectivity to their services, eventually convincing Metro to expand weekend service on a route that directly connected to the ParkLINK shuttle. Because of this expansion, the shuttle began to see an increase of the number of passengers accessing the shuttle via transit in the summer of 2007. However, this percentage remained very low, perhaps to a large extent due to the inherent difficulty of convincing people to take long transit trips for non-essential purposes.
If the shuttle only marginally achieved its first goal, then it without question failed to make an impact on the second. At its ridership peak the ParkLINK Shuttle was only carrying an average of two passengers per revenue service hour. Such low ridership levels made absolutely no impact on the parking capacity or air quality of the SMMNRA.
Did the shuttle provide a high-quality visitor experience on board and at bus stops? Although the vehicles all featured built-in DVD players, a combination of operational concerns and the lack of suitable material meant that they were never used. However, near the end of its existence there were educational programs on board the shuttle hosted both by SMMNRA interpreters and volunteers. While the number of patrons attending these programs was small, they were well received and provided a good foundation for the future. The majority of ParkLINK Shuttle stops featured large bulletin boards with maps of the immediate vicinity. Because little scenic direction was provided, new visitors to SMMNRA remained unsure as to the most profitable use of their limited time in the mountains. While progress was made towards the achievement of this goal, there remained much to be done to provide a high-quality visitor experience.
The ParkLINK Shuttle had the most success in achieving the fourth goal. Stakeholder surveys revealed a high level of satisfaction with the interagency cooperation between NPS (National Park Service), CSP (California State Parks), and MRCA. Due to the somewhat competing interests of these three agencies, cooperation was not at all assured. The goodwill this project has generated will without a doubt be beneficial to the productivity and morale of future interagency cooperative endeavors.
Lessons Learned From the ParkLINK Shuttle
Despite the high cost, the ParkLINK shuttle was very well received by passengers and had some success in attracting members of underrepresented communities to the Santa Monica Mountains. In addition, the cooperation between the three project stakeholders (the National Park Service, California State Parks, and the MRCA) was excellent, and will definitely serve as a good precedent for future projects. Problems could have been avoided by buying off the shelf vehicles (the ParkLINK vehicles had a special brake retarder system to allow a waiver of vehicle weight limits on one section of the route) and completing and implementing a marketing plan before shuttle operation. In addition, it may have been better to run the shuttle only during the peak summer season.
Given the lengthy amount of time needed to introduce a new transit product to the public, in my opinion the shuttle did not have enough time to succeed. It is unreasonable to expect a recreational transit service to succeed in a wealthy car-dominated area in only two years without a significant marketing effort from the beginning of the project.