Alameda's city Transportation Commission took a whirlwind tour through a status update of projects and initiatives across the entire city back at its August meeting.

One particularly bright spot is worth highlighting: helping older or mobility-impaired residents get to where they want and need to go. The City of Alameda has been systematically rethinking how it delivers "paratransit" services in the last couple years— and the results as captured in this midyear status report are all very positive.

An inefficient  fixed-route shuttle

From 2017 to the end of 2022, the Alameda Loop Shuttle was the city's primary paratransit program. Riding the shuttle was free for seniors and persons with disabilities. However, the service only operated on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, serving a fixed route and set of destinations on a 30 minute frequency.

The loop shuttle grew in popularity into 2019, but lost riders as the pandemic began in 2020 and progressed in 2021:

Riders didn't just stay away from the loop shuttle due to health concerns. The loop shuttle also became less reliable for riders. The city's contractor wasn't fully staffing its driving positions, so some scheduled runs of the loop shuttle weren't being operated. Due to social distancing requirements, sometimes shuttles would also reach capacity and not allow more people onboard — who would have to wait a full 30 minutes for the next departure.

As the Alameda Loop Shuttle served fewer riders, its operating costs remained fixed and it became even less cost-effective per ride offered, eventually exceeding the county's limits on Measure BB paratransit fund usage:

With a decline in ridership, the average cost of the shuttle went from $13 per trip pre-COVID to $34 per trip, which is above the required maximum of $20 per trip in Alameda CTC’s Paratransit Program Implementation Guidelines.
April 5, 2022 staff report
This isn't a blog post about how the pandemic has made obsolete the entire concept of public transit in the United States. It didn't. Some transit service is currently doing fine. Some transit service is still grappling with pandemic-induced challenges that are real but will likely stabilize within a couple years. And some transit service was never that productive or efficient. The Alameda Loop Shuttle was in this last set, and the example shouldn't be taken as damning of all transit or paratransit.

A more efficient way to ride the bus

In April 2022, staff recommended to Alameda City Council that the loop shuttle be discontinued by the end of the year. In its place, they proposed an alternative: the "Alameda Free" bus pass for use on AC Transit buses by senior and/or disabled residents of Alameda who also meet a low-income requirement.

A majority of City Council approved the change (with the lone exception of the "opposing any and all change" councilmember).

This midyear status report on transportation shows that the "Alameda Free" pass has been much more popular than the loop shuttle for riders. Plus it's much more cost effective for the city.

Over 650 seniors and people with disabilities now have an Alameda Free AC Transit Bus Pass. In the first year of this pilot program, over 79,000 rides have been taken, costing an average of $1.19 per ride. The average number of [rides] taken monthly since January 2023 is over 9500, costing an average of $11,000 per month. AC Transit sites that with over 80% of passes actively being used, it is one of their most successful programs, and is a model for other cities to replicate.
Status Report on Transportation Mid-Year 2023

Scroll back up to that chart showing loop shuttle ridership, and you'll notice just how many more rides are being taken on AC Transit buses.

Systematically supporting seniors and disabled riders

While the numbers are impressive, it's even more impressive how the city has been making parallel efforts to make transit more welcoming and easier to access for senior and disabled riders:

  • The city's paratransit coordinator offers a monthly "Transportation 101 program to learn about the various transportation options such as East Bay Paratransit, AC Transit Clipper Card, our Free Bus Pass Program and AIM (Alameda Independent Mobility) for Mastick Senior Center members. Lots of resources available to answer your questions and help you get out and travel around Alameda and more."
  • Also offered monthly is a class to train interested seniors "to learn how to read a bus schedule, use the AC Transit app, plan your trip and improve your transit skills. Finish the training by taking a short trip on AC Transit within the city of Alameda."
  • The "Alameda Independent Mobility" pilot program subsidizes Uber or Lyft trips for Alameda residents who are already enrolled in East Bay Paratransit (and meet a low-income threshold). The county-wide paratransit system requires advance scheduling, making it difficult for senior or disabled travelers to get places with less than a day's notice. Participants in the AIM program can call a concierge line to book a ride the same day to any destination in Alameda county. Program participants must pay the first $4 of the ride; the program will cover the rest of the ride, up to $25 in total.
For more information about how to use the above programs, see the City of Alameda Paratransit website.

While walking down Park Street, I now regularly notice the benches in use.

Here's a map of all of the locations (note that this is the map of proposed locations; there's a chance it changed in the final implementation):

Map of proposed bus stop bench locations from staff report at May 24, 2023 Transportation Commission meeting

On its own, this might be a minor accomplishment — only 25 benches. But when taken together in the context of the shift to offering AC Transit passes to seniors and disabled residents, it's a strategic improvement to make it easier for key populations to ride AC Transit buses.

It's also impressive that city staff were able to do this on the cheap — $26k for 25 benches — and with the assistance of a climate action and adaptation fellow from the CivicSpark program.

In the ideal world, most bus stops would have amenities like seating, lighting, a trash can, shade from the sun, protection from rain... maybe even a nearby coffee stand... and service so frequent that seniors, kids, and every other rider has only a brief wait.

But here in our imperfect world, it's thanks to careful budgeting and strategic work by public-sector staffers that incremental improvements are made. This strategic work is paying off, and the City of Alameda is delivering systematically improved paratransit service to its senior and/or disabled residents.

Helping seniors get around