UCLA And A.V. Transit Authority Learn Old Habits Die Hard

BrianLudicke-300x225.jpg After three months of running a trial bus service between Palmdale, Lancaster and UCLA, Antelope Valley Transit Authority officials were disappointed to learn in the first survey of the line that only eight people appeared to be riding the bus regularly.

"You've got to give anything new a little time, but right now it's not looking too good," Pam Holland, the AVTA spokesperson, said.

The pilot program bus service between the Antelope Valley and UCLA was launched in January. The AVTA took the existing 786 bus line, which makes stops along the west side and into Hollywood, and tweaked it, adding two stops at the edge of the UCLA campus.

UCLA transit planners pitched the idea of the new stops to AVTA officials as something that would be mutually beneficial--the university would lower the number of commuters coming by car, and the transit authority would see travel increases to its line.

"The idea was that it is desirable to bring people here via alternative means, rather than driving alone, and we were able to begin to partner with regional transit authorities and convince them this was good business on their part, because they have members in their communities who are UCLA employees," David Karwaski, transportation planning and policy manager, said.

The 786 line has always been a low-occupancy line, according to Holland, and the AVTA hoped the new UCLA passengers would boost ridership numbers, and also increase overall awareness of the AVTA's long-haul commute offerings.

"That ridership never reached full capacity," Holland said. "We were willing to work with UCLA because we hoped that would encourage other options."

The university keeps detailed statistics on where its employees live, and knows it has about 500 staffers who commute from the Antelope Valley. Its goals of transportation conversion, however, are relatively modest. Thirty to 40 new bus commuters would be considered a success to Karwaski.

Residents received mailers about the new bus stops, along with targeted E-mail blasts. There's also no question that buying a monthly bus pass from UCLA is a good deal--the university subsidizes half the cost, so riders pay only $155 for a month's worth of trips.

Despite this new affordable alternative to driving, adoption hasn't been immediate. UCLA sold 12 monthly passes in March, and 17 in April. The university hopes to know what true commute levels are when the new school year starts in September.

"It's round one--obviously we'd like to fill each bus," Karwaski said. "So you're looking at a ceiling of 200 [riders]. If we can get 20 percent of that in the first year, great. It's tricky, because you're talking about behavioral change."

But the AVTA wants to see results sooner, especially with a line that was already under-performing.

"We're not giving up yet, but ridership definitely has to improve," Holland said.

In single-car-occupancy-obsessed Southern California, changing transportation habits has proven to be a difficult task, and actions don't always match intent. After survey responses showed Antelope Valley residents were interested in a commuter service to Edwards Air Force Base, the AVTA was afraid it wouldn't have enough buses to meet demand. Instead, the service was soon canceled because of lack of ridership.

Karwaski believes the economics of buying a monthly pass make too much sense for regular commuters from the Antelope Valley to pass up. It's 120 miles round trip to travel between Palmdale and UCLA. With a car that gets 25 miles per gallon of gas (which currently costs about $3.00), drivers would spend $75 a week on fuel alone.

Karwaski hopes that as word of the new service spreads, ridership will grow to students--students like Chelsea Abad, a freshman from Palmdale, who was waiting to take the bus for a trip home.

"I know that some of my friends who also live in the Antelope Valley, they said they also started taking the bus because it's so much cheaper," Abad said. "Their parents come all the way here to pick them up, and it's kind of a waste of gas money."

This summer the transportation department is launching an advertising campaign to reach staff and faculty called "Dump the Pump," which will encourage public transportation like the AVTA 786 bus. Karwaski believes commuters will eventually come around.

"It takes time to grow. We are starting from a base of zero," he said. "In my mind, we have 17 people who have decided to change their lives by getting on the bus."

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