On Tuesday evening, Mountain View City Council members said they hoped to answer that question with the help of academia, social media, local news outlets and online surveys instead of paying a consultant $100,000 to figure it out in a "ridership demand study."
"I think we have consultant fatigue here," said council member Laura Macias at the Feb. 28 meeting. "We have spent an extraordinary amount on consultants," sometimes for "less than stellar results." The unpopular Rengstorff Park master plan was a "perfect example," she said.
For nearly a decade City Council members have tossed around the idea of a community shuttle to fill gaps in service from the Valley Transportation Authority's buses and private shuttles provided by Google and others companies to and from their campuses and the downtown train station. Some point to Palo Alto's Marguerite system as an example, though it is partially paid for by Stanford.
"I know the need is there," said council member Jac Siegel. "Seniors and youth talk about not being able to get across town, or to the movies."
A major proponent of the shuttle was absent from the meeting, council member and VTA representative Margaret Abe-Koga. But in a 4-2 vote, only members John Inks and Tom Means opposed the motion to move forward without spending the city's scant funds. Both said they did not know that there was an demand, and mentioned the low ridership on the city's existing shuttle line 34, run by the VTA between downtown, a senior housing complex on Montecito Avenue and the San Antonio shopping center.
"I'm not sure what the unmet need is," said council member Means. "If VTA gave us the money they use in this town, maybe we could use it more efficiently."
Describing his own preference, Means added, "I'd say we want a party shuttle so we can go up and down Castro Street on Friday night and have fun."
A city-run shuttle service could cost anywhere from $175,000 to $1.6 million, according to a city staff report. On the low-cost end, a potential shuttle service could entail a single vehicle running every thirty minutes, taking passengers from the El Camino Hospital area on Grant Road to San Antonio shopping center at a cost of $175,000 a year. The $1.6 million option could pay for up to nine shuttles, possibly running on two routes every 10 minutes, including the San Antonio/hospital route and another between downtown and Charleston Plaza, the shopping center on Charleston Road near Hwy. 101.
Several council members mentioned the possibility of seeking help from the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University to see if such a service would actually be used. Public works director Mike Fuller said that was possible.
"We can reach out to local academic institutions and find out if there's been any interesting case studies or research, preferably of a community of similar size that has done a community shuttle," Fuller said.
Council member Ronit Bryant suggested that local news outlets, including the Voice, ask readers "Is this really important to people?"
City Manager Dan Rich agreed with council member Laura Macias and others that using an online service such as Survey Monkey could be helpful in determining "how to proceed," but said he hoped the council would understand that such a survey is not "statistically valid."