It’s impossible to discuss the access crunch at Larkspur Ferry Terminal without the subject of shuttle buses. It seems like an easy solution to the seemingly intractable problem of how to get people to the ferry, but history shows it’s not so straightforward.
As mentioned Monday, the shuttle was a monumental failure with riders, principally thanks to free parking. Though ridership would spike to 10 percent of ferry patrons during promotional periods, it would drop back down after the promotion was over. It’s tough to compete with free and convenient.
Pay parking eliminates this concern. Thanks to a quirk in Clipper, riders will get a free transfer while drivers will not, replicating the situation during promotions. It is not unreasonable to assume that 10 percent of riders, the same number who used it during promotions, would use the shuttle. At that rate, the shuttle would actually make a profit, but not like a normal bus may.
Normally, fares paid directly for the bus service goes towards the route’s bottom line. Greyhound makes a profit on its buses, while GGT wants to recover no less than 20 percent of its operating costs with fares. A ferry shuttle, however, would be a loss leader. The real money isn’t in the fare paid for the shuttle ride; it’s in the much higher fare paid for the ferry ride.
Since demand for the ferry already outstrips the ability of people to get to it, every ferry rider who switches from car to shuttle frees a parking spot available for someone new. If 10 percent of ferry riders switch to the shuttle, another 275 people can drive to the ferry. Our drivers would take round-trips, so GGT would earn $12 per day in fares from them. And, since they’re driving, they’d pay out another $2 per day as a parking charge. Add it up and GGT gets nearly $3,000 per new passenger per year, a total of $785,000 in new revenue.
A simpler shuttle program
The shuttle program used in the past was a complicated and vast thing, with shuttle routes overlapping existing routes inefficiently while running long distances.
There's no need for that. While most ferry riders come from Central Marin, nearly all bus traffic runs through the San Rafael Transit Center. It's impractical for a shuttle to replicate all these routes, and why should it? If it wants to pick up more passengers up 101 or down Miracle Mile or out in the Canal, it has ceased to be a ferry shuttle and has become part of the wider bus system.
As well, running the shuttle outside of a very restricted 6-minute Transit Center-Ferry Terminal circuit opens the route up to delays from traffic or crash. Given the often long waits between ferry departures, a delay could force a long wait on riders. If ferries are held to wait for the bus, it would add delays for the rest of the commute hour.
Unfortunately, a dedicated shuttle would be rather expensive. At $660,000 per year, it would make a $125,000 annual profit, but there's a lot of waste. When ferry headways are long - up to 95 minutes - the shuttle wouldn't have anything to do. GGT could realize significant cost savings by extending an existing route to the ferry terminal instead.
By extending a short, frequent route, like Route 35, GGT would be able to operate a shuttle for only $340,000 per year. When ferry headways are long, the bus would be able to continue on its normal route and head to the ferry terminal for shuttle runs. When ferry headways are short, every run would hit the ferry terminal.
It’s important to point out that, since GGT will charge for parking no matter the outcome of its parking expansion, it must implement a shuttle to take up the slack of those who don’t want to pay the charge. If GGT rejects the shuttle but institutes the parking charge it will face a decline in ferry ridership rather than an expansion.
This kind of shuttle is not on the radar of GGT officials. They cite the old system's high cost, poor response, and ferry riders who said they want a shuttle for other people but not themselves. Though they want to time Route 29 to the ferries - a fantastic idea - they may miss an opportunity to add revenue to the system. Staff should draw up some shuttle options with projected ridership and combined ferry/bus revenue. The Board needs to see its options.
If reorganizing neighborhood parking is the “organization” side of ferry access, the parking charge is the “electronics” side of ferry access. The modest investment would add efficiency by segmenting the access market into those who really want or need to drive and those who would prefer to leave their car at home.
As we discussed Monday, there is no reason to invest in parking garages for Larkspur Ferry. Not only can GGT provide 520 more parking spaces for free but it can free up 275 parking spaces with a profitable shuttle service.
So we can accommodate plenty of Marin commuters, but GGT’s ferry faces other problems, namely severely underused afternoon and reverse-commute capacity. And if the aim is to boost ridership, there’s no more efficient way than increasing the number of people who walk. The next installment will tackle these issues with transit-oriented development.