Up until last year, there was one local fi xed-route servicing a population of more than 121,000. The priority of e-tran was to provide coverage for the area. "As the population grew here and new subdivisions were built out, we already had some pre-existing commuter service but we provided more commuter service to those new neighborhoods," Tobar says. "We have more than 90 percent of the population within half a mile of a transit stop now," Tobar states. "Because we're using alternative-fueled buses, we don't have to worry about how many stops there are," Tobar says. "They force people to drive to park-and-ride lots. We don't subscribe to that philosophy." He adds, "We want them to leave their cars in the garage and walk to the bus stop. We don't want them in their car." He summarizes, "Know where your passengers want to go and provide good frequency."
Working with the individual subdivisions has been a tremendous help in building customer relations and serving the community's needs most effectively. As Tobar explains, e-tran works with the different subdivision community groups. He tells me about e-tran's relationship with the Stone Lake Community. The contact person with that subdivision has kids that ride the bus. With the intranet service in the subdivision, they have instant communication with a large group of people. "We had some overcrowding last year on one of the routes and we added another bus to reduce overcrowding," Tobar says. "The next day there were more students out there because the word had gotten out on the intranet the community has." He stresses, "That has been really great for us to work with those homeowner's associations and community groups."
Being responsive and communicating with the riders has been what has helped e-tran most through the growth spurt over the past year. When Tobar started, he talks about the first six months being piles of emails from the Web site's comment/suggestion section. "If anybody wants to make a comment, a suggestion, a complaint, I receive those emails and go through them." Wearily he adds, "It took me approximately two hours every day for six months just to go through all those emails and respond back to them." Tobar adds, "We had a community that was very involved and very interested in transit." He adds that since rerouting they still get email concerns from residents but much less than in the past.
Numerous advances on the e-tran Web site improved communication with the riders. Employers can download sales order forms to sell passes and riders can plot their route on an interactive map. Recently e-tran has developed a rider's alert program. He explains that the city Web site e-tran is a part of, sends anyone that signs up an alert when there is an update. After speaking with Escudero Services, the Webmaster, the rider alert system was established and running within a week. "Last time I checked we had more than 800 people that were make adjustments based on how we're doing." Tobar adds, "It's been a great success. The passengers really welcome it, especially our commute riders."
Attracting Choice Riders
E-tran prides itself on providing comfort to the riders. Striving for that "luxury ride" attracts choice riders to leave their cars in the garage and catch a ride on the bus. The buses have comfortable, padded seats, some are high back reclining and some are mid-back. Some buses have Wi-Fi and some have satellite TV through Direct TV.
With extreme temperatures in the central valley, e-tran has come up with some unique ideas for the riders. Tobar says that there are about 60 days in summer that are above or around 90 degrees and at least 10 of those are over 105 degrees. "We had some issues with the air conditioning on our buses. We were trying to work them out but had a lot of failures happen all at one time, computer issues," he explains. "The air conditioners were working fine when they left the yard but would shut down on the way home." To provide relief for the riders in this type of heat, e-tran came up with a solution. "If It was over 105 degrees we would give out free water to all of our passengers. If the air conditioner goes out in the summertime regardless of what the temperature is, we provide coupons to all of the riders so they can get a free 44-ounce drink at Raley's, a grocery store here."
It is just one more example of innovation born from adversity at e-tran. "I think we're very responsive," Tobar says. "We are not perfect here, but we try to be." He adds, "We're not satisfied with where we are. We are always looking to improve things." Not only is there the growth in ridership to show the success e-tran has had, there are also several awards received this year. The city of Elk Grove received the Helen Putnam Award for Excellence, which recognizes cities that deliver the highest quality and level of service in the most effective matter, and the California Department of Transportation's (Caltran) Excellence in Transportation Award for Intermodalism. With such a great start, it will be interesting to watch where the future takes this agency.