Little Saigon tries shuttles to ease congestion and boost tourism

A sign on Westminster's Bolsa Avenue reads "Welcome to Little Saigon: Together, We Build a Better Future."

In the past few months, other signs have popped up as part of an effort to further that promise: "Little Saigon Shuttle."

With the traffic congestion and resulting parking problems in that part of the city — the namesake area grew after the fall of Saigon in 1975, with the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arriving in Southern California, and has extended into Garden Grove — it hasn't always been easy to welcome tourists or encourage business.

On a mile-long stretch of Bolsa, for instance, there are roughly 3,500 immigrant-owned businesses, according to the Westminster Chamber of Commerce and the Orange County Transportation Authority, or OCTA.

Enter the new shuttle service — with 22 stops along a 21/2-mile loop bounded by Bolsa, Bishop Place and Magnolia and Brookhurst streets — which was unveiled in October.

"Being in such an impacted area, having the shuttle is a great need and benefit to business owners, shopkeepers and people who frequent this neighborhood," said Tam Nguyen, owner of Advance Beauty College. "The businesses here are evolving into second-generation businesses, passed on through families — and I see all the crowds of shoppers and tourists here as major sign of growth and evolution, being here 30 years in the area.

"My observation of Little Saigon is that it's not so little anymore."

The shuttle — Westminster actually has two 20-seat models — is a free service financed mostly by the Measure M half-cent sales tax, which was passed by county voters in 2006 to fund transit projects.

In November 2015, OCTA issued a call for projects through what it termed Project V. The agency ultimately doled out $26.7 million to 17 cities — including Laguna Beach, La Habra and San Clemente —to initiate their own shuttle services.

"Cities know their transportation needs better than anybody," said Eric Carpenter, OCTA spokesman.

While street congestion and the area's appeal to tourists is something Westminster could tout, many of the other cities chosen for the money don't fit that image at all. Take Mission Viejo, a quiet, mostly residential area with scattered shopping centers and a regional mall.

Carpenter said about Mission Viejo, whose shuttle service also launched in October, that it scored high for the funds because of the need to connect many key destinations, including the Norman P. Murray Community and Senior Center, Saddleback College, Mission Hospital and The Shops at Mission Viejo.

Westminster applied for the competitive grant in early 2016, with the support of Westminster Mayor Tri Ta and county Supervisor Andrew Do, who serves on the OCTA Board of Directors.

With the Little Saigon shuttle's total cost at $4 million, Westminster is scheduled to receive $3.6 million in funding through 2023 to help with operations, according to OCTA, and pay $400,000 in city matching funds over the same time frame.

"We found little voids where people didn't want to jump on an OCTA bus and pay for a full route only to travel just a few blocks," said Adolfo Ozaeta, Westminster traffic engineer. "Project V is an effort by OCTA and the city to fill the void by directly reaching the community."

"We're trying to address the affordability problem," Carpenter said. "We need to meet people where their needs are."

With 533 buses currently in operation, OCTA has reported an overall decline in its ridership. Since October 2016, the agency has reduced its day pass fee from $5 to $4 as an incentive to improve usage countywide, and it is looking to ride-share programs such as Uber and Lyft for possible ways to collaborate.

 

Elderly residents take to it

The Little Saigon shuttle has been in operation for only three months — service officially began Oct. 31 — and OCTA says it has not yet gotten a clear picture of the number of riders using the service.

"We hope that as more people discover the convenience and affordability of the Little Saigon shuttle, and tell their friends about it, ridership will continue to grow," Carpenter said.

Buses run in both directions of the circular route every 20 minutes, seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

All of the 22 stops are in front of places deemed important to the community, such as schools (Carillo Elementary and McGarvin Intermediate School), apartment complexes (Cinnamon Creek, Calespana), mobile home parks, businesses, media outlets and popular shopping centers (like the T&K Market, Hanoi Plaza, Bolsa Mini Mall and the Asian Garden Mall).

"It always varies when it's busy; there's no certain time of a day," said shuttle bus driver Ty Starkey, one of four drivers.

"The best part is the cultural experience. People here are courteous. They feed you. What's not to like?"

Longtime OCTA bus driver, Chasity Moore, said the route was "chill and easygoing."

"We have a couple here that gets on pretty much everyday.... For Christmas, they gave [Ty and me] chocolate," Moore said. "The people here are very kind and appreciative."

Many of the shuttle's riders are elderly locals, in addition to tourists.

"A lot of our elderly community members are still active and mobile — they want to travel, go shopping, do their errands, socialize and have coffee with their friends," said Ted Nguyen, communications manager at OCTA. "The shuttle provides them with another alternative than driving or relying on family member."

Hung Nguyen, a 55-year-old resident of the Bolsa Verde Estates mobile home park, takes the shuttle to his job at the Bolsa Mini Mall.

"I live right here," he says, pointing at the mobile home park along Bushard Street. "So thank God, all of a sudden they had this shuttle. I was so excited. It's really good. I love going around and around. The bus drivers always remember me."

"I go shopping, visit my friends every day," said 84-year-old Qing Luong, also from Westminster. "It's [a mix of] walking and riding."

"It's convenient ... you get to go around and see the neighborhood," Lee Li, a religious leader from Westminster, agreed.

The bustling Asian Garden Mall, a two-story cultural and shopping haven — known for its craftmade jewelry and popular summer Night Market — has two shuttle stops, front and back.

"It's a great asset to the community. You don't have to get on a big bus and try to figure out where you're going," said Julie Newell, property manager of the Asian Garden Mall. "You don't even have to read English. You just hop on, hop off.

"With the way Little Saigon is laid out, the mix of residential and retail ... anything that helps people get around, especially in a huge concentrated community, we support it and promote it."

OCTA communications manager Ted Nguyen said many of the Little Saigon residents, business owners and community and faith leaders were "heartened" by the efforts of Westminster and the OCTA to reach out in trying to address needs.

Volunteers were present throughout September at outreach events in popular areas of the neighborhood, such as the ABC Market, Mission Del Amo mobile home park and Asian Garden Mall.

"People were really receptive to the branding and shuttle design illustrations. We explained the route, got some of their feedback and input to fine-tune the days and hours of operation. It really resonated with them," he said.

Voted on by more than 1,000 community members, the shuttle's design features a Vietnamese woman wearing a traditional white "áo dài" dress, representing her strength and grace. The silk garment is popular especially during the Lunar New Year and is iconic of Vietnamese culture. Behind the woman is an image of the landmark Ben Thanh market in Old Saigon, before the fall, with a statue of Vietnamese war hero Tran Nguyen Han.

"It has kind of a retro feel that represents the nostalgia of our former homeland," Nguyen said.

It is one of the few local shuttles with a heavy cultural aspect. The service was dedicated on Oct. 29 with a big celebration and unveiling in front of the Asian Garden Mall. Lion dancers and traditional music and food were featured, and elected officials including Supervisor Do and Mayor Tri Ta were present.

According to an OCTA survey, 71% of those at the event said they would ride the new shuttle.

So much is it part of the community that the shuttle was scheduled to make an appearance in the annual Little Saigon Tet Parade on Feb. 4.

Hopes for the future

OCTA plans to introduce new shuttles over the next year as part of Project V funds, according to Ozaeta.

The Westminster traffic engineer hopes the vehicles will be bigger, have Wi-Fi capacity, release fewer gas emissions, and perhaps feature an open-air design — like the trolleys in Laguna Beach.

The city's primary concern is expanding service.

"We're looking at a preliminary route that would connect Little Saigon, pass Beach Boulevard, all the way to Westminster Mall," Ozaeta said. "One of the things we hope comes out of this are opportunities for our area to have interconnecting shuttle services — expanding from our route to another — so we can connect popular areas not necessarily in Westminster, like [Fountain Valley's] Mile Square Park, Garden Grove."

Gia Ly, chairwoman of the board of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, who served on the diverse community advisory council for OCTA, expressed her hope that the agency would continue to reach out and meet the burgeoning needs of the community.

"It shows the significance of the Vietnamese businesses and locals here [in Orange County]," she said of the shuttle service. "It's a perfect promotion, not just of businesses but of the whole community. It's socially responsible, and it takes the stress of navigating out.

"Enjoy the ride," Ly added. "The day's too short to be spending it in traffic."

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