So…if Bay Area transit is so good, why don’t more people use it?
A new study from the Brookings Institution finds that compared with the rest of the nation, the Bay Area offers pretty good public transportation options.
Among 100 major metropolitan areas, San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont ranks 16th, and San Jose-Santa Clara-Sunnyvale ranks second. Areas were ranked according to how accessible transit is to riders, how long it takes to get to work on transit and how often the systems run during rush hours.
So…if Bay Area transit is so good, why doesn’t anybody seem to take it?
Just one out of ten people in the Bay Area commute by public transportation, according to John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He says that number hasn’t changed much over the years, despite huge investments in the system. And the Bay Area isn’t alone in that. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that between 1990 and 2008, the share of commuters taking transit increased by less than one percentage point, from 5% to 5.5%, despite the construction of 217 new rail stations, and the fact that more than a third of California’s transportation spending since the early 1980s has gone to public transit.
“The California public likes the idea of public transit in the sense that they highlight it as a place where we should be investing a lot of our dollars,” said the PPIC’s Ellen Hanak. “But there is a gap between what people say, and how they actually sort of vote with their feet. It’s almost like people would like their neighbors to take transit so they could have fewer cars on the road.”
That sentiment fits what I found in my reporting for a companion radio segment on The California Report. Every person I talked to liked the idea of public transit, but most of them don’t take it very often. Everyone seemed to have a slightly different reason, but the broad themes were the same: time, convenience, cost, reliability, and, to a lesser extent, cleanliness/quality of experience.
Those issues aren’t likely to get much better in the near term, with Bay Area public transit facing a shortfall of $1 billion a year for the next 25 years, according to Goodwin.
“The situation facing Bay Area transit right now is quite bleak,” said Goodwin, adding that over the last two-to-three years, “virtually every transit agency” has either cut service, raised fares, or both.
He says that since 1997, while the cost of operating Bay Area transit has increased 52%, service has increased only 16%, and ridership has increased just seven percent, which, he admitted, is a “crummy” business model. Right now MTC is in the middle of a two-year analysis called the Transit Sustainability Project, which is looking at how to make the Bay Area’s public transportation better and more cost-effective.
But the transit itself is just one piece of the puzzle. And it’s a big puzzle.
According to PPIC, transportation makes up 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions in California. Passenger cars and trucks account for almost three quarters of the transportation slice, or 28% of all emissions. Senate Bill 375 was passed in 2009 to address this by prodding regional planning agencies to find ways to link land use and transit in ways that will get people to drive less. Last year the California Air Resources Board set reductions targets for each region. They vary but most aim for about a seven percent reduction by 2020 and 15% by 2035.
MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments have released an “Initial Vision Scenario” that outlines how the Bay Area might meet these goals.The agencies are currently accepting public comment on the plan, holding public workshops through the end of May.
According to the PPIC study, our best bet for getting Californians out of their cars is to increase high-density development, improve alternatives like bike lanes and carpooling programs, and use pricing strategies to raise the cost of driving alone and parking.
“No single policy on its own is going to work”, said Hanak. “Price signals are the most effective strategy on their own, but even with pricing it’s more effective to combine that policy with better land use and transportation policies.”