High Marks but Few Takers on California Transit

So…if Bay Area transit is so good, why don’t more people use it?

(Photo: Craig Miller)

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.”

For more on the opportunities and the challenges facing California’s efforts to plan for sustainable growth, and to try out your own “vision,” visit our Miles to Go series page.

  • Barbara Fukumoto

    “Just nine out of ten people in the Bay Area commute by public transportation, according to John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.”

  • Barbara Fukumoto

    ???

  • http://www.kqed.org/climatewatch Gretchen Weber

    Hi Barbara,
    Thanks for catching that. The sentence should be “one out of ten,” not “nine out of ten.” I’ve made the correction in the post above as well.
    Gretchen

  • Amy Ng

    With such busy lives we all live, hardly anybody has the time to take public transit. Speaking from a point of view from a San Francisco native, I’ve been taking public transit on and off for over 85% of my life. Although I never had the choice but to take public transit when I was young, as an adult I, unfortunately, choose to drive most of the time.

    For many of us living in San Francisco, the cost of time is a big factor. Sure, if one only had one job then, perhaps, that person could afford to spend 45minutes to one hour on a bus/train to commute from where they live to where they work. Unfortunately, many of us have multiple jobs and spending 2+ hours on public transportation each day isn’t feasible.

    How do we change this? Although this might be a difficult task, I believe that if traffic was given priority to buses and trains, then that would be a start in the right direction. If anybody has ever taken the M car across 19th avenue (around Ocean avenue), they could tell you that waiting for all that car traffic to stop takes forever. If there were simply a switch that trains run through on every block so that traffic lights were in favor of public transit, it may save commuters time. If it were faster to take public transit than it was to drive a car, I’m positive there would be a huge shift from people driving to work to people taking public transit. I can name about 20 people on the top of my head that would do that, myself included.

    Perhaps this would also help in getting the buses/trains to run on time. Sure, it’s really nice that the bus stops now post arrival times of trains/buses, but it’s not always accurate. All it takes is for the people that run muni to take several trains a day, so that they can see what the average commuter has to go through daily. Maybe that’s what will really help solve problems. They have to experience it to understand.

  • Tracey G

    Not using public transport? Having lived (and regularly taken public transport) in NYC, Boston and London I can tell you why I (and many of my friends) don’t use BART– it is gross. Not clean, doesn’t run often enough and, at nights and weekends when us East Bay folks are trying to get in and out of the city – it is a pretty depressing lot of folks sharing the train with us – drunk, drugs, homeless, eating, spitting – not all that appealing. And it doesn’t run very often. And the seats are awfully dirty. And it is expensive. So, while we would love to hop on BART for an outing to SF, it isn’t a great experience. When we wanted to use it for season tickets to ACT we often had to wait 30 minutes at night for a return train. Too much work. Our local busses in Berkeley aren’t much better – every 25-30 minutes? Hard to make it part of our day. So, I use public transport when I can but this system is hard to use. And the signage is incomprehensible. Tokyo was easier. They need a new graphics person to make it easier and more logical. BART for East Bay folks is a weekday commuter rail – it is not a subway system.

  • Derrick

    My girlfriend and I moved to San Francisco last year, and we decided to not take a car with us. It’s always been a goal for us to live in a city where we didn’t need a car, and San Francisco is one of the few cities in the US where this is the case. We live very close to a bus stop that take us directly to work in downtown. The trip takes about 20-25 minutes, depending on traffic. I don’t even pay for bus fare, since my company provides commuter checks that cover the cost of a monthly MUNI pass. If we have a situation where we need a car for something, we use Zipcar, which is cheap and pretty awesome.

    By doing this, we’re saving a ton of money. We don’t have to worry about car payments, gas, insurance, maintenance and repair, registration, inspection, etc. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but I think that we’re doing much better by relying on public transportation and car sharing. We’re also helping the environment, which is great.

    I don’t think we’ll ever see Americans truly embrace public transportation unless they are forced to, because car culture is engrained too deeply in our minds. Maybe a good first step would be to completely ban all personal cars from urban areas, and only allow commercial vehicles and public transportation. Unfortunately, the sprawling nature of most American cities makes a reliance on public transportation extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive. We’re going to have reign in urban sprawl and get people living closer to where they work before we can truly solve this problem.

  • Ken

    The study looks at the number of people who can commute to work by public transit in 90 minutes (each way). That is a ridiculous criteria. Few people want to spend 3 hours per day commuting.

    Public transit is popular in the Bay Area for people who can commute to work in under 30 minutes door to door; maybe a little longer if they can get a cushy seat on BART or Caltrain and get some work done without having to worry about intermediate stops and transfers.

    • Dan

      Is it really true that the 1-in-10 stat is based on 90 minutes each way? The article cites MTC for that stat, not the Brookings Institution.

      • Gretchen

        Hi Dan,
        The 1-in-10 stat came straight from John Goodwin at MTC. He was referring to all Bay Area commuters.

        In just the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area, the percentage of those commuting by transit is more like 15 percent, according to the PPIC study I cite above.

        Thanks for your comment,
        Gretchen

  • Peter

    This is a misleading use of statistics. BART at commute hours is standing room only, as are many MUNI routes.

    But if you want more people to take public transit, make it cheaper and make it run more often and to more places. If it is easy enough and fast enough and cheap enough, more people will take it.

  • Allison

    Transit in the Bay Area has been cut back, leaving some people with no choice but to commute by private car. Connections between bus and BART and limited schedules are not conducive to increased use of public transit. Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, and surrounding communities have infrequent bus service from neighborhoods to BART and back. To use BART means doubling commute time and never working late, for fear of missing the last bus home at 7:00 PM. Connections from BART in Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville and Alameda are equally poor. In addition to the time inconvenience, the cost is no better for public transit riders. When you are spending the same dollars and traveling a shorter time, what is the incentive to take the bus?

  • Carole

    This is one reason why public transportation sucks:

    http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/10483/councilmembers-vehemently-stand-up-for-stingy-multiple-car-owning-wealthy-residents/

    DC is ranked about the same as SF in that study (17th, or one place behind SF). I would not be surprised if your local council members had some of the same myopia as ours.