This weekend in Palo Alto TransitCamp Bay Area will take place. I was not able to attend (in not small part because via public transit it takes me 2+ hours if I catch all the right trains and buses to get from my house to Palo Alto) but as my contribution here are some observations and thoughts I have about Transit.
First some personal background. I grew up in Oak Park IL, moved to Chicago where I lived for another 13+ years, two years ago I moved to the Bay Area. In 2004, I sold my car and have not replaced it, when I sold it (a 2000 model I had bought in Dec 1999 as a new car, that car had only ~13k miles on it). So for about the past 8+ years I have primarily relied on public transit, not on a personal car for the majority of my transportation. With the occasional taxi ride (often to/from an airport – more on that as well, and yes, to a degree taxi policies and licensing should be considered as part of overall transit).
Here are a couple of observations followed by a few suggestions. Primarily I will focus on issues specific to the Bay Area, but I’ll note some additional elements based on my experiences in other cities both in the US and around the world.
- Current transit is, mostly, focused on the needs of “commuters”
- In the Bay Area we, simultaneously have too much and too little transit (I’ll explain)
- There are many options for how to pay (as an individual) for transit – in the Bay Area we have nearly all of them (far too many)
- When thinking about transit private (individual) and private (corporate) should be part of the discussion, as well as all of the factors that influence those choices (tolls, parking availability & pricing, zoning requirements especially around the construction of new parking, metered vs free vs permit parking, zoning rules around mixed use vs. sole use vs. “strip malls” vs. sidewalk frontage or set backs etc)
- Tourists have different needs than residents, not all residents have the same needs, and those needs vary by time of day, day of week, month, the weather and the age & health of the individuals.
- The groups who have the most political influence are rarely those who have the most vital needs for public transit, though the aspects of public transit which do impact those with political influence tend to be those which get the greatest funding.
Here in the Bay Area by my count there are at least the following varieties of transit which should be discussed.
- Private Cars
- an unusual aspect being the commuter lanes & toll policies which combine to create an unique system in places of the bay area for ride sharing by strangers (essentially “hitching” but with a more fixed pattern)
- toll policies preference travel in certain directions
- parking and zoning regulations dictate certain patterns in SF while zoning & building patterns dictate others in the rest of the Bay Area
- motorcycles and scooters
- special cases of rental cars
- special cases of tourist cars (“go cars” guided tours of San Francisco for example)
- Shared Cars (City Carshare, ZipCars) and Commuter vans
- Taxis (and to a lesser extent limousines)
- multiple ferry services
- Muni – buses, cable cars, and light rail
- A large number of public bus services – most one per town around the Bay Area, a few like AC Transit crossing multiple towns, and a couple which cross towns (TransBay)
- Private bus services
- Corporations (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and a few others) have formal bus services for employees
- Certain buildings & neighborhoods in San Francisco (and some buildings in other cities) have bus services, typically for residents or workers in those buildings usually between the buildings and main transit centers (Caltrain station being a main point)
- Local universities have services for students between residences and campus locations and between multiple campus locations throughout the area (U. C. Berkeley in Berkeley, UCSF and many other schools throughout SF
- Tourist specific buses (some of which do offer “on/off” services. There are some public tourist buses as well (in the Presidio, in Golden Gate Park)
- Public handicaped special bus services
- Select light rail in other towns than San Francisco
- Major airports (Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose)
- these also have internal transporation and special buses connecting the airports and trains
- for some reason no airport in the Bay Area has trains that run directly to the terminals
- Private airports (and to a lesser degree helicopter pads)
- Private boats & boat dock
That is a lot of transit options – many of which any one person rarely experiences and uses. Like much of the state of CA the private car, usually driven without passengers is a very commonly used form of transit. For that matter there are many people who never use any of the other services – especially public buses
Payment methods and models:
- Pay on entry – most buses, MUNI in SF, Ferrys
- Pay on exit – CalTrain – exact amount varies by start and end point (and varies considerably from a low of <$2 and a high of many multiples of that
- Prepaid – MUNI (monthly passes), most Tolls w/automated pass, to a degree BART since you have to have a card with value added to it already (new “TransitLink” will have aspects of this
- Payment via special unit – bus coupons in San Francisco, parking cards in SF
Some questions I have:
- What is the GOAL of Public Transit? (Not or at least not solely I’d argue to “get workers to work”)
- How should transit be funded (currently few if any transit services are fully funded by the riders in the case of public services)? Private services (buses etc) are parts of the cost of some other business (office building, large company etc)
- How can the many specific focuses and political complications of have dozens of public transit agencies be minimized to better serve the needs of the entire Bay Area?
- How can Public Transit in particular emphasize the public service aspects of transit, not just serve the needs of one sector of the public (businesses whose commuters have to get to/from work during “regular” business hours).
- In particular, in my view, public transit should have many 24hr options, be sure to have 24hr access to hospitals in particular, should avoid creating isolated sections with no inexpensive transit options for much of the day, and transit should build into their business models flexibility to accommodate changing circumstances (planes which are delayed at airports for example)
Some specific suggestions
- In San Francisco (and across the Bay Area more broadly) the last trains, especially across the Bay, should run for 1 hour AFTER bars & nightclubs close (and if on weekends this means running 24hrs – so be it). This both serves a very strong and real public interest (keeping people off the streets when/if drunk) and it as importantly would encourage more people to stay in the city after work for entertainment and/or head into the city on the weekends – without clogging roads with cars and without requiring preplanning in the morning (i.e. choosing to drive instead of taking the train). Combined with bike parking at many stations (already done) and with local bus/transit services so people could avoid driving from train stations home (perhaps also with friendly parking policies that encourage overnight parking without serious penalty)
- Trains (and buses) which leave from Bay Area airports should run until also an hour or so AFTER the last plane lands – if this means running very very late, again so be it. Ideally the trains would be in communication with the airlines and be sure to wait until all bags were off and arriving passengers were directed from the baggage claim to the buses to trains (and were made aware that trains would be waiting for them). This might be slightly costly (but heck, I’d imagine airlines might kick in some dollars in fact) but would dramatically improve impressions of the public transit services for visitors and locals alike. A related point, ideally public transit should run TO the airports in time to clear security for the FIRST planes of the day (and yes, this might in the case of SF to OAK traffic suggest running nearly 24hrs – see a trend in my suggestions…)
- Monthly (and Weekly) passes should be available WIDELY. From ALL machines and from all hotels – at a minimum as a starting point. My local Safeway almost without fail SELLS OUT of Monthly MUNI passes – that is completely unacceptable – each pass is simply a piece of paper – 1000’s more of them should be printed each month – NO store should EVER sell out of them. Chicago solves this by NOT selling a monthly pass – instead Chicago sells a pass good for 30 days from first use – but with the variety of ways transit s paid for in the Bay Area that might not work (can’t easily visually show the pass where that mode is needed such as on buses)
- Fine amounts for not having a pass/ticket in modes of transit where one is required at all times (most of the bay area services) should be SPELLED OUT AND POSTED.
- Unlike many cities, the bay area does NOT have a single, universal taxi number – and taxi rates are extremely high – which discourages many people from using or thinking about using a taxi. At a minimum there should be ONE number (perhaps per area code) for taxis which would work with ALL taxis. Outside of SF taxis can be nearly impossible to find at times (Palo Alto in particular I’ve had problems at times)
- ZipCar and City Carshare are good for many people – but serve people who need one-way transportation or need open ended transportation relatively poorly (I most often need a car on days, such as this weekend, when there is an event or events happening down the peninsula which I would want to attend – and which I couldn’t easily predict when I might return from the events – both because I don’t know travel times and traffic well and because I not infrequently will stay late at event and/or want to go out with folks from an event – to get dinner for example). This is a very hard problem for car share services – but for me at least, and I’m sure I’m not the only person, $60/day though perhaps actually a good deal is a very big hurdle to overcome to think about spending to go to an event. (For that matter the $10-12 round trip to take Caltrain down to Palo Alto is pretty painful as well)
Much of the transit system fails because of serious gaps in the transit experience between commuters (many of whom have their passes paid for by their companies or significantly discounted) and the use and costs born by everyone else. I buy a monthly MUNI pass in San Francisco ($45) which is a good deal – and it makes it trivially simple for me to get on/off buses, trains or even the cable cars if I’m traveling within San Francisco – however I can’t, for example, use that pass to get to an airport (why the San Francisco airport at least for purposes of transit isn’t “in” San Francisco still befuddles me).
Yes, the trip planner is useful (though why there isn’t a mobile and iPhone interface for it I don’t know) and NextBus is also helpful, but even so there is also too little flexibility in too much of the transit patterns in the city – travel in the commute times is uncomfortable (very packed – suggesting that even more trains/buses could be run then) but at least trains and buses arrive fairly frequently – but if you wait just a bit everything slows to halt. And if you want to travel on, say a Sunday, good luck – your options shrink to almost none (no Caltrain back to San Francisco after 9:30 or so on a Sunday night for example).
Plus the payment complexities and the inability to pay on the train in most cases (you can’t even pay the gate agent at MUNI or BART but must fight with the often broken/flaky machines) also makes transit a frustrating experience. From CalTrain’s giving change only in dollar coins (and not taking payment on the trains) to MUNI’s insistence on using two different machines at times to get change (for dollar coins and for quarters).
So those are some suggestions and questions and observations I have about transit. I with I could have made it to the TransitCamp this weekend – but as I noted, it would have been costly for me in terms of time (and money).