Six Ideas for Saving Bay Area Transit

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[Editor’s note: This article is re-published with permission from the transit-themed March issue of The Urbanist, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s (SPUR) monthly member magazine. The article, written by SPUR Regional Planning Director Egon Terplan, is based on a discussion paper developed by the SPUR Transportation Policy Board. Read the full paper at]

Improving transit by changing financing, fares, speeds, metrics, territory and maps.

Every day, Bay Area residents and visitors take more than 1.4 million trips on one of 27 different public transit operators. But for more than a decade, the costs to operate these transit systems have been increasing far faster than any improvements in the service. Unless we make changes now, the system will not be sustainable in the future.

Regionwide, transit carries one in ten people to work. It costs more than $2.2 billion to run these 27 transit systems each year. More than $700 million comes from fares and $1.5 billion is a direct subsidy from a hodgepodge of sources (sales taxes, federal funds, state gas tax revenues). By looking out to 2035, these systems will face a combined $17 billion capital deficit and an $8 billion operating deficit.

In recent years, the costs of running these transit systems have increased far faster than inflation, even as ridership on some bus systems has declined. About 14,000 people work full time for the region’s public transit systems. Wages and fringe benefits account for more than three-quarters of the operating and maintenance costs of transit, and the cost of fringe benefits in particular is rising fast. At the same time, budget shortfalls, unpredictable revenues and service cuts are degrading the quality of public transportation. Transit systems face competition from an underpriced alternative — driving — and often operate in low-density and auto-oriented environments that are not conducive to growing ridership.

Unless there is some change to costs and revenues, with corresponding improvements in service, the viability of transit in the Bay Area is at risk. Recognizing this looming crisis, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional agency that funds transportation, launched the Transit Sustainability Project (TSP).

At its most basic level, the goal of the TSP is to highlight the challenges facing Bay Area transit and propose solutions. The fixes would include controlling the rapidly rising cost of running the Bay Area’s buses and trains as well as restructuring the types of service offered. In short, the Bay Area cannot remain economically competitive, nor meet its goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, without a transit system that does a better job of getting people where they need to go in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Much of our new investment in transit is quite simply not resulting in better service. This has to change.

SPUR interprets the key findings of the TSP report and offers six suggestions for how to save our transit system.

What Does the Transit Sustainability Project Tell Us About Bay Area Transit?

The TSP made four important findings about cost and service delivery of Bay Area transit.

  • Finding 1: Costs are increasing faster than inflation
While inflation increased by 39% from 1996 to 2010, unit costs (the cost to operate a transit vehicle for one hour) grew by more than double that for Muni, SamTrans, Golden Gate and AC Transit and faster than inflation for all other major transit operators except Caltrain.

Unit costs — what it costs to operate a bus or train for one hour — are increasing at almost twice the rate of inflation for most operators (See Fig. 1). In the 14-year period from 1996 to 2010, Muni’s diesel bus unit costs increased from $92 to about $170 (an 86 percent increase). Over that time period, Muni’s trolley costs increased from $73 to $155 (a 111 percent increase). By way of comparison, the consumer price index (CPI)increased only 39 percent during this period. Among Bay Area transit operators, only Caltrain’s unit costs were lower (20 percent). Almost all of these unit cost increases are attributable to ineffective management. Among the most striking causes of cost increase are soaring pension and retirement costs, increases in health care premiums, and work rules that negatively affect productivity but do little to improve the working environment.

If costs had grown in line with inflation, Muni would now have an extra $156 million per year, AC Transit $86 million and SamTrans $30 million. These savings equate to as much as one-fifth of the entire operating budget. There is no way to maintain a viable regional transit system without greater control of this cost inflation.

  • Finding 2: Increases in productivity are not sufficient to match cost increases
This chart reflects the overall trend that ridership and service are not keeping pace with costs.

Increases in unit cost are not compensated by corresponding increases in productivity (measured in total passengers, passengers per hour or passengers per mile). In fact, in many cases — passengers per hour, for example — productivity has declined. The productivity trends also reflect real and difficult decisions facing agencies. For several agencies, the rise in costs and decline in ridership reflect policy decisions to continue very slow service in neighborhoods and put little priority on suburban arterials. Overall, this results in slower services carrying fewer people per hour of service.

  • Finding 3: Transit speeds are declining, which further exacerbates cost and productivity issues

As the cost to provide an hour of service has increased, the number of miles that hour can deliver (and the number of trips a bus can make in a day) has declined. Traffic congestion results in either service decreases or more costly service.

Among regional operators, Muni averages 8 miles per hour (8.6 for diesel buses and 6.6 for trolley coaches), AC Transit 10 miles per hour, SamTrans 12 and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) 14. Over the last 15 years, speeds have dropped about seven percent. If the Muni trolley coach system’s average speed increased by just one mile per hour, Muni would save about $19 million dollars annually without any service decrease, just by making the buses go faster.

Operating buses and light rail in mixed traffic means that traffic increases and congestion have very real impacts on transit speeds. And slower service means less service or significant increases in costs to maintain the same service.

If an entire bus route normally takes 40 minutes and slows to 44 minutes, it means a single operator can only make 10 one-way trips a day instead of 11. So in order to maintain the same level of service, the agency must put additional buses on the road, which increases costs. It will be difficult to either increase service or hold operating costs steady if transit speeds continue to slow.

  • Finding 4: There is no single factor causing these inefficiencies in transit operations

Many parties are responsible for the inefficiency of local transit operations. Transit agencies have not done enough to control the rise in unit costs. Recent contract negotiations at AC Transit (and to a lesser extent Muni) reflect partial savings. But the agencies argue they are not likely to achieve such savings in the near term. Cities too often harm transit by not giving sufficient dedicated space in the streets for buses to operate efficiently. Finally, funding agencies select poor transit investments, which also harms transit efficiencies over time.

Six Ways to Fix Bay Area Transit

Having taken on a study of the issues with the TSP, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission should now take ownership over implementing many of the good ideas to come out of the process. The following suggestions show how to fix transit by improving funding, speeds, fares, competition, information and maps.

  • 1. Change the funding of transit operations from guaranteed revenue to incentive pay for more riders

Transit operations should be funded in ways that create an incentive for adding riders, as well as for making the most cost-effective improvements. For example, if the MTC offered to pay transit operators a $1 incentive (or bounty) per new rider, an agency that increased ridership by 1 million trips in a year would get an additional $1 million from the MTC. This would encourage transit operators to consider the immediate impact on ridership when allocating service.

  • 2. Establish a regional fare policy that does not penalize customers who transfer between systems
By shifting from a guaranteed funding stream to a bounty paid by the MTC, operators will have a direct financial incentive to increase ridership. Growing ridership is one of the key goals for improving Bay Area transit.

When passengers transfer between BART or Caltrain and a local bus, they almost always pay two fares (there are a few exceptions, such as free transfers from Caltrain to Muni). In general, bus systems have little financial incentive to coordinate schedules with train systems. And the rail systems have no requirement to help pay for the local bus systems, even though they are getting additional riders and fares from these bus systems. This doesn’t make sense. The Bay Area needs a regional fare policy. This is complicated but certainly possible to implement with the Clipper Card as it is rolled out to all agencies. One approach would be for regional rail agencies like BART and Caltrain to pay a bounty to the local operators who deliver passengers to their systems. For example, if a passenger takes a local bus from Martinez to the Concord BART station, BART should share some of the paid fare with County Connection, the local operator. The end result could be better service to passengers, because the local agencies will benefit if they do the right thing — like coordinate schedules, adopt reasonable transfer tariffs and extend their hours of service.

  • 3. Establish a new regional capital investment program that invests in speed improvements on key transit corridors

Improving transit speed and service requires investments in things like dedicated lanes for buses, signal priority and other operational improvements. When streets are designed for auto speeds, transit suffers and costs go up. MTC is already proposing a new $30 million pilot program for prioritizing transit on existing city streets to speed service. This annual program is a good start and should be expanded.

  • 4. Create a tenured, independent regional transit analysis office to collect and distribute objective information and performance metrics

Just as we have a legislative analyst in Sacramento and San Francisco, we need an independent transit analysis office to both improve the public’s comprehension of the challenges facing transit systems and provide transit operators with clearer information on how and where their particular system should improve. There is already a lot of transit information out there. But there is no office with tenure and structural improving Bay Area transit.

  • 5. Allow transit operators to pick up and drop off passengers within each others’ service territories

Today, transit bus operators all have distinct service territories. These territories are monopolies to the extent that one operator cannot pick up or drop off passengers in a territory controlled by another. Operators should be able to pick up and drop off passengers in each other’s service territories. (This would, however, require changes to state law.)

  • 6. Produce a single transit map for the Bay Area and move toward common branding

While merging many of the Bay Area’s transit systems is impractical and not likely to achieve significant cost savings, making the entire region feel more like a single system could achieve many of the same results. The Clipper card is one step in the right direction. Creating a single transit map for the region would be another. A further step would be to move toward common marketing and branding. This approach has been taken in Melbourne, Australia, where there are numerous transit operators but the public face of transit is a single brand: Metlink.

What’s Next for Transit?

Bay Area transit systems, while operated separately, are owned by the same shareholders: the people. That simple fact should make improving transit for its owners (i.e., its customers) a top priority. To get the Bay Area’s $1.5 billion in annual transit system investments to produce better results requires much more transparency and direct and accountable financial incentives. These are not revolutionary concepts — in fact, they are the basis of all democratic systems. The system will not get better on its own. It will start to unravel unless we make needed changes. A better and sustainable transit system for the region will make a better Bay Area.

  • Anonymous

    The ridership graph seems to indicate the futility of transit on the suburban fringe. We could densify some of these areas, but do we want to densify the fringe or the core?

  • FDW

    I think that while a merger of all Bay Area Transit Agencies wouldn’t be that good of an idea, I still think there should be some agency mergers, Like merging Golden Gate Transit with all the various transit agencies of Sonoma County, AC Transit with the rest of the Alameda and Contra Costa County transit agencies, Merging all the Solano and Napa County Transit agencies into SolTrans and lastly, splitting the SamTrans service area between MUNI (North of Millbrae BART) and VTA (South of Millbrae BART).

  • mikesonn

    Example: BART expansion or infill stations.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Ah yes. SPUR.

    Front-line corporatist cheerleaders for BART to the San Jose Flea Market and for the Central Subway, and for any other insane piece of government welfare benefiting the “sponsors” of their splendid little “think tank”.

    Why anybody who isn’t on the take would pay the slightest attention to what those shills are paid to publish is beyond me.

    Step 1 to improving Bay Area Transit: only make investments that decrease operating costs and whose capital costs can just justified by new ridership.
    Step 2: There is no Step 2.  See step 1

  • Caltrain outperforms SamTrans on all the metrics, yet San Mateo County has reduced their contribution to Caltrain instead of reducing the contribution to SamTrans. A lot of SamTrans service is duplicative of Caltrains but their riders are lower income and take the bus because it is cheaper.

    That shouts to me – reduce the number of buses, and use the cost savings to lower the train fare and give those riders the faster service of a train. And then run more trains.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Caltrain’s capital costs are insane and out of control.

    Of course you like trains that you use and that whisk you from the SF urban playground to the cubicle world that pays the mortgage (as did I, but I don’t pretend I deserved it) and you don’t like stinky slow buses that the brown people take.

    More for me and less for them!

    If you want better transit in the Bay Area, you’re going to have to run more buses more effectively and stop pissing away tens of billions on insane suburban nowhere trains.  (And yes, Caltrain is as nothing compared to BART in the corrupt waste of cash stakes.)  If you want more riders on transit in the Bay Area you’re going to have to deal with the sorts of people to whom buses are a godsend.

  • Seven

    “27 different public transit operators.”

    Sounds like about 26 too many.

  • mikesonn

    The buses that @twitter-14678929:disqus is referring to run parallel to Caltrain on ECR. Duplication of service for most of the route.

    Also, WTF man. Really?

  • Anonymous

    The best-performing SamTrans routes are ECR buses which duplicate Caltrain at lower price/quality and the buses that feed BART and Caltrain.   So kill the duplication and reward effective feeder service.

    Terplan is right – the MTC’s transit effectiveness program looked at a variety of metrics to evaluate cost-effectiveness of transit service but *connectivity* wasn’t on the list.

  • you don’t like stinky slow buses that the brown people take.

    Maybe the stinky brown people like taking a bus from SF to Redwood City to save 2 bucks. I doubt it. Let them ride the train for the same price.

    Don’t know. Do know your reputation is well deserved.

  • jdbig

    Transportation agencies are wasting money or are otherwise inefficient because they offer workers (perhaps because they’re unionized) extravagances like “pensions” and “health care.”

    Why is this always a zero-sum game? We can grossly subsidize good transit service and socialize externalities like going to the doctor or retiring by reasonably taxing area residents/businesses.

    But that’s not the conversation we get to have, instead: cut brown people’s buses, or stop subsidizing bobos and their trains, or quit lavishing public workers with human decency! Someday I hope we stop racing to the bottom…

  • Andy Chow

    SamTrans buses provide local service on El Camino real, serving destinations between Caltrain stops. Also, a lot of SamTrans route serve the Daly City area, which has a large ridership and is far from Caltrain. SamTrans provides services to local middle and high schools as well.

    I don’t think it is fair to characterize SamTrans as a duplication of Caltrain.

  • Andy Chow

    The other issue to consider agency merger is the governance and funding structure, in addition to issues relating to operational efficiency. Golden Gate Transit is govern by a board whose’s top role is to manage the Golden Gate Bridge. Transit is just a side role because it provides traffic relief for the bridge. Local transit in Sonoma County is governed locally.

    Marin County, which is paying Golden Gate Transit as a contractor for most of its local transit, is complaining about the high cost. Marin County does not negotiate to those who work for Golden Gate Transit.

    As for SamTrans, SamTrans is doing well (clean and well maintained fleet) and does it at a lower cost than Muni and VTA. I don’t think San Mateo County would agree to split itself and be politically dominated by neighboring counties/cities. (a lot of them already feel that way now). The same goes for AC Transit and its neighboring agencies further north and to the east.

  • Anonymous

    The Daly City Area is served by BART. The 291(?) bus basically follows BART from SF to Millbrae where it starts following Caltrain.

    If Caltrain and BART cost the same to ride as that bus, the bus ridership would crater.

  • Anonymous

    There really is no point comparing heavy rail operators like BART and Caltrain to agencies which primarily operate buses such as Muni, AC Transit, SamTrans and VTA. The exclusive right of way and high staff to passenger ratio makes heavy rail look better than bus, but rail will never be able to cover the same service area as a fleet of buses without prohibitively expensive infrastructure expenditure. If part of your goal is to provide transit coverage rather than just to increase ridership-per-dollar-spent, you will need to run lower efficiency local bus routes as well as higher efficiency rail routes. (See Jarret Walker on the ridership vs. coverage topic.)

    One thing that can and should be done to improve the efficiency of the bus operators is to emulate the factors that make rail efficient on the corridors with high enough ridership to justify the investment. Get bigger buses and run them on 24/7 heavily enforced bus lanes; this relatively small capital investment will pay off in reduced operating expenses, as faster, more reliable, higher capacity buses require less drivers to provide the same level of service. Geary and Van Ness BRT are good projects but they should be joined ASAP by dedicated transit lanes on Mission, Potrero, Geneva, and both lanes of Market, as well as all the surface LRT routes.

    BTW I’m amazed how Richard M got from your comment to assumptions about your lifestyle and viewpoints. I guess it’s much easier to call someone a racist than to respond to what they actually said. An utterly vile comment even by his standards.

  • Andy Chow

    Both Daly City and Colma BART stations are served by many SamTrans local routes:

    I don’t know if you ever spend time in Daly City, both BART stations are far from most popular destinations (there’s no downtown in Daly City). The city is also very hilly and cold and has a land use pattern and density comparable to parts of San Francisco. So some of the most productive routes are in Daly City and not at all competing with BART.

    SamTrans also provide service in North Menlo Park and East Palo Alto (both on the other side of 101). Both are low income communities that are more transit dependent.

  • Ronald Kappesser

    Consider what a regional transit operator’s priorities would look like.  Here’s a hint: The closest thing we have to a regional rail operator is spending its money extending trains to Livermore, Brentwood and the fringes of San Jose.  The fact is that 6 of the 7 million people who live in the Bay Area live in places that are pretty suburban (this includes people who live in San Jose) and would rather pay for services that serve them (even poorly) than that serve the folks in SF, and the small urban bit of the East Bay. 

  • David Vartanoff

    It is worth pointing out that a universal Bay Area Transit guide was produced by a Stanfod student group in the late 60s.  MTC took it over and…
    As to interline fares, we had a good and growing fare card called BartPlus.   which included most of the agencies, but Caltrain stopped honoring it within SF, AC bailed completely and MTC did nothing on behalf of riders.   Are you seeing a pattern here?  Meanwhile half a billion each for the Caldecott Tunnel to encourage auto use and the amusement park ride to the Oakland Airport.   Now they discover that transit funding is in trouble???  I’m shocked.

  • David Vartanoff

    Certainly long past time for SamTrans (as an example) to carry riders within SF at their existing stops.  State legislation will be useful in persuading the relevant unions not to obstruct.
    The best immediate step, however would be to mandate BART to honor all other agency local monthly passes between bus/BART jointly served points without any premium charge.  (As Muni Fast Passes used to be)+   

  • I understand that Andy – the bus I’m mostly looking at is the El Camino route. Feeder buses to the trains would be more useful than a long haul run.

    The most amusing bus to try to justify is the KX. I love that it’s there, but ..


    San Francisco’s Prop K was passed by voters way back in 2003—prioritizing “fast and reliable surface transit” throughout San Francisco.  Not rocket science—many cities have created transit-preferential street systems for relatively small costs.  Fast forward (or rather slow forward) to 2012, Muni has drained $595 million of state/ local funds for the tiny 1.7 mile Central Subway Project.  The best way to fix Bay Area transit is smart transit planning and smart leadership—to prioritize investments that benefit the most riders with efficient use of limited funds.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Ride the buses some time and then come back and try to say with a straight face that Caltrain is a substitute for anything — anything except doing some objective analysis.

    And yes, the sorts of people — suburban sales tax voters, MTC executive directors, penny ante local electeds on the take, think tank opiners, construction companies, engineering consultancies, web 2.0 cube slaves — who believe for a second that what works for them is remotely appropriate for most of their fellow residents are guilty of something.

    Perhaps lack of analytical skills?  Lack of empathy?  Lack of exposure to functioning and effective transit networks elsewhere in the world?  Complete failure to understand that spending a billion of Somebody Else’s Money to “save” a million dollars annually might not compute and that their chosen metric might not be capturing something?  Lack or something, for sure.

  • I’ve done one better Richard. I raced the 391 from SF to RWC on my bike, using the same route as the 391.

    I beat the 391 by an hour.

  • Andy Chow

    390 and 391 are both local and feeder service. The difference between those and other lines is that they are long haul. El Camino is the most active business corridor on the Peninsula. There are plenty of businesses, schools, hospitals, and residences along the corridor that won’t be as well served by transit if it is just BART and Caltrain alone.

    I don’t think it is a good idea to break the long haul lines into several short ones just to force a relatively small amount of riders to ride the trains. If the idea is that buses must not duplicate rail service, then there shouldn’t be any buses on Market Street in SF. Some of the Muni lines (like 71), “duplicate” Muni Metro and BART from downtown to Van Ness on Market.

    The KX is well used along El Camino, and before the 2009 service cut, filled the gap between the 390 buses south of Redwood City (391 does not go to Palo Alto). There’s a large frequency gap that exist now between Redwood City and Palo Alto (there’s no Caltrain stop for almost 3 1/2 mile between Redwood and Menlo), and because of the differences in headways between KX and 390. KX and 390 sometimes depart around the same time, resulting the wasted capacity and long waits (30 to 40 min). It is a problem that needs to be resolved. If the idea is to extend the 391 to replace the KX, then riders will lose direct access to SFO and SF Civic Center. KX buses during peak hours are crowded coming out of SF and the fare is comparable to Caltrain. SamTrans staff is conducting a study to evaluate and providing recommendation on route changes.

  • Abe

    “lavishing public workers with human decency”

    great line 🙂

  • In Zurich the regional public transport coordinating agency (ZVV) contracts with the region’s 42 different PT agencies to provide a given level of service on each line. The operating agencies tell the ZVV what it will cost, the ZVV negotiates with them to reduce costs and improve service, then pays the negotiated cost (the ZVV also get all the fare revenues). It allows the operating agencies to focus on actually running the service, the ZVV handles multi-agency coordination and fare policy. It works pretty well.

  • Mim Hawley

     There is a danger in making increased ridership and “efficiency” the overriding high-priority objective for transit.  Everyone knows which transit services are most cost-effective– those that serve commuters during peak commute hours.  But transit is the sole method of access to school, work during off-peak hours, shopping, recreation, and trips for a variety of other reasons for thousands of people in the Bay Area. We risk the well-being and degrading the quality of life for all of these people, and we ignore social justice and environmental quality issues by narrowing our focus to cost-effectiveness.  We need a balanced view, with cost-effectiveness as one objective, but with access for all to the travel options that serve all of our communities.    


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