Seamless Bay Area Five Years Later
Two of the founders of the Bay Area's advocacy group dedicated to fare integration and rational schedules talk about a half-decade of fighting for better transit and what's likely to happen in the next five years.
3:47 PM PST on December 7, 2023
Back in 2018, Streetsblog did the very first interview with Seamless Bay Area, a then-brand-new advocacy group with a singular focus on integrating fares and schedules for the Bay Area's almost thirty transit agencies into something rational and customer-focused. Since then, Seamless has become a go-to advocacy group for the mainstream press. They've also had a huge influence on policy, including bringing about the first of hopefully many universal fare media--the BayPass. Streetsblog caught up with two of the group's founders, Beaudry Koch and Ian Griffiths, in uptown Oakland to find out what they've learned and where they hope to go from here.
Streetsblog: So before we get started do you have any time constraints?
Ian Griffiths: I do have to pick up my BART holiday sweater.
SB: Well, hopefully, we'll be done in time for that. Five years ago when we first sat down, your group was new and unknown. Now I feel like I see you quoted everywhere and there seems to be growing awareness that the region's transit agencies just can't survive with each acting independently.
Beaudry Koch: Awareness is growing for sure.
IG: We've become one of the go-to groups that the media comes to when commenting on transit issues. We're at least one of the top three.
BK: We’re the only Bay Area catchall for transit issues, the only Bay Area-wide advocate.
SB: What have you learned since we first met about advocating for rational fares and schedules?
BK: Nobody in their right mind rejects the things we want. It polls really high. The public wants it.
SB: But there are people not in their right mind I take it, at the transit agencies themselves?
BK: I thought it would be so much easier. Why should something everybody wants be so hard? We've given up untold time and earnings potential to fight this good fight. And it blows me away, the opposition! I did not expect that from heads of "progressive" transit agencies.
IG: Six years ago... I wouldn’t believe we’d still be working on it. I’m not sure I was ready for that.
SB: Yeah, I'd expect there'd be at least some product, no matter how expensive, that anybody could buy that would work on at least a few of the transit agencies. So what's the hold-up? Is it just heads of the agencies?
IG: Well, COVID was not something any of us expected. In some respects, it set us back, but it also created a sense of urgency that will speed us forward now.
IG: The pandemic hit the pause button because we were dealing with a crisis and so much disruption. For one or two years we weren’t really able to deploy anything. Transit agencies might have moved more quickly.
SB: You had legislation pulled as a result.
IG: If we had succeeded with the David Chiu legislation in 2020, we’d have a network manager now. But, yes, that legislation got postponed. But also because of COVID we ended up with the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force. That was a great forum for discussing and bringing everyone together on how to do fare integration and what should be the vision for transit in the future. However, now there are just no resources, just no funding. So we're limited in what we can advance.
BK: Also there isn’t fertile soil for fare integration. None of the transit agencies have a customer service team or officer. So we're starting from zero.
SB: Right, so it isn't like you have agencies with people focused on customer service to bring into a room together. You just have general managers focused on their own territory and budgets. So take us through the legislative work to try and force this issue?
IG: We’ve done three attempts
BK: Feels like ten.
IG: We had A.B. 2057 by David Chiu in 2020.
SB: Which was pulled.
SB: And that also got quashed during the legislative process. So how do they manage to get this done in Europe and even Canada but not here?
IG: I've had people in Europe and Canada who tell me they don't really understand why we need transit advocates in the first place. They don't have or need transit advocacy groups.
BK: The proliferation - the need - for advocacy groups is a symptom of a sickness. It shows a problem.
SB: Right: that transit agencies aren't working for the customer, they're working for themselves.
BK: We always wanted to get ourselves out of this business.
IG: We’d like to succeed and not have a job.
SB: And when the transit agencies start putting the customer first, you won't. But for now and into the foreseeable future you carry on. What else did you learn from the legislative work?
IG: All of those prior attempts have been valuable, again, because they were pretty much universally supported and had positive media coverage. It created more pressure for the transit agencies and MTC [Metropolitan Transportation Commission] to prioritize fare integration.
SB: Right, because they know if they keep resisting, someday a legislative attempt is going to succeed, and they'll lose control and be forced to integrate.
IG: I still believe we need legislation. Voluntary coordination is not enough. It takes too long to implement basic policies that can build ridership, like fare integration, even when it won’t cost the transit agencies a dime. We just don’t have proper regional decision-making that puts riders first.
SB: So your goal is to make the next regional funding measure contingent on the establishment of a network manager of some kind, to make sure fare integration and coordinated schedules start to happen.
IG: On Friday there's a joint MTC ABAG [Association of Bay Area Governments] Legislation Committee hearing where they’ll be talking about the regional measure and reforms that should go along with it, including creating a network manager.
SB: Well, I’m not voting for it if it’s not in there. Enough already.
IG: I'm optimistic it will be. With this ABAG committee, we're hoping to get MTC on the record supporting a network manager. Finally, I think MTC is doing what people want them to do.
SB: So this round of "legislation" you're working on is the regional measure, but with the network manager requirement?
IG: Yes, and we're hoping to get a signature-gathering campaign together after the authorizing legislation.
BK: Know any Streetsblog readers who can help gather signatures?
SB: I'm sure I do.
IG: We'll be working on that and hopefully getting help from the same people who are excited about housing reform. If we don't get more transit we’re not going to be able to build the housing we need and the housing we do build won’t free people from their cars.
SB: These challenges aside, you've already had one huge victory: the BayPass for students, university employees, and residents of affordable housing.
BK: We already have 50,000 people on it, with two million trips.
SB: That's a great proof-of-concept for a wider BayPass. How did that get started?
IG: Remember when there was that call for transformational projects with Plan Bay Area? So we submitted BayPass, along with SPUR. And it was selected as the "best impact" project. I think it’s exceeded everyone's expectations. Everyone expected it to build ridership, but it built ridership in some cases by over forty percent.
SB: Forty percent of what? What does that mean exactly?
IG: So say a Berkeley or San Francisco State student gets a transit pass as part of their tuition. Normally they get a pass for one operator. Now a subset get a BayPass that works for all operators. It turns out the ones with BayPass use the single transit agency forty percent more - plus, of course, they use other transit agencies more.
SB: Oh, I see. So if an S.F. State student gets a BayPass, they use Muni more than the student with a Muni-only pass. Or if one Berkeley student has an AC Transit pass, and another has a BayPass, the student with the BayPass will use AC Transit much more. Makes sense. So even from the parochial view of the general manager of AC Transit, BayPass brings more riders to their system as well as the other operators.
IG: In the next phase of the pilot there will be ten large employers... paying for the passes, so this next phase should be revenue-positive. The students were almost entirely subsidized.
SB: So it will be "revenue neutral," the big thing general managers insist on. Or really it will increase revenue.
IG: Yeah, but let's dismiss this idea of it being revenue-neutral. Transit is not profitable. More importantly, we'll know the ridership impacts and we’ll know the level of subsidy that’s needed to expand BayPass. That will give us an airtight case that this should be made available to everyone.
SB: Or instead of studying and piloting all this we could have just looked at London or any city in Switzerland or Vancouver or a lot of other cities with integrated fares.
BK: Yes, we could have saved a lot of time by just doing it. But that goes back to the customer experience. TransLink in Vancouver, for example, designs things they do based on customer needs, not revenue neutrality. They start with the customer need, then look at what the agency needs. That's the opposite of American transit agencies that put the agency first and the customer second.
SB: And, amazingly, that works. You end up with higher ridership and higher revenue anyway if you start with the customer experience.
IG: Prior to the pandemic, Vancouver had the highest growth in ridership in North America. And post-pandemic it has had the strongest recovery of any region. Vancouver is above ninety percent of [its] pre-pandemic ridership. It's not a coincidence that they have a network manager and are well-funded.
SB: Where do you see yourselves in five more years?
BK: (Sighs). I think things have to change. We forget that transit wasn’t great pre-pandemic either. We keep blaming transit problems on the pandemic, but the alarm bells were already ringing. I’m hoping five years from now we don’t have this problem and we’ve transformed transit in the Bay Area. I don’t think we’ll be out of business, but our role might have shifted. There's a general problem that American transit is not open to global insights and international training.
SB: So you’d go national?
BK: That's one path among many.
IG: I think the conversation that we’ve started in the Bay Area has certainly gone California-wide. Southern California also has huge problems. And with high-speed rail coming, we have to be planning connectivity between statewide, regional, and local transit if we want a system to shift people out of their cars. Our thought leadership is already going national. I hope that doesn’t sound too cocky.
SB: No. And we hope that pans out. So - time to get that ugly sweater?
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