The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to dramatically improve public transit without building more of it

Image courtesy of Sergio Ruiz, SPUR

Let's say you live north of Oakland and commute every day to a job in Silicon Valley about 45 miles away. It's entirely possible to get there by public transit, because the Bay Area has literally dozens of transit agencies. But your trip would probably look something like this: You'd take an AC Transit bus to a BART station, then take the train down to the stop at Union City.

"Then at Union City — if you time it just right — there’s a couple of buses each morning and in the afternoon that cross the Dumbarton Bridge and head to the Palo Alto transit center," says Ratna Amin, the transportation policy director for SPUR, an urban planning research and advocacy group in the Bay Area. "But you're still not in Mountain View. And now you might need to get on another bus."

Each of these steps, by the way, will require a whole new payment — no, you don't get a discounted fare for transferring — as well as yet another bewildering transit map. That's because for all its transit service, the Bay Area — like a lot of big metropolitan areas — doesn't knit together all of its providers in any coherent way. Commuting patterns are region-wide. But the transit systems that help people commute invariably are not. In the Bay Area, they look like this, each color representing a different transit provider:

That map comes from a new report SPUR released Tuesday on how the area could make the experience of commuting on public transit more seamless for users who now need a wallet full of transit passes and an encyclopedic sense of where these systems connect to each other. Short of consolidating all of these services, the San Francisco area and many others could at least produce a coherent region-wide transit map for commuters, an integrated fare structure and a single, modern fare card (the clunky imperfect "Clipper card" currently available in the Bay Area doesn't cover all of these agencies). That idea isn't so radical.

"Roads operated by different entities connect seamlessly for drivers" the report points out. "Similarly, multi-operator airline trips can be made with one ticket."

So why can't more people commute that way too?

"We need to solve that problem, not for the person who has the most unusual trip," Amin says after walking me through my hypothetical Berkeley-to-Silicon Valley commute. "There are still a lot of people who need to use more than one operator."

Right in downtown San Francisco, the Embarcadaro Station requires passengers transferring from a BART train to a Muni one to travel up two flights of stairs, exit one fare gate, enter another, then return to a different train platform. That process takes about two minutes — if you know what you're doing:

When we think about the inefficiencies and poor customer service of public transit, these are relatively doable, affordable fixes geared at simply making it easier for people to use the infrastructure we've already built.

Instead, regions like San Francisco make commuters learn a dozen different fare structures. We tell students and seniors that they get a discount on one service but not another. We financially penalize people with long commutes — many of them low-income — who have to use multiple systems every day. And within this world, we give individual agencies no incentive to help passengers navigate a trip beyond the end of their line.

Make all of this easier, and we'd improve not just the experience of regular transit commuters, but perhaps the likelihood that new commuters will join them. Then we can really start talking — about making car-share and bike-share systems seamless, too, or creating region-wide transit benefits for the poor, or eliminating fare cards all together for smartphone tickets.