A campaign to unify the Bay Area’s 27 different transit agencies into one seamless system is gaining steam, but the slog toward full integration will be a long and challenging journey.
Ian Griffiths, co-founder and director of Seamless Bay Area, said during a Wednesday webinar that recent legislation could pave the way toward integrating the Bay Area’s transit agencies. Seamless Bay Area is a nonprofit that advocates unifying transit service so riders can travel more easily across the region.
Griffiths is pegging his hopes on Senate Bill 917. Introduced in February by state Sen. Josh Becker, this legislation would require transit agencies, including VTA, to develop an integrated transit fare structure by 2024, coordinate schedules and service standards and develop a single regional transit map.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting more people to take public transit all the time, and shift to more sustainable ways of getting around our region,” Griffiths told San José Spotlight. “Livability and quality of life and environmental goals are reasons we need to have a very user-focused transit system and making it seamless is a really fundamental part of that.”
Advocates of seamless regional transit claim the Bay Area is lagging behind its peers around the world. Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture of Silicon Valley, described how easy it was to travel by bus and train in Singapore and the Netherlands compared to the tortured logistics of getting from San Francisco International Airport to his home in Palo Alto.
“The San Francisco Bay Area is a world class destination,” Hancock said during the meeting, which was co-hosted by Joint Venture. “We don’t look like it in the realm of transit—that’s not what the user experience feels like.”
Transit advocates say there’s a strong incentive to integrate these agencies and create more effective regional public transportation as they continue to lose riders and revenue. According to Seamless Bay Area, the average commute time for transit users in the Bay Area increased by 11.9% between 2001 and 2016. During the same period, the annual number of trips taken on public transit per capita declined 10.4%.
Some local institutions have already bought into the concept. Last September, the San Jose City Council agreed to adopt Seamless Bay Area’s principles, which include coordinating service between different kinds of transit, investing in areas with few transit options and taking steps to create more walkable communities.
San Jose transportation department spokesperson Colin Heyne told San José Spotlight the city is developing a Transit First policy that will strengthen San Jose’s commitment to public transportation. He said the plan is expected to go before the City Council in May.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees regional transit planning in the Bay Area, has started exploring the possibility of a funding measure for public transportation in 2024.
‘A discombobulated mess’
Some transit advocates are dubious that Seamless Bay Area’s vision can be executed with ease. Jayme Ackemann, a public transportation expert and former VTA employee, favors integration but has concerns about the financial challenges.
As an example, she noted creating an integrated fare ticket would require divvying up each fare between multiple transit agencies. She said this was a significant issue with Clipper cards—first introduced in 2002—and that agencies are still tinkering with them to get rid of design flaws.
“None of these things are impossible challenges, but they are complicated,” she told San José Spotlight. “I’m aware of the pitfalls that can make a great idea like this a very poor end-user experience.”
Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and a San José Spotlight columnist, said she was initially enthusiastic about Seamless’ vision, but is now more skeptical. She told San José Spotlight transit agencies want to maintain local control over operations, such as setting schedules and raising or lowering fares. She also noted most public transit trips in Santa Clara County happens within county lines, so it makes more sense for VTA to invest on increasing the frequency of local service.
“As much money as possible should go to running more service, because that’s what drives ridership,” Mallon said. “A lot of people don’t take transit because the schedules don’t work for them.”
In Santa Clara County, VTA is struggling with high operation costs and low ridership numbers—factors that could worsen the agency’s projected financial shortfall, which is expected to reach $47.5 million by 2031.
Dr. Michelle DeRobertis, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, told San José Spotlight that California’s public transit landscape is incredibly complicated, especially in the Bay Area, which has nine different counties.
“Of course, transit coordination is technically feasible, but obviously legislation is key. And funding is key,” she said. “The fact that funding has been tied up with so many local, voter-approved initiatives just makes transit a discombobulated mess in California.”