Lopez: Make transit free in Silicon Valley

When I was little, I loved to sit on my mom’s lap and ride the bus all through Campbell and the West Valley. We only had one car, and since my dad used it to work multiple jobs, days and nights, our main connection to the community was the VTA bus line. One time, we missed our stop, but a family friend, driving along the same street, saw us, picked us up, and dropped us off to our destination. I wailed and cried the whole time — disappointed at missing the chance to ride the bus.

Today, as I run for Campbell City Council, many of the same bus lines that served my community when I was growing up have now been cut. Over the past two decades, the West Valley and North County have suffered the most in terms of VTA service, even as those areas see continued growth in employment and population. That’s why we should not only be advocating expansion of service, but discussing how to make public transportation free.

The idea is more economically feasible than it might seem. Currently, only 7% of Valley Transit Authority (VTA) revenues come from fares (75% comes from three different sales tax measures). The system is heavily subsidized, with free or low-cost service to groups such as seniors, students and individuals with disabilities, and free transfers for many riders. And the idea that transit can and should be free is gaining traction around the country. Michelle Wu, Boston city councillor, has proposed making her city’s MBTA free. In Salt Lake City, a number of candidates for mayor are advocating for free public transit. The proposal bears serious study by the VTA board.

There are a number of benefits to this approach. First, anyone who believes that climate change is the defining crisis of our time has a stake in getting as many people as possible to take more environmentally sensible means of transportation. Increasing usage of public transit is one of the single most effective actions we can take to combat climate change. Ending fines and penalties for fare evasion will help those communities which are most vulnerable. And allowing increased access to places of employment helps our working families, as well as all of us who benefit from a thriving economy.

I’ve had discussions with policymakers who argue that a better approach to improving our service is to offer cheaper fares to those who can least afford it, while charging those who can afford it a higher price, allowing this latter group to subsidize the service for other riders. This approach, known as means testing (and which is pretty close to what VTA already does), makes sense if you think the purpose of public transit is to eke out a bit more money, more efficiently. But if you believe in getting as many drivers out of their cars to combat climate change, or in improving our economic climate by allowing more working class residents to easily get to and from work without requiring them to own a car, this paradigm makes much less sense than making transit free altogether.

I’ve also heard arguments to the effect that current ridership levels don’t justify expansions of transit lines. But public transit thrives when it’s the easiest and most accessible transportation option. As commuters, we use common sense when deciding how to get from place to place: if public transit is cheaper and faster than driving, it becomes the most attractive option. But if public transit requires too many transfers, doesn’t have enough stops that are close enough to our destination, or is more expensive than driving, few commuters will want to use it, no matter how environmentally minded they may be.

Moreover, the Bay Area has a unique opportunity to plan for expansion of transit because we are unique among other major metropolitan regions in terms of our growth. We’re lucky enough to live in a region that is, by many measures, thriving economically, one that continues to be attractive for people moving here for work. That growth means that there continues to be a market for new housing — demand far outpaces supply.

It’s a good bet that, for the foreseeable future, this trend will continue, which gives us the ability to plan ahead for how best to service our community through public transit, an ability that isn’t shared by other communities that lack the Bay’s unprecedented growth. When we plan urban villages and transit-oriented development, we should also plan for public transit to serve those locations, or else risk locking us into building communities that require residents to have a car to get around.

It’s time for a bold new vision on public transit. But this kind of change won’t happen overnight. And other transit experts, honest actors who care about our community, might have differences of opinion, arguing that there are different methods for improving public transit. To which I say: make your case, and let me know why your proposal makes more sense. But let’s have that debate. It’s one which we’re not currently having, even as our region continues to grow and our climate crisis gets worse.

Too often, we look at public transit as being for other people. But I invite anyone doubting the merits of such a proposal to take the bus or ride the light rail with me. You’ll see working mothers, elderly couples, tech workers and everyone in between. Moreover, transit encourages walking and biking to and from stops, and brings foot traffic to bustling business districts. In short, public transit encourages the activity that makes up healthy, vibrant, livable communities — the kind of communities we’d all like to live in.

Sergio Lopez is a nonprofit leader and candidate for Campbell City Council. He serves as director of development for the Junior State of America Foundation, a national civic education nonprofit, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Campbell Historical Museum Foundation. He graduated from Yale University. You can reach him at sergio@lopezforcampbell.com, or find more information at LopezForCampbell.com.

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