Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 3, 2009

On Deadline: Surveying how people get from here to there, and back

by Jay Thorwaldson

How people get from one place to another and back has been an item of human interest since the dawn of civilization — a term that has more to do with the economics of the time than with transportation.

Times change, and the spice and silk trade gives way to today's brain-based information era, where a huge transportation element is not of goods but of people, simply getting to work and back.

And being a curious sort, Americans like to know what their fellow countrymen are doing, watching, eating and thinking about, politically or otherwise.

Enter the survey, a 20th century phenomenon that since the 1950s or earlier has become stock in trade of marketing, politics and business. Anyone recall the bombshell of the Kinsey Report on America's sex practices?

Now, because we are enmeshed in a Silicon Valley region with a vast human daily tidal flow of people in and out (with an average one-way trip length of 20-plus miles) we pay attention to surveys about transportation. Not too sexy, but who has time for that anyway?

Now comes a new survey that touches on a hot-button issue in Palo Alto: how people prefer to travel around California, by air, automobile or (the touchy part) high-speed rail.

The survey was conducted by BW Research Partnership, based in Carlsbad, Calif., with an office in San Jose. But the results of the 18-question survey hit close to home for Midpeninsula communities facing (or fighting) the advent of an elevated high-speed-rail system running through neighborhoods.

Some are attacking the survey results based on the money-trail: Guilt by a$$ociation?

The survey was funded by the three big commercial airports (San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, with a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

It is part of an update to a "Regional Airport Systems Plan Analysis," a regional planning document for a little-known agency called the Regional Airport Planning Committee (RAPC). The committee in turn is made up of three better-known alphabet-soup agencies: The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC).

The survey's purpose is "to gauge public opinion and knowledge about" alternatives relating to future air travel. Alternatives include ways to reduce peak-period congestion at airports via pricing and airplane-size adjustments, increase capacity at the big airports and measure receptivity to high-speed rail as an alternative to in-state airplane hops.

Critics see a hidden motive: The airports want to clear out the clutter of frequent in-state flights to make room for the more profitable national/international flights.

But Josh Williams, president of BW Research, defends the survey as unbiased and well-intentioned. The questions were reviewed by a range of organizations and the intent was to accurately gauge attitudes.

"The survey was an attempt to get as clear a read as we can, given that the level of awareness (about transportation alternatives) is relatively low," he said.

He acknowledged one underlying assumption: that the level of demand will increase as California's population continues to grow. Some projections see population doubling in coming decades.

A full copy of the survey's "topline results" (raw statistics with no cross-analysis) is viewable at www.paloaltoonline.com/media/reports/1238698719.pdf.

Here are some highlights:

The survey begins with a question on relative importance of different issues. Green wins, with 95 percent rating "preserving open space and natural habitats" as either "somewhat," "very" or "extremely" important. Protecting the bay and protecting air quality each rated 97 percent, improving water quality hit 92 percent and limiting greenhouse-gas emissions rated 91 percent for the three categories.

Who says we Californians never agree?

High-speed rail came off well, with a 79 percent importance rating — just trailing "preventing local tax increases" at 82 percent.

But a key question — "Improving the Bay Area's commercial passenger airports to provide more flights with fewer delays" — came in at just a 77 percent importance rating.

More than half (56 percent) of survey respondents had taken one to five airplane trips in the past year. Of those who took flights, 64 percent were primarily for leisure, 15 percent for business and 21 percent reported a balance. Airports used were 46 percent San Francisco, 31 percent Oakland and 20 percent San Jose — and 1 percent Sacramento.

Access to airports got generally high marks, with closeness to home breaking 90 percent satisfaction, along with availability of flights. Satisfaction dropped substantially when people were asked about congestion getting to or from an airport, availability of public transportation to or from airports, and availability of low-cost flights.

Opinion was virtually evenly split between whether or not airports should be expanded, at 45 and 46 percent. There was a negative tilt to expanding airports, but 56 percent of respondents indicated they would support "Limiting flights to cities in California and having passengers use a high-speed rail system to get to destinations in Central and Southern California." Another 26 percent said they were not sure, and 17 percent said they would oppose limiting flights in favor of rail.

A few questions dealt only with airport expansion and services, then high-speed rail surfaces again: Of those who indicated they would limit flights, 79 percent said they would still support the high-speed rail alternative if they knew it would take 2 1/2 hours to get to Southern California and cost about the same as air travel, versus 8 percent who said they would not still support limiting flights.

Of those opposing limiting flights in favor of rail, 37 percent cited "cost to taxpayers/state too high," while 15 percent said it would take too long to get to other destinations. Another 12 percent said they did not want transportation choices "regulated or mandated" and 11 percent indicated simply that they do not need high-speed rail.

Some demographic statistics of note:

71 percent of respondents said they drive alone to work, 16 percent carpool or vanpool, 13 percent use BART, 12 percent take the bus, 7 percent bike, 6 percent walk, 3 percent use Caltrain and 1 percent commute by motorcycle.

66 percent had no children under 18 while 29 percent had one or two children at home and 5 percent had three or more; 63 percent were white, 14 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic, 5 percent African American and 1 percent Pacific Islander; age distribution was 34 percent 18 to 39, 19 percent 40 to 49, 28 percent 50 to 65 and 18 percent over 65; respondents were from around the Bay Area, with heaviest representation from Santa Clara and Alameda counties.

Two thirds owned their home, and income distribution was split almost evenly between $25,000 and $150,000, with 17 percent reporting more than $150,000 and 9 percent under $25,000 per year.

Political distribution was 53 percent Democrat and 19 percent Republican, with 4 percent "other" and 25 percent "decline to state." Propensity to vote was 34 percent "high," 21 percent "medium" and 45 percent "low."

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

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