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Bay Area public transit is in trouble: Can our failing systems be saved?

Uploaded: Jan 11, 2022
Let us imagine that you have just been appointed the chief public transit guru in the Bay Area. You achieved this very important post because the transit committee decided a wise person, like yourself, must try to solve the many problems facing public transit here, particularly funding. Your job: Come up with a solution that will increase public transit ridership, provide more trains and buses, get these systems effective and cost efficient, and helping financially failing systems out of the rabbit holes they are in.

The problem: BART, Caltrain, light rail, Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and SF Muni ridership have dropped because of more people are working from home, the pandemic has forced some businesses to shutter, and the transit companies are losing money. They each are offering different solutions, but all are based on "we need more money." So bills being proposed are a new area-wide transit tax, more money from the feds, more money from the state, and possibly higher ridership fees, the San Jose Mercury reported.

“It’s a pretty big crisis" said Laura Turkoff, a transportation expert in a transportation think-tank in the area.

Area residents, by a large majority (62 percent), oppose an area transit tax -- but the agencies want to impose one, anyhow. There are other solutions they also are considering – reducing the number of trains daily, for example, hourly instead of half-hourly trains, or higher fares for all commuters whether they use Caltrain, BART or VTA.

None of those sound, to me, like a way to get people more enthusiastic about commuting on public transit – it’s easier and faster to drive, many say.

To add to the problem, keep in mind that with the zealous drive for more affordable housing and the need for more public transit, the problem looms large.

So how will you, our new guru, get this done? It sounds, to me, like an almost impossible task. But we can’t just give up on our public transit in the Bay Area, particularly since so many other cities have made their systems work.

Even the VTA is hurting – badly. As the Mercury also reported, while the current budget is financially stable, forecasts of future expenses are now worrisome.

A Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report last June described VTA as one of the “most expensive and least efficient transit systems in the country.” Yet amid a declining ridership, in 2020 the VTA subsidized BART passenger trips $19.30 a ride.

But there’s more. Last May 26. a disgruntled VTA employee went to the bus yards early in the morning and proceeded to shoot nine co-workers (and then himself)
– one of the worst shootings in Santa Clara County in recent years. The VTA board responded with sympathy and gave paid time off for its workers, so the light rail stopped for six weeks and bus schedules were pared down. It then gave each of it 1,500 employees a hardship bonus of $3.500, and more recently a 10 percent raise over the next three years. However, that super generous award will cost the VTA $38 million over the next three years, and the raises will mean high future outlays for employees for years to come. Is that good management?

Yes, the employee monetary gifts are a nice way to appreciate employee work, but if it means steep future deficits it makes me wonder where the board’s practical budget management comes into play. Does it simply expect getting more money by taxing each resident to make up for their deficit? Is that a fair way to cover their overruns, particularly since most of us in the county don’t use BART or VTA?

I don’t know the answer.

So, what to do? Will more money help? Will people continue to work from home? Or should we look into whether better management is needed?

Yet, as aguru, you need to find an answer. We can’t just do away with public transit in this county.

One thought is to ask Gov. Newsom to use some of his $45 billion budget surplus to help pay for public transit in the heart of Silicon Valley, which has been a thriving business center for years. Newsom’s current plan is to fund the COVID-19 response, climate issues and homelessness.

I could argue that a good transit system resulting in fewer auto trips is a climate issue. And the state has not had such a huge surplus in years, so maybe Newsom and the legislature could see funding local transit may help their next reelection. Everything, is political, as you, our new guru, know so well.

We could also see what other states have done to improve their transit funding.

And we could get some expert opinion of how efficiently all these transit systems are run, and make improvements based on the report’s conclusions.

Let's do whatever it takes!

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Justin Morales, a resident of Castro City,
on Jan 11, 2022 at 2:59 pm

Justin Morales is a registered user.

Back in the late 1960s & early 1970s, my buddies in junior high and I used to hitchhike to get to wherever we needed or wanted to go.

Though our parents warned that hitchhiking was potentially dangerous, we traveled in pairs to prevent any confrontations with thieves or creepy pedophiles.

Anyone who has missed a bus or train will vouch for the time lost and inconvenience of waiting for the next one to arrive, especially if the bus is running on an hourly or half-hour schedule.

Too bad there isn't a way to ensure hitchhiking as a safe mode of travel because it can save time and is very cost-effective.

Posted by I+miss+my+small+town+feel, a resident of another community,
on Jan 11, 2022 at 3:51 pm

I+miss+my+small+town+feel is a registered user.

I have a challenge for you. Find one weekly or monthly task or shopping trip you as a retired person can use public transit for and then do it six times without excuse. Then write a story about how safe you felt on the bus stops, on the busses and walking to and from the bus stop. Then compare the time it takes to do the same task with your safe, self contained car. If you are super wealthy and have a driver take you, then compare how safe you felt in your private vehicle compared to the bus stops. I suggest a trip to Safeway on San Antonio Road and El Camino for you. There is a "very interesting" gentleman often sleeping at the bus stop you can interview for added color.

Posted by Melba James, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on Jan 11, 2022 at 3:52 pm

Melba James is a registered user.

• Bay Area public transit is in trouble: Can our failing systems be saved?

My neighbor's son was recently arrested for Grand Theft Auto and posed the same query to the judge at his court hearing.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 11, 2022 at 4:35 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Google seems to be able to do it, there should be lessons from them.

First, stop looking at transit for poor people who can't afford a car and have all the time in the world. Look at efficient, comfortable, affordable transit that can travel to a destination as fast if not faster than solo driving. Other countries have bus lanes that go against traffic on one way streets. Priority traffic lights for buses. All these different means will get bus travel faster than solo car travel.

Get high speed routes along freeways with stops every five miles or so at off ramps and have shuttles/park and ride parking at each stop.

Start by getting efficient bus services to airports on regular one hour schedules - around the clock. Get airline staff and airport workers as well as passengers to airports efficiently. We get rides to the airport and more often or not that vehicle's return trip is a waste.

Get one admin office for all transport modes, buses, Caltrain, Bart, ferries, etc. Get ticketing for the amount of time on a trip, not the number of different modes needing separate tickets and separate fares for each mode. Getting one advertising, ticketing, computerized system that includes everything rather than all the different agencies having their own.

Make it an attractive option that works so that riders can sleep, work, surf, play, read, study, etc. while commuting. Commuters make great transportation users. Airports are also a great source of riders.

Make parking at transportating parking lots free after 3 pm. Give discounts for off peak rides. Get family ticketing for weekends and holidays.

Start looking at what works elsewhere and copy successful strategies. They exist.

Posted by Butch Wilkins, a resident of Bailey Park,
on Jan 11, 2022 at 7:23 pm

Butch Wilkins is a registered user.

Bystander brought up some excellent points. Design modern public transportation to accommodate professional commuters rather than transients riding the bus back & forth just to kill time.

Posted by Victor+Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Jan 11, 2022 at 8:19 pm

Victor+Bishop is a registered user.

Well we did just fine when light rail shut down for months without a replacement ( and yes I know . I understand the shutdown for the shooting , but it seemed to drag on and on and on without any thought to the people that relied on light rail)

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Jan 11, 2022 at 9:53 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Bystander has good suggestions. Just be aware that (1) you'll need Big Bags of Money, and (2) Not only do you need a good system in the end, ideally you should have a plan for a transition between now and then that doesn't take you through a stage that's grossly unfair to large numbers of people.

Unfortunately, it's not always possible to have both. The current strategy seems to be "grow first, plan later", which is likely to fail in the second respect.

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Jan 12, 2022 at 9:28 am

Neal is a registered user.

Cancel the high speed rail project and commit that money to local transportation needs.

Posted by Jeremy Taylor, a resident of Los Altos,
on Jan 12, 2022 at 9:36 am

Jeremy Taylor is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Posted by Jennie Swift, a resident of another community,
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:07 pm

Jennie Swift is a registered user.

Upgrading and regularly cleaning the interiors of the county busses would also be a step in the right direction.

The cloth seats are filthy and who knows what's on the surface of them given the ridership.

Posted by Mavis Patterson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Jan 12, 2022 at 1:01 pm

Mavis Patterson is a registered user.

In order to generate more ridership, the county buses need to present more of an upscale public transportation experience.

Leather seats along with a more professional appearance on the part of the bus drivers would be a step in the right direction.

A county bus is basically a passenger plane but on wheels.

Posted by Asher Waldfogel, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 12, 2022 at 1:42 pm

Asher Waldfogel is a registered user.

Here's an option: take all the transit money and pivot most of it to on-demand shuttle services. Perhaps designate a "stop" every couple blocks so the shuttles get riders close but not all the way to their doors. Partner with ride share for slow times of day and night. The Peninsula isn't built around fixed route transit and there will never be enough money to change that. There may be some corridors that justify scheduled service in traditional buses but probably only for a few hours each day. We need to abandon the "Big bus or nothing" mentality.

The VTA shutdown shows that "high quality transit" is a fiction even after the capital has been spent. Caltrain has a massive shortfall to finish and operate their electrified right of way and HSR has slipped day-for-day since inception. We need transit and we need different thinking than motorized coaches on fixed routes.

As far as climate our principle track remains EVs and we need more carrots to promote EV adoption

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Jan 12, 2022 at 3:12 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

Hi, Asher. In the past I was very hopeful about on-demand shuttles, and I haven't given up on them, but I keep reading discouraging reports about trial deployments. Are you familiar with some that worked well, i.e. had decent ridership and an average of more than one rider per vehicle?

Posted by Asher Waldfogel, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 13, 2022 at 9:45 am

Asher Waldfogel is a registered user.

@Allen. Would love to hear about real-life sustained on-demand efforts from transit agencies. I've heard mixed results about Uber/Lyft shared rides.

If load factor is the measurement then I'm not excited about empty trains and buses.

How critical and high quality can light rail be if VTA can shut it down for a couple months? We don't seem to have the ability to operate, fund, or build transit infrastructure faster than a human lifetime. Which makes it increasingly unattractive to the voters.

Posted by Esther Steinman, a resident of North Whisman,
on Jan 13, 2022 at 11:12 am

Esther Steinman is a registered user.

How about simply arranging carpools amongst neighbors & friends?

For most people, riding a bus is an unenjoyable experience.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 13, 2022 at 1:10 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Heathrow airport, London's largest airport, recently introduced a drop off fee for all vehicles other than buses at each of the terminals. This is paid online before/after and done by plate readers (a system that seems way ahead of us, but that's another story). This is to relieve the amount of private car trips around the airport and to encourage use of public transport as well as making it more efficient than private cars.

Other countries do invest in public transport and make it more efficient. We are so far behind and also blind to other ideas. It is time that this mindset changed.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Jan 13, 2022 at 6:45 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Asher: Here's the story of a system that sounds good, but (at the time of writing) hadn't taken off: Web Link

Via apparently runs a bunch of these. Here's one in Cupertino: Web Link which garnered positive anecdotal reviews but I don't see much data.

Here's a thoughtful article that discusses on-demand shuttle systems (some with "stops") in Germany: Web Link Again, mixed results.

SamTrans experimented in Pacifica. VTA's FLEX pilot program failed, and AC Transit's apparently did well.

I tried to include a few more links, but Town Square shot me down for having too many.

Anyway, I haven't researched this enough to get anything more than an impression. I agree with you on the infrastructure and EV situations.

Posted by I can't breathe pollution, a resident of Shoreline West,
on Jan 14, 2022 at 4:41 pm

I can't breathe pollution is a registered user.

Public transportation, is inefficient, and ineffective.

I have been to the vaunted public transit systems of Europe and other metropolitan areas. It takes longer, and costs more, compared to driving a car in the bay area.

Imagine this, a larger car is less efficient for gas mileage. A truck is less efficient than a sedan. Now imagine you have A GIANT TRAIN. Not efficient at all

Besides being incredibly inefficient, you can't even get where you need to go. The world is incredibly small taking public transit when compared to having a car.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be any public transit but the argument that it is more efficient is completely bogus. The argument that it is more convenient and faster is wrong as well

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Jan 15, 2022 at 11:40 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

BART gets me to work in SF a lot faster than I can drive in commuter traffic. And looking for an overpriced place to park M-F. I don't mind paying the added BART taxes. It's minimal (0.5%) and it's worth it.

How would I fix it as the transportation guru? I'd start by getting rid of the unions. Labor unions are nothing but trouble, and it adds to higher costs to the general public.

Buses will always take longer. I wouldn't want to rely on a bus.

Posted by Darin Gallagher, a resident of another community,
on Jan 15, 2022 at 11:56 am

Darin Gallagher is a registered user.

There is no BART on the northwest side of the SF Bay, just CalTrain, VTA, and SamTrans.

And riding on BART is no picnic either. The only thing BART has going for it is faster service because BART does not stop at every nook and cranny along the way.

The only train that is actually enjoyable to ride is the open-air small gauge at Roaring Camp in Felton.

Posted by Harvey Chen, a resident of St. Francis Acres,
on Jan 15, 2022 at 12:33 pm

Harvey Chen is a registered user.

A chauffeur-driven car (regardless of make) is the only way to go.

That way one can be more productive during the commute.

Regular commuter trains and busses leave much to be desired and CalTrains should offer a full bar like they do on the East Coast.

If one is not driving, the consumption of alcoholic beverages during a train commute home should be made available.

Posted by Lucas Waller, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 15, 2022 at 2:26 pm

Lucas Waller is a registered user.

Some train passengers carry their own alcoholic beverages onboard.

This negates the need for a bar car.

On the other hand, Caltrain should consider providing a smoking car where passengers can smoke marijuana now that it is legal in California for both medical and recreational purposes.

It can also minimalize the effects of motion sickness for those so inclined.

First Class and Coach seating should also be made available with 1st class seating reserved for those who are willing to pay more for a cleaner and nicer seating configuration.

Posted by Errol Mann, a resident of another community,
on Jan 15, 2022 at 5:17 pm

Errol Mann is a registered user.

A train ferry where commuter cars are loaded onto a flat railcars would allow drivers to avoid traffic signals and roadway congestion.

It would also reduce gas consumption and allow drivers convenient access to their vehicles upon arrival at their destination.

This concept would probably work best on a San Jose to San Francisco non-stop express run as stops in between would not be practical in terms of expediency.

Commuters could simply drive their cars via loading ramp onto the railroad flatcars and then sit in their vehicles for the duration of the one-way/one destination train route.

Posted by CyberVoter, a resident of Atherton: other,
on Jan 16, 2022 at 8:32 am

CyberVoter is a registered user.

How to fix Bay Area Mass Transit:

Fire the bureaucrats that are "planning" our travel. They believe in Central Planning & that only they know what is best! The result is tremendously underutilized (Have you looked at the ridership levels of the buses/Rail lately? - It is an extremely low %) It has always been low, but the COVID lessons have highlighted the filth & unsanitary conditions! I use to ride BART from Millbrae to SF, but now avoid the homeless (drug addicts & drunks) on the trains & in the stations.

Unless we "reimagine" our system we will continue to waste our tax dollars & still not solve the problem. Please be creative & let the Market provide the best solution! In fact."privatizing" the system may be the best choice. It is amazing how "free-enterprise" can pivot to serve the customer!

The first step is to downsize the planning bureaucracy, The MTC has 21 members & a very large budget/staff. Such a politically created "Central Planning Commission" will never solve the problem - but will spend massive amounts of $ to study & recommend future "policies". Just look at the High Speed Rail debacle & consider where that $ could be much better spent.

Perhaps we should ask the most innovative minds of Silicon Valley to propose solutions - NOT Government Bureaucrats.

Posted by Menlo Voter., a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Jan 16, 2022 at 12:43 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.


You have nailed it. The problem is that the corruption runs so deep in this state that it will never happen. There's always "one hand washing the other" when it comes to any kind of public service. HSR (Low Speed, actually) is a prefect example. The only reason it's still alive, even after Newsom was ready to kill it, is his benefactors in the labor unions and heavy construction told him not to. So here we are continuing down the same pointless road spending billions on a project that will never do anything but enrich the labor unions and heavy construction companies.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Jan 16, 2022 at 9:00 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

Re: "We can't just do away with public transit in this county. "

Why not, at least partially? Light rail (like other light rail systems in this country) is a slow, expensive boondoggle.

Caltrain is fast enough, and grade-separated, so it seems useful. @Bystander - The VTA Airport Flyer bus that runs between SJC airport and the Santa Clara Caltrain station (and light rail on the Bay side) is useful for airport trips, as is the equivalent bus between the Millbrae Caltrain station and SFO airport.

It would be useful to know for each system the cost breakdown for equipment vs labor and the marginal cost of adding 8 hours of bus service (again, equipment vs labor cost). Perhaps Uber/Lyft-powered routes would work. Perhaps self-driving small shuttles would work.

The new toll lanes for rich people on 101 could be opened also to express bus routes between SF and San Jose.

Posted by Vernon Tate, a resident of another community,
on Jan 17, 2022 at 9:58 am

Vernon Tate is a registered user.

Why not simply design an elevated public transit system along with a subway system for automobiles?

That way the ground level experience will be less congested and safer for bicycles and pedestrians.

Potentially more attractive as well.

Posted by Alexian Daugherty, a resident of Los Altos,
on Jan 17, 2022 at 4:02 pm

Alexian Daugherty is a registered user.

° Perhaps we should ask the most innovative minds of Silicon Valley to propose solutions - NOT Government Bureaucrats.

Like Elon Musk of Tesla or Tim Cook of Apple? Or Google?

I don't think so.

Posted by Roger Davis, a resident of Professorville,
on Jan 17, 2022 at 7:13 pm

Roger Davis is a registered user.

Tim Cook is devoted to maintaining the lucrative PRC-Apple manufacturing relationship & Elon Musk is preoccupied with promoting his sub-orbital rocket tourism business.

And don't count on Google for anything other than focusing on who you are & where you are.

Posted by Darby Hillman, a resident of another community,
on Jan 18, 2022 at 9:24 am

Darby Hillman is a registered user.

> Perhaps we should ask the most innovative minds of Silicon Valley to propose solutions - NOT Government Bureaucrats.

The larger Silicon Valley companies should consider housing all of their employees and families (including executives) on company property directly adjacent to the company buildings. This in turn would reduce excessive commute traffic as the workers could simply walk to work as well as dine there.

Simply create a high-tech semi-city with projects-like dwellings so the rest of us don't have to deal with them.

Posted by Jennifer Tate, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jan 18, 2022 at 11:41 am

Jennifer Tate is a registered user.

The innovative minds in Silicon Valley are more concerned with lining their pockets.

They could care less about mass transit.

Posted by Betsy Wilkins, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 18, 2022 at 4:51 pm

Betsy Wilkins is a registered user.

The expansive impact of Silicon Valley is why we are having this conversation.

Silicon Valley should move all of its operations to Mexico.

Posted by Anthony Jeffers, a resident of Stanford,
on Jan 18, 2022 at 7:29 pm

Anthony Jeffers is a registered user.

I'm probably younger than most of you (20) and have come to the conclusion that Silicon Valley is built out.

By further limiting and restricting new residential and office development the need for a more effective public transit system can be curtailed somewhat.

This is not rocket science.

Posted by Adrienne LaPorte, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 20, 2022 at 11:59 am

Adrienne LaPorte is a registered user.

Silicon Valley and it's overdevelopment is the root of our residential and transportation problems.

Make them somehow go away as we don"t need Apple or Google around here.

Mexico and/or Texas remain options

Posted by Carolyn Ober, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Jan 21, 2022 at 12:19 pm

Carolyn Ober is a registered user.

* The innovative minds in Silicon Valley are more concerned with lining their pockets.

**The expansive impact of Silicon Valley is why we are having this conversation.

***Silicon Valley and its overdevelopment is the root of our residential and transportation problems.

****Silicon Valley should move all of its operations to Mexico.

YES! Silicon Valley is Plastic Land where nerds have become the kingpins.

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