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News + PoliticsIt's cheaper to drive: A problem with regional transit

It’s cheaper to drive: A problem with regional transit

Taking a car costs less than taking three different transit systems from Oakland to SF. There’s something very wrong here

It's fancy, it's high-tech -- and it costs too much for a lot of commuters
It’s fancy, it’s high-tech — and it costs too much for a lot of commuters

By Emily McPartlon

DECEMBER 22, 2015 — I regularly commute from Oakland to San Francisco for both work and school. It takes less time and is actually cheaper to drive – by myself, in a private car — than to take public transportation.

This is a serious problem: If we want to discourage the use of private automobiles, which are a major source of carbon emissions and contribute significantly to climate change – we have to make regional transit work better.

I take three independent transit systems to travel approximately 12 miles. I pay $2.00 to ride an AC Transit to BART, $3.30 for BART into the city, and $2.25 to take Muni in San Francisco; a total of $7.55 one-way. It’s the same going home, so my daily cost  is $15.10.

Commuting on public transportation takes far too much time. I can spend anywhere from an hour to two hours each way – and a lot of that depends on unreliable connections. At some times of day, it’s worse.

I’d rather not drive into the city, but look at the numbers: The round trip costs $6 in toll fees and between $2 and $3 for gas. If you use the AAA figure for car maintenance, I’m paying 46.4 cents a mile – oh, and I’m saving as much as an hour of my time.

So I calculate that it’s less money, and less time, to take the alternative that we all agree is the wrong one. How does that make sense?

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco and the Bay Area attempted to build a transit system modeled after Manhattan’s. Catalyzed by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Expo, the Tunnel Commission proposed to build five tunnels across town as well as beneath Fort Mason and Twin Peaks and to expand the existing railway lines. The Key System was created to link the East Bay to SF, and trains ran across the Bay Bridge.

But after WWII, a corporation funded by General Motors, Firestone Tire and Standard Oil bought the Key System, dismantled it completely, and replaced it with a bus system that was far less efficient.

Although BART and other transit systems have been created since the 1950s, many of the same issues facing the transit system in the 1900s still exist today. There is very little coordination – and every study shows that ridership declines every time people have to transfer.

According to a recent study conducted by SPUR, ridership of public transit per-capita has declined in the Bay Area from an average of 79 trips per person in 1991 to 68 trips per person in 2012, a decline of 14 percent. In other regions of the US, ridership has increased.

Why? For one, the Bay Area’s public transit system is very complex. There are more than 24 independently operated public transit agencies, each with different schedules, maps, fares, uncoordinated planning, and investment. The complexity of the system decreases incentives and reduces ridership, particularly when the rider needs to make a transfer.

According to SPUR, weekday Clipper transfers from AC Transit to BART average 4,505 per day (about 6.5 percent of AC Transit’s Clipper riders), 15,445 Clipper riders transfer from Muni to BART daily (about 4.4 percent of Muni’s Clipper riders).

In other words, riders are turned off by inefficient, uncoordinated transfers.

The disparate Bay Area transit agencies need to focus on integration. One step would be to create a unified timetable, with timed transfers at all 149 hubs. The second step would be to have agencies offer a discount for commuters who need to transfer. This process would be simple to implement, as there is already a unified payment system, the Clipper Card. These two simple steps would make the Bay Area public transit system easier and faster to use, and cheaper than driving. These savings could act as an incentive to use public transit and thereby increase ridership, reducing traffic and emissions.

I look forward to the day it costs me less in both time and money to take public transportation to cross the bay.


Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. Sounds like a “cradle to grave” carbon tax on imports would be needed.

    I often wonder what is the carbon footprint of a tall wind turbine tower, which was built using coal burning steel mills and coal burning energy plants in China. Then shipped across the ocean in a freighter burning heavy fuel.

  2. Have homeless people migrated to Salt Lake City?
    Most homeless people stay in the place they were when they lost their homes. Masses of homeless people migrating to particular cities on account of relatively generous programs is more of a right-wing talking point than an actual thing.

  3. So your argument is that since China pollutes, American cities should never try to reduce air, water, and soil pollution in at home?

  4. Correction, Public transit is not financially sustainable because it relies on massive and often hidden subsidies.

  5. Public transit is often portrayed as a low-cost, energy-efficient
    alternative to auto driving. In reality, transit is much more costly
    than driving and requires huge subsidies to attract any riders at all.

  6. Thank you for posting this. Normally I troll this site out of frustration with the mess that is Bay Area housing, but I really appreciate seeing this.

    Housing is deeply effected by transit, and public transit out here is so disjointed and disconnected. There is a clear preference for automobiles out here.

  7. “Plus we need a stiff carbon tax to reflect the true cost of burning fossil fuels”

    Americans are so full of their own ignorance and arrogance about burning fossil fuels (especially in California). The EPA finalized historic first-ever limits on power plant carbon emissions. How did the companies respond time after time? They closed the plants and moved those jobs to China, Mexico, and the Philippines where the EPA has no power. Products made in third world countries are then shipped back to the United States and sold to “environmentally responsible” “Americans who believe that “we need a stiff carbon tax to reflect the true cost of burning fossil fuels”

    CO2 emissions are being ‘outsourced’ by rich countries to rising economies. Factories in China and other rising economies now produce more carbon pollution than industries in America and Europe. So American has really done NOTHING to reduce carbon emissions, you have just moved them to another part of the world. The goods and services we purchase as Americans are polluting the air and groundwater in other countries.

    Wake up and smell your privilege. A stiff carbon tax is not going to reduce global emissions or “clean up” our environment. You cannot DE-carbonize another countries emissions especially when America is buying goods and services from them. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/19/co2-emissions-outsourced-rich-nations-rising-economies

  8. If I was homeless with no where to go, a free train would be warmer than the street. That was my point. “Free” means unlimited use and not just as transportation.

    I am told the Berkeley Public Library has a lice infestation problem due to it being a place for homeless to go.

    The homeless problem needs to be addressed nationally. If one city or state tries to help, then the homeless all migrate to that location.

  9. I agree it should be fare-free, but others have argued that having a nominal fare (not enough to pose a barrier to entry, and with free/discounted fare for kids, seniors, broke-ass folks, etc.) makes people value it more. I dunno.

    Make it fare-free or practically so, and give away Clipper Cards so we can get stats on where people get on & off & gauge demand better.

  10. I’ve been screaming this for years. While everyone seems to be so concerned about building “affordable housing”, none of the same agencies or supervisors or legislators seem to be noticing that public transit is no longer affordable and getting worse.
    They want to create “transit” corridors and “Transit oriented housing” — but the transit they want people to take is too expensive. And why is this? Because every other year all the transit agencies are allowed to go on strike and fares keep going up and up and up… this will happen with the SMART train too. The fares won’t really be affordabale for those they are targeting as riders. When I first moved to the bay area a GG Ferry ticket was about a little over $4 round trip. Now it’s $12. Add to that parking fees at the ferry, and now whatever SMART costs to get there.
    Stop building housing until you get regional transit under control!!!

  11. Homeless people have to get from here to there too. And they have fewer options. Rather than erect more barriers to entry and make life even harder for people who already have it harder than you’ll ever know, why not do something about housing the homeless? If Salt Lake City can do it, why not us?

  12. I use it to pay for my MUNI Fast Pass and have it loaded onto my Clipper Card automagically every month. (Though it costs an extra $2 for auto-load versus bringing the physical Commuter Check to the Clipper kiosk at the station and have them do it, why?) I love that I don’t even have to think about it, I’ve just always got my pass. Plus I use the $64-for-$60 BART discount, also on auto-load.

  13. Want to factor in the conundrum of ferries? A one way ticket can be up to $13.00 ($26.00 RT? yowza) and doesn’t connect easily to most of the other cities, if at all. In many cases, you have to go down to go up (Vallejo to San Francisco to get to Sausalito. Whaaaa?) or face the fact that you should just drive. I had to explain to a colleague why it would take days to get from the East Bay to the North Bay via public trans or bicycles, hours by boat, but only minutes by car. Oh dear, Bay Area.

  14. Sit on a train. You obviously haven’t taken BART during rush hour when it is running at 120% of capacity. (Lake Merritt to the Embarcadero from 8 to 9 am weekdays)

    People don’t take BART more during rush hour because they can’t push squeeze on the train. hiring people as pushers like the have in Japan might help. (or a second tube)

  15. Another part of the problem is that BART itself is incomplete.

    The original plans had trains going to Santa Rosa, Napa, San Jose, the peninsula, etc. And so when those connections never happened, we used buses and ferries as crutches for the hobbled system. With that as the alternative, people stuck with driving. I think that’s also why the Bay Area perennially has the worst traffic in the nation. There is no good alternative.

    The Clipper Card has done a lot to make it appear as if the various transit agencies work together. But that’s a poor substitute for real coordination and cooperation.

  16. SF has some suburban density and also enough very high density. This makes the average density add up to 2nd in the US. But second in the US at density is as unimpressive as second in the US at soccer.

    Plus, outside of downtown SF and small parts of Oakland, the metro area is a giant suburb.

  17. ≈ While her intentions seem to be good, the author’s math is misleading. Gas prices have been manipulated to be low, so calculations using that are also misleading, as is the notion of free parking. Never mind the overhead (including parking) of having the car in the first place.

    I have a very similar commute, except I bike to and from BART at both ends. When I’m injured I also have to add Muni and AC Transit, and that adds up. But not enough to make a car a viable alternative, when you bother to include parking and overhead.

    The calculations also completely ignore the much vaster subsidy that props up cars. No article should use the phrase “financial sustainability” if it’s leaving out those crucial costs.

  18. @GonzOakland – You have a point, though in fact we already have sufficient density in San Francisco, the 2nd highest in the nation after all. And car-based transportation is not financially sustainable in any event, relying as it does on massive and often hidden subsidies.

    A plan that favors development along transit corridors makes sense, provided the transit corridors are also better-developed. 48 Hills has come out as opposed to the Affordable Housing Density Bonus, so I have to ask, what would they favor in its stead?

  19. For the same reason that an AC staffer might take BART from their HQ to a meeting on Market Street. (Going to such a mtg I have encountered same) Unless BART is having a bad hair day, they are faster under the Bay.

  20. Right, a $1 discount on a $15.10 ticket is barely worth talking about. The fact is that unlike NYC where the Transit Authority charges a SINGLE, flat fare within city limits, whether bus, subway, or both, we pay much more for far less useful service. The East Bay from Richmond through San Leandro should be a flat fare including crossing the Bay as far as Daly City. AC Transit’s Local Pass like Muni’s Fast Pass should be honored by BART within AC’s service area. MTC has burned money that could have improved transit building more freeway lanes and the silly Oakland airport ski lift ride. and should be disbanded.
    We waste millions on separate transit agencies with their own offices/paper shufflers most of whose work could be done from a single unified back office.
    And let us not forget that the two Mayors Brown agreed to build the unnecessary east span of the Bay Bridge explicitly w/o provision for rail.

  21. Not to mention the rise of many other mobility options like bike-share, car-sharing, micro transit services like Chariot and ride-hailing services like uber. How do we integrate private and public services in a way that’s equitable and accessible?

  22. General point is correct about there being too many transit agencies, but this author needs to drive himself to a 4th grade math class. Using his own numbers, it is over $20/day to drive his commute with $0 for parking, and just over $15/day using transit. Likely he is paying over $15/day more PER DAY to drive and killing the planet while he’s at it. Change the title of the article

  23. Minor note: many folks can use flex spending (if offered by their employer) to reduce the cost of transit by an amount equivalent to their effective tax rate. So take $15.50 and multiply it by something like 0.75…

  24. It would take an act of the State Assembly and State Senate to consolidate all of the Bay Area’s Transit systems.

  25. Correct. The transportion and other infrastructure needs to be expanded with the population. Currently, cities are offered “maybe some transportation money” if they approve high density housing. Who makes a deal where one side (transportion Dollars) is “maybe” and the other (housing) side is a commitment?

  26. Used to be BART station machines for $0.25 transfers to MUNI and AC Transit. They removed them when they changed to the faulty electronic turnstiles and the irritating Clipper system.

  27. By motorcycle is the least expensive.
    Back when the Golden Gate Bridge was free for carpools, riding to SF from San Rafael by motorcycle was $2.00 for parking and 1 gallon of gas. (45 mpg on a 750cc Honda). Under $7 round trip, plus maintenance. Taking the ferry was easier on the nerves and better in the rain. The ferry is 20 minutes slower and twice the money.

  28. Possibly because AC Transit transbay busses get stuck in the gawdawful commuter traffic on the Bay Bridge. But sure, lets just add another hour onto that morning commute.

  29. It was actually hijacked by congress so the benefit available for parking is TWICE the allowable pre-tax benefit for commuting. They freaking ruined it. $130 allowable pre-tax dollars may be used for commute costs, $250 for parking. 9_9
    Why do we even bother.

  30. IMO an hour spent reading, listening to music, spacing out, or even working on a bus or train is far preferable to a similar amount of time spent behind the wheel in rush hour traffic.

  31. The writer had me until she brought in the figures from San Francisco Planning Urban Research (SPUR). They like to call themselves a “think thank” but SPUR is a lobbying organization that creates construction projects for
    their members who are (architects, urban planners, and construction
    companies). Everything that SPUR touches turns into public debt, gridlock, and traffic congestion.

    If you need any further evidence look at the disaster that they created when they formed the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) https://web.archive.org/web/20000602092622/http://www.spur.org/prope.html

  32. Since I started learning about global warming in 1991, I have thought that one essential step to decarbonize our economy was a much better public transportation system. I agree with all the author said. However, the elephant in the room that neither the author nor any of the commenters mentioned is that a really good transportation system requires an infusion of a lot more money. If you make it cheap, easy, and fast, people will use public transportation.

    Bernie Sanders is right that the wealthy do not pay enough taxes. Plus we need a stiff carbon tax to reflect the true cost of burning fossil fuels. One of the social needs to spend that additional tax money on is reducing fares on buses and subways, and vastly increasing the number and frequency of bus routes. When one also adds man more bike lanes that are separate from major car arteries, we are on the way to substantially decreasing the number of miles driven in cars by the people in this country.

    The only hope I have for such changes to happen soon is for Bernie Sanders to get elected President. He has called for a reduction of fossil fuel usage by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030, which is both ambitious and necessary, Big improvements to public transportation will be an absolutely necessary step to reach that goal in just 15 years.

  33. > The disparate Bay Area transit agencies need to focus on integration. One step would be to create a unified timetable, with timed transfers at
    all 149 hubs. The second step would be to have agencies offer a discount for commuters who need to transfer. This process would be simple to implement, as there is already a unified payment system, the Clipper Card. These two simple steps would make the Bay Area public transit system easier and faster to use, and cheaper than driving. These savings could act as an incentive to use public transit and thereby increase ridership, reducing traffic and emissions.

    I’m all for these changes, but “and cheaper than driving” if we account for time seems like a stretch. I suspect an assist is needed — driving needs to be made much more expensive.

  34. Umm, upping density before fixing transit is a recipe for disaster. This doesn’t further NIMBY’ism in the slightest.

  35. Why does the author take AC Transit to BART to MUNI instead of just taking the AC Transit Transbay Bus directly to MUNI?

    The author is adding an extra leg to their commute, and additional transit costs, for no apparent reason.

  36. MUNI ridership will always increase regardless of what decisions are made by SFMTA because the city’s population is always going to be increasing and there’s always going to be a constant influx of new residents.

  37. We all have our preferences, but I would much rather sit on a bus/train reading a book for an hour than be behind the wheel, unable to do much of anything while surrounded by honking horns and exhaust fumes, for 30 minutes.

  38. In addition to everything you said, most employers are required to offer commuter benefits which allows money for commuting to be deducted from your paycheck pre-tax. I didn’t think it would make much difference, but it cut my commute costs by nearly half.

  39. While I think public transportation should be free, this analysis comes up short as it does not include the costs of cars, insurance, etc., and it does not include the ‘cost to society’ of the pollution caused by most of those cars.

  40. As far as the last BART train from SF to Oakland goes, it’s timed to just miss all the connecting AC Transit buses that leave from downtown Oakland. I think you have a minute to get to the street from the BART station if you want to get the bus. That’s not enough time. So you miss the bus and have to wait an hour for the next one or spend a lot of money on a taxi. Since it’s 12:45 am, I usually take a cab and spend almost $13 on the ride just to get home at 1:00 instead of 2:00 am.

  41. The author is right. Lost time is a major problem that many people cannot afford. The other problem is lack of consistency. When Muni riders are faced with constant route and schedule changes they lose faith in the system. I did years ago when a bus driver refused to drive a bus because a man got on without paying. I got off that bus, walked home and haven’t gotten on another one since.

    SFMTA needs to hange their priorities from planning from designing for the future to serving their riders today. When they accept the fact that their job is to get people where they need to go, not constantly change the way they get there, you may see an increase in ridership.

  42. well maybe if you commuted on transit you would have time to check your math. 24 miles times 46.4 cents is $11.14 plus your $2 for gas and your $6 for toll which equals $19.14 compared to your $15.10. And what do you pay to park your car? But the $15.10 would be less if you got a clipper card and if you took advantage of the discounts. The time is the real issue but on transit you can actually do some work whereas you really can’t in a car. And the traffic has gotten so bad recently that the time savings for a cross-bridge auto commute are less and less. Not to mention the physical and mental toll crawling across the bridge eating diesel fumes takes on you each day.

  43. We definitely need some radical improvements to our mass transit system if we don’t want a city of total gridlock. I suggest new Bart tunnels under embarcadero, 3rd st, Geary, Van Ness, Chavez, and 19th Ave.

    If we can afford $7B for a bridge from treasure island to Oakland, we can afford this.

  44. This article does a great job of helping further Tim Redmond’s NIMBYism by carefully avoiding any mention of the one thing that actually makes mass transit financially sustainable: population density. More humans per square mile = more farebox revenue per linear mile of track and per station.

    To make SF transit better, upzone outer SF, Oakland, Berkeley and the eastern and southern suburbs. That’s the only way.

    This blogger has not come up with some incredible solution that BART or the MTC’s staff and board, with centuries of combined experience, somehow missed.

  45. >”The second step would be to have agencies offer a discount for commuters who need to transfer.”

    You mean like this?

    “When you transfer from BART to Muni buses, light rail vehicles and historic streetcars within an hour using your Adult Clipper card, you will automatically receive a $0.50 discount…Golden Gate Transit and Ferry customers paying with cash on their Clipper cards will receive a $0.50 discount off the Muni adult cash fare”


  46. We could merge all of the transit systems in the Bay Area, but that would eliminate a lot of well-paid executive director positions,

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