Bay Area Transit Ridership: Track Record and Future Outlook

Following a glut of transportation-related bills passed by the California legislature during 2017, many in the media are presenting their view on the current conditions and future outlook for the state’s roads and transit.  Although commentators agree that roads and transit are in poor shape, some are skeptical about the proposed remedies.  The Nine-County Coalition is extremely skeptical.  

The proposed remedies address how planners want people to travel, not how current residents of California want to travel.  Since the passage of Assembly Bill 32 – California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, planners have been spending time and treasure devising ways to get people out of cars.  How successful have they been so far?  The quotes below contain the answer; emphases are ours.

 The Track Record:

* Metropolitan Transportation Commission: Transit Ridership

“On a typical weekday in 2016, Bay Area residents boarded buses, trains and ferries approximately 1.8 million times. While ridership has surpassed pre-recession levels – growing robustly for the fifth consecutive year – the region is still just shy of its modern historic peak of weekday boardings, which was reached in 2001. On a per-capita basis, transit use is well below the levels of the early 1990s. The average resident boarded transit 79 times per year in 1991, while in 2016, this had fallen to 70 trips per year – an 11 percent decline over 25 years.

* Metropolitan Transportation Commission: Commute Mode Choice

“Regional mode shares have been changing for the first time in decades. While three-quarters of residents still drive to work, the share of residents making this choice has declined by over 5 percentage points since 2000. This trend accelerated in recent years, with nearly half of the shift occurring between 2010 and 2014. Despite this progress, 2015 marked a slowdown, as the year-over-year decrease in the share of driving was modest compared to the preceding four years.

* Plan Bay Area 2040 Strategies and Performance

“Plan Bay Area 2040 develops a blueprint for short- term and long-term transportation investments to support the plan’s focused growth strategy. Investment priorities for the next 24 years reflect a primary commitment to “Fix It First,” a key emphasis area in the original Plan Bay Area as well ... approximately 90 percent of Plan Bay Area 2040’s investments focus on operating, maintaining and modernizing the existing transportation system. Plan Bay Area 2040 also directs almost two-thirds of future funding to investments in public transit, mostly to ensure that transit operators can sustain existing service levels through 2040.”

BART Ridership

“Despite crush-loads of passengers during peak commute times, the number of people riding BART is actually falling, forcing the transit agency to begin tough conversations about how to make up for lost revenue … After six years of growth, staff anticipated a similar increase in the number of riders during the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which began July 1. Instead, the agency is reporting that ridership through December was 5.2 percent below what it projected. Weekend trips took the hardest hit, coming in at 9 percent lower than projected, compared with 4.2 percent for weekday trips.”

The Big Picture:

The picture shows Bay Area residents' preferred mode of transportation since 1960.  Rides by automobile are represented by the orange portion of the chart.  Everything else is crowded at the very bottom.  An slight uptick is shown in the past three years. 

The picture shows Bay Area residents' preferred mode of transportation since 1960.  Rides by automobile are represented by the orange portion of the chart.  Everything else is crowded at the very bottom.  An slight uptick is shown in the past three years. 

The Outlook:

Apparently, a decade of effort has done little to budge people out of their car.  There are many reasons offered for the Bay Area’s decline in ridership: the popularity of ride-share like Uber and Lyft, unreliable service, uncomfortable and crowded buses and trains, high fares, and unrealistic “improvements.”  To an average rider, removing bus stops to speed up transit and removing seats to fit more passengers hardly constitute improvements.  Another challenge contributing to high fares that discourage ridership are the Bay Area’s prevailing wages for transit operators.  Prevailing wages are generous union wages that either riders or taxpayers must fund.  And of course with those generous wages come generous pensions that also must be funded.

With the passage of the 2017 transportation bills there might be more money.  But will there be good planning?  Will planners’ vision continue to override people needs?  Since 2006 planners have expected lifestyles to adjust to their vision.  Seniors are expected bike to their favorite supermarket.  Working parents, squirming children in tow, are expected to walk or take buses to daycare and schools on the way to work.  Alternatives might include severely limiting one’s choices of work, children’s schools or daycare, and shops – like moving to a transit village and utilizing whatever services are there.

Given the planners’ track record so far, perhaps more money is not what is needed to get us efficiently where we want to go, but different planners with different plans.