Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Transit & Choices

This week, let’s talk transit.

I’m from Southern California, the land of the car, so for me Bay Area public transportation was a step up. Caltrain, BART, Muni, VTA’s light-rail system, and Stanford’s Marguerite are far from perfect, but they do make it possible to get around without a car. That’s more than I can say about San Diego, where it can take hours to cross the city by bus.

But really, saying the Bay Area’s transit system is good because it beats SoCal is like claiming a Big Mac is healthy because it’s better than a deep fried Twinkie. San Francisco itself is doing well: 34% of residents commute via transit, placing it fourth in the nation behind New York, Jersey City, and Washington, DC.

Yet the rest of the Bay Area can’t say the same. Just 15% of residents in the San Francisco-Oakland-Freemont metropolitan area commute via transit, and that number is skewed by the inclusion of San Francisco. In the South Bay, only 3% of residents take transit – a tie with San Diego, and lower than LA’s 6%. That’s right, San Jose is actually doing worse than Los Angeles. Burn…

So why is transit ridership in the South Bay so low? Partly it’s because of geography – Silicon Valley and San Jose are sprawling regions without the density than makes transit work well. Partly it’s because of access – CalTrain is expensive (median rider income: $117,000) and like VTA light-rail only works well if your destination is near a stop. And partly it’s because highway development has undermined transit systems.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and all of these reasons come down to choices. NIMBYism among Peninsula residents has limited the construction of high-density housing near transit. CalTrain is expensive and VTA light-rail is slow because officials have prioritized highways over transit. The system is built for cars, and so most people drive.

At Working Partnerships, we’re trying to change that. The Valley Transit Authority is considering a Bus Rapid Transit project along the El Camino Real corridor, which could bring dedicated bus lanes that make trips much faster. It could also bring new buses with Wi-Fi, and modern waiting platform that provide status updates and ticket machines (which save time when boarding). This would be a significant improvement for current bus riders, and would encourage greater transit usage in the South Bay.

Once again, however, the success of this project depends on choices. Without strong community support, the project could get weakened in ways that undermine its efficacy. That’s why WPUSA is building a base of project supporters, starting with people who will benefit the most – current bus riders. We’re organizing students, workers, seniors, and other bus riders to fight for BRT and other improvements to our transit system.

That’s why I spent Monday morning riding the bus. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere, I was there to talk with riders. Along with one of our community organizers, I was surveying bus riders, asking about their experiences riding the bus, and how they’d like to help make the system work better. I heard a lot of stories, ranging from saddening (a man who spends two hours each way getting to and from work) to encouraging (a woman who said she’d been riding the bus for decades, and demanded that I follow up with how she can get involved).

Interviewing a rider at a bus stop

I do most of my work behind a computer screen (or two), so this was an interesting break from routine. It was also a chance to get back to my Urban Studies roots: I’ve spent plenty of time discussing public transit, so it was great to play at least a small part in making a BRT system a reality. Most importantly, it’s great to know that we have an opportunity to significantly improve transit in the South Bay, and – I can’t believe I have to say this – maybe catch up to LA.


One response to “Transit & Choices

  1. atomasso August 4, 2014 at 7:33 am

    wow, hard to believe those stats on Bay Area transit ridership! very cool work

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