San Francisco Magazine
December 2002

Get on the Bus

Mass transit could be fast, cheap, and convenient for everybody who lives here, argues a defiant band of transit brains, were it not for the perennial missteps of a little-known transportation agency.

by Dashka Slater

It’s the God-given right of every Bay Area resident to feel superior to Los Angelenos. After all, their region is little more than a smoggy, overpaved paean to the car, while ours is cleaner, greener, and more environmentally aware. Right? Well, sort of. • In fact, the Bay Area is the second-most-congested region in the country, and we’re gaining on the Southland with every passing year. Our smog isn’t as bad as theirs, thanks to ocean breezes that blow our tailpipe emissions out to sea or down into the San Joaquin Valley. But we’ve been out of compliance with federal air pollution standards for 29 of the last 30 years. • This past summer, in the name of improving air quality by stemming the deluge of cars on our roads, a coalition of environmentalists, transit activists, and community groups filed separate lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the local agency that allocates transportation dollars. One lawsuit has resulted in a spending freeze on new construction projects aimed at squeezing more cars onto local highways, and another has convinced a federal judge to order MTC to get more people on transit in a hurry. Although both lawsuits are being contested, they have put Bay Area transportation planners on notice that time is running out: Our air is dirty, our roads are packed, and our tempers are short.

Projections by MTC itself show that we are already well on our way to becoming Los Angeles North. If everything goes as planned, by 2025 our overall traffic congestion will have increased 152 percent and the number of miles driven on clogged freeways, 387 percent. Along the way, our cars will be belching 42 percent more greenhouse gases into the air, as well as 43 percent more of the polluting particulates that contribute to asthma and other bronchial illnesses.

So who is to blame for this San Fernando Valley scenario? If you work for MTC, you blame human nature. If only people didn’t insist on living in the suburbs and driving to work during peak hours. If only they would be community-minded enough to take public transit. "My own opinion is that people here always like to complain about traffic, but what their behavior is showing is that they think a lot of other things—affordable housing, better schools—are more important," says MTC executive director Steve Heminger. "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Bay Area transit advocates have another view. The enemy, they say, is MTC, which isn’t providing efficient alternatives to the automobile. Give people a mass transit system that’s fast, reliable, and convenient, and most will be happy to leave the SUV parked in the driveway. Such a system, they say, is possible today. But we don’t have it because MTC has pissed away the region’s transportation dollars on a series of gold-plated boondoggles that cost five to ten times more than necessary to get more of us riding transit.

"MTC bears a huge amount of blame for our current circumstances," says David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, a Marin-based transit advocacy group. "This didn’t just fall on us, it happened through intention. And that is absolutely inexcusable."

Transportation wonks have strong feelings about MTC, but the average citizen is barely aware of its existence. It’s not a transit operator like BART, Muni, or AC Transit, and it’s not a recognizable public entity like a city or county. Its 16 voting members are almost all Bay Area city council members or county supervisors, but since they aren’t elected to the board by the general public, most of us would be hard-pressed to name a single one of them. Who knew, for instance, that San Franciscans like left-leaning supervisor Tom Ammiano and pro-business mainstay Barbara Kaufman are both members, much less that the mayors of Suisun City or San Leandro are, too? Obviously, it’s a politically eclectic group. It’s also, critics say, a board that’s lacked the expertise and incentive to truly wrestle with our complex transit problems or push the agency’s staff to think outside the box—the box, in this case, being BART.

Founded in 1970 by the state legislature to coordinate transportation planning for the nine Bay Area counties, MTC was a product of the can-do optimism and carefree approach to spending that produced our famous train system. Indeed, for decades, MTC’s top officials were BART alumni, and the agency was originally conceived with a dual purpose: to promote a regional approach to transportation planning, and to help BART get off the ground by finding ways to bring passengers to and from BART stations.

Over time, the agency has assumed the lion’s share of the region’s transportation responsibilities. These days, you can’t walk out your front door without encountering a decision made by MTC. It is MTC that allocates money to pave the streets, run the buses, widen the highways, and extend BART. (Last year it handed out $403 million.) And it is MTC that is supposed to create a rational and coherent transit infrastructure for the whole Bay Area. Many feel that in this last respect, the agency has failed.

"The net result of MTC’s planning is an unlivable region," says BART board member Tom Radulovich, who feels that MTC has failed to provide the region’s transportation players with the necessary leadership. "We have twenty-eight transit operators, nine counties, one hundred cities, five regional agencies, and they’re all doing their own thing. There’s no agency that really has a regional focus."

True regional transportation planning would identify places in the Bay Area where those without cars are stranded and those with cars are stuck in traffic, and then figure out how to move them from Point A to Point B for the least amount of money. But, says Schonbrunn, "that’s not what MTC is about. They’re not here to solve problems. They can’t decide if they are reaching their goals because they don’t have any goals."

Last year, two UC Berkeley scholars published the results of a five-year study of MTC’s decision-making process. What they found was an agency that operates as little more than a transportation broker. Counties propose pet projects—most of them new construction that allows politicians to get their photo snapped cutting ribbons—and MTC doles out the funding in a way that ensures that everybody feels they came away with something. Santa Clara County will get a new BART extension, Oakland will get a rail connection to its airport, and Marin and Sonoma Counties will get a widened Highway 101. Never mind that none of these projects constitutes a long-term, regionwide solution.

"When you only think about, ‘What am I going to get?’ you can’t say, ‘What’s the regional problem here, and how are we going to solve it?’" explains Professor Judith Innes, director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development and one of the authors of the MTC study.

Don’t blame us, counters MTC’s Heminger. Regional planning isn’t what his agency is about. "If by regional planning you mean that 100 guys in this building get to tell everyone else in the Bay Area what to do, I don’t want to live in that society," he says. "What we have is a consensus-building process."

But, ask MTC’s critics, a consensus around what? In 1982, MTC pledged to reduce smog by raising transit ridership by 15 percent—a promise that allowed federal transportation dollars to continue flowing into the Bay Area. But today the number of people who ride transit isn’t much higher than it was 20 years ago, despite a population increase of over 30 percent and a 30 percent increase in congestion. MTC’s failure to live up to its promise is the basis of one of the recent lawsuits in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The agency did the best it could to get people out of cars, MTC attorney David Cooke told District Judge Thelton E. Henderson at a hearing in June. But, Cooke said, "MTC cannot guarantee that a specific number of riders will board transit. We couldn’t guarantee it in 1982; we can’t guarantee it now." The judge wasn’t convinced, pointing out that if MTC didn’t think it could raise ridership, it shouldn’t have made the promise in the first place. He declared that by November 9, 2006, MTC needed to up our transit usage to 544.8 million "boardings" a year. That would be an increase of 2 percent, or 32,000 boardings a day, over current rates.

MTC is appealing the decision, and its staff continues to contend that residents here are a mulish bunch who can be led to transit but not made to board. "People make their own decisions about whether they ride transit or not," says Heminger. "No matter how attractive, inexpensive, or ubiquitous we make it, they still make the decision. And many people still decide, for whatever reason, that they don’t want to ride transit."

Certainly there are those whose love for the car supersedes considerations such as cost and convenience. But many people who consider themselves dedicated solo drivers haven’t been presented with a more attractive alternative. A survey last year of Bay Area commuters found 70 percent of them stating that it would not be possible to get them onto transit. When asked why not, however, only 4 percent said that they needed privacy or preferred to drive alone. The top three reasons, accounting for 55 percent of the transit refuseniks, were that transit takes too much time, no convenient service is available, or commuters work irregular hours when transit is infrequent or unavailable.

"We could remedy all of those with smart investments," states Stuart Cohen of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, composed of over 90 environmental and social justice groups. "We could have significant transit ridership increases—40 to 50 percent over current levels—within a decade."

MTC planners haven’t succeeded in increasing transit ridership, say experts like Cohen, because they won’t back the kind of mass transit that actually moves the masses: buses. Together, AC Transit and Muni already carry close to 60 percent of the transit riders in the Bay Area, and both bus companies say that they could add a whole lot more with a few innovations. In the cities, they would introduce what’s known as "bus rapid transit" on major arteries like Geary Boulevard in San Francisco or Telegraph Avenue and East 14th Street in the East Bay. These buses would operate like trains, traveling in their own lanes, with the ability to trip traffic signals so that they don’t get stuck at lights. The buses would make fewer stops, and bus shelters would be more like train stations, with protection from the rain and signs that give real-time projections about when the next bus is arriving.

Throughout the cities, buses would be frequent and fast, Cohen says. They’d operate on nights and weekends, especially in neighborhoods where people don’t have cars. They’d offer smoother rides, and the busiest lines would have more doors so that people could get on and off more quickly. Along two major corridors in Los Angeles, where "bus rapid transit" is a top funding priority, installing such a system has reduced bus riders’ commute times by 25 percent and increased ridership by close to 40 percent. (See "Trains vs. Buses: The L.A. Lesson.") A third of the increase has come from passengers new to transit. Muni’s projections find that implementing bus rapid transit in San Francisco could get 85,000 new riders on board each day, Cohen says.

Suburban commuters could get better buses, too—express lines with reclining, cushioned seats, tray tables, and computer ports. Express buses like the ones that already run across the Dumbarton, Bay, and Golden Gate Bridges could travel in high-occupancy vehicle lanes from one suburb to another, and from suburbs to cities and back. Expanding AC Transit’s express bus service over the Bay Bridge could net 20,000 new riders a day, while running express buses over the San Mateo Bridge would attract 6,200 riders a day.

All in all, transportation experts say, a few key improvements can make a world of difference. Elizabeth Deakin, director of the Transportation Center at the University of California, says that "making buses clean, reliable, and fast" would boost ridership. She cites New York’s recent fare reductions and L.A.’s success with bus rapid transit as examples of innovations that have led to big ridership gains in a short period of time. "I’m absolutely convinced that if MTC put its mind to it, it could find a dozen ways to increase transit ridership that are relatively inexpensive and could be implemented within a year to a year and a half," she says.

Buses, their supporters argue, don’t cost much to purchase and operate and don’t take much time to get up and running. They’re flexible and can be routed to link jobs and housing as transportation patterns change. And unlike BART extensions, which are generally used by people who drive from their homes and park at or near a BART station, buses can come within walking distance of people’s homes. One transportation expert calculated that if a transit system’s productivity is measured as taxpayer cost per new rider, then MTC’s investment in bus transit has been 750 percent more productive than its investment in rail.

That might be, counters MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler, but facts alone don’t usher people onto buses. "People don’t aspire to get rich and ride the bus," he says. "They come to America to get rich, have a home, drive a car, and ride the transportation of their choosing. If you look at poll after poll after poll, or vote after vote after vote, people are putting up their own money to have the option of BART."

BART definitely has its attractions. It’s sleek and silver, it’s fast, and despite its finicky ticket machines, if it happens to go where you’re headed, it’s pretty hard to beat. But BART isn’t the solution to every problem. The system works well when serving the urban core, but once you move into the suburbs, ridership dwindles and costs skyrocket. In the past dozen years, the number of miles of track has increased by 34 percent, at an average cost of $42 million per mile. Ridership, meanwhile, has gone up 25 percent.

Of course, both ridership and revenue have recently been driven down by the economic bust, leading to the system’s current financial crisis. This past summer, BART directors announced they would be trimming staff, hiking fares, and charging for parking as a way of dealing with a $60 million deficit. None of which put a wrench in BART’s politically plum extension to SFO, which will end up costing $1.7 billion in public funds mainly to run a few thousand people a day—13,700 per weekday is BART’s own projection—to and from the airport. In fact, MTC seems to believe BART should extend into the hinterlands indefinitely. Plans are to spend many billions more to run track to San Jose, Livermore, and Antioch. "It’s like building an addition to your house when the roof is on fire," says former AC Transit board president Matt Williams.

Both MTC and its critics agree that the best way to reduce congestion is to build housing and job centers close to existing transit lines. But land-use decisions are made by cities and counties, and regional responsibility lies with a separate agency, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). New urbanists and antisprawl activists have been striving for decades to build a regional body for governing growth—but they’ve never managed to surmount the vested political and economic forces of the status quo. Earlier this year, Antioch state senator Tom Torlakson revived the regional mission by sponsoring a bill to merge ABAG and MTC into one agency that would "streamline operations" and "develop a regional vision for growth, transportation, housing, employment, and other issues that affect quality of life." But the bill was killed in August. Local politicians hate the idea of giving up any of their planning power.

Yet the problem is also one of MTC’s unwillingness to tackle the housing issue. "MTC says, ‘Oh, we’re not responsible for land use, we’re just responsible for transportation,’" Radulovich, the BART director, says sarcastically. "But of course, they’re all inextricably linked." He argues that MTC could pressure cities into building housing and offices close to existing transportation by using its dollars as both carrot and stick. For example, local governments could be required to make developers pay a fee to mitigate the impact of car-dependent developments. "There would have to be sanctions," he says. "Cities would lose local streets and road money if they were behaving badly. MTC has the power of the purse; it’s just too chicken to use it."

Cohen concludes that a world-class mass-transit system—one that would serve local urbanites and suburbanites, morning commuters and night-owl workers—is within grasp. But it won’t be realized until MTC gets on board. "If, a long time ago," he says, "we had invested in smart transit and linked land use to transportation, we’d have a lot more people riding transit today."

Dashka Slater is a regular contributor to San Francisco.

Side Box #1 in article

Although criticized for poor regional planning, MTC does deserve credit for building its Take Transit Trip Planner ( to show you the best way to get from place to place on public transit. The site even lets you specify your definition of "best"-fastest, cheapest, or with the least amount of walking. To use it, punch in your starting point and destination and specify the time you plan to leave or the time you need to arrive. The trip planner then tells you which bus, train, or ferry to take, where to make any transfers, and how long the trip will take. It even gives you a map to the bus stop. -D.S.


Side Box #2 in article


Not BART, which can't match the low cost or deft reach of L.A.'s high-tech Metro Rapid program, headed by Rex Gebhart (Photo not shown in this document).


BELIEVE IT OR NOT, the one place experts say has most smoothly shifted gears to dollar-smart transit is Los Angeles. Here's why they look south, not to the Bay Area, for signs of intelligent life in the transportation universe.

Expand Metro Rapid, a new, very successful bus system.

Expand BART, a dated, very expensive train system.

Walk or take trolley or local bus to one of the new Metro Rapid ministations located every mile on major thoroughfares. Refer to a sensor-informed "Next bus in X minutes" electronic sign. Wait an average of two minutes at rush hour. Hop onto a red-and-white bus, which, outfitted with signal-priority software, rips along for up to 26 miles making almost every light.

Drive miles to minimalist BART station at dawn for parking spot. (Too rare is the well-timed local bus connection to BART.) Wait up to 15 minutes for next train. Stand or sit as train bumps and glides fairly quickly to destination.

$10 million for 42 miles of lines along Wilshire and Whittier Boulevards and Ventura Boulevard.

$1 billion for 24 miles of extensions to Pleasanton, Colma, and Pittsburg-Bay Point (a 34% increase in BART track).

40% more riders along two corridors.

25% more riders since 1990.

Add 356 miles to Metro Rapid along 24 major thoroughfares, building 779 ministations. Cost: $110 million.

Open four stations along new nine-mile Colma-Millbrae line. Extend Fremont line to San Jose. Cost: $5.1 billion.