Friday, May 1, 2009

How Serious Are We About Public Transportation?

There's an opinion piece in the Thin Green Line on the Chronicle today about fare increases on Muni. I've used Muni less than five times in my life. I've principally used BART for public transport, but almost certainly less than 100 times in more than 10 years in the East Bay. In the last election I voted for state prop 1A, but against Oakland Measure VV (transit bonds for AC transit; it passed anyway). But this fare increase is a symptom of a larger attitude.

Why am I a car addict? Because for the most part, public transportation in the Bay Area doesn't go where I need it to, and we're constantly disincentivized from using what public transportation there is.

In my case, if I drive to work, even at peak rush hour, it rarely takes an hour. On the other hand, if I take BART, it will be at least one hour and seven minutes before I'm in my office, and probably closer to the max of an hour twenty-seven. It involves a 10 minute walk from home to BART, then if I catch the train exactly right I go from Rockridge to Glen Park in 32 minutes, and then if my company's shuttle leaves immediately after I come out of the station it's another 15 minutes to campus, and then it's a 10 minute walk to my office. And I might have to wait 10 minutes for BART, and 10 more for the shuttle.

Let's look at the benefits and drawbacks to me. (Like you, I am a rationally self-interested optimizer):

Cost$7.30 = $3.65 each way x 2$10.00 = $4.00 toll + (22 miles each way x 2)x(18 mpg)x($2.45/gal)
ProsCan read or do work on the wayComplete scheduling freedom
Consabout an hour more per day tied up with commuting; can't run errands at lunch; have to get to and leave work by certain time or pay for taxiCan't read or do work in car(1)

Ask me if $2.70 and some low-quality interrupted reading/work time is worth complete schedule freedom, and the answer will be yes. Now imagine if I didn't work for a business magnanimous enough to provide a shuttle (and how many do?) The closest BART station is South San Francisco, and it's 3 miles away. This is either a bike ride on some heavily-trafficked streets (and what if my company doesn't have a shower?) or $30 of cab rides every day.

My point in leading you through the economics of my commute is that, for most people in the Bay Area, using public transportation doesn't make sense. People aren't going to plan their lives around it unless you force them (if there were a 200% gas tax increase I'd start thinking about it). Not everybody works in downtown SF or Oakland. For the most part, public transportation doesn't go where we need it to, and it doesn't run when we need it to either. In particular on this last point, I have always wondered why BART stops running so early. Don't you hate having to look at your watch and leave your friend's party after midnight to catch the 12:50? Somehow, New York can manage a much bigger 24-hour system. Every time I'm driving across the Bay Bridge at 2:15, I wonder how many drunk drivers there are within a half mile of me. The worst part of it is that BART can definitely run 24 hours - because it did for nine months when the bridge was out after the Loma Prieta quake in 89.

Add to that the idea of charging BART riders more for riding at peak hours (and charging Muni riders more all the time), and you start to wonder how serious we all are about it - "we" meaning governments, public transit administrators, and voters. Charge me more to ride BART during rush hour? Thanks for the disincentive! I don't even mind if you charge me more to ride home with the other drunks at 2:30am if that's what it takes to keep it running all night, but don't raise fares and expect me not to keep driving. I know they need money, but that's the hard reality of economic behavior.

All this says to me that we're still not serious about public transportation. It doesn't go where we need it to, when we need it to, and we're punishing the people who use it. I hope the measure VV bonds send AC transit where I can use it more easily, when I can use it. I hope BART starts running later. Because until it does, you'll see me crossing the upper deck of the Bay Bridge every morning in my SUV.

(1) Drawbacks of my driving to myself are few, but to others they include: continued oppression of subjects and de facto slaves of medieval theocracies benefiting from petroleum extraction; climate change to inhabitants of predominantly low-lying countries and marginal precipitation environments. But the effects of my driving can be dispersed to everyone in the world, so I don't care. A classic suboptimization problem. Until there are more laws, you can expect me and every other rational person to continue behaving this way. An unpleasant truth, but you can't be effective if you insist on denying human psychology.

Later addition: I took BART to work this morning, with my company's private shuttle. 90 minutes each way, $7.30 round trip. If I worked in this area and did not have a private shuttle, it would be about $37.30 round trip EVERY DAY with the taxi ride, or I could ride my bike to work if they have a shower (if not, I guess my coworkers would just have to deal with me stinking all day for the sake of the planet). Or, I could plan my career around the few places that are convenient for public transportation; and isn't that what little girls and boys dream about when they tell you what they want to do with their lives?


  1. I take BART from MacArthur to the Embarcadero station. I pay $80-something/month for parking and and $160 (or so) a month on BART. I very rarely get a seat so I can't do work (or sometimes even read) and I'm always catching whatever cold is going around because people are coughing and sneezing in confined quarters. In a nutshell, even though BART is close to my home and close to my work, I really hate the experience. I would much rather drive and would be if it wasn't for the $200/mo parking fee in the FiDi.

  2. Interesting piece - but there's some broken logic there. Public transit needs more money so it can make the service it offers better and more efficient, but you don't want to give them the money because they're not good enough or efficient enough?

    Also although BART /can/ run 24 hours a day, they can't do any track maintenance without shutting down the system entirely - which is what they do overnight - so it's not possible long term.

    I agree with you that I often end up driving too because the service isn't good enough - but that just means it needs more cash!

  3. I do support giving more money to public transit, but it'll have to happen in a way that doesn't punish the current users. Granted, I voted against one measure in November (VV) but since i passed, I hope it can expand the system in a way that makes it more useful to everyone.

  4. You can't take a bike on BART during rush hour, which is just crazy. They should dedicate a car to bikers during rush hour so more could use it to commute.

  5. There's another one. If we're serious about encouraging people to be green, we have to stop punishing them when they try.

  6. Miguel, not that it would greatly change your conclusion, but only calculating fuel cost for driving your car is too optimistic. You are neglecting to account for insurance, cost of the vehicle, and maintenance. Instead of trying to break those numbers out, using something near the IRS's mileage number is probably a good starting point.

  7. TomC: assuming that I would not own a car if I didn't drive to work, your point is valid. The current IRS rate is $0.585, so using that calculation it's $29.74. The time difference between the commute and my hourly wage means that driving still more than pays for itself. Plus, for many people (including me) schedule flexibility really is that important. I'm not a huge green- or public-transport advocate, if that's not obvious already, so I don't say the following in that spirit: a lot of the interest in alternative fuel and public transportation is trendy and won't sustain itself until there is a clear economic incentive for individuals to choose public transportation over gas-using personal transportation, and the convenience is part of that factor. I think many green advocates would agree that the possible trendiness of this zeitgeist is a concern. You can change the equation by having cheaper, more (and more convenient) public transportation, or by making it more expensive to drive. This second side of the equation is most likely to happen either by the price of gas going up or by taxing fuel.

    I'm not dead set against public transportation at all. I would love to wake up tomorrow and find out there's a bus that went straight from College Ave to my office. But if planners and advocates are expecting people to act against their economic self-interest, they'll be waiting a while. I'm not writing my politicians for more taxes, although it would make me and lots of commuters like me view public transportation as a better option.