With state funding possibly on the line, 27 Bay Area agencies are developing new strategies to coordinate rates, wayfinding and more.
I barely traveled outside of San Francisco on my own growing up.
My parents, working-class Chinese immigrants, managed to get a San Francisco Muni monthly pass so I could go to school. I used this pass on weekends to explore the city, but rarely ventured outside the city limits.
One of the few times I did was in high school on a sunny, warm Friday morning. My 17-year-old myself paid $13 one-way to travel 65 miles in three hours on four transit agencies to get to the Western Railway Museum, a museum in Solano County featuring historic railroad vehicles from all over California. .
I would head to the museum again in transit in a heartbeat if I still lived in the Bay Area. However, taking public transit such a long distance might not even work for those who live in the Bay Area due to the time, cost, and confusion it can be.
This could all change over the next few years, as 27 Bay Area Transit Agencies Operate to coordinate their fares, schedules and guidance, and as California lawmakers consider a bill to withhold public funding if they do not. And to fund it all, the MTC plans to ask for a ballot measure of the legislature, after dropping a 2020 effort for $100 million due to the pandemic.
Although a decades-long effort, the crater of transit ridership as the pandemic nears — the Bay Area has lost 27 million annual runners between 2017 and 2018 – makes it urgent.
“It’s really, in the boldest vision, having a seamless system where the rider doesn’t really notice what system they’re on. It’s a Bay Area system, and the way you connecting from A to B is clear,” says Rebecca Long, who leads legislative affairs for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s federal metropolitan planning organization.
Regional transit coordination is a tricky subject, as each agency wants to have as many riders as possible, which translates into more funding. “There’s a lot of money at stake that the agencies see as their own,” says Ian Griffiths, who heads Seamless Bay Area, an organization that advocates for a unified regional transportation system. “They view regional coordination as a potential risk to their ability to [collect] revenue.”
The regional transit coordination bill, if passed, requires free transfers between all agencies except to and from the cable cars in Muni. “Rather than having to worry, ‘Should I take this mode, or this mode,’ [Getting from point] A to B should cost a fair amount, and it should be easy to understand, easy to pay for, and there should be no surprises,” says Griffiths, whose organization supports the implementation of distance-based fares. .
To comply with this provision, the MTC will revamp transfer discounts to passengers using the regional Clipper payment card when the new version is rolled out next year. Passengers transferring from BART to any agency will only pay the difference of the connecting agency’s fare, while passengers transferring from any agency to BART will pay the BART fare, less the fare they have already paid to the correspondence agency.
“So let’s say the bus fare was $2.50, you’d cut that amount entirely off your trip in each direction,” Long says. “It’s a really big deal…and the operators have accepted that.” In total, the change will cost agencies $30 million, with MTC picking up part of the bill.
But until then, riders will have to use a hodgepodge of transfer discounts to move between different agencies, if they exist. Otherwise, California Senator Josh Becker, D-San Mateo and author of the bill, says that “people who transfer between systems always pay double, triple.” MTC also partnered with most Bay Area transit agencies during the height of the pandemic to launch a reduced rate program for low-income adults.
Fare and transfer discounts are only available on Clipper, itself a decades-long effort to make crossing multiple transit agencies seamless. It is accepted on all but one transit agency: Dixon Readi-Ride in Northeast Solano County, which chose not to participate due to administrative costs and equipment compatibility.
Orientation is also a problem that has been going on for decades. In the early 2000s, the agency created a regional trip planner, where passengers could work out routes to take to get where they needed to go. It was by no means perfect; I remember planning trips from my childhood apartment in Nob Hill in San Francisco to Stonestown, a shopping mall in the southwest corner of San Francisco, and the planner returned a trip result that would take a hour, instead of a more direct route which takes around 45 minutes.
Today, many agencies provide transit schedule data to companies such as Montreal, Quebec-based Transit, which create navigation apps for computer and smartphone users. But not all agencies are able to provide such data to these companies, and not everyone can use the apps.
So the MTC is working to implement a consistent branding for maps and directional signage, which the bill also requires. They hope to work with a consultant starting this summer to roll out a pilot orientation in the North and East Bays, which are home to many transit systems, in late 2024.
Although the MTC has developed wayfinding standards now in place at BART and some Muni subway stations, as well as major transit hubs such as Salesforce Transit Center in downtown San Francisco, they co-exist with other traffic signs developed by individual transit agencies. “You still have all the other operator-specific signage, maps, terminology, which creates a pretty confusing environment, especially for a new driver,” Long says.
In addition to signage, Golden Gate Transit, which connects Sonoma and Marin counties with San Francisco and the East Bay, decided to renumber its routes, in part because some of their route numbers were numbered the same. than other routes operated by other transit agencies, such as Muni.
“As San Francisco started bringing routes back into its system, we had a Golden Gate Transit Route 30 [which runs between Downtown San Francisco and San Rafael] operation of a block outside a Muni Route 30 [that runs between San Francisco’s 4th and King Caltrain station and the Marina District]says Ron Downing, planning manager for Golden Gate Transit. “We’ve had a few complaints from people who were using [a trip planner] and they didn’t know which route 30 they should board in the marina area.
Before they could renumber the routes, however, they had to ask neighboring Marin Transit, which Golden Gate Transit operated under contract until the late 2000s, to release a series of numbers. After securing the series, they implemented the renumbering in December 2021, one of which involved renumbering the 30 to 130. “It’s different enough that the passenger knows it’s different [from] the Muni bus,” Downing said. The agency received no complaints about the renumbering, which was welcomed by neighboring agencies.
The agency also took this opportunity to renumber several other routes so passengers can understand how far they can go from San Francisco based on the height of the route, with some exceptions. But the route changes they have undertaken over the years have made it difficult to meet numbering standards.
In addition to fares, mapping and wayfinding, Bay Area transit agencies working in different disciplines meet several times a week to discuss how they can work better together. One of the changes discussed is coordinating the schedule changes so that they all happen on the same day, perhaps in August and January.
Disclosure: Prior to 2017, the author worked with several organizations that now work with Seamless Bay Area, which supports Senator Josh Becker’s regional transit coordination bill.
Henry Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/their) is an introverted Minneapolis-based freelance journalist who primarily reports on his lifelong passion: transportation issues. Journalism aside, they like to roam cities and nature by bike, on foot and by public transport whatever the season.