Why do we have transit?
The mission of public transit is actually subjective and varies from agency to agency. Rare agencies like Bay Area Rapid Transit(BART), integral to the regional transportation network, perceive their goals to be beyond getting passengers from A-B:
BART’s mission: Provide safe, clean, reliable and customer-friendly regional public transit service that increases mobility and accessibility, strengthens community and economic prosperity and helps preserve the Bay Area’s environment.
BART acknowledges its role as a crucial part of bay area economic development, an expression of inter-county community and as a model of sustainable transportation. Most agencies such as Sacramento Regional Transit(SacRT), Calaveras Transit, or Fresno Area Express do not pursue such ambitious missions:
SacRT: The purpose of the Sacramento Regional Transit District is to promote and improve access in the Sacramento region by providing safe, reliable, and fiscally responsible transit service that links people to resources and opportunities.
Calaveras Transit: The mission of Calaveras Transit is to provide safe and cost effective public transportation services throughout Calaveras County to serve the mobility needs of residents and visitors who need public transportation
Fresno Area Express(FAX): The mission of Fresno Area Express is to provide a comprehensive transportation system that improves the quality of life in our community.
The automobile unquestionably dominates north american transportation, in 2010 its estimated by the US census that 91.1% of US households owned at least one car vehicle. Most North American transit agencies, such as SacRT, Calaveras Transit and FAX, could not fathom being competitive with the private automobile to be core to their regional transportation system. Their broadly worded missions hint their focus is on serving citizens who cannot get to their destination by driving themselves, while attempting to not become a financial burden.
Mass transportation’s base purpose is to efficiently move a set of passengers along a set of points to a different set of points. If 20 passengers along a single street or path need to get downtown it is logically more efficient and economical to bring them all at once rather than each individually. Traveling alone they would take up 20 cars of space on the roadways, would burn 20 tanks of gas and would require 20 parking spaces once they got there.
Public transit offers a solution to each of these issues. Although a bus is about the size of two cars, buses easily carry 20-30 passengers, an optimized use of limited road space. California transit is already on the path to zero-emission fuel. The California Air Resources Board(CARB) is reviewing a policy to require all new transit vehicle purchases are zero-emission by 2029. LA Metro plans to replace all their buses with electric buses by 2030, even California’s school buses are going electric. San Francisco MTA has been operating North America’s largest electric trolley fleet for years and continues to purchase zero-emissions trolleys. With the exception of empty or low passenger service, if carbon emissions are split up over every passenger then transit is far more greener than driving a car. Since transit operators are constantly moving there isn’t an expansive need for parking at the destination like cars would need a massive parking lot. Transit does require curb space for transit stops but even this results in less allocated space than if each of its passengers required a parking space. This is not to say that transit is the solution for every trip, there are many factors to transit being a viable option. Convenience, safety, accessibility, time constraints, reliability and visible costs are burdens that transit riders must bare. However transit is one of only a few tools the US has to relieve growing traffic issues, reduce the need for parking and reduce pollution.
Transit has a diverse group of typical users. Seniors or young adults without drivers licenses are natural beneficiaries from public transit. They independently can go to a store, school or other destinations too far to bike or walk even if they’re too old or young to drive. Some adults will not obtain a driver license due to an affliction to driving either for the safety issues or out of being environmentally conscious. Those with disability or legally prohibited from drive are able to still be mobile, even without driving themselves. The younger generations are less enthused about driving as their parents and instead elect to use transit or alternatives to driving like ride-hail companies, cycling or even walking. And low-income families and cash-strapped college students find value in having a low-cost transportation method. And despite its limitations even some high-income families prefer to save money and gain productivity by not driving (at least not into places with limited and expensive parking).
Types of Transit
Public Transit comes in a few forms, the most valued is rail, typically classified by four types: commuter, heavy, light or inter-city rail. Heavy/Rapid and Light rails, are noted by being electrified and capable of carrying heavy or light capacities(passengers). North California’s only heavy rail system is the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and the region has three light rail systems: MUNI Metro, VTA Light Rail and SacRT Light Rail. North California counties also runs three Commuter/inter-city rail lines: Caltrain, Sonoma Marin Area Regional Train(SMART) and Altamont-Corridor Express(ACE). The California Department of Transportation(Caltrans)/Amtrak California owns the two inter-city Amtrak routes that run through North California. The Capitol Corridor(San Jose to Sacramento) and San Joaquin(Oakland to Bakersfield) are operated by Amtrak, on behalf of the state, but are managed by their own joint power authorities.
Building new rail is expensive, especially without a pre-existing Right-Of-Way(ROW). Construction is disruptive to residences, and it restricts automotive traffic while many property owners perceive the introduction of rail to negatively affect property values. Other residents or merchants believe rail brings negative effects to the community such as gentrification, increased noise or increased crime. Considering the costs and effects of new rail most worthwhile value of it comes from serving highly dense areas, so for much of suburb US new rail construction is politically and financially speaking impractical to pursue. This is why buses maintain their status as workhorses of public transit in North California.
Most highly populated cities or counties in California, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, offer only bus services. Buses are relative to train sets are cheaper to purchase and maintain, to upgrade and resell. While bus operations may not meet the quality or capacity of rail, buses are easier to operate and certify operators. Buses use roads already there, maintained by the city, county or state and can circumvent obstructions that a train stuck on a set of tracks could not. The primary downside to buses is that they remain reliant on public streets. Thus, buses are subject to traffic congestion by other vehicles and are in constant interaction these other vehicles leading to higher liability costs. Every automobile in front of a bus adds seconds of delay to passengers and nearly every intersection traffic signal steals minutes from them. With these issues in mind, Brazil introduced the youngest form of public transit – BRT or Bus Rapid Transit.
Bus Rapid Transit is designed to take the inexpensiveness of buses and combine it with the reliability and efficiency of rail service. BRT comes in various arrangements of improvement over regular bus service but does have an international standard to measure quality of the service. Currently there is no Bus Rapid Transit route in North California that would recognized as Bronze BRT according to the standard. Political compromises often lead to Bus Rapid Transit Creep that deteriorates the service far below typical rail experiences. As of 2014, despite many attempts, only five routes throughout the United States were considered to be true BRT. To maximize the experience for riders BRTs should have stations not stops, dedicated lanes through high traffic areas and other improvements to ensure efficient boarding such as off-board payment, level boarding platforms, high peak frequency and real-time displays. Eliminating the cost of rail and utilizing lanes of streets for a busway, a proper BRT sheds much of the frustrations of standard bus service but without the expensive and taxing build out like new rail being laid down. Northern California has several routes marketed as Bus Rapid Transit in construction or running: AC Transit East Bay BRT, San Francisco’s Van Ness BRT, Fresno’s FAX Q(launched in Feb 2018) and San Joaquin RTD Route 47.