A campaign to unify the Bay Area’s 27 different transit agencies into one seamless system is gaining momentum, but the journey to full integration will be a long and difficult journey.
Ian Griffiths, co-founder and director of Seamless Bay Area, said in a webinar Wednesday that recent legislation could pave the way for the integration of Bay Area transit agencies. Seamless Bay Area is a non-profit organization that advocates for the unification of public transit services so riders can more easily travel around the area.
Griffiths pinned his hopes on Senate Bill 917. Introduced in February by Senator Josh Becker, the legislation would require transit agencies, including VTA, to develop an integrated transit fare structure by 2024, coordinate schedules and service standards, and develop a single regional public transport card.
“Ultimately, it’s about getting more people to use public transportation all the time and adopt more sustainable ways to get around our area,” Griffiths told San Jose Spotlight. “Livability, quality of life and environmental goals are reasons why we need a very user-centric transit system and making it seamless is a really fundamental part of that.”
Proponents of seamless regional transit say the Bay Area lags behind its peers around the world. Russell Hancock, President and CEO of Joint Venture of Silicon Valley, described how easy it was to travel by bus and train in Singapore and the Netherlands compared to the tortured logistics of getting from San Francisco International Airport to his home in Palo Alto.
“The San Francisco Bay Area is a world-class destination,” Hancock said at the meeting, co-hosted by Joint Venture. “We don’t look like that in transit – that’s not what the user experience looks like.”
Transit advocates say there is a strong incentive to integrate these agencies and create more efficient regional public transit, as they continue to lose ridership and revenue. According to Seamless Bay Area, the average commute time for transit riders in the Bay Area increased by 11.9% between 2001 and 2016. Over the same period, the annual number of transit trips made by capita decreased by 10.4%.
Some local institutions have already embraced the concept. Last September, the San Jose City Council agreed to adopt the Seamless Bay Area Principles, which include coordinating services between different types of public transit, investing in areas with few public transit options and taking steps to create more walkable communities.
San Jose Department of Transportation spokesman Colin Heyne told San Jose Spotlight that the city is developing a transit-first policy that will reinforce San Jose’s commitment to public transportation. He said the plan is expected to be presented to city council in May.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees regional transit planning in the Bay Area, has begun exploring the possibility of a public transportation funding measure in 2024.
“A Baffling Mess”
Some transit advocates doubt that the Seamless Bay Area vision can be easily implemented. Jayme Ackemann, public transport expert and former VTA employee, welcomes the integration but worries about the financial difficulties.
As an example, she noted that creating an integrated fare ticket would require splitting each fare among multiple transit agencies. She said this was a significant problem with Clipper cards – first introduced in 2002 – and that agencies were still tinkering with them to get rid of design flaws.
“None of these things are impossible, but they are complicated,” she told San José Spotlight. “I’m aware of the pitfalls that can make a great idea like this a really bad end-user experience.”
Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and San José Spotlight columnist, said she was initially excited about Seamless’s vision, but is now more skeptical. She said San Jose Spotlight transit agencies want to retain local control over operations, such as setting schedules and raising or lowering fares. She also noted that most transit trips in Santa Clara County occur within county lines, so it makes more sense for VTA to invest in increasing the frequency of local service.
“As much money as possible should be spent on running more services because that’s what drives ridership,” Mallon said. “A lot of people don’t take public transport because the schedules don’t suit them.”
In Santa Clara County, VTA is struggling with high operating costs and low ridership, factors that could worsen the agency’s projected funding shortfall of $47.5 million. here 2031.
Dr. Michelle DeRobertis, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, told San Jose Spotlight that the public transit landscape in California is incredibly complicated, especially in the Bay Area, which has nine different counties.
“Of course transit coordination is technically feasible, but obviously legislation is essential. And funding is key,” she said. “The fact that funding has been tied to so many local voter-approved initiatives makes public transit a baffling mess in California.”