Transit expansion doesn’t always make sense

16 Dec

There’s this funny thing that happens when you get into activism on a particular issue. Like when I first started working on medical marijuana, everyone I knew started emailing me articles about medical marijuana. Of course, since I work more than 40 hours a week on the issue, I’d usually already seen these articles long before my friends and family.

So now that everyone knows I’m all about public transit, the same thing is happening. But it’s different this time because sometimes it’s a bit less clear when public transit issues are positive or negative (unlike with medical marijuana, when it’s pretty clear that a DEA raid is a bad thing). So I got some emails and heard some comments about Joyce Roy’s race and how it sounded so great that she was taking on those terrible Van Hool buses (which I love) because my friends had never been on the Van Hools and had been reading too much of the East Bay Express.

But the most problematic phenomenon I’ve come across is that my friends who don’t know much about transit but support it wholeheartedly assume that all transit expansion is good. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple.

Earlier this month, The Overhead Wire focused on this issue and conducted a poll of its readership, asking what is the worst transit project that is currently being planned. Two of the projects that were nominated are in the Bay Area – Bart to San Jose and the San Francisco Central Subway. Neither of these projects “won” the poll, but combined, they got as many votes as the winner.

Eric has already thoroughly explained why Bart to San Jose makes no sense and has made the case for why the current incarnation of the SF Central Subway is not the best project, so I won’t dwell on that here.

You’re probably wondering at this point why you should care about this, living in Oakland and all, where currently there aren’t any super-expensive or superfluous transit projects being planned. Well, transit money is limited, and these projects will be pulling funds from the same regional, state, and federal funds that the East Bay vies for. This means that every bad transit project in the Bay Area (and to a lesser extent anywhere in the state or nation) endangers transit in Oakland.

dto510 argued last month that Oakland transit is totally screwed, but I don’t think the picture is quite so bleak. After all, BRT is finally moving along, now that we’ve defeated Measure KK in Berkeley. Alameda and Contra Costa County voters also approved Measure VV, which is keeping AC Transit afloat, even in the face of further funding cuts from the state.

Transit advocates have already raised concerns that President-elect Obama wants to sink billions into car-centered road projects, and I share those concerns. But as Obama considers funding massive infrastructure projects, his administration would also do well to remember that not all transit projects are equally beneficial, and some just don’t make any sense at all. That’s something for him to ponder on his train ride to the inauguration.


8 Responses to “Transit expansion doesn’t always make sense”

  1. dto510 December 16, 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    I didn’t mean that East Bay transit IS totally screwed, but that it WAS totally screwed by a series of decisions including the HSR alignment. BRT is a good note for the future. Too bad the only thing Oakland can get is the most cost-effective and successful service, while we’re paying our tax dollars for atrociously inefficient and unnecessary projects in other cities, like BART to San Jo and the SF’s subway to nowhere.

  2. Max Allstadt December 17, 2008 at 10:49 am #

    If we can get people to realize that heavy rail is a bad idea in general for local transit, we’d be making progress. It’s just too inflexible. A boondoggle created by an industrial age mindset that shouldn’t exist today.

    The part that I find most discouraging is how insanely long it takes to get anything done. Wasn’t BRT proposed in the 90s originally?

    BTW, the future of public transit: location-aware socially networked ridesharing. Get an iPhone DTO, and I’ll be able to give you a ride sometime when you need it.

  3. Becks December 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm #

    I know Max – it’s absurd how long BRT is taking, and we still have another 5-6 years before it’s fully implemented!

    I’d love to hear more about this “location-aware socially networked ridesharing.” And agreed, it’s time for DTO to upgrade his phone.

  4. Andy December 18, 2008 at 8:14 am #

    Many people that at “for” transit never use it, and even fewer have to rely on it.

    I think a better poll for overhead wire would be which transit projects over the last 10 years in the Bay Area were actually good. I can only think of 2:

    San Pablo Rapid (72R)
    Caltrain Baby Bullet

    Most others either delivered little bang for the buck, or worse lead to an overall depredation of existing transit, and only served to enrich contractors and engineering firms.

  5. Becks December 18, 2008 at 11:02 am #

    My sense is that most of the readers of the Overhead Wire use transit, though I guess I can’t be sure of that. I’m sure if you left a comment on the blog, the blog’s author would be happy to put together a poll like that.

    Andy – if you think the 72R was good, do you not think that the 1R was a good project? The 1R has completely changed my life. It’s the most traveled AC Transit line so I think it made complete economic sense to create a rapid bus on this route.

    Also, do you think the coordination of the all night buses between several transit agencies was a worthwhile project?

  6. Andy December 18, 2008 at 3:02 pm #

    Yes, I like the 1R project. Low (capital) cost to benefit ratio. I forgot about that one. I have not heard what this project did for the ridership on that line – do you know?

    I like the night bus coordination as well. Now, I will take BART to the city for a night out without worrying about getting home. Again, what was the impact on the ridership vs. the cost?

    I agree that people on Overhead Wire are probably users of transit. I was speaking of the broader “supporters” of transit. Those that feel it is a good thing – for others to use.

  7. Becks December 18, 2008 at 4:16 pm #

    I’m having a hard time figuring out how to determine the actual impact of the all night buses, since I’m not sure which previous lines to compare to. However, here is the ridership of the all night buses for 2007:

    Weeknight Passengers: 795
    Saturday Passengers: 1,282
    Sunday Passengers: 1,808

    The 1R has a similar comparison problem because the 40/40L line that preceded the 1/1R line was not the same exact route. Here’s the comparison though, and it’s pretty amazing:

    Daily Passengers per Line –

    2006 40/40L: 11, 241
    2007 1/1R: 21,554

    I can’t comment on cost effectiveness because I’m unsure how much each of these projects cost.

  8. Andy December 19, 2008 at 2:36 pm #

    The 72R project cost about $6M to construct – plus the cost of the buses, which is probably a big plus though I am not clear if this is really a cost, as buses might have been needed anyhow for the existing service.

    The $6M was not just for the transit priority infrastructure. It also included emergency vehicle priority, other traffic signal enhancements, and traffic monitoring improvements. Improvements were not limited to the 72R route, but also included work in Hayward, San Leandro, and Union City.

    If I recall, the 1R project had similar costs.

    Compare this to the costs of an interchange, light rail or BRT project, let alone heavy rail.

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