Wednesday, January 7, 2009

BART would be foolish to cut service

The news today is that BART is maybe thinking about planning to reduce service at night and on Sundays. Bad bad bad bad bad idea. according to the Comical Chronicle, the idea is to save a million bucks in response to the $8 million hole Schwarzenegger has put them in.

Come on, a lousy million? some quick math suggests they might want to look at potential savings other than cutting the already minimal service levels. The average BART fare is around $2.75, so $1 million is roughly 363,636 trips. That means if the service discourages people from making that many trips (or 181,818 round trips) the savings will be a wash. If you think that's unlikely, since 181,000 is a lot of people, remember that's around 3% of the 100million plus trips per year that BART handles. Coupled with rock-bottom gas prices and increases in the cost to park at a suburban BART lot, it's not unthinkable to lose that many choice riders over the course of the year.

In addition, it's an unnecessary burden on those of us who depend on BART and other public transit to move around the region.

To be clear, the BART directors are only the proximate villains here. The ultimate responsibility is on Schwarzenegger and Sacramento Republicans who have been strangling the flow of money to transit for years. BART has been asked to do more with less for some time now. But reducing service and raising fares (doing less for more, from the standpoint of riders) is not a real solution. It creates a positive feedback look of lower ridership, lower revenue, and more cuts down the road.

While looking up some info about BART ridership, I found this interesting analysis from last year. I don't think this guy has the complete answer, and I'm opposed to any change to the fare structure that benefits long-ride suburban and exurban commuters over the urban core of the system (which actually generates revenue). One gem to consider is that the BART director discussed in the post, Joel Keller, represents a district with only one station in it.

It's clear that the BART board ought to be restructured in some way to allow for proportional representation of the district constituents. Tom Radulovich, Carole Ward Allen and Lynette Sweet, who represent the core of the BART system with the majority of riders, hold a tiny minority on the 9-member board. So it comes at no surprise that the vast majority of capital investment goes to cost-negative expansions of the system to the far reaches of the region. BART to San Jose will cost $6 billion with a B, and maybe result in 100,000 new riders in 2030 (although this prediction is highly suspect). How many riders would join the system if that money was spent on an infill station at 30th and Mission or on an extension down Geary?

BART's constant budget pain is hurting the system in the long run, and it's being made worse by wrongheaded decisions to cut service and expand the system to lower-density regions.

And if you wonder why a blog about "pedestrianism" spends so much time bellyaching about transit, read this great piece by the Santa Rosa CityBus. The North Bay seems like an unlikely source for such transportation wisdom, but they really hit the nail on the head.

8 comments:

Peter said...

There are a few problems with the 'infill' argument, but mainly this -- every transportation organization in town wants BRT on Geary, not rail. That's hardly BART's fault.

Josh said...

I disagree completely that "every transportation organization in town wants BRT on Geary, not rail."

If that were the case then the Geary corridor study wouldn't have specifically included an analysis of "rail-ready" BRT.

I don't dispute that the plan being pursued right now is for BRT, but that plan falls short and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Peter said...

that's just disingenuous, Josh. find me an organization in town that opposes BRT. i made the statement -- you say I'm wrong, so prove me wrong.

as for whether or not the particular BRT implementation we're going to get is going to have rails put down, or chalk painted where theoretical rails might go, or an artist's rendering of some chalk painted where theoretical rails might go -- it's all hooey, and hardly worth talking about.

we can have rail or BRT -- that's it. there's no middle ground. there's no other option. it's absurd to speak as if there could be. it's never happened before and it's not about to start, now.

you either support BRT or your support rail (or neither) -- the 'rail-ready' nonsense is just more marketing hype. why anyone would convince themselves otherwise is really beyond me. honestly, i really have no idea why people have worked so hard, and to continue to do so, just to believe that BRT will not kill rail on Geary. it's fantasy, fraud, deceit, ignorance, stupidity, or some combination thereof.

Josh said...

I think you misunderstand my comment or the current Geary "plan" or both.

For one, Rescue Muni and SPUR both want rail on Geary.

To be for rail on Geary is not to be against BRT. I prefer BRT to the status quo, but I prefer rail to BRT.

Moreover, whether Muni runs rails on Geary or starts BRT service, BART could still run a tunnel below the street. There is plenty of traffic along that corridor for two tracks to handle, and the benefit of an easy connection to the East Bay will likely induce some new ridership demand.

I'm not sure why you sound so angry and I hope you're not :-)

But, respectfully, I don't think it's as black and white as LRT, BRT or nothing.

Peter said...

Rescue Muni and SPUR both support BRT on Geary - just read the links you sent. That is unequivocal support for BRT, period.

Further, to suggest that SPUR wants rail on Geary because they want rail on geary "after 2030" is the height of bullshit -- it's sickening bullshit, and SPUR supporters should call them on it. That's over 20 years from now that SPUR, that progressive, forward-looking institution, will finally see fit to allow working class people to ride the rails, too. So us non-car drivers will feel the wrath of The Great Traffic Sewer of San Francisco for the next fifty years.

To be for rail on Geary is to be against BRT on Geary, and vice-versa -- unless you want to live in fantasy-land, and there are plenty of people and organizations here in San Francisco, Cleveland, and all over America and the world who are, indeed, committed to fantasy.

It took me less than two weeks to figure out this BRT fraud stuff, but the best planners in San Francisco still think it's a great idea. They support BRT on Geary because they don't have to ride a bus -- they leave that to the lower classes.

As for rails running underground or in the air or anywhere else, that's all irrelevant -- all that matters is whether we support BRT on Geary instead of LRT - it actually is that simple.

My anger is basically off the charts. I'm tired of being terrorized by cars, and as long as we continue to keep people in their cars, I'm going to continue to be angry at all the people who continue to propagate the policies which keep me and my fellow non-drivers terrorized.

Josh said...

So... it sounds like you agree that "I don't dispute that the plan being pursued right now is for BRT, but that plan falls short and I'm not the only one who thinks so."

Great. The good news is that it's not a completely done deal. I'd encourage you to channel that anger into converting fence-sitters and policy-makers.

Lord knows I'm angry at being terrorized by cars every day too! I fully support running a streetcar on Gear AND a subway below. I do not want MTA to run BRT down geary at the expense of running rail. I hope that's perfectly clear.

Tom said...

Thanks for the post.

I was the BART director who pushed for 15-minute service on weekends and evenings a year and a half ago.

My feeling was that it is one more step forward in BART's evolution from souped-up commuter rail into a regional metro service. A rule of thumb in transit planning is that 10-15 minutes is the tolerable wait time for a vehicle to arrive; frequencies of 10 minutes or less are a 'turn up and go' service, while frequencies of 15 minutes or greater mean that riders will check the schedule.

I was told by our budget manager that weekend and evening ridership grew slightly faster than ridership as a whole since we instituted the 15 minute service.

As I understand it, the 15 minute service will continue until at least September of this year, because BART the BART board would have needed to act in the first week in January to change the schedule per our union contract, and we didn't act last week.

As far as Geary goes, the Transportation Authority is making a mistake in not studying rail along with BRT in the Geary corridor. Livable City asked that light rail be considered among the alternatives, but the TA stonewalled. This is not to say that BRT is wrong, but rather that the full range of alternatives should be explored – I would be just as unhappy with a study that came to the conclusion that rail was the answer without looking thoroughly at BRT (like the Oakland Airport Connector study).

3rd Street light rail soured a lot of San Franciscans on rail, and rightly so. 3rd Street light rail was hideously expensive, and is slow and low-capacity, running only single-car trains. Muni continues to use high-floor streetcars while other systems are converting to low-floor designs, and 3rd Street may turn out to be the last high-floor streetcar line built anywhere in the world.

Other cities are building light rail right. Portland, Toronto, Paris, Dallas; you name it, cities are actively expanding light rail where it makes sense to do so. Portland and Toronto have used low-cost, low-impact approaches to construction that reduce the time the street is torn up, and the cost per mile to construct.

If you design it right, rail has an operating cost, service quality, and capacity advantages over buses when ridership is high. The TA is only looking at initial capital cost, not future operating costs, rider benefit, or future capacity needs. At over 50,000 riders per day, Geary would be a candidate for rail in any other city; here, the TA refuses to even study it. Surface rail might work, or a combination of surface and downtown subway; both should be considered.

It's sad how backwards transportation planning in San Francisco can be.

Tom said...

As Josh mentioned, rail and BRT are not mutually exclusive. Even with BART underneath it, Mission Street carries tens of thousands of bus passengers, who deserve something like BRT running on the street.