© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Are There So Many Transit Systems In The Bay Area?

Jonathan Hawkins
Flickr Creative Commons
A Salesforce Transit Center wayfinder directs riders to several of the Bay Area's transit operators.

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. Adam Incera recently visited San Francisco from New York and wanted to know: Why does the Bay Area have so many transit systems?

New York City is home to more than eight million people. They rely on one major public transit system, the MTA, to get around. Compare that to the Bay Area and things get a little more complicated. The Bay is home to just over seven million people across nine counties and more than two dozen different public transit systems

I head to Arielle Fleisher’s office South of Market. She’s the Transportation Director at SPUR, a research non-profit that promotes good governance and planning in the Bay Area. 

When I ask why there are so many transit systems, Arielle says, “the root root root cause is that California makes it very easy for local communities to create their own transit systems. And this is basically through the way transportation is funded.”

This wasn’t always the case. Public transit used to be funded solely through local bond measures. That’s how what-became-MUNI was started in 1912. The Alameda Contra Costa Transit District — better known as AC Transit — started service the same way in 1960.

And then came BART. By mid-century, the region had a growing congestion problem. It wasn’t about this town or that — it was all around the Bay. And that’s what inspired the rail line, one of the first to be funded with local, state and federal money.

So, for a time, there were just three large operators in the Bay Area. Then, in 1971, California enacted the Transportation Development Act or TDA. And that changed everything. 

Seamless Bay Area is a non-profit that advocates for a more integrated and unified transit system in the region. The organization’s Policy Director, Ian Griffiths agreed to meet and answer my transit questions. So what exactly is the TDA?

“The law called the Transportation Development Act or TDA was a quarter cent gas tax that became one of the primary sources of funding for transit and essentially said any part of the Bay Area can begin collecting this tax and create their own transit agency,” he said.

Now any municipality, no matter the size, could raise money for transit. Before long, the Bay was home to County Connection, Petaluma Transit, SamTrans, VTA, Tri Delta Transit, WestCat and so on. This created a patchwork of operators across the Bay. 

The problem with this patchwork is that the operators don’t work as one system.

What does this mean for most riders? In a word, frustration. Users face a complex mix of different fare structures, confusing schedules and maps that don’t match up. This is particularly challenging for new or non-regular riders. 

As Arielle points out, “it really presents a high barrier to transit use and the result is fewer trips taken by transit and also less trust that transit is a practical option.” 

Combine that with an average transit commute time that is almost twice as long as driving alone and it’s no surprise that more people are crowding onto roads. In fact, overall public transit ridership is declining.

What’s crazy is that there is an agency responsible for planning and coordinating transportation in the nine-county Bay Area. It’s the Metropolitan Transportation Commission or MTC. 

“In reality,” Ian says, “in its 50 years of existence, MTC has not been very successful at promoting very much coordination.”

So, there may be a regional vision but MTC has no real power to enforce a regional plan. Why? Well, that’s a long story. And a whole other Hey Area question. 

Precious has lived in and loved the Bay Area since 2012 when she moved from Atlanta, Georgia. Her reporting interests include the politics of race and gender and pop culture as a reflection of our changing cultural landscape. Prior to joining KALW, Precious worked with a variety of community development, social impact and economic equity focused organizations. Before moving to the Bay Area, she practiced law in her hometown.