Article Features Joshua W. Shaw

Why Funding Public Transit Is Critically Important

Joshua W. Shaw is executive director of the California Transit Association (CTA). He can be reached at For more information about CTA, visit .

Public transit vehicles carry millions of Californians, providing traffic congestion relief and vital access for residents. But state policy-makers are not investing adequately in public transit. Since FY 2001, they have shifted, loaned or just plain cut $2.94 billion in transit funding.

Observers of California often refer to the Golden State’s “love affair with the car.” But while California has more registered vehicles than any other state in the nation, on a per capita basis its residents drive about as many miles per year as the average American.

Nevertheless, California’s overreliance on the single-occupant vehicle for most work- and school-related trips means worsening congestion, especially in ur ban areas. Traffic congestion is increasing in American cities of all sizes, creating a $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel — that equates to 105 million weeks of vacation and 58 fully loaded supertankers. These are among the key findings of the Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI) 2007 Urban Mobility Report, which also notes that traffic congestion causes the average peak-period commuter to spend an extra 38 hours traveling and consume an additional 26 gallons of fuel per year. Worsening congestion is reflected in several ways: Trips take longer, and congestion affects more of the day, personal trips, weekend travel, freight shipments and rural areas. It’s also harder to accurately estimate travel times.

Where are the most notorious problem areas in California? Of the nearly 440 cities and urban areas measured nationwide, the mobility report ranked five California cities or travel corridors in or near the top 10 of the most congested places in the country, using three different measures of congestion (see Figure 1).

The TTI report identifies these solutions to the congestion problem that must be used together to be effective:

  • Getting as much service as possible from existing infrastructure;
  • Adding road and transit system capacity in critical corridors;
  • Relieving choke points;
  • Changing usage patterns;
  • Providing choices;
  • Diversifying development patterns; and
  • Keeping expectations realistic.

Public transportation is a vital component of several of these congestion relief strategies. Furthermore, enhanced public transit service helps lead the nation — and California — toward achieving other important goals and policies, including protecting the environment, conserving energy and providing for our residents’ health, safety and security.

With regard to California’s overall transportation system, public transit complements and supplements the national and state systems of highways, freeways and local streets and roads. It’s in the state’s vital interest to ensure that the overall system remains multimodal, balanced and interconnected.

California’s state and local policy-makers are urged to consider transit’s contri butions to the nation, the state and its residents’ collective quality of life. While automobile travel has been a favored form of transportation for the past 50 years or so — a trend that will likely continue into the near future — this is not the only alternative. People often choose transit in much higher percentages than one might expect in areas where well-funded, safe and efficient transit service is provided and particularly in the context of smart land-use planning that optimizes existing infrastructure and locates homes close to work, schools and other trip destinations.

Sorting Out the Statistics

Some people argue that only 3 to 5 per- cent of all trips are on transit, but that frequently cited statistic is misleading. Why? At many times of day and in many locations, driving is the only option for getting from one place to another. It’s meaningless to quote a “transit versus car” split for areas where transit isn’t avail able. Because many rural and suburban areas in California do not have access to sufficient transit, a more accurate way to assess whether Californians are choosing transit is to look at trips when transit is an option and is competitive with the automobile – both in time and convenience (referred to as transit-competitive trips).

In areas where transit is available, 22 to 40 percent of local residents use transit at least once a month and 14 percent of all Americans reported using transit at least once for some type of trip in the past month, according to the Omnibus Household Survey, U.S. Bureau of Transportation. In addition, many more people rely on transit for occasional trips that are not included in the commonly cited but misleading 3 to 5 percent figure.

For example, among all San Francisco Bay Area workers:

  • 10 percent use public transportation for their commute to work;
  • 51 percent of commuters from Alameda to San Francisco and 48 percent of commuters from Contra Costa to San Francisco ride transit for their commute; and,
  • Transit provides 30 percent of the weekday trips across the Bay Bridge.

In the six-county area comprising the jurisdiction of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), total transit boardings in FY 2005 in creased by 16 percent, from 617 million to a record high of 672 million. A recent SCAG report also notes that nationally, transit boardings increased at a faster rate than the population.

The same is true for California as a whole. As Figure 2 indicates, after recovering from labor strikes that crippled the Los Angeles transit systems a few years ago, transit ridership throughout Cali fornia is now increasing faster than the population growth rate, and faster than all vehicle miles traveled combined in California.

In Southern California, light rail rider ship achieved the highest increase in 2005 of 6 percent, followed by commuter rail (2.8 percent) and heavy rail (2.3 percent). In contrast, total highway travel in 2005 was estimated to remain about the same as in 2004. Finally, according to SCAG, between 2004 and 2005 transit boardings in the region increased at a much faster rate than the population growth.

Transit Reduces Congestion

In FY 2005-06, California’s public transit operators provided nearly 1.4 billion passenger trips. Consider how congested our roads are today and how much worse it would be if those trips were forced onto the road system.

Every year, public transit vehicles carry millions of Californians, providing con gestion relief in the urban core as well as mobility options and vital access for residents in suburban and rural areas:

  • The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority reports about 375 million passenger trips a year on its bus system, reflecting an average weekday boarding figure of more than 1 million;
  • On L.A. light rail, the figures are 32 million per year, and about 108,000 boards per average weekday;
  • L.A.’s Red Line heavy rail provides about 31.5 million passenger trips a year and 104,000 on an average weekday;
  • San Diego transit riders take 88 million trips annually;
  • Omnitrans, serving San Bernardino, provides 14.3 million passenger trips a year;
  • The Riverside Transit Agency carries more than 7 million passengers annually;
  • Long Beach Transit provides 27 million rides annually;
  • he Orange County Transportation Authority bus system provides about 66 million trips a year;
  • In San Jose, the bus system provides about 38.4 million trips a year;
  • San Francisco’s multimodal transit systems combine to provide trips to about 233 million passengers a year — about 737,000 on an average weekday;
  • The Yolo County Transit District reports about 1.3 million passenger trips a year; and
  • In Sacramento, 33.5 million trips per year are taken on the bus and light rail systems.

Improving Air Quality, Reducing Greenhouse Gases

These successful California transit sys tems provide more than congestion relief and mobility options for their citizens. A recent national study by the Science Applications International Corporation found that in 2005, public transportation reduced carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emissions nationwide by a net 6.9 million metric tons. If current public transportation riders were to use personal vehicles instead of transit, they would generate 16.2 million metric tons of CO 2 . Ac tual operation of public transit vehicles, however, resulted in 12.3 million metric tons of these emissions — a significant difference. Transit is a net reducer of CO 2 emissions.

In addition, transit’s contribution to decreased congestion saved 340 million gallons of gasoline, which reduced CO 2 emissions by another 3 million metric tons. An additional 400,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases were also avoided, including sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons. At the individual level, the study found that a solo commuter switching his or her commute to existing public transportation in a single day can reduce their CO 2 emissions by 20 pounds — more than 4,800 pounds in a year.

And California city officials are doing their part. For example, the City of Santa Monica’s Sustainable City Plan places high importance on its public transit system as a way to improve the environment. Santa Monica Transit ridership remains strong on the award-winning Big Blue Bus, which is 100 percent alternatively fueled. In 2007, the Big Blue Bus launched its environmentally friendly Mini Blue service designed to provide a way for locals and visitors to be car-free within the city. Stephanie Negriff, director of transit services, explains, “The whole concept of Mini Blue is to offer low cost, eco-friendly, small buses that run every 15 minutes to the places people want to visit the most: the pier, shopping districts, schools, libraries and beaches.” She adds, “Without such a great public transit system, our city just wouldn’t be as attractive to residents and visitors.”

Transit Versus Freeways

Some argue that the money spent on transit could be used to provide more freeway capacity to ease congestion and ensure a smoother and less stressful commute. But the numbers show that such a strategy is not practical.

For example, in San Diego, transit carries 18 percent of the trips into downtown, removing 35,000 cars from the road daily. Imagine how much freeway space would be needed to serve those cars if transit ser vice ceased. Rutgers University research shows that transporting 15,000 persons per hour on a freeway requires 167 feet of space, or about seven lanes per direction traveled. The similar figure for transit is 36 feet or one lane per direction for semi- rapid buses, or 24-26 feet or one track per direction for light or heavy rail transit. L.A. would need another 1,400 lane miles to handle the transit traffic, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge corridor would need a 50 percent increase in capac ity if the BART and AC Transit services were eliminated, because they carry about 38 percent of the trips in that corridor.

Where’s the Money?

California state policy-makers are not investing adequately in public transit. The FY 2007-08 state budget diverted nearly $1.3 billion from local and regional transit investments into programs his torically funded out of general revenues. Taking away that much in dedicated state transit funding equates to eliminating the funding entirely from the transit operations budgets in the counties of San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin, Monterey, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Yolo and Solano combined, as well as the entire budget of the Long Beach transit system.

This perpetuates a multi-year pattern of divestment in public transportation by state policy-makers. Since FY 2000-01, a total of $2.94 billion in transit funding has been shifted, loaned or just plain cut by various budget acts.

Moreover, the past year’s steep transit cuts break faith with California’s voters, who overwhelmingly enacted Proposition 1B in 2006. That infrastructure measure is supposed to provide $4 billion in newtransit capital investments. Pulling $1.3 billion in existing transit revenues out of the mix forces local transit agencies to radically slash planned projects, and forestalls the kinds of new transit expansion projects that could cut congestion, help clean the air and enhance residents’ quality of life.

As gasoline prices continue to soar, we urge all local government officials and their communities to join us in telling the Legislature and Governor Schwarzeneg ger, “Protect transit funding. Transit is the way to go!”

Transit Is Topic of Discussions in Sacramento

With a looming state budget deficit of $14 billion, the future of funding for transportation projects — including transit — is highly uncertain. While budget debates continue at the state Capitol, the League is engaged in discussions regarding long-term, predictable funding for transit agencies. In addition, the League’s 2008 strategic priorities recognize that investment in public transit is necessary to achieve the overarching goal of building sustainable communities. For more information about the strategic priorities, see page 4.

This article appears in the February 2008 issue of Western City
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