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Private commuter buses vs. Muni in San Francisco

written by andy on

In recent years, there is a debate between the role of private commuter buses (which includes shuttles, Google buses, and now a start up called Leap Transit). Many people support such concepts because it bring new options to commuters and reduce dependence on automobiles. Others are against it because it would somehow compete with Muni and result in a two tier transit system. Many are also concerned about it has impacted Muni because many of the private buses use Muni stops and at times delay Muni buses.

Private transit services, which I also happens to operate, is an important transportation element for large metropolitan areas. Also having served on SamTrans Citizens Advisory Committee for 9 years, I can see the differences between the public and private sectors and why many employers and riders are turning to the private sector as a way to get more transit.

Issues with the public sector (SamTrans, Caltrain, Muni, etc):

  • Lack of funding – This I think is top constraint for public agency from providing more service. Over the years, reduction in tax revenues have impacted transit and forced many agencies to reduce services. It would be difficult to justify new services to serve smaller commute markets (even if it could be sponsored by employers) if the agency is reducing basic service on key corridors.
  • Slow planning and implementation time – Even if funding is not an issue, agency policies often result in long lead time (at least 6 months) from initial planning to start of service. Because nearly all transit agencies receive funding from the federal government, they are subject to federal regulations. Transit agencies may have to conduct equity analysis and formal public hearings that do not apply to the private sector. Public agencies also must to proactively plan on details before implementation, whereas the private sector can just go ahead begin service and deal with issues as they arise.
  • Jurisdictional issue – For Google buses, they operate in three counties (San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara). If somehow a public agency were to take over the private service, then who should subsidize and operate it? The other public transit operation that spans three counties: Caltrain, is subsidized by the three counties under a complex formula. Caltrain service was threatened a few years ago because one of the agencies (SamTrans) had a budget issue and no longer want to subsidize Caltrain.Some people consider the Google buses to be competing with Caltrain, but I disagree. First, Caltrain is enjoying high ridership, and unless significant investment is made, Caltrain will have difficulty serving more riders. Second, Google buses provide point to point service from neighborhoods to employment sites. If these riders have to take Caltrain, they would have to take Muni (which it a commute by itself) from their homes to Caltrain, take Caltrain, and take a shuttle from the train station to their offices. I am sure that many will find the double transfer daunting and would rather drive instead.
  • Comfort and amenities – Public transit often score low on amenities and comfort. Because public transit also serve populations that can’t take care of themselves and care less about their environment, transit equipment are often design for easy cleaning and resistance to vandalism rather than passenger comfort. If someone has sufficient income and is willing to spend, they would want a service that can provide space and comfort.Because of slow planning and funding issues, public agencies often have difficulties in providing amenities. For example, while many private and public commuter buses now offers onboard wifi, Caltrain still does not have onboard wifi.

Some complain that private transit services in San Francisco result in a two-tier transportation system. I think we already have more than one tier for a long time, with private automobiles being the top tier. Over the decades, Muni’s speed, on time performance, frequency, and comfort has been declining. Even with plans and promises for improvements, many of them are stuck in the planning stage going nowhere. While some dissatisfied Muni riders turn to bicycles, many others turn to automobiles. Higher automobile ownership result in congestion and parking problems.

Since it is faster to start up an private express shuttle service than to lobby to remove a few unproductive bus stops along a Muni route, private sector could be the key to reduce automobile use and boost transit ridership. Because Muni isn’t making any profits on any of its line, if demand for Muni could be reduced on one part of the city, then Muni can redirect the subsidy to improve on another part of its system.