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Making transit more seamless

written by andy on

Recently SPUR, a regional planning think tank, issued a report in how to make the Bay Area Transit system more integrated and easier to use. The report identifies many deficiencies in the region’s transit in regards to fare and service coordinations. The report also makes numerous recommendations on removing the kinks and improve rider experience.

Does the Bay Area have too many transit agencies?

Many think that it is so, especially considering that in other transit rich regions there tends to be just one or a few transit agencies (Boston, Philadelphia, to name a few). On the other hand, the Bay Area is big and geographically diverse. The transit needs in suburban Livermore for instance are very different that in San Francisco. There are few if any advantages in cost or operational efficiencies for major agency consolidations. Furthermore, local politicians want local tax dollars to stay in the community, even though transit productivity may be far lower than if the same funding is used elsewhere.

In the course of the transit history in the Bay Area, there have been a wave of transit consolidations in the 60s and 70s (SamTrans for example was a consolidation of transit operated by the cities and private companies in San Mateo County). Decades later, when political leaders did not feel that existing agencies like SamTrans or BART were providing the service they’re looking for, new transit agencies or brands are created.

Actually there are more transit agencies in the Los Angeles region, despite the fact that LA Metro is the largest agency by far. Besides LA Metro, many cities maintain their own transit brand with their own territory (Santa Monica BBB, Long Beach Transit, Foothill Transit, AVTA). Foothill Transit was created in late 1980s to replace service in San Gabriel and Pomona valleys that was operated by LA Metro’s predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District. Foothill Transit supporters believed that SCRTD’s service was too expensive and didn’t provide enough service in the area.

Since the start of the great recession in 2008/2009, there are two transit agency consolidations (SolTrans, and San Francisco Bay Ferry). These two agencies consolidated services that were provided by the cities, and these agencies remain relatively small compared to larger agencies elsewhere in the region.

Should there be larger mergers, such as merger between BART and Caltrain, or between Muni and AC Transit? It is unlikely. The concern is that a merged agency could lose focus. For example, would a combined BART-Caltrain agency continues to prioritize Caltrain improvements or focus on more BART extension in the East Bay? Would a combined Muni-AC Transit agency pays as much attention to the needs in suburban Fremont?

Past history shows that a strong dedicated team is required to deliver successful transit projects. For example, the new Transbay Terminal (now under construction), was dead in the water until a dedicated agency TPJA was formed in 2001. Since then the agency was able to secured political support and funding. The reason for creating Water Emergency Transportation Authority (operating agency for SF Bay Ferry) is to ensure a staff is dedicated to plan and promote ferry transportation, and not be distracted from bus and rail responsibilities. On the other hand, the Dumbarton Rail project has gone nowhere because Caltrain, the lead agency for the project, has other priorities and lacks resources to build the political support in the East Bay to carry the project forward. As much as from a customer angle that there should be few agencies, political realities often demand it.

Transit consolidations however doesn’t have to be complete. Agencies can contract with another agency (such as Marin Transit) to share the same operating resource yet with their own budget and governance. This may be the best solution to meet the customer expectation of consistency and ease of use and the need to maintain independence.


Clipper card has the greatest potential to unify transit, but still leaves a lot to be desired. While I don’t know how Clipper back office system differs from other transit smart card systems, but we know that a transit smart card system can pretty much handle thousands of fare combinations, thousands of fare discounts, and thousands transfer discounts. While from a policy perspectives the fare system should be simpler but I think a fare card system should be capable to handle more complicated fares.

What I think Clipper should have besides what are recommended in the report:

  • Clipper logo should appear on the exterior of every transit vehicle that accepts it, just like businesses showing credit card logos. The Air District for example, mandates everything that the agency funds to have its logo shown (including privately owned big rigs that have their engines upgraded with Air District funds). This should be a no-brainer.
  • BART and Caltrain should consider abandoning their respective magnetic and plain paper tickets and use paper Clipper tickets. That way occasional riders can buy full fare at the first stop and be able to transfer between trains and buses without having to pay with cash again. For the last two years, LA Metro has required every rider to purchase their Clipper equivalent (TAP) in order to ride on its rail system, even just one ride. While I am not in favor of charging more for plastic for a likely one time use rider, a paper Clipper ticket used by Muni is a decent compromise.
  • Passengers be able to add values onto Clipper onboard the bus. Put a $20 bill at the farebox and the value is added to the card. This would be a great way to increase Clipper accessibility since retail locations are and will likely remain limited.
  • May be except certain passes, riders should not have to pre-buy any product other than putting money onto the card. All passes should be done on an accumulator basis and monthly fare can start any time of the month (rather than the first day of the month).
  • There should be a way to use Clipper to pay fares for multiple people. New ticket machines in the Hong Kong’s subway systems allow riders to buy regular fare card with their smart card. Some joke about what it seems to be a redundancy, but it allows for example a parent to buy a ticket for his or her child. A parent should, when they board the bus, tell the driver to charge for the parent and the child, and tag the Clipper card once with the proper fare deducted. This would make the card more family friendly.
  • Ideally Clipper should be a beyond-the-Bay-Area system like FasTrak. Some out the Bay Area transit agencies operate into some key transit hubs and the system should be done in a way that there can be some limited if not total adoption by outside agencies.  Other transit smart card system have far larger geographical coverage. Given the state is pursuing high speed rail, unification of or compatibility with various transit smart card systems in California can provide seamless transit across the state. Taiwan already has a single smart card system for local transit on the island as well as high speed rail.