How to Repurpose Bay Area Freeways for Fast and Reliable Regional Public Transit

Imagine a Bay Area where your school, your job and your friend in the next county are no more than 30 minutes away via convenient, reliable and enjoyable buses zipping along uncongested freeway express lanes throughout the day. In this future, a fast, reliable and coordinated regional express bus network operating on a system of freeway express lanes connects transportation hubs throughout the region and beyond. The network delivers high-quality regional transit options to portions of the Bay Area that have historically been underserved, connects new destinations along corridors that already have some regional transit, and provides an alternative where existing regional rail has been filled to capacity. Meanwhile, this fast and sustainable transit option reduces solo driving, improves air quality and helps the region meet its greenhouse gas emissions-reduction targets.

This vision is not just desirable, it’s essential to delivering on our region’s transportation goals. To achieve more equitable mobility and reduced greenhouse gas emissions across the Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) seeks to reduce automobile use and expand the share of trips taken on transit. Over the next 30 years, MTC’s regional transportation plan is striving for a nearly 65% increase in the share of jobs that are accessible by a 45-minute transit ride, and aims to increase the share of commute trips made using transit to 20% from only 12% in 2018. Meeting these targets will require higher quality regional transit access for more residents. SPUR’s new report Freeways of the Future proposes a regional bus strategy to help achieve these ambitious goals – namely, leveraging our vast existing freeway infrastructure to deliver fast and reliable express bus service throughout the region.

The Bay Area already has extensive high-occupancy vehicle lanes and express lanes, and MTC has developed an ambitious plan for expanding that system throughout the region. The region also has express buses, but they are not operated as a coordinated network — nor are they supported with infrastructure that allows for fast and reliable travel, such as continuous express lanes with direct access ramps and bus stations that are easy to enter and exit. There are, however, promising sub-regional examples of express bus coordination. For decades, Golden Gate Transit has worked to deliver a coordinated bus network connecting North Bay cities to San Francisco and East Bay BART, though their buses remain mired in freeway traffic. And the Contra Costa Transportation Authority is leading a coordinated express bus effort along the I-680 corridor called Innovate 680. These efforts demonstrate the strong potential for more coordinated action. A bold vision of what a coordinated Bay Area network could look like was recently detailed by TransForm in their Regional Express (ReX) Transit Network report.

SPUR’s report does not detail specific routes or stations, but rather proposes planning, institutional reforms, infrastructure coordination and policies to convert existing freeways into a central part of the region’s equity and climate solutions. The report further argues that reforming freeway infrastructure to achieve reliable regional express bus service will also create a flexible freeway network that can support a wide range of future transportation technologies and changing commute patterns. And the sooner we can develop a vision for this express bus network, the better we can coordinate ongoing freeway rehabilitation projects and express lane plans to efficiently deliver the express bus infrastructure for this new layer of regional transit.  

This regional bus network will serve as a complement to a coordinated regional rail network rather than replacing it. Regional express buses can serve areas that regional rail cannot reach, serve communities along regional rail routes that are too far from rail stations, and provide alternatives to rail segments that are overcapacity or lack appropriate redundancy.

Transportation leaders will face obstacles in working to coordinate regional express bus services and deliver the comprehensive express lane network that is essential for reliable service. Challenges include the following:

  • Developing freeway express lanes will require converting some existing traffic lanes, which has been politically challenging in the past.
  • Fragmented authority for both express lanes and regional bus operation threatens efforts to deliver efficient and coordinated regional services.
  • Delays in delivering express lane projects, sometimes due to slow and complex approval processes, hamper the region’s ability to create an efficient express bus network.
  • Express bus services attract disproportionately white and higher income riders. Ensuring equitable access will require explicit service design and pricing strategies to serve more diverse communities.

SPUR recommends six broad actions, detailed in this report, to support the development and implementation of a coordinated regional express bus vision:

  1. Establish a “conversion first” policy. The system of express lanes required to support fast and reliable express bus service should be developed primarily through conversion of existing freeway lanes. This will be faster and more affordable than building new lanes and will help meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.
  2. Accelerate three regional express bus pilot routes within the next five years to begin the iterative learning process that will be part of bringing this regional network to life. Initial pilots should focus on existing express bus services and corridors where express lanes, HOV lanes and transit priority lanes can be linked to provide continuous uncongested routes.
  3. Seek legislative and administrative policy changes to expedite implementation of express lanes, including state authorization to convert general-purpose traffic lanes to express lanes, and greater flexibility in Caltrans guidelines to accommodate express bus infrastructure such as stations and direct access ramps.
  4. Rationalize governance for regional express lane management and for assigning and coordinating express bus-operating responsibilities among the region’s transit agencies.
  5. Develop a comprehensive regional express bus network plan that establishes an integrated express bus network, performance metrics and a process to coordinate and prioritize rehabilitation of existing freeways to incorporate express bus infrastructure.
  6. Establish equity targets and design the network and operations plans around those targets so that a growing regional express bus network delivers service fairly, particularly for those who have not been well served by regional buses in the past.

Coordinated express bus planning cannot begin soon enough. While this report was in development, SPUR and TransForm were working with MTC on three initial regional express bus routes that will be incorporated into Plan Bay Area 2050, the region’s draft 30-year regional transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy. MTC is currently working on an implementation plan for the regional transportation plan, delineating near-term actions to advance the plan’s strategies. This implementation plan should include concrete commitments to advancing a regional express bus network, including a timeline for developing a comprehensive regional express bus network plan. This is a process that can bring together the diverse voices that must be part of building this vision together.

Read the report