In November, San Francisco will welcome President Biden, heads of state from around the world, and a broad array of international business and community leaders to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit. The summit offers an opportunity to counter the media’s negative narratives of San Francisco and California by highlighting the Bay Area as the innovation capital of the world, the place where the future of medicine and health, artificial intelligence, and clean tech are charted. San Francisco plans to showcase its compassion and progressive values and its harnessing of resources to build an environmentally friendly and inclusive city.
Unfortunately, unless the state provides meaningful funds to support the Bay Area's largest transit agencies over the coming days, the world will arrive in a city with a transit system in freefall. Rather than being impressed by our climate leadership, the world will be shocked to discover California's climate hypocrisy. It will find that buses and trains aren’t taking people to work, school, or essential services.
Here's how we got into this mess and what we can do about it.
San Francisco has some of the country’s highest work-from-home rates, driven by a high concentration of tech office workers and long commutes. Street conditions downtown also do not help. While fares remain a fraction of pre-COVID levels, inflation has increased the costs of transit operations. California’s largest transit agencies, including Bay Area Rapid Transit, are more dependent on fare revenue than any other major transit system in the country.
BART, San Francisco Muni, and other systems in the region are facing a cumulative five-year deficit of more than $2 billion and are contemplating deep service cuts. Muni is thinking about cutting one bus line a month for 20 months. BART is considering running trains once per hour, shutting down in the early morning and evening, closing stations and lines, and stopping service on weekends.
Despite its projected budget deficit, California has the means to avoid massive transit service cuts. The state has almost $2 billion in excess federal transportation funding from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that it could use to support transit. It has even more funding to allocate from the state's signature polluter-pays Cap-and-Trade Program.
In addition to funding, the state has another means to address its transit woes: requiring transit operators to make common-sense improvements that would elevate the rider experience and attract riders back onto trains and buses. These improvements could include real-time information on the location of every transit vehicle, a transit pass that works for all Bay Area operators, and increased cleanliness and safety. In addition, the state could guarantee that the most frequent buses are given priority on our roads. This low-cost intervention would most dramatically increase ridership and reduce operating costs.
At a time when California appears willing to allow transit service cuts, cities across the Asia-Pacific region are making huge transit investments. This contrast will be especially evident to the leaders and media arriving in San Francisco for the APEC summit.
China has built more than 100 new subway lines over the past decade. Other Asian countries have also been investing massively in transit service. Manila, in the Philippines, is investing in several metro lines and is upgrading its bus services, taking a comprehensive approach that combines policy with infrastructure funding. Jakarta, in Indonesia, which was honored with the global Sustainable Transport Award for its integrated public transportation system, now boasts several mass transport systems, with rail and bus services connected at major terminals and interchange points. Bangkok, in Thailand, is improving its public transport with a large expansion of metro lines and enhanced integration of various public transport modes, including buses, metro rail systems, and ferry boats.
California's elected leaders should not need one more reason to avoid massive service cuts. But maybe the prospect of massive embarrassment on the global stage will provide it.
SPUR is a founding member of the Survive and Thrive coalition, a broad, pro-equity, civic, business, and environmental coalition that is fighting to save and improve public transit.