Connecting the Bay — Seamlessly?

By Alexander Chen

This is a tale of two cities, or—to put in terms more lyrical to a demographer’s ears—two adjacent urban agglomerations. San Francisco, the iconic Golden Gate metropolis, and San Jose, the burgeoning hub of the Silicon Valley.

Separated by less than 50 miles of mostly flat shoreline, the two anchors of the Bay Area should (in theory) be incredibly well-connected. After all, in other multipolar metropolitan areas, this is the case. From Osaka to Kyoto in Japan’s Kansai region, a distance of 35 miles, a sleek Shinkasen takes 15 minutes and costs roughly $13. Likewise, to travel from Shanghai to Suzhou in southern China, $6 will cover a 62-mile journey that only takes 25-35 minutes by bullet train. In both cases, dedicated investment to ensure that sister metropoles are smoothly connected with one another has paid off with dividends. Suzhou’s manufacturing prowess is complemented by Shanghai’s role as a global financial hub and entrepôt. Similarly, the commerce-focused city of Osaka is made all the more prosperous by being only a matter of minutes away from Kyoto, a global leader in IT and electronics.

Nonetheless, one would find the trek between the two Bay Area sisters to be significantly more time-consuming and costly. A direct trip from the San Francisco Caltrain commuter rail station to San Jose proper takes at least 1 hour and 40 minutes and costs up to $12. Meanwhile, using BART, the other large public transport network in the Bay Area, from San Francisco to the newly-opened Berryessa station in northern San Jose will cost $8, take up to 1 hour and 20 minutes, and require a transfer.

The inconvenience of rapid transit between the two metropoles has not only made public transportation less viable; it has also caused difficulties with the only other alternative option: travel by automobile. Indeed, the Bay Area now ranks second-highest nationwide in regards to traffic congestion and delays, resulting in a significant decline in productivity and quality of life for Bay Area commuters. As the region continues to boom in both population and promise, it has become more and more evident that a seamless, modernized Bay Area public transport system is direly needed.

Numerous glaring inefficiencies exist in the current network that have made recent Caltrain and BART extension efforts some of the most costly in the world on a per mile basis. As KALW’s Crosscurrents puts it best, “New York City is home to more than eight million people. They rely on one major public transit system, the MTA, to get around…the Bay is home to just over seven million people across nine counties and more than two dozen different public transit systems.”

This proliferation of regional transit agencies that rarely coordinate effectively with one another— primarily caused by legislation that made it extremely simple for local municipalities of all sizes to start their own transit networks—has led to widely inconsistent fare schemes, frequent delays, and poor connection options. The “Balkanization” of these transit networks has also encouraged administrative bloat and stimulated ostensibly optimizing but ultimately pointless competition and cannibalization. Case in point, an intense “turf war” between BART and Caltrain in regards to service to SFO, the largest airport in the Bay Area, has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions in redundant construction efforts.

Fortunately, the recent dramatic plummet in public transit usage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may be just the wake-up call needed for true reforms to be made. In early May, BART announced an estimated $600 million budget deficit due to the public health crisis, while Caltrain predicted that it would suffer a $20 million shortfall. In response to these financial setbacks, a Transit Recovery Task Force was quickly commissioned later that same month by the MTC, an umbrella organization of Bay Area transit agencies that has historically exerted little authority over its members.

A unified Bay Area transit administration equipped with a centralized hierarchy of governance would be several orders of magnitude better prepared to handle emergencies such as COVID-19 that require decisive action, not to mention better equipped to modernize the regional transit system. These reforms will quickly pay off. Indeed, more robust public transit systems have been empirically proven to provide a variety of social and environmental benefits. For instance, they can often substantially improve mobility for individuals residing in marginalized low-income communities without regular access to automobile transport and allow them to access up to seven times the total amount of current job opportunities within an hour-long commute.

Furthermore, an integrated Bay Area system that can boast fewer redundancies, unnecessary delays, and required transfers may be able to entice commuters to live closer to their workplaces. This decreased automobile reliance would not only help dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also temper tech boom-fueled real estate demand that has disrupted urban communities by driving up prices and causing widespread gentrification.

The vision of a seamless Bay Area will definitely not be an easy goal to accomplish. With gridlock in Congress and a contemporary nationwide reluctance to invest in high-stakes infrastructure projects (despite the dilapidation of many of the country’s public transportation systems), funding from both local and federal sources will be difficult to attain.

Yet, this dream is not without historical precedent. In early 20th century New York City, a subway-building fervor resulted in the construction of multiple competing lines with fierce rivalries. Eventual efforts at consolidation proved successful several decades later, and the New York City Subway as we know it today is under a single transit authority.

It should be more than clear then that, as the Bay Area continues its quest to remain as the foremost hub of technological innovation worldwide, ease of travel should not be trivialized but rather made a top administrative priority. To remain relevant in the 21st century, the Bay Area has to drag its regional public transportation system from the 20th. It is about time to keep up with the times.