Despite tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies and countless incentives, the percentage of Bay Area commuters taking mass transit hasn’t gone up a bit in more than two decades — in fact, it’s declined.
A new study by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission found that while ridership has hit record numbers on BART and Caltrain as the Bay Area’s population has grown, per capita usage of transit has dropped 14 percent since 1991.
In other words, despite all the BART extensions and the new light-rail and bus lines, the slice of the morning commuters jumping into their cars to go work has pretty much stayed the same since before Bill Clinton was president.
“It’s true — it’s as difficult as ever to entice people out of their cars,” said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the transportation commission. “But transit remains important to mobility in the Bay Area.”
According to the study, Bay Area residents took 1.35 million trips on public transit on a typical weekday in 2013. That’s up from the depths of the recession, but it is still significantly lower than peak ridership levels in 2001, when 1.45 million public transit trips were taken every day.
The “whys” behind the decline depend on whom you ask.
Susan Shaheen, with UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, points to everything from rising transit fares to the need to make transfers to people’s desire for “personal space.”
East Bay developer Jim Ghielmetti, who sits on the California Transportation Commission, says some of it is where we’ve built transit lines.
“The routes clearly don’t match where the jobs are going,” Ghielmetti said, pointing to the campus-style business centers on the Peninsula and the East Bay that are not linked to mass transit.
Another issue is the politics of mass-transit spending. Millions have been pointed at bike lanes and the Central Subway to San Francisco’s Chinatown, while heavily populated corridors such as Mission Street and Geary Boulevard remain bus-only afterthoughts.
One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that car use shows no sign of letting up.
“If you look over a long period of time, the cost of owning a car has actually dropped,” Rentschler said. “They are cheaper and more reliable than ever before.”
And that can’t always be said of a bus.
San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Matier can be seen on the KPIX TV morning and evening news. He can also be heard on KCBS radio Monday through Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call (415) 777-8815, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @matierandross