Oakland Commuters


The SJ Mercury News is running a series of articles on the sorry state of public transit in the Bay Area. In one part of the series the paper proposes that it’s almost as cheap and much more convenient to drive to work than to use public transportation. In the Sunday edition of the paper (which we read while spending the afternoon with my Aunt Chris and Uncle Kemp in their treehouse condo in Belmont) they use four example commutes to make their case. While I agree with the Merc’s general argument that public transportation in the Bay Area is too expensive, their proposed solution — drive — is moronic. They just aren’t looking at the problem with a fully informed perspective.

First off, their sample commute routes are not very realistic. I may have an antiquated perspective, but I suspect that more people commute from Oakland to San Francisco every day than commute from San Francisco to Oakland. The Merc uses the latter as an example of a SF/Oakland commute, and further confuses the issue by landing the eastbound, morning commute at a location where parking is free. An Oakland to downtown San Francisco morning commute may be more common, but it would disprove the the Mercury News’ thesis so apparently they decided not to consider it.

Our son Nate commutes to San Francisco every weekday. He catches a ride in a casual carpool each morning and walks a few blocks to his office. In the afternoon he rides BART home. Total time crossing the bridge in the AM? About 20 minutes plus 10 minutes to walk to work from the casual carpool drop-off point. (Casual carpools get to buzz through the toll plaza in special lanes that move pretty fast and they pay no toll.) Time for a driver and no passengers to cross the bridge during the morning commute in a car? Probably double that. When you get to downtown San Francisco, what do you do with your car? Parking is going to run about $20. Total cost for driving to work from Oakland to San Francisco? About $26 (not counting wear and tear on your vehicle). Cost for getting to SF by casual carpool? $0. Return trip, by car — let’s say $2 for gas, and if traffic is typical, it might take 45-50 minutes (including the time required to walk from the office and retrieve a car from the parking lot). Return trip on BART? $3.10, and if Nate catches the 5:34 train at the Embarcadero station he gets off at 19th Street in Oakland 12 minutes later. It takes 10 minutes to walk from his office to BART and 15 minutes to walk from the 19th Street station to the apartment, so total travel time is 40 about minutes.

So, to sum up, Nate’s commute by public transit and casual carpool takes a little over an hour and 10 minutes total for both directions at a total cost of $3.10. That same commute by private car would take a little over an hour and a half total for both directions (20 minutes longer) at a total cost of at least $28.

Admittedly, Nate is not paying to support the public transit companies in his morning commute, so to some extent the Merc’s larger story arc — that public transit is failing to attract necessary ridership — is valid. But the public response to the problem of falling ridership should not be a wholesale return to private cars. The question before us as a community is whether we value the quality of life that comes with useful, affordable, and efficient public transportation. If we do, there are ways to create financial incentives for using public transit. First off, we could charge much higher tolls for single drivers crossing the area’s bridges, and devote some of the additional revenue to subsidizing fares on public transit.

I’m not naive enough to believe that this will happen without a fight. Increasing tolls (like increasing the cost of parking) is unpopular with people who are committed to a car centric culture. But we are all supporting that car culture, whether we want to or not, when we fail to be proactive about using alternative transportation.

The Merc’s sidebar on the four sample commutes essentially proposes that faster is better when it comes to commuting. While I agree that time is a factor in determining the quality of one’s life and experiences, it’s short sighted to discount the value of time spent intentionally doing things for a higher purpose. You can breeze through the drive-through of a McDonald’s and order a Big Mac for dinner and have consumed a 540 calorie gut-buster in just a matter of minutes, washing it down with a soda. It takes much longer to prepare a nice meal at home, let’s say a piece of broiled, locally caught fish and a side of tossed baby greens from a local farmers market, accompanied by a glass of Sonoma County wine. Just the time spent sourcing the ingredients for that home cooked meal will take at least an hour. Prepping the food will take another 15 to twenty minutes. No one I know is going to argue that the McDonald’s meal is better than a home cooked meal, merely because you can get it and eat it quicker.

Things that are important often require some intentional trade-offs. Public transit may take longer than driving alone. It may not cost a lot less than driving alone, but it’s better for the environment, and time spent on a train or bus can be devoted to something other than avoiding accidents or raising one’s blood pressure. You can read, you can chat with friends, you can watch people. You can write. Weighed against the time spent in a car during rush hour, time spent on a train or bus can be extremely valuable. The Merc’s calculations fail to take these values into consideration.

Bonus Content:

Here are a couple of really fun historical films made in the late 1960s about the BART system. They’re long compared to the typical YouTube fare, but definitely worth watching. I’d recommend starting with the second film, “Along the Way,” it has a song and it’s a classic!

Tuesday January 12, 2010 — Mark —