A Pilot Project Will Explore How to Make Transit Easier for Riders in California

Conference in Davis begins process of exploring what it will take to make transit "seamless" for riders

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Among the recent allocations of transportation funds from the gas tax, S.B. 1, was money for a pilot project to integrate transit services in California. Three regional transit agencies—Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin Regional Transit District, and Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN)—will team up with seven as-yet-undecided connecting transit agencies to work on creating a “seamless” experience for transit riders.

The pilot program was included within an $80 million grant made to the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which is the responsible agency on the pilot program. In total, $27 million will be available to fund the five-year pilot that can offer lessons and practices that can be expanded to the rest of the state.

The notion of a “seamless” transit trip—wherein a transit rider can effortlessly travel across regional boundaries among different transit agencies and using various modes—is a vision that has long eluded California. But it is becoming a reality in other places, with various levels of success, and there’s no reason it can’t happen here.

At least, there is no technological reason it can’t happen. That was a big take-away from the California Integrated Travel Conference convened by the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) this week, which set out to jump start the pilot. The technology exists to make riding transit as simple and easy as driving a car—or maybe easier—and it is being used in Europe and elsewhere.

Another take-away was that, in places that have been finding ways to integrate ticketing or scheduling—or just make it easier to figure out and ride transit—ridership has increased, bucking the U.S. trend of declining numbers of transit riders. And in some cases agencies have been able to increase revenue as well.

Most of these changes have happened in the last five to ten years, in Hong Kong, Sweden, Norway, and London, among others.

Riders already know what is wrong with transit in California. Anyone who has tried to plan a regional point-to-point trip, even with the increasing usefulness of trip planners like Google Maps, has had the experience of throwing up their hands in defeat. It always looks easier—and faster and cheaper—to take a car. But that’s not necessarily the case—and it doesn’t have to look that way.

At the conference, representatives from Transport for London, Norway, and Sweden talked about their transit systems’ increasingly sophisticated use of ticketless transit payment systems and coordinated schedules. The message was that those systems faced many difficult obstacles, but with commitment found a way around them, and are succeeding—and that California can do the same.

Transportation Camp--wherein participants propose session topics-- followed the conference to help flesh out ideas. Photo by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
Transportation Camp–wherein participants propose session topics– followed the conference to help flesh out some of the ideas discussed. Photo by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

California’s challenges are many. The state has hundreds of transit agencies but there is no overseeing agency that sets rules. Even Caltrans, which is responsible for doling out federal and state transit moneys, has only recently formulated a Statewide Transit Strategic Plan, and even then the state has struggled to figure out its role vis-a-vis transit.

Public transit in California also has a mandate to serve everyone, unlike private companies that can pick and choose, and market to, specific customers. That brings other challenges that not every place has had to face—in Sweden, for example, smart phones are ubiquitous, so payment systems using smart phones are useful to most riders. In California, however, transit agencies have to be able to serve people who don’t have phones, credit cards, or bank accounts.

These are not insurmountable difficulties. As presenters repeated, these are simply technological questions. And coming up with a solution to them should be “agnostic” anyway, as pointed out by Jonathan Donovan of Masabi, a private company that develops transit apps. “We don’t even know what platform people will be using five or ten years from now.”

A big question at the conference was about the role of the state. Should it just pass out funding? Should it have a governing role, or a guiding role? Should it function as an information clearinghouse, or should it handle data and create specific information standards for sharing among agencies?

The question was not answered, because figuring it out will be one of the functions of the forthcoming pilot program. Whether the five-year pilot is successful, and even if not—a mantra at the conference was “fail fast” so as to learn quickly from mistakes—what lessons it learns will be useful and expandable to other agencies and groups of agencies throughout the state.

“This is a dialogue,” said Chad Edison of CalSTA, who is helping lead the effort. “There are many different directions the project can go. It could be about fare integration, or service integration, or data sharing, or all of that. The question for us is, what can be addressed now?”

The pressure is immense. Ridership is dropping, congestion is increasing, and while California is investing more money in transit—hurray!—it is also investing in making it easier and faster to get around by private car.

Transit agencies know they need to change, and that it won’t be easy. Jennifer Bergener of LOSSAN described a “tribal” mindset among transit agencies that slows down collaboration. Carsten Puls of DB Engineering, who has worked on German transit systems and on California High Speed Rail, commented on the “greatly increased ridership” that came with fare and service integration in Germany. “It’s about a mindset,” he said. “Transit agencies have to understand that integration is not going to cannibalize their services—instead it will help them grow.”

_caltrans media list
Some of the ideas floated for Transportation Camp sessions immediately following the conference. Photo by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Jesse Waas of TriMet in Portland offered an interesting example of how objections can be overcome. That agency created a fare system somewhat similar to one in London that automatically chooses the least expensive fare, adjusting it as riders use the system throughout the day. The result has been that riders don’t have to spend any time figuring out whether to invest in a day pass, a weekly pass, or a single fare—making the decision process moot.

The result has also been increased ridership. While an agency might believe that offering every rider the cheapest fare possible would cost them money, the fact is that they end up making more money simply because the entire process is less irritating to riders.

“Customers do not want to be confronted with the complexity of transit systems,” said Waas, “and we have the technology to isolate them from it.” Uber and Lyft have been highly successful in part because they recognize—and have been able to capitalize on—the importance of convenience.

CalSTA’s Edison said that while there is definitely a need to develop common standards and consistency among agencies, “this is not about getting rid of competition—it’s about opening up possibilities and offering help.”

What form all this will take in California will become more clear as the pilot program takes shape.

“This is an opportunity for California to learn from other systems,” said Edison, “and to leapfrog to the state of the art.”

Many of the transit systems that have successfully adopted better integrated systems went through a process of evolution to get there, he added. “We expect an evolution throughout the state as well.”

  • Claude

    The valley floor between Compton and Bakersfield has a marginally higher population density than France, although the population is actually concentrated along the 99 corridor, so the density where the people are is actually even higher.

  • LazyReader

    Seattles Light rail has increased 6.5% since last year. It’s commuter rail has grown by a mesely 0.5%. But this growth wasn’t enough to make up for the decline in bus
    ridership, so overall ridership fell by 0.5 percent. Ridership in
    Houston, the other major region sometimes considered to be an exception,
    fell by 2.9%.
    Contrary to claims that only buses are losing and rail is at least
    holding its own, all major modes of transit lost riders in March. Buses
    lost 6.3%; light rail 5.7%; heavy rail 5.3%; and commuter rail 3.3%.
    Despite recent openings of several streetcar lines, streetcars lost 14.2
    percent and lines that the FTA classifies as “hybrid rail,” including
    rail lines in Austin, Portland, and a few other cities, lost 11.6%.
    Even gasoline, which is 10% more expensive than last year had no effect on automotive use. And the decline continues. Nationwide transit ridership in January 2018
    was 2.5 percent less than in January 2017, according to the latest National Transit Database numbers posted by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
    Ride sharing services have obliterated transit effectiveness.
    With declining ridership, growing costs, and increasing competition, the
    nation’s transit industry is on the verge of inevitable collapse. The
    trends leading to this collapse appear to be permanent, yet transit
    officials across the country are pretending they are only temporary.
    Instead of preparing for the collapse, they are simply seeking more
    subsidies.

  • Joe Brant

    Ridership has also stayed steady or gone up in Seattle, Phoenix and Houston.

  • Edward

    On the other hand, when given a choice between rail and bus the public chooses rail. More comfortable, free WiFi, faster. And don’t denigrate Canada just because it is smaller. Toronto has more population than Chicago.

    This is like those who say that high speed rail will never work in the US because our population density is lower than Europe. Nobody is planning to go transcontinental with HSR. Chuck out everything east of the Sierras and half way across the plains. What is left has about the same density as Europe and lots of population.

  • LazyReader

    Canada only has three cities with more than 1 million people, Toronto,
    Ottawa and Montreal (with a combined daily ridership of 2.6 million;The US has ten. Canada has 11 cities with more than half a million
    people, the US has 44. Canada only has 53 cities with 100,000 or more
    people in it, The US has over 300. It’s apples to oranges. Saying that
    transit is growing in Just three Canada cities is saying a mole is
    getting bigger. The only reason transit is up in Canada is gas is more
    expensive, it’s average is $2.80 in the US, Canada gas is $4.60, I have
    friends in Michigan, who remark of Canadian US-Canada commuters who
    only fill up on the US side even with bridge tolls; they bring the jugs.
    Granted Canada’s transit systems are in a better shape than ours,
    that’ll change sooner or later. Rail infrastructure on average has a 30
    year life expectancy. Once the track hit’s 30 years old you either have
    to replace it or painstakingly refurbish it. Another reason Canada is
    transit friendly is because it’s growth unfriendly because of growth
    management laws. Vancouver has been practicing growth-management
    planning at least since 1966; surprise they have some of the least
    affordable housing in the nation. But those that don’t live in
    cities….i.e. most of Canadians, when ride sharing services grow,
    transit ridership will decline. Ride-sharing services: have eaten away
    at nearly half of all new transit riders Maybe these three cities it
    will grow as needed.

    But ride sharing providers have all but eaten away
    at transits market share. Even urban millennial’s, the most car hating
    group of tattooed, starbucks loving hipsters, have basically swarmed
    ride hailing services. This is why it is important to begin now to plan
    the transition from publicly subsidized transit and massive urban rail
    projects in cities without the population to a small scale or privatize transit and offer subsidies to the people that need it rather than the agencies directly who have nothing but incentive to chase expensive projects. Demand
    oriented or privatized transit services. This means the industry should
    stop building new rail lines; replace most existing rail lines with
    buses as they wear out; pay down debts and unfunded obligations if any;
    and target any further subsidies to low-income people rather than
    continue a futile crusade trying to attract higher-income people out of
    their cars. 70% of Canada’s electricity is carbon free
    (hydroelectric/nuclear) so an electric car Carpool or urban ridesharing
    service would do really well there.

  • Joe Brant

    Declining transit ridership is purely a US phenomenon. It’s not happening in Canada, which is geographically and culturally similar to us. It’s not happening in the few US cities like Seattle that are investing wisely in transit. If you provide useful transit services, people will ride it.

  • LazyReader

    Google “casual carpool” or go to http://sfcasualcarpool.com/routes
    for an example of this system. My understanding is that this web site
    is entirely run by volunteers. Note in particular the “etiquette” page with the informal rules that have naturally developed with this system. After initially trying to shut this system down to try to force
    riders to take public transit it now appears that the metropolitan
    transport commission for the bay area is beginning to realize this is a
    viable transit option. It should be encourage and see how it develops.

    Taking ques from public opinion is good. But reality is transit ridership is declining
    almost everywhere in the United States, partly because there are
    increasing alternatives to transit that are more convenient, including increased auto ownership and ride sharing. Mainly because they’ve put off repairing their current stock The Journal of Public Transportation has devoted a whole issue to the future of transit, as if to reassure the industry that it has one. Government employee unions are freaking out about the upcoming Janus v.
    AFSCME case ruling in the US Supreme Court. The predicted ruling
    against the union will severely reduce union cash which will lead to a
    reduction in graft. Without the cash, politicians will no longer have
    an incentive to fund government collective transit boondoggles.

  • The pressure is immense. Ridership is dropping, congestion is increasing, and while California is investing more money in transit—hurray!—it is also investing in making it easier and faster to get around by private car.

    This issue can’t be given enough consideration. As long as agencies are simultaneously undercutting transit as they make investments into it, usage is going to stagnate. Stop spending money making it easier to drive in the exact same corridors where the goal is to make transit more useful and instead, use the money for transit. Or better yet, just don’t use it at all and we all get to enjoy lower taxes.

  • p_chazz

    This is good news. I remember the days of referring back and forth to and from paper schedules to plan a trip using several public transit agencies and making sure that I had the exact fare for each transit agency to put in the farebox. The Clipper Card, 511.org and the Internet have greatly streamlined that process. Glad to hear that transit providers will be taking the next step. A good idea would be to make it possible to tag onto the Capitol Corridor with your Clipper Card.

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