Basics: Public Transit “Integration” or “Seamlessness”

When you hear the word integration or seamlessness in conversations about transit, it usually means making it easy to make trips that involve multiple public transit agencies or operating companies.  (In the US we are generally talking about entangled government agencies, but in countries where private operators control patches of the network, the issue is the same.)

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been one of North America’s most difficult integration challenges, so it’s a good laboratory for exploring the issue.  If you can get transit integration right in the Bay Area, you can probably do it anywhere.  The Bay Area’s particular challenge is that it has no recognized central city.  Instead, it’s named after an obstacle, the Bay, and its geography of bays and hills provides natural psychological divides.  Wherever you live in the Bay Area, most of the Bay Area is “across the water” or “over the hills” from you, and this matters enormously to how people perceive issues as local or regional.  (Los Angeles, mostly a city of vast continuous basins, could not be more opposite.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 11.31.30 AM

The San Francisco Bay Area, with county lines


Fig1-WholeBayArea BS2_REV3_040915

Map of Bay Area transit agencies (SPUR, “Seamless Transit” 2015)

The key types of seam are:

  1. Fare barriers, where a trip involving two agencies requires paying both agencies’ fares, and sometimes also keeping track of two kinds of ticket or pass.
  2. Information barriers, such as the lack of a clear map.  (In many regions, the only regionwide map, if it exists, is more like a diagram of turf.  It’s designed to clarify what agency controls what rather than help people understand their travel options.)  Other information barriers include information systems that don’t describe how to use other agencies’ networks to complete common trips.
  3. Service Design Barriers, where a route ends at an agency boundary even though almost everyone on the bus is trying to go further.

A typical old regional transit diagram, showing areas of turf but no sense of what service might be useful (no indication of frequency, for example).  (MTC)

For decades, it’s been easy to propose that some grand merger of agencies would solve problems of integration, but the obvious problem was you would have to merge the whole Bay Area into one transit authority serving almost 8 million people, in a region around 100 miles long.  That population would mean little citizen access to the leadership, while the huge area would mean that people planning your bus routes may be working in an office 50 miles away.  It just doesn’t work when the sense of  citizenship is as understandably decentralized as it is in the Bay Area.

What’s more, if you value transit-intensive core cities, places like San Francisco and Oakland, or if you want your city to be more like those places, you have an especially strong reason to want local control.  These places need more transit than the whole region wants on average, so they will struggle to get adequate service from a regional transit agency, whose decisions will tend to converge on the average regional opinion.

Many North American regions are seeing conflict around this issue, and are evolving a fascinating range of solutions.  Many of these solutions involve additional funding from the cities that want more transit than the regional average.

Some core cities are proud to have their own city-controlled transit systems separate from what regional agencies do (San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago).  Some pay their regional transit agency for a higher level of service in the core city (Seattle, Salt Lake City).  Some run their own transit systems overlaid, often messily and confusingly, on the regional one (Washington DC).   Many more core cities are going to face this issue soon, especially if regional politics continue to polarize on urban-exurban lines.

Apart from the issue of urban-exurban differences in the need for transit, there are also real challenges when a single transit agency becomes enormous, especially if it provides local service over a vast geographic area.  Los Angeles is a great example.   As an undergraduate in the 1980s, living in the region, I marveled at what I assumed to be the stupid chaos of provincialism.  The region had a big transit agency, which has evolved into what we now call LA Metro, but many cities within the region ran their own transit systems, which were tangled up in each other, and with the regional agency, in complex ways.  As an undergraduate, I assumed that progress would mean merging all this into one giant agency that could provide the same product everywhere.

And yet: in those days, everyone hated the regional agency, but loved their city ones.  And there were good reasons for that that weren’t anyone’s fault, and still aren’t today.  You could get your city’s transit manager on the phone, but not the regional one.  Small city governments can fix a bus route and put up a new bus shelter in the time it would take the regional agency to organize the right series of meetings.  Again, nobody’s at fault there; these are natural consequences of smallness and bigness — in corporations as well as in governments.

Which is why, even in Los Angeles, the trend is not toward mergers.  Today, many city systems in the county are doing excellent work at their local scale.  LA Metro has improved massively as well, of course, but its costs are still high; more important, it’s still very big and therefore inevitably feels distant to many people — again, not the fault of the folks working there.

Meanwhile, a clearer negotiated boundary between regional and city functions is slowly starting to emerge.  One idea, for example, is that a key role of city systems is to run services that don’t meet regional standards for ridership, but that the locals feel to be important.  The division of labor among agencies is not what anyone would design from scratch.  But great work has been done over the years to build clearer relationships, or what I will call, later in this post, “good fences.”

City-operated transit is growing more popular in North American for another excellent reason:  Most of transit’s ability to succeed is already controlled by city government: specifically the functions of land use planning and street design.  If a city government feels in control of its transit, it is more likely to exercise those other functions in ways that support transit rather than undermine it.  San Francisco’s recent decision to combine traffic and parking functions with transit under one city agency shows a new way of thinking about the need to get this right, but it would be impossible if San Francisco relied on a big regional agency for its transit service.  Whenever someone proposes to turn a city transit system over to a consolidated regional agency, I have to point out that integrating in one dimension (between geographically adjacent services) means disintegrating in another (between key functions of city government.)

So there’s no simple answer.  City control creates a nasty patchwork of geographic integration problems across adjacent cities in a region.  The big regional agency has a different integration problem, which is with the land use and street design functions of municipal governments that don’t control their transit and therefore have trouble caring about it.  Whichever thing you integrate, you’re disintegrating the other.

What’s the answer?  It’s for each region to feel its way through the inevitable tensions to its own solution.  But I’d propose we start old fashioned idea made famous by a Robert Frost poem:

Good fences make good neighbors.

Neighbors have an easier time being friendly if they have a very clear agreement about where their boundary is.  Collaborating with your neighbor to mark the boundary, and fence it if need be, is a peacemaking gesture.  This is as true of neighboring landowners as it is of nations.  And it’s certainly true of transit agencies.

What does it mean to have a clear sense of boundary?

It’s not just that both sides agree where the boundary is.  It’s also that it’s easy for both sides to live with the boundary, and work across it as need be.  For nations, it’s much easier to manage a boundary that runs across a natural barrier, so that the natural boundary reinforces the agreed boundary — the Rio Grande River between the US and Mexico, say, or the Great Lakes along the US-Canada border.  The worst possible national boundary is something like the 49th parallel, the US-Canada border in western North America, an arbitrary line that runs perpendicular to most mountains and valleys.  Only the extreme friendship and cultural affinity between the two countries makes this boundary workable.

All that is true of transit agencies as well.  Let’s talk first about local networks, and then, separately, about the relationship between networks of different scales.

Boundaries between Adjacent Local Transit Agencies

A bank of hills or a water body means that there are limited points of access across the boundary, called chokepoints, and this in turn means people are used to going out of their way to cross that point.  That means, in turn, that a well-placed transit connection point adjacent to the bridge or pass is an easy place for transit agencies on the two sides to converge.

On the other hand, a boundary that runs across a flat expanse of urban area, so that many people are literally across the street from the other side, is a problematic transit boundary.  In this case there is decentralized demand in all directions crossing the boundary at many points.  This makes it harder to bring both agencies to a shared focal point for connections between the agencies.  It also means there are lots of relatively short trips flowing over the border, and these benefit from a continuous network of service rather than an interrupted one.  As in many US states, California transit agency boundaries tend to default to county lines, and where these create that problem, it’s a mess for transit.

Some of this wisdom is already encoded in the boundaries of the East Bay agency AC Transit.  Near the Bay, the border between Alameda and Contra Costa counties cuts across dense urban fabric, so it would be an awful place for a transit network to end from the point of view of either side.


Fig1-WholeBayArea BS2_REV3_040915_0

Regional transit map, with boundary between Alameda and Contra Costa Counties highlighted red. Note that AC Transit extends across boundary next to the bay (SPUR report)

Recognizing this, AC Transit was constructed to unite the two sides of the county line where the urban fabric was continuous, while dividing from other agencies along natural hill and water boundaries, even where the latter are not county lines.  This is an important example for many US regions where counties are the default planning units, and arbitrary boundaries drawn in the 19th century (or before) risk turning into walls that sever transit access.

For AC Transit, the “good fences” solution was to put the border in a place that worked well for both sides — worked well for transit customers, that is, not for anyone’s desire for turf or empire.  That tends to mean looking for the natural chokepoint and putting the boundary there.

This observation also helps to clarify the city transit option.  Even in big urban areas, some cities have a geography that makes it easy for much of the transit to be city-controlled, typically because of natural chokepoints along the edges that help isolate the city-scale network from the regional one.  On the other hand, if the city boundary is logically pierced by long, straight local transit corridors that logically function both within the city and beyond it, a municipal network is less viable.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 12.59.36 PMBurbank, California is a good example of a city where most main streets are parts of much longer logical lines running deep into adjacent cities, so its city limits would make especially poor transit boundaries.  Burbank therefore profits from its reliance on LA Metro, which runs long, continuous lines across city boundaries many of them converging on Burbank’s downtown.  The regional network is also, logically, the local one.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 1.00.05 PMNearby Pasadena (considered together with Altadena) has good geography for a larger city role.  It has hill barriers on three sides — only the east edge is really continuous with other dense urban fabric — so fewer of its internal corridors necessarily flow into other cities.  (Areas whose density is so low that they might as well be wilderness as far as transit is concerned — San Marino in this case — count as natural barriers to some degree.)  Another important feature is that Pasadena has a frequent regional rapid transit line running through, so its local lines don’t need to extend far out of the city to make regional connections.

So Pasadena could run most of its local transit system if it wanted to, because a logical network would consist mostly of internal routes.  Burbank could not, because most of its local service is logically provided by routes that continue beyond the city limits.

Do not quote me saying that Pasadena’s transit should be more local.  I am not saying anything about what the regional-local balance should be in these cases, but merely observing how the geography makes the opportunities larger or smaller.  One value of Pasadena being served by the regional agency, for example, is that it can eventually be part of a larger high-frequency grid, with all the liberty that brings.

Local – Regional Transit Boundaries

All that is about what happens between local networks.  But another “good fence” can be a clear division of labor between local and regional services.   Regional services that are designed as rapid transit (widely spaced stations for fast operation between them, relying on local transit connections to get closer to most destinations) do not need to be the same agency as the local service meeting them; in fact, this can be a very clean “fence.”  Obviously you have to work on the specific problems of integration: information, fares, etc., just as adjacent local agencies do.  But there’s little need to merge or change boundaries in these situations.

There will always be seams in a transit journey, just as there will always be the need to make connections.  The conversation should not be about how to get rid of seams but how to put them in the right places, so that they work for both sides, and how to manage them so that travelers can flow through them easily.

Another way of thinking about the geographic issues I’ve been laying out here is that if you require a connection to continue your trip, there should be a rich payoff in terms of destinations you can reach.  The same is true for any hassles created by seams.  It’s like planes: it’s a drag to change planes, and especially to change between airlines, but it’s kind of cool, while you are changing planes, to look at the departure board and think about all the other places you could also get to via this connection.  What’s more, all those connections are crucial to making your flights viable for the airline, even if you don’t use them.

The logic of connections is the logic of good seams in general.  They happen in places where it already makes sense for transit services to be discontinuous — either because of a natural boundary or because of a clear division of labor between regional and local service.  Those “good fences”, once found, can make for happy neighboring transit authorities, which will find it easy to work together for the sake of the customer’s liberty.

Sure, let’s regionalize the right things: fare media, information systems.  (An often-neglected one is service change dates, so that timed connections between agencies don’t get broken because the agencies change their schedules at different times.)  Some mergers may make sense, such as between BART and Caltrain to create a regional rapid transit agency.

Big transit agencies and little ones are both excellent things.  The trick is to get the fence right.


UPDATE: For a book-length academic analysis reaching a similar view, see Donald Chisholm: Coordination without Hierarchy.  1992, UC Press.  H/t David King.

29 Responses to Basics: Public Transit “Integration” or “Seamlessness”

  1. P August 3, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

    How does this square with the Australian cases, where State Governments run PT?
    Huge areas come under single authority such as Public Transport Victoria (City of Melbourne + State of Victoria), Metro (Hobart + Tasmania), and TransLink (Brisbane + State of Queensland).
    In any case, the inter-regional rail system is probably best done at a state or regional agency as it passes through multiple regions.
    Also – why is Caltrain so infrequent? Huge density available there, but the service levels seem terrible!

  2. Jarrett August 3, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

    In the US, I often say “Imagine how much more responsive your city’s transit system would be if it were run by the STATE department of transportation.” That’s basically the Australian situation. Australia, like the Britain of a few decades ago, is just deeply hostile to the whole notion of local government. I suspect this will change only in response to what’s now happening in Britain, a new push toward devolution that includes demands of many cities for the kind of autonomy that London has had, in various forms, for most of its history.
    However, there’s the further problem of inherited operator turfs from the days of radical privatization. Most Aussie states now claim to be in the business of creating “seamless” regional transit systems — huge progress from a decade ago — but many are still highly deferential to the powerful private operating companies. In theory, these companies are the state’s customer, and compete for the right to run the networks in certain territories, but well-designed and robust competition remains the exception rather than the rule.

  3. Alon Levy August 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm #

    You have been closely involved with Translink, which is a regional agency, and which, despite the recent mess with Compass and the faregates, is well-run. Why do you think regionalism works in Vancouver whereas you would not prescribe it elsewhere?
    Now, I can think of several differences:
    – Metro Vancouver is small.
    – Metro Vancouver has no internal geographical barriers, unless you count Burrard Inlet, where about 92% of the region’s population is on the same side.
    – Canada lacks the US socioeconomic divide between cities and suburbs. (But then again, this divide is quite weak in the Bay Area.)
    Or is it something else entirely?

  4. Jarrett August 3, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    Metro Vancouver has the regional structures but that doesn’t mean it has regional harmony, as the recent transit referendum proved. The same city-suburb wars play out fiercely there, and while I think there’s support for a regional agency there’s zero consensus on how it should be governed, except that almost everybody hates how it works now.
    The Fraser River (which has very few crossings) also seems to present a big psychological divide, with the more suburban and less affluent “South of Fraser” readily identifying itself as neglected in all kinds of ways. For example, a recent expansion to a freeway bridge over the Fraser was fiercely supported by cities south of the Fraser and fiercely opposed by all the cities north. The Province is now proposing another similar project and the politics will likely polarize the same way.
    Vancouver is also in a physical position rather like San Francisco’s, more in a corner of the region than in the middle of it.

    • GlenBikes September 13, 2017 at 3:31 pm #

      TransLink also has the difference that they are more than just transit. They are also responsible for major road network and bridges as well as regional cycling. Is that unique in North America still? When I lived in BC it seemed that this was one reason that TransLink seemed to do better than most other metro regions at addressing the problem of moving people rather than the problems of moving buses, moving trains, moving cars, moving bicycles, etc.

      As jarrett pointed out the referendum shows that the provincial government can still completely throw a wrench into the works and as Alon mentions, TransLink itself can still completely make a mess out of fare cards, but overall it seems like TransLink is an argument for consolidation where this blog seems to take as fact that this is a bad idea.

  5. Morgan Wick August 3, 2015 at 6:06 pm #

    Seattle theoretically distinguishes between long-distance regional transit (Sound Transit) and local transit provided by the county agencies. But in King and to a lesser degree Snohomish counties, which routes are run by which agency tend to be determined almost arbitrarily and more by which agency is more able or willing to pay for it than anything else. (I don’t know whether it helps or hurts that ST outsources operations to the county agencies.) There’s one frequent corridor that consists of an interlining of a Metro and a Sound Transit route.
    Right now I’m living on the LA Westside, where most transit service is divided between Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and Culver CityBus, with a few Metro routes sprinkled in for good measure. The Westside has a fairly continuous urban fabric that makes any division between agencies necessarily arbitrary, with both agencies serving a good chunk of the City of Los Angeles and Big Blue Bus running multiple routes that never enter the city of Santa Monica or even anywhere west of the 405 (and sending a number of its routes to the UCLA campus), and it seems like integration on all but the most basic of issues is more of a myth than anything else. Coming from Seattle I’m used to how that area’s agencies take care to avoid having similar route numbers run by different agencies in the same place, but LA’s municipal agencies pretty much number their routes in accordance with their own needs and with no consideration with how they interact with other agencies, making things like this possible.
    This, I suspect, is also reflected in the networks themselves; besides serving UCLA a lot BBB sends a lot of its routes to downtown Santa Monica, while elsewhere in the region most of Long Beach Transit’s routes originate at the Transit Mall in that city’s downtown. The result is a series of networks that make sense for each individual agency but which can clash with the grid Metro runs you’ve praised so much in the past, which Metro mostly stays out of the way of more than actually integrating. (Nor do I see much integration between municipal agencies. Some of Santa Monica’s plans for integrating with the coming Expo light rail line seem to me to partly or mostly duplicate Culver City service or at least have implications for their network, but I’m not sure Culver City is planning any changes to their network at all.) You’ve said in the past that a proper appreciation of LA’s bus network needs to include the municipal agencies, but I’m not sure the municipal agencies themselves have more than a dim understanding of their place in a larger network. Maybe there’s more integration than my superficial experience with the system suggests, I don’t know.
    (The municipal agencies are also not entirely free of problems resulting from their comparative lack of resources; despite being one of the bigger municipal agencies in the region, BBB only recently joined TAP and the NextBus real-time info system.)

  6. calwatch August 3, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    Morgan, most of the issues in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and other areas are due to historical issues which have not been able to overcome inertia. There are instances where inertia was overcome – National City Transit, in the San Diego area, was forcibly dissolved by the Metropolitan Transit System and its National City-centric routes folded into the regional system. But such instances are rare.
    Competing agencies running routes that offer the exact same service over long stretches are extremely wasteful. Foothill Transit and Metro competed along the El Monte Busway for years but only recently have they begun to jointly honor fare media where they share. This has allowed Metro to stop adding so many peak hour trippers to serve the major El Monte Station hub, where during the peak hour buses usually leave with 55-60 passengers, high for an express freeway route.
    The problem in many areas, such as Los Angeles, is the lack of interregional service along major corridors. Whittier Boulevard, a major corridor in southeast Los Angeles County, used to be served by two bus lines – the local 18 and an express 470 that got on the Pomona Freeway about halfway along the corridor. It has now been chopped up into four separate agencies (Metro, Montebello, Foothill, Orange County), none of which coordinate with each other (which is necessary with hourly headways on some of the segments) and breaks regional transportation patterns. The Bay Area is lucky in that its geographic lines correspond to places where there are hills or areas of low density, and most regional corridors are served by BART or Caltrain (the one glaring gap being the I-680 corridor from Concord to Fremont, although more all day service could be used on the San Mateo and Dumbarton bridges given the population on both sides). Los Angeles needs a more robust express bus network to supplement the poorly performing Metrolink train system, and the artificial lines in southern Los Angeles County and the westside are more relevant.

  7. Dexter Wong August 4, 2015 at 12:42 am #

    As a San Francisco native, I view the problem as each county views transit as its responsibility so anything outside its area not covered by BART (or Caltrain) is not their problem. Back in the 1960s, there were few transit agencies, just Muni, AC Transit, San Jose City Lines, Greyhound local service, Southern Pacific commute service and a number of small local transit agencies that only served their communities. Greyhound wanted to be out of the commute business, so they sold off pieces of their business to the counties in the 1970s(Marin/Sonoma service to Golden Gate Transit, San Mateo County local service to San Mateo County Transit or Samtrans, BART took over service to Concord). San Jose City Lines was bought out by Santa Clara County Transit (later Valley Transit Authority). SP then sold their commute service to the Joint Powers Board (Muni, Samtrans, Santa Clara County Transit). BART was set up as a multi-county transit agency to provide service between member counties. When BART reached central Contra Costa County (Orinda, Concord, Walnut Creek), those cities wanted local bus service, which AC Transit then provided from its bases by the bay. Those new customers disliked how the service was run and told AC Transit that they would provide their own bus service (Central Contra Costa Transit or County Connection). Similarly, cities north of Richmond also disliked their AC Transit service so they formed WestCAT (Western Contra costa Area Transit). Eastern Contra Costa County also founded their own transit agency, Tri-Delta Transit, to serve Pittsburgh, Antioch, Oakley and Brentwood (as well as connect with BART). That is how Contra Costa County ended up with four transit agencies rather than just one. In Napa and Solano Conties, as Greyhound service shrank, the local communities (or counties) took over local transit and commute service. That’s how you have Vines (Napa County Transit), Vallejo Transit, Fairfield- Susuin Transit (FAST) and Rio Vista Delta Breeze.

  8. Europe August 4, 2015 at 3:23 am #

    There is no reson to reinventing the wheel. Germany has had a solution for decades. They call it Verkehrsverbund.

  9. Joseph E August 4, 2015 at 3:46 am #

    Let me google that for you, “Europe”:
    Verkehrsverbund = Transport Association.
    “A [Verkehrsverbund] is a legal and organizational merger of authorities for joint and coordinated implementation of public transport (PT). Basic objectives are:
    1) Unified fare system [Tarif]
    2) Uniform Ticket type
    3) Coordinated timetables
    4) Uniform timetable information
    5) Connection reliability between all transport companies.”
    (Edited translation)
    I believe Germany may have separate transport companies in one metropolitan area, but because operations and payment are integrated, the system works for transit riders like it is 1 unified system.

  10. Joseph E August 4, 2015 at 3:54 am #

    In Los Angeles, one might hope for Metro to take over more routes, but over time it has actually be giving more local routes over to municipal transit systems. This is logical due to Metro’s very high cost of operations. I believe they spend more than $120 per hour to operate one bus, 25% to 30% more than the local municipal systems. Negotiations with unions might lower this cost some, but it is politically easier to move bus routes to municipal operators to cut the cost.
    In the Bay Area, Muni (San Francisco) has the highest costs for bus operations, even higher than those of Los Angeles Metro. BART also has high salaries, but with long trains and relatively few stations the capital expenses are much more important than salaries or other daily operating costs. If the whole San Francisco area could agree on ways to integrate fares, tickets and schedules then it would not be such a problem to have a large number of separate systems.

  11. Marc August 4, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    Europe, exactly!
    This post reminds me a bit of Jane Jacobs’ discussion on government hierarchy towards the end of Death and Life. She talked about planners’ efforts to consolidate the “government crazy quilts” of that era into “regional governments” and warned against such simplistic consolidation, calling instead for what today we’d call “subsidiarity”: the understanding that governments at every scale are necessary (contrary to today’s polar fetishes for making government either hyper-local or hyper-regional/national/global) and the consequent *delegation* of duties to the appropriate levels of government.
    So I really liked this post, because it touched on this subsidiarity wrt transit, and as Europe noted, Germany has already accomplished this by using a “skeleton” to delegate various transit tasks to different levels of government, and to unify them to boot! You’d think that, given the goals in our founding documents, the US would be very good at this by now (and admittedly in some areas we are!) but when it comes to transit, development, planning, and infrastructure, and the legal/regulatory matters associated with each, we really lag the “verkehrsverbund” or even the refined transit-parking-zoning coordination of Japan.
    Meanwhile in the US we still think pushing transit management to one extreme will fix something. For example, people in Baltimore think the woes of the MTA are attributable to its state-run status resulting in its – purportedly – distant, statewide focus, and so they call for something like SEPTA as a replacement. Meanwhile, people in Philly think the woes of the metro-run SEPTA are attributable to its Philly-centric focus, resulting in lackluster access to important outlying areas, and so they call for some kind of grand, state-run replacement. It’s actually kind of funny!
    As noted in the post, San Fran’s recent “horizontal integration” of traffic, parking, and transit might prove a useful lesson on delegation and coordination.

  12. Skbarz August 4, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    Great post – I completely agree that geography matters to the institutional framework of transit provision. And I can say that we chose not to focus on mergers in the Seamless Transit report because the politics of mergers distracts from focusing on the real issues of user-friendly service provision, which (I believe) are distinct from the institutional foundation. After all Amazon provides a user-friendly, potentially “seamless” customer experience without out needing to merge with or acquire thousands of other merchants.
    Regarding the institutional make-up of transit agencies, I’m curious about one point in the post: “If you want more transit in your community than your urban region wants on average, you are going to struggle to get that from your regional transit agency, because its decisions will naturally tend to converge on the average regional opinion.”
    Doesn’t the success of Transport for London inherently counter that point? Or do you think that TfL is the exception that proves the rule?
    To the commenter who asked about Caltrain service: according to Caltrain staff I interviewed for Seamless Transit, Caltrain can not run anymore service during the peak hour, or they would compromise safety standards. The diesel trains take longer than electric trains to start and stop, which means they can’t run anymore on the line.
    I think the natural follow-up question then, is why is off-peak service so crappy? And, I opine that this weakness stems from transportation planners’ bias to peak-hour service planning and Caltrain not pricing service right.

  13. Jarrett August 4, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    London has an extremely strong collective identity, and it has long provided very, very intense service to its dense 19th century (and older) core, far in excess of what any US city has with the possible exception of Manhattan. So in London’s political world, there is wide support, including in Central London, for focusing transit growth on the outer area (within Greater London). These are tied up with issues of affordability — they are the last places any normal person can hope to afford to live — and they are the only places where growth could happen.
    But all this is in the context of Greater London, which is ALL relatively dense by US standards. It’s as though you were just talking about SF, downtown Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley. Lower densities that prevail over much of US metros barely exist in Greater London; where they exist at all, they are in the adjacent shires with their own transit regimes.
    My point about the problem of the core city is very much a North American problem, because of the vastness of the typically low density area in a US metro.
    As for Caltrain, yes, the problem is all-day frequency, not peak. And that’s a function of some mix of (a) lack of political focus on the all-day transit issue and (b) the high unit cost of the train service, which makes it harder to justify at lower levels of demand. The other problem is that Caltrain and local bus frequencies must be thought about together.
    But I was beating this drum 30 years ago when I was at Stanford. Things are slightly improved but the same fundamental problem persists.

  14. kclo3 August 4, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    the transit divide in Philadelphia is not at all Philly-centric and can be better characterized in terms of the MTA: the suburban representatives on the SEPTA Board hold disproportionately more say over the budget than the city reps given the city’s larger population than any single county and more transit-dependent residents. Any perceived lack of decent suburban service can be countered with 1) a proportionally equal lack of decent service in outer city neighborhoods, 2) a significant amount of new capital funding going towards Regional Rail SOGR initiatives (overwhelmingly favoring suburban/reverse commuters), 3) a pitifully small percentage of SEPTA funding sourced from the metro area, so nothing like LA Measure R or a taxable transit district. The only real difference between Philly and Baltimore lies in that SEPTA’s city and suburban bus ops are nominally separate divisions, with unique fare tariffs, given their historically separate transit companies. The primary artificial fare barrier is the horrendous $1 transfer fee, incentivizing inefficient trips affecting both city and suburban riders.
    The issue also lies in planning. For decades, regional politicians and city councilmembers have been entirely apathetic to the paralyzed state of transit; the headline plans they feign interest in like BSL to Navy Yard and NHSL to KOP are mostly subservient to singular special interests. There does not exist a meaningful 3rd party citizen organization to articulate and actualize comprehensive goals and visions, like NYC’s RPA or Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance or even Baltimore’s Red Line PAC. The DVRPC MPO is similarly weak-minded and only minimally coordinates with the city; citizen participation is practically nonexistent. Jarrett’s network design course is finally coming to Philadelphia, and hopefully it will open the eyes of our disappointing officials.

  15. Jonobate August 4, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    I don’t agree with your argument that lots of transit agencies is okay providing the boundaries are logical. (Apologies in advance for the lengthy comment.)
    A bank of hills or a water body means that there are limited points of access across the boundary, called chokepoints, and this in turn means people are used to going out of their way to cross that point. That means, in turn, that a well-placed transit connection point adjacent to the bridge or pass is an easy place for transit agencies on the two sides to converge.
    An obvious example of such a chokepoint is the Golden Gate Bridge. You have a local agency on either side of the bridge (Marin Transit and Muni), so you might imagine them ‘converging’ at that point; but that would imply that a journey between Marin and San Francisco would require a forced transfer at the bridge. That would be an unnecessary inconvenience, which is why we have a regional transit agency (Golden Gate Transit) that provides continuous express service between three counties, without an awkward forced transfer at the bridge or any other chokepoint.
    That’s great, but the problem is that Golden Gate Transit duplicates routes served by Muni as it passes through San Francisco; yet it discourages people from using the bus for local trips within SF the city by limiting boardings and offboardings within the city, charging a very high fare ($4.75) that does not provide a transfer to Muni, and not accepting Muni passes. You often see understandably irate tourists who purchased a Muni Day Pass trying to use them to get to/from the Golden Gate Bridge, and being told that they need to pay another $4.75.
    Once Van Ness BRT is installed the situation will become even worse as we’ll have two Muni routes and six Golden Gate Transit routes using the Van Ness BRT corridor; yet the Golden Gate Transit buses will allow boarding only when traveling northbound, and allow offboarding only when traveling southbound. For Van Ness BRT to be a success Golden Gate Transit and Muni will need to have the same branding, fare system, and pickup/dropoff policy; so either they need to merge, or have a high level of coordination forced upon them them by a regional body such as the MTC.
    These considerations apply to any place where regional transit and local transit serve the same corridor. The other obvious example in the Bay Area is BART, which duplicates local AC Transit and Muni services in the East Bay and San Francisco respectively, yet provides very limited integration with the local agencies. Very often you see tourists trying to use BART tickets in the Muni Metro faregates, because in almost all cities the subway system is run by a single agency, and the idea of having a single subway station with two lines that requires a different ticket depending on which line you take would be ridiculous to visitors from other countries.
    Another way of thinking about the geographic issues I’ve been laying out here is that if you require a connection to continue your trip, there should be a rich payoff in terms of destinations you can reach. The same is true for any hassles created by seams. It’s like planes: it’s a drag to change planes, and especially to change between airlines, but it’s kind of cool, while you are changing planes, to look at the departure planes and think about all the other places you could also get to via this connection. What’s more, all those connections are crucial to making your flights viable for the airline, even if you don’t use them.
    That doesn’t make any sense in the context of the SF/Marin interface at the Golden Gate Bridge, as the vast majority of people crossing the bridge on Golden Gate Transit are heading to the Financial District. The only Muni option you have at the Golden Gate Bridge is the 28, which will take you to the Marina or down 19th Ave; hardly a sparkling array of transit options. There is simply no benefit in forcing passengers to transfer at such a location.
    A better way to think about it is taking a short-haul local flight to a major hub, from where you can catch a long distance flight to a major destination. For example, you might fly from Fresno to SFO and then on to New York. The transit analogy here is taking a local bus from your house to a rail station (the ‘major hub’), and then a train on to the major destination (e.g. the Financial District.) Which begs the question, if that is a journey that many people do on the daily basis (and it is), why not have the bus and rail service run by the same agency? You wouldn’t want to have a connecting flight on a different airline, and neither should you want to have a connecting transit service run by a different transit agency.
    Some of this wisdom is already encoded in the boundaries of the East Bay agency AC Transit. Near the Bay, the border between Alameda and Contra Costa counties cuts across dense urban fabric, so it would be an awful place for a transit network to end from the point of view of either side. Recognizing this, AC Transit was constructed to unite the two sides of the county line where the urban fabric was continuous, while dividing from other agencies along natural hill and water boundaries, even where the latter are not county lines. This is an important example for many US regions where counties are the default planning units, and arbitrary boundaries drawn in the 19th century (or before) risk turning into walls that sever transit access.
    Although it’s a good thing that the county line was not used as a transit boundary in this instance, it’s got nothing to do with ‘wisdom’ on the part of the transit agency. Rather it’s a reflection of the service area of the old Key System, which as a private system had no reason to follow county boundaries. There are in fact four AC Transit boundaries which are either questionable or completely ludicrous: the boundary with WestCAT at San Pablo/Pinole, the two borders with Union City Transit at Hayward/Union City and Union City/Fremont, and the border with VTA at Fremont/Milpitas. So clearly the wisdom of not using the county line as a boundary did not extend to the rest of the service area.
    The northern border with WestCAT is problematic because it creates a minor transit agency that serves just two small towns that are similar in character to neighboring towns that AC Transit does serve, so it would make more sense to merge WestCAT into AC Transit. The three borders with transit agencies to the south result in two transit islands – Union City and Fremont/Newark – which have no continuity with the main AC Transit service area to the north, or the VTA service area to the south. Additionally, both Union City Transit and AC Transit in Fremont/Newark are low productivity because most commuters in these cities head south to San Jose/Silicon Valley rather than north to San Francisco, yet because they do not share a transit agency with San Jose/Silicon Valley, there is no good way to get there on transit. The logical solution here is to merge Union City Transit and AC Transit in Fremont/Newark with VTA, reducing three borders to one and eliminating two transit islands.
    My two cents: I would group the existing services into the following two transit agencies:
    Bay Area Transit =
    + BART
    + AC Transit as far south as Hayward
    + WestCAT
    + SamTrans as far south as the city of San Mateo
    + Golden Gate Transit & Ferries
    + SF Bay Ferry
    Silicon Valley Transit =
    + Union City Transit
    + AC Transit in Fremont and Newark
    + SamTrans as far north as Belmont
    + Dumbarton Express
    This organization is a reflection of the fact that the Bay Area is essentially two metro areas close together, one centered around San Francisco, and once centered around San Jose; and that although some people do commute between the two metro areas, the vast majority do not. It also somewhat reduces with the political issues that would occur when centralizing transit in the Bay Area. San Jose would not accept a transit agency run from San Francisco, and visa versa; so a division between the two metro centers is made, and is made as cleanly as possible based on existing commute patterns.

  16. Bjorn Swenson August 4, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

    A solution to the ‘forced transfer at the county boundary’ may be for one firm to contract for services provided by another firm. Budget autonomy is retained while the customer receives an improved service. My understanding is that York Region Transit north of Toronto purchases route extensions from the Toronto Transit Commission, which permits customers a one-seat ride on a TTC bus from the YRT service area to the TTC service area.

  17. Andre Lot August 4, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

    You can have common fare mediums (likely a smartcard, possibly augmented by a smartphone app or other near-field communication device) without having to merge all entities. The challenge is to devise terms for monitoring passengers and dividing revenue accordingly.
    Many people refer to the Verkehrsverbund, but there have been some problems with the concept recently, namely in terms of regional transportation authorities wanting to prioritize regional/local uses for the railway network, which results in either a degradation of long-distance services, or the need for very expensive projects that separate rail traffic.

  18. Marc August 4, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Kclo3, you’re quite right. I wasn’t arguing that these two example cities were *actually* so different (SEPTA metro-focused, MTA state-focused), but merely that many people I’ve met, wrongly or rightly, *perceive* them to be when they wish for something different.
    I’m just amused at how often I’ve heard people who are frustrated with SEPTA call for a higher-up, state-run agency (presumably so it could better wrestle with the pols in Harrisburg) at the same time as I’ve heard people just an hour south on the train who are frustrated with MTA call for a more “local” or “regional” org to replace the state-run MTA! So two constituencies are suffering from the same transit deficiencies regardless of their agencies being regionally/metro or state-managed.

  19. Wanderer August 5, 2015 at 11:03 am #

    Interesting piece, interesting thread.
    The Bay Area has three central cities–San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The downtowns of each make sense as transit hubs, especially for local bus service. And regional planning wants to make them more so. So, in addition to topography, there is a logic to three systems that focus on those three downtowns, though they of course serve other places. As major local transit operators, there’s Muni in San Francisco, AC Transit in Oakland, and VTA in San Jose. So there’s rationality to a service “seam” somewhere between San Jose and Oakland.
    Also, BART is being extended from Fremont to San Jose, so that seam will eventually become less important.
    The more local governments a transit agency has to deal with, the more complicated things get. So sometimes the county line is the best (or “the least worst”) place to draw a line. This is similar to the point Jarrett made about the value of integration between city governments and city transit agencies.
    A transit planner friend of mine who’s lived in both LA and here argued that the local/regional roles are better defined in LA. Somebody said the “Munis” (municipal bus lines) in LA defeat the LA Metro system, I think they are intended to (and actually do) supplement and support it.
    The idea of Caltrans running Bay Area transit is really scary.

  20. P August 6, 2015 at 1:35 am #

    Well I think this is rather interesting, because if you look at TransLink South East Queensland, Australia, it is doing exactly what this article is making a point against. This covers all sorts of low-density areas, and entire different cities and regions that are hundreds of kilometres apart and have totally separate identities.
    “Working in partnership with 19 primary delivery partners, other government agencies and key stakeholders, TransLink’s main purpose was to lead, plan and provide mass transit services across an area of approximately 10 000 square kilometres through a multi-modal network comprising train, bus and ferry services.”
    “From August 2012, TransLink transitioned into the Department of Transport and Main Roads as TransLink Division responsible for the delivery of passenger transport services across the whole of Queensland.
    TransLink services operate in the Greater Brisbane (including Ipswich), Sunshine and Gold Coast regions as well as Cairns.
    Within South East Queensland, TransLink Division operates across 23 zones and 7 regions. The network stretches from Gympie in the north to Coolangatta in the south and west to Helidon.
    In the north, TransLink Division manages the Cairns bus network which stretches from Palm Cove in the north, south to Gordonvale and west to Redlynch as well as incorporating Cairns City and the surrounding suburbs.”
    The South East Queensland area, for example, is approximately 230 km North to South. It has a single ticket (GoCard) and single pricing system. Local regions can increase their own service and pay more for more service if they want to (i.e. Brisbane City Council does this, provides around ca 25% subsidy).
    Service area map:
    Our service area

  21. Keenplanner August 6, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    I was at the SPUR lunch forum where Ms. Amin presented her loose wish for coordination of the 20+ Bay Area transit agencies. After watching her presentation listing the problems presented by having all these un-coordinated political “fiefdoms” running autonomous agencies with little or no regard to the protocols or schedules of the next town’s transit, it quickly became apparent that the Bay Area needs to have one consolidated transit agency with the power to unify routes, make payments consistent, minimize transfers, and address shifting Bay Area Job Centers.
    This could be an oversight agency that allowed each city to continue to operate local services, or, better and cheaper, give control over to an agency which could address gaps in transit, deduce the fastest and most efficient routes, collect appropriate payment across all modes of transit, and make sure funding is equitably distributed and produced the highest benefits for the most transit riders for the financial investment. This is not precedent-setting. Most major urban areas fall under the oversight of a single agency. The Bay Area is the exception.
    Ms. Amin, in the Q & A session after her presentation, promptly announced that any discussion of consolidation was “off the table.” As more audience members were asking why this was to be excluded from the discussion, Ms. Amin became angry and flustered and announced that they would only be “answering audience questions and didn’t want to hear any ideas.”
    This was truly the most bizarre and unprofessional SPUR forum I have attended. Most of the audience left either angry or confused. The forum was almost Kafka-esque, and the article in SPUR’s monthly publication is guilty of the same omissions. Yes, it would be nice to have more coordination, but beyond this wish, the article is worthless, or worse.
    The consolidation of transit has been an issue for a couple decades, and multiple studies have been conducted, mostly coming to the conclusion that agency consolidation would produce the most efficient and flexible transit system at a fraction of the cost of operating 26 autonomous agencies, each with directors, staff, rolling stock purchasing contracts, or negotiating outside contracts to operate the towns’ public transit system with companies like Veolia.
    Each of these reports was acknowledged, even reported on, but then swept under the rug by staff at MTC.
    One is left to wonder who is gaining political or financial advantage by continuing to operate these redundant agencies, and how they got SPUR, who normally presents excellent research and reporting, to avoid addressing the obvious choice for efficient Bay Area transit.
    Just implementing a Clipper Card payment is not enough. There should be a way to get from your home in Alamo or Danville to your job in Saratoga without making multiple transfers, taking half-mile walks, paying three-to-four seperate fares, and spending 2-3 hours on transit each way.
    Perhaps some sort of agency coordination could improve connections, but only one overseeing agency could plan and provide direct service from where people live to where they need to go.
    As the population of the Bay Area increases, this agency will need the power to create express bus lanes on freeways, and insist on transit-only lanes on key bridges. We can start considering routes for “true BRT” for areas unserved by BART.
    If we are to get people out of their cars and make transit attractive, it must be fast, efficient, cost effective, and movement-prioritized.
    Clearly this can’t happen with transit systems which are confined to the borders of their small, suburban fifedoms. To most transit and transportation planners, the answer is singular and obvious, but we don’t know why these agencies are throwing up barricades, and why we have gotten no support from MTC, in fact, MTC and Mr. Hemminger seem to be conspirators in keeping transit agencies fractured, inefficient and costly.
    This is the Bay Area’s most regressive transportation policy, and being surrounded by more and more progressive policies, its becoming a topic that is garnering more and more attention across the planning community, and soon will be getting the attention of the general public.
    Shame on MTC and SPUR for their role in bolstering a non-working system when the solution is now so obvious.

  22. P August 6, 2015 at 11:28 pm #

    Fiefdoms always seek to retain their own power. Institutions seek to self-perpetuate and not transfer powers/money to other organisations that they do not control. After all, if an organisation had to give up powers, it might have to fire staff or the management board might be out of a job.
    So it is not surprising.
    Look up TransLink South East Queensland, Australia. Working model of the impossible.

  23. Jarrett August 7, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

    P. The relationship between Queensland’s TransLink and the City of Brisbane has often been extremely tense, largely due to the failure to find the right division of labor between the two. it is, for example, largely impossible for TransLink to implement anything over the City’s objection. Like all the big Aussie states, Queensland is groping toward a functional relationship but it certainly isn’t there yet.
    Tip: To understand the division of labor among agencies in a region, don’t listen to what agencies say about what THEY do. Listen to what they say about what the other agencies do.

  24. P August 8, 2015 at 4:17 am #

    True, But importantly, the entire ticketing system is unified as well as fares over that whole 230km or so. There are no interchange penalties for transferring between regions or different operators (unlike say, Toronto where extra fares are charged north of Steeles ave).
    Regional cities such as Ipswich, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast generally get along rather well with TransLink. It’s probably because the operators there are private, and so geopolitical boundaries don’t mean much to the bus companies that operate within them and there is nothing to be gained by politicking. They just want to be paid.
    “…that people planning your bus routes may be working in an office 50 miles away.”
    For people living on the Gold Coast, or Sunshine Coast, this is literally true and is the case already. There seems to be no negative effects from where the planners HQ is located and the actual area that is being serviced. If private companies such as supermarkets, mining companies or airline companies can operate all over a country, remotely or have dispersed operations, what is stopping a public agency from doing the same?
    There was a proposal to privatise Brisbane City Council’s Bus operations (lost at election). The City of Brisbane has major problems with running bus services outside of its political borders. And yet, if you look at the private bus operators, they are more than happy to drive over whatever borders there are so long as they are paid.

  25. cph August 11, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    Re: Los Angeles. Although the division of labor between LA “Metro” and the municipal transit agencies (Santa Monica, Culver City, etc.) may seem arbitrary, historically it isn’t.
    Both Santa Monica and Culver City implemented their municipal bus services in 1928. Before then, people used the Pacific Electric (PE) interurbans to travel to/from Los Angeles to these cities. Both Santa Monica and Culver City were dissatisfied with the fares charged by PE, so each city started running buses to Los Angeles. These buses connected to the Los Angeles Railway streetcars at the (then) western border of LA. Santa Monica connected at Pico/Rimpau streets; Culver City at Washington near La Brea. (Elaborate transfer terminals were built at both places–the one at Pico/Rimpau, in highly modified form, still exists).
    OK, why do some Santa Monica buses operate entirely outside of Santa Monica. Well, at about the same time (late 1920s-early 1930s), a private company called “Bay Cities Transit” started operating in and around Santa Monica. (This was actually a former jitney service that was given a franchise by Santa Monica–on the condition that they “grow up” into a “big bus” service.) BCT operated several routes in Santa Monica, but they also ran service from Pico Rimpau to places like Sawtelle, Palms, Cheviot Hills, and Westwood–all outside of Santa Monica. In the 1950s, BCT, facing financial difficulties, went out of business. Santa Monica quickly took over the former BCT lines.

  26. calwatch August 12, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

    Keenplanner, you can argue the same about school district consolidation (which is even worse than transit in that they don’t follow jurisdictional boundaries at all, and some places confusingly have separate high school and elementary school districts) or even city consolidation. Obviously, general managers, human resource folks, and other bureaucrats would be eliminated in any consolidation, and a greater variety of services could be provided in a large agency, but people who are the existing managers have a vested interest not to put themselves or their staff out of a job. And unlike St. Louis County, where small cities act rapacious towards their citizens by ticketing people and practicing oppressive policing (and should be dissolved and consolidated), the issue of transit Balkanization is a benign blight on the general public which doesn’t use transit or just drives to the BART station.
    Short of a fiscal crisis, or a legislative mandate or voter referendum to force consolidation, it’s not going to happen.

  27. cph August 12, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    “California transit agency boundaries tend to default to county lines, and where these create that problem, it’s a mess for transit.

    Once again, we need to look at the history of transit development in California. I’ll first consider Southern California, then take a look at the Bay Area.
    In the very early days of Pacific Electric (ca. 1900) and Motor Transit (ca. 1917), routes were planned and operated without regard to county boundaries. (These were private companies that funded transit operations entirely out of the farebox–no government subsidies involved.) A map of these early bus and rail lines can be viewed at
    Even in the early days of public ownership (LA Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1958), transit was largely unsubsidized.
    This changed in 1971 with the passage of California Senate Bill 325, the Transit Development Act ( The TDA provided funding to county governments for subsidizing transit.
    Although the TDA provided a much needed subsidy, it also made the counties very territorial. They became less interested in subsidizing the regional operator (Southern California Rapid Transit District, the former LAMTA), and more focused on developing and subsidizing their own local transit agencies. A huge chunk of RTD’s Line 60G from Claremont to San Bernardino ended up with a local San Bernardino County agency (which became Omnitrans) after one of these disputes in 1973:
    The 1970s were also when county-oriented agencies such as the Riverside Transit Agency and the Orange County Transit District came into being, replacing lines formerly operated by RTD. Even so, there was still some limited coordination. One could, for example. ride a RTD bus from LA to Orange County, pay the Orange County fare, then obtain a transfer valid on any OCTD bus. Same with Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
    Now to the Bay Area. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there was never a single operator that dominated the Bay Area the way PE/Metropolitan Coach/LAMTA/SCRTD dominated Southern California. SF Muni was about equivalent in number of buses run, but Muni never left San Francisco much, if ever. Key System, which served the Oakland/Berkeley area now served by AC Transit, crossed the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, but there were never any transfer privileges between the two systems–get off Key, get on Muni, pay another fare. San Jose had a streetcar/bus network, but
    Regional Service between San Francisco-San Jose and Oakland-San Jose was in private hands–Southern Pacific Railroad, Greyhound, and Peerless Stages–until at least the early 1970s. The Greyhound commuter bus service became Golden Gate Transit and Samtrans; neither public agency offered transfers to Muni anymore than Greyhound did. In the East Bay, AC Transit assumed much of the function of Peerless Stages between Oakland and San Jose; Santa Clara County Transit (now VTA) absorbed the local Peerless and other private bus lines to form a valleywide public transit agency. Again, coordination and/or transfer agreements between these agencies never developed to any great extent; if one makes a transfer between VTA and Samtrans, without excessive waiting, it’s mostly due to luck.
    And of course there’s BART, which was envisioned as a park-and-ride service for suburban commuters headed to San Francisco, or maybe Oakland. SP Peninsula Commute Service (which became the state-subsidized Caltrain in 1980) survived as long as it did because of its utility as a commuter service to San Francisco; reverse commuting on Caltrain is a more recent phenomenon.
    And then there are the agencies in outlying areas–Vallejo, Santa Rosa, etc–these developed years ago to meet local transportation needs, with minimal thought given to their connectivity to the larger, regional transit network until recently.
    For the most part, the county orientation of transit agencies in California is hard-wired into their funding structure. There are exceptions–multi-county agencies such as BART, Caltrain JPB, Metrolink, Dumbarton Express, Highway 17 Express–but similar agreements between counties have fallen apart in the past: In my opinion, it will require some sort of overarching governmental structure to overcome the territoriality of the counties/transit agencies and get them to “play nice with each other.” So far, existing agencies of this type (MTC, SCAG, etc.) seem weak, with only advisory power and few teeth…

  28. cph August 12, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    “San Jose had a streetcar/bus network, but”
    …it had no direct connection to either San Francisco Muni or Key System.