Bay Area transit can be a complex, costly ‘nightmare.’ The pandemic might help fix that


At 3:15 every weekday morning, Richard Burnett leaves his house in Vallejo for the 45-minute walk to the downtown bus station. Two buses and a train later — all run by different agencies, with different schedules and different fares racking up — he’s at his job in San Francisco an hour before clocking in.

Eight working hours later, he turns around and does the whole thing over again. He gets home by 7:30 p.m., eats and goes straight to bed.

“If you live that far, you have to do that sacrifice to make it work,” said Burnett, a customer service representative for a tech company who endures the six-hour commute because he can’t afford both a car and rent. “There’s no time to do anything else.”

Burnett, who advises the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transit coordinating agency, on policies affecting low-income and disabled riders, dreams of express buses to main job centers and fares based on zones that would make traveling cheaper. But that would require what Burnett calls the “fiefdoms” of Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies — encompassing buses, cable cars, trains and ferries that stretch across nine counties — to agree on changes.

The pandemic, which created an existential crisis for Bay Area public transportation, has reignited a long-running debate over how to make the system better and who should control it. Each of the agencies now sets its own fares and schedules. Few other U.S. metropolitan areas have such vast and disjointed transit: Los Angeles County, smaller in size but larger in population, has nearly the same number of agencies, but only one county transportation authority.

The result is that getting from one side of the Bay Area to another can be complicated, slow and expensive, especially for low-income people who live farther away. Many people who can just drive, adding to congestion and emissions. Before the pandemic, only 3% of trips in the Bay Area were made on public transit, advocates say.

With the pandemic draining even that ridership, transit operators are collaborating to offer service and smoother connections. Advocates and elected officials are seizing the moment to push their plans to create synchronized schedules, maps and fares across the Bay Area. But some transit operators can bristle at the idea of fare integration, which could affect their unique agencies and the fares many depend heavily on.

For example, said Muni chief Jeffrey Tumlin, the agency’s equity discounts, which are more generous than some other agencies, wouldn’t be guaranteed under a standardized fare system, and without more funding, could be slashed.

“We all firmly believe in a seamless, integrated transit system for the entire Bay Area,” Tumlin said.

But he added “there are dire unintended negative consequences of getting the details wrong.”

Leaders of five of the Bay Area’s largest transit agencies recently told The Chronicle they’re meeting weekly and working together more than ever as “the existential crisis we’re dealing with has forced all of us to think very differently,” Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority General Manager Nuria Fernandez said.