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California Bill Looks to Better Coordinate Bay Area Transit

A bill introduced in the California Legislature aims to make the transit experience across the San Francisco Bay Area's 27 providers more seamless. The bill would appoint a regional commission to lead the effort.

Shutterstock/Michael Vi
A bill introduced in the California Legislature is calling for better coordination among more than two dozen transit agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area in an effort to create a more seamless and affordable rider experience.

Key transit agencies in the region are hesitant to weigh in too heavily on Senate Bill 917 until more details are fleshed out through the legislative process. The bill, also known as the Seamless Transit Transformation Act, was introduced by state Sen. Josh Becker from District 13, which stretches from south San Francisco, down the San Mateo County coast and into Mountain View.

“MTC [Metropolitan Transportation Commission] is encouraged by the introduction of SB 917 and the Legislature’s engagement in the vital issues around the future of Bay Area transit in a post-pandemic world,” said John Goodwin, assistant director of communications for MTC and Bay Area Toll Authority, in an email. MTC is the transportation planning and coordinating agency for the nine-county Bay Area region.

“We look forward to working closely with Sen. Becker, other lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly, and the Bay Area’s transit operators to ensure the bill’s provisions are financially feasible within existing resources, since the bill itself does not provide any new funding,” he added.

The bill, which has been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee and is awaiting a hearing, would establish the MTC as the regional agency to take the lead on forming a more coordinated system.

“SB 917 would affect the way transit agencies work together,” Becker explained. "It would not change their roles or leadership. There is a discussion happening at the regional level around the concept of network management, but this bill does not affect that.”

Perhaps most significantly, the bill would require the integration of one fare-payment system so that riders are not paying a new and separate fare with each leg of a trip that involves multiple transit providers.

“Instead of paying each separate full individual fare at each transfer point, the rider would be able to pay an upfront total trip fare that is scaled based on the overall length of the trip and could carry discounts with them across agencies,” said Becker. “This would also allow for piloting different types of transit pass products, like a one-day pass that covers multiple agencies or even a zone-based fare system for regional services like [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and Caltrain.”

For its part, BART is not yet commenting on the proposal.

“The BART Board has not taken a position on SB 917 at this time,” wrote Chris Filippi, a spokesperson for BART, in an email to Government Technology. “BART is reviewing the bill internally and in conjunction with MTC, other transit operators, and the author’s office.”

The concept of integrated fare payment across mobility providers has certainly been embraced by riders, as well as technology providers, which are often charged with laying the groundwork for a more seamless user experience.

Cubic Transportation Systems, which developed the Umo software-as-a-service platform for transit agencies, recently announced improvements on the platform like “regional functionalities.” These changes allow riders to more seamlessly transfer from one regional transit system to another and smooth the transfer of fares and other data among agencies.

Today, fare integration across some two dozen transit agencies in the Bay Area is handled by what’s commonly known as the Clipper card, an account-based system that includes a mobile app and personal fare cards that can be used for fare payment across multiple systems.

“While Clipper is a big improvement from years past, it masks the fact that few fares have actually been integrated,” said Becker. “Riders shouldn’t be punished for transferring between systems — and because of the lack of integration, they basically are now.”

The legislation would also require the formation of a “standardized regional transit mapping and wayfinding system,” across the 27 transit agencies in the Bay Area and open data standards, according to the text of the legislation.

“The bill’s goals are consistent with the work MTC already is doing, in partnership with the transit operators, to transform Bay Area transit into a more seamless and customer-focused regional network,” said Goodwin.

Officials with the California Transit Association did not reply to a request for comment.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.