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In the San Francisco Bay Area, Congestion Takes Riders Off Buses and Worsens Congestion

A number of other factors are contributing to highway gridlock as well.

(TNS) — Bus ridership is down across the San Francisco Bay Area, and officials say fed up riders are jumping back into their cars because too much traffic is making too many buses late.

From July to March, every local transit agency had a significant drop in bus ridership compared to the same period a year ago. Numbers were down 10.7 percent at the Valley Transportation Authority, 9.3 percent at the Golden Gate Bridge-Marin agency, 9 percent at San Francisco MUNI, 7.8 percent at SamTrans and 2.1 percent at AC Transit.

That’s 15,924 fewer riders in just nine months.

“We’re in a vicious cycle,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director at TransForm in Oakland, a transportation advocacy nonprofit, “where the more traffic, the slower the buses go, leading more people to abandon them, leading to more traffic, and so on.”

It’s a worry nationwide as bus ridership fell 6.3 percent over the last year. Almost every major urban area across the U.S. with a population of 842,000 or larger lost transit riders.

Johnny Dee’s AC Transit ride over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco now takes 15 minutes longer. Heavy traffic not only means a slower crawl across the bridge, he said, but increased congestion “adds to (slowdowns into) downtown San Francisco” for bus riders.

Hector Sanchez’ trip on Bus 22 up El Camino Real is more stop-than-go from Santa Clara to Mountain View. It means an extra 20 minutes going up El Camino and back, five days a week. “It adds up,” he said.

The VTA says travel speeds have declined approximately 20 percent over the past 30 years. But the slowdown has been steeper in recent years, amounting to a decline of 1.5 percent annually since 2013.

That may not seem like much, but each one percent drop corresponds to an extra $3.2 million that the VTA must spend to maintain the same frequency of service — one bus every 12 to 15 minutes.

More buses must be added to routes to maintain that service, and the buses are either taken from other routes or added at an additional cost.

The line along El Camino is the most heavily used in Santa Clara County, carrying nearly 19,000 riders each weekday. But the average travel speed on Route 22 has declined 43 percent, from 15.7 mph in 1995 to 9 mph today during commute times. That’s led to a 47 percent increase in operating costs.

“With the economic boom comes new problems. One of those is congestion,” said San Jose councilman and VTA board director Johnny Khamis. “The board understands that people need to get to places faster.”

Agencies are scrambling to speed up runs.

MUNI now allows passengers to enter from rear doors if they use an electronic payment system like Clipper. SamTrans revises its routes three times a year. AC Transit has opened a 9.5-mile bus-only transit lane in the East Bay along International Boulevard and East 14th Street. And driverless shuttles ferry riders from transit stops to the sprawling Bishop Ranch area in San Ramon and will be expanded throughout Contra Costa County, helping users avoid parking hassles and getting off a bus.

The VTA opened an express route on Alum Rock Avenue in San Jose more than a year ago and has another planned from the new Berryessa BART station along Santa Clara Street and Stevens Creek Boulevard to De Anza College in Cupertino. Allowing passengers to board in the street instead of curbside to speed up stops is also being considered.

But there are pushbacks. Cities are hesitant to give buses priority at lights along busy commuter routes on Lawrence and San Tomas expressways. And a radical plan to reserve a lane for buses only on El Camino was soundly trashed.

Plus, the Bay Area’s soaring home and rental prices are driving out lower-income folks, who are most likely to ride a bus.

“SamTrans has blamed their falling ridership in part to this trend,” said TransForm’s Cohen, adding that “when you get free parking but have to pay for transit, you get high drive-alone rates. We need to turn that on its head, with free transit but market rate parking.

“People may complain, but would you rather be sitting in an hour of traffic on the way to work?”

©2018 The San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.