A Better Solution to Transbay Transit Capacity
As I sat on my Transbay bus last evening, grinding slowly through traffic on the Bay Bridge and Eastshore Freeway, I couldn’t help but think that all of the talk about a second Transbay Tube is a bit silly. AC Transit already carries over 25,000 passengers over the Bay Bridge every day, and that’s with barely any bus improvements like proof of payment, exclusive lanes and increased service frequency. With a single exclusive bus lane on the Bay Bridge, AC Transit could literally triple its efficiency, allowing for twice as many Transbay runs with the same equipment and personnel.
From pure observation today, I’ve concluded these things: carpool lane violations are poorly enforced, infrastructure for buses on Bay Area freeways is hopelessly lacking and AC Transit’s service is very convenient and punctual. To address the first observation, it was plainly obvious, looking out the back window of my bus, that most drivers in the carpool lane on Interstate 80 around Emeryville had less than three people in their vehicles. The somewhat silly idea of carpool or HOV lanes is that they will move more quickly than general traffic because very few drivers have two other passengers with them in the car. Traffic in the carpool lane was also stopped, eliminating the incentive to carpool and carry more passengers. If the incentive is eliminated, the carpool requirement must be raised to more than three passengers, enforcement must be dramatically increased, and, even better, all carpool lanes should be converted to exclusive bus operation. Even an HOV freeway lane only has 12,000 person/hour capacity. A bus lane with frequent buses (~5 min headways, similar to AC Transit’s current operation) can carry 30,000+.
Put it this way: a new Transbay Tube would cost over five billion dollars and take at least 15 years. These bus improvements could be done tomorrow. Literally. All that is needed is a change of signage and a few extra bus drivers (just hire some unemployed truckers). They might even save money over AC Transit’s current Transbay service because of the reduced delay. The only losers here are drivers. They already use freeways for free (mostly), park for free, and pollute the air for free so why not cause them a little bit of pain for the greater good? Well I’m going to answer my own rhetorical question: you can’t make life worse for autos because of the lobbying power of both the automobile industry and the overwhelming majority of Americans who use the automobile as their main, or even sole, method of transportation.
Currently AC Transit Transbay Service fills a niche role, carrying mostly passengers who do not live near BART lines. The busiest lines for AC Transit are the P and V, which serve Piedmont and Montclair, and the O, OX and W, which serve Alameda. Both of these areas are poorly served by BART yet have a large amount of commuters to San Francisco. BART’s largely suburban-oriented lines and service have left large swathes of Berkeley and Oakland underserved, including, ironically, transbay bus stops right under BART tracks yet over a mile in any direction from a BART station. I find myself in this situation, living only a few blocks from BART yet being a mile from a station. I am the ideal passenger for AC Transit and if the bus were made even faster and more convenient than cars with dedicated infrastructure, more frequent service and increased hours of operation, people who live between BART stations, or miles away from BART, would have a viable alternative to driving to San Francisco.
One last word. With the construction of the new Transbay Transit Center, facilities and capacity for bus passengers in San Francisco will dramatically improve. To spend billions of dollars on one side of the bay for transit would be a travesty without matching the investment on the other side of the Bay Bridge.