It could soon be possible for a Muni Metro rider to enter a station, refer to a centralized map of regional transit connections and pay a single, fixed fare to travel between providers and counties.
Assemblymember David Chiu introduced the Bay Area Seamless and Resilient Transit Act, the latest step in a decades-long effort to create a more integrated transportation network for the region and encourage residents to get out of their cars.
“Every day hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents have experienced a system that has been fragmented, unreliable, hard to use and inefficient,” Chiu said. “That’s the big picture.”
Despite its renowned reputation as a hub of innovation, the Bay Area has historically been home to one of the country’s most inefficient, underutilized and costly transportation networks in the country.
As of 2017, just 5 percent of trips in the Bay Area were made using transit, and per-capita transit ridership decreased 12 percent between 1991 and 2016, according to the legislation.
While 31 percent of regional essential workers rely on public transportation, they’re often subjected to unreliable and misaligned connections between transit providers, steep fares, lengthy commutes and, in general, a system so confusing that the idea of navigating it can be discouraging enough to push someone into a personal vehicle instead.
Those same communities are most likely to bear the brunt of the environmental and health impacts created by congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have to rebuild a transit system that works for everyone, particularly our low-income residents and our residents from communities of color around the Bay,” Chiu said. “We have to do it in a way that is efficient, reliable and provides real access so that all of our families and workers can get to their jobs, schools and critical destinations quickly and efficiently.”
Assembly Bill 629 seeks to simplify the landscape by focusing on four primary areas of improvement: region-wide mapping and wayfinding; a fare integration pilot program; the creation of a transit priority network to determine which corridors need interventions most; and mandatory use by providers of open, real-time transit data to inform travelers’ decisions.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission would be given the authority to determine how the bill’s requirements are executed, though it would coordinate with the transit agencies themselves and be given clear metrics and deadlines to ensure the nine-county regional body stayed on track, Chiu said.
If passed, the bill would require MTC to create a fare integration pilot program by July 1, 2023 that would create a single pass with a unified fare structure for travelers moving across three counties.
It would also mandate the commission to develop a standardized regional transit mapping and wayfinding system by July 1, 2024 as well as a plan for maintaining and funding it by the following year.
Chiu introduced a similar bill in February 2020, only weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and upended the state’s legislative agenda. The bill was put on the back burner, but regional transit leaders formed a working group under the Metropolitan Transportation Commission a few months later to begin dialogue around how to address the region’s lack of integration called the Blue Ribbon Task Force.
Much of that legislation is reflected in AB 629, with the notable exception of the previous requirement to create a working group of transit leaders to do the coordination work, a process already underway with the Blue Ribbon Task Force.
Now, as the region begins to tackle the challenge of recovery, the goal of a seamless transit network is more important than ever.
“As we recover, what we’re all very concerned about is our transit systems have been decimated, and we need to ensure that as we rebuild and we recover that we are building a 21st century transit system to last,” Chiu said.
Calls for a more integrated Bay Area transportation system have been around for decades, but they’ve always sputtered out even as other cities such as Seattle and London have managed to tackle fragmentation.
Resistance has often come from transit agency officials, who have said that while they’re eager to figure out ways to better synchronize schedules and improve wayfinding, the integration of fares — and therefore farebox revenue — could jeopardize their ability to provide adequate service, maintain state-of-good repair or act nimbly to respond to local needs.
“We’re not saying there needs to be one fare system today and we need to immediately figure this out,” Chiu said. “But what we are saying is that there needs to be a conversation about how to allow people to travel across more than one transit operator while paying ideally a flat fare amount.”
Details would be hammered out largely through collaboration between those very transit agency leaders and the MTC.
“Our region can’t wait any longer,” Chiu said.