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To Truly Reduce Driving, California Should Imitate Portland

Jun 24, 2009
At the risk of repeating what I and about a million other people have already said, I'll say it again: California could learn a lot from Portland when it comes to transit and its climate-related benefits.

In the Portland metro area, transit is efficient and relatively inexpensive for riders. In the Bay Area, the most transit-rich region in California, 28 different providers don't add up to an efficient "system," and transit operators are raising already high fares.

As Bill Fulton observed recently, California's local and regional governments have a choice. Either they can comply bureaucratically with SB 375 by hiring consultants, writing reports, amending plans, spending lots of time and money justifying decisions or they can take actions that everyone knows will truly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions partially responsible for climate change. In other words, they can worry about legal compliance, or they can do something about getting people out of their cars, which produce about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Providing efficient, affordable public transit can get people to spend less time on the road.

This was reinforced to me last week when I was in Portland. I bought a one-day pass at a sidewalk kiosk for Portland's Tri-Met transit system. For $4.75, I could ride the Portland streetcar, the MAX light rail, the WES commuter train and any bus line as many times as I needed for the rest of the day. I ended up making two round trips on light rail, and several trips on the streetcar. Heck, I was in Portland for three days, and my car didn't leave the hotel parking garage until it was time to drive home.

A week earlier, I was in the Bay Area, where my transit experience was less cheerful. I was staying on the Peninsula and had appointments in San Francisco. I started out by driving one mile to a Caltrain station, where I parked for free. I bought a $2.50 one-way ticket that took me to Millbrae's multi-modal transit center, where I would catch BART to downtown San Francisco.

There was a one-minute headway in Millbrae. Under most circumstances, such a tight schedule would be ideal. But because Caltrain and BART have different operators, my Caltrain ticket was worthless in catching a BART ride. I had to buy a new ticket. Unfortunately, there was a line at the nearest ticket machine.

I asked myself: Should I dash to another ticket machine farther down the platform, or wait for the line in front of me to clear?

I waited, I reached the machine, I slid in four one-dollar bills, the machine spit out a ticket just as the doors to the BART train closed. I didn't make it. Instead, I got to cool my heels for 15 minutes waiting for the next BART ride while having to stomach reminders that I couldn't drink coffee on the BART platform.

My transit travels that day ended up costing me $14.35: $2.50 each way on Caltrain; $4 from Millbrae to downtown San Francisco; $1.50 on BART from downtown to the Mission District; and $3.85 from the Mission back to Millbrae. And, remember, I started the trip by driving the first mile. If I had taken a Samtrans bus, it would have cost me an additional $1.75 each way for a total of $17.85 roundtrip.

Daily Bay Area commuters can buy various passes to shave roughly 5% to 10% off the above rates, and some operators including BART and Samtrans accept a uniform pass that provides unlimited bus travel. But you have to buy a half-month or monthly pass. One-day riders like me and commuters who might take transit once or twice a week pay full freight, buy lots of different tickets and sometimes miss connections.

That brings me back to that single $4.75 ticket that I bought at a sidewalk kiosk to get around the Portland metro area. I could have purchased the same all-day ticket from any bus driver. I should add that Tri-Met also offers a "fareless square" that services downtown, most of the hip Pearl District, the Portland State University campus and the convention center. Bus, light rail and streetcar travel is free in those areas.

If California truly wants to get people out of their cars and onto public transit and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions it's obvious to me that imitating Portland's model is the way to go. There, I said it again.

Paul Shigley