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Transit Crisis Could Halt Infill Development Momentum

Jan 25, 2010

For quite some time now, we've heard about the credit crisis, the foreclosure crisis, the health care crisis, the state budget crisis, the climate change crisis. Add one more crisis to your worry list: the transit crisis.

Transit providers in California appear to be sliding down a wickedly slippery slope. With their operations funding reduced by the state and local governments, transit agencies have responded by reducing services and raising fares. Naturally, higher prices for less service equates to fewer customers. This causes revenue to decrease even more, which results in more service cuts, which causes additional revenue decreases and on and on. On top of this is the fact that more and more transit agencies are failing to meet the state's 20% fare box recovery requirement in order to qualify for a distribution of gasoline sales tax money, which is intended to fund transit operations.

The situation also makes measuring demand a tricky business. Are people driving instead of riding transit? Are they walking or bicycling more? Are they forgoing trips altogether?

The San Jose Mercury News recently ran a five-part series on the Bay Area's transit crisis. I have some nits to pick with the stories such as the appallingly erroneous assumption that the only cost to driving a car is buying gasoline. Still, the point of the series is valid: The overall transit system is in failure mode.

A story in the San Francisco Chronicle last week made clear that Muni the workhorse in California's most transit-dependent city faces a huge budget problem, along with the aforementioned service cuts and higher fares. The Bay Area is hardly alone. Transit operators all over California are in a similarly sinking boat.

I cannot overemphasize how bad the transit crisis is for planners, so many of whom are focused on creating compact, mixed-use neighborhoods close to transit. The opponents to such development, especially in infill zones, always cite traffic and parking congestion from a proposed project as one of their biggest complaints. Planners are often quick to dismiss such complaints. The whole point is that the new residents and workers will walk, ride a bike or hop on a skateboard to take make short trips, while many longer trips to work, school or social outings will be made on transit. Heck, a household could get by easily with only one car, say the planners.

I'm here to tell you that no one with a choice read: car is going to ride a transit system with 20-minute headways. Three dollars each way for a bus ride to the nearest mall or cinema? Forget it, we're driving.

I fully recognize we're still in the grips of the big recession. (Anyone who tells you otherwise is an economist.) Money for public services is very tight. The Schwarzenegger administration is simply trying to keep the lights on four days a week in Sacramento. But the forecast for transit operations funding is bad for many years to come. There is no evidence the recent service reductions and fare hikes are temporary. Rather, they mark the start of a trend.

Those people complaining that your infill project with stacked flats over commercial space, two blocks from the multi-modal station, will clog narrow streets and consume all the parking? They might be proven right. If they are, good luck getting the second project approved.

- Paul Shigley

 

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