MTC’s call for Transformative Projects illustrates what’s wrong with regional planning in the Bay Area

Back in June, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) announced a “Request for Transformative Projects”, inviting anyone from across the San Francisco Bay Area — including individuals, non-profit groups, private companies, or public institutions — to submit a proposal for a transportation project for possible evaluation as part of MTC’s Horizons/Plan Bay Area 2050 initiative. To be considered “transformational”, projects have to meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Transit projects that improve capacity, frequency or coverage; have a lifecycle cost exceeding $1 billion; AND were not evaluated in Plan Bay Area 2040
  • Roadway projects that improve capacity; have a lifecycle cost exceeding $1 billion; AND were not evaluated in Plan Bay Area 2040
  • Projects that make existing transportation infrastructure more resilient to rising sea levels or seismic hazards [no cost threshold]
  • Operational strategies with transformative regional impacts, such as all-lane tolling or transit fare simplification [no cost threshold]

MTC’s intent is to pick 5–10 of the top projects submitted to be evaluated for project performance as part of Plan Bay Area 2050. Theoretically this means that submitted projects could be eligible for future funding to be studied or built.

We at Seamless Bay Area believe it is a step in the right direction to allow entities other than public agencies to submit ideas for projects. At the same time, the entire process highlights a fundamentally flawed, backward approach to regional planning and illustrates how MTC is ducks its responsibility for regional leadership. Rather than developing a bold vision for transit connectivity, mobility, and customer service across the Bay Area, and using that vision to identify projects that would provide the greatest possible impact, Plan Bay Area starts with projects, and lets those projects dictate the vision.

Plan Bay Area 2040 includes maps like this, showing a sprinkling of isolated “high-performing” projects across the region, but no map or vision of regional network connectivity.

By inviting local and sub-regional entities to populate the universe of projects that could be funded for implementation, the Bay Area’s regional “plan” ends up as a grab-bag of disparate, unconnected initiatives that often primarily serve local or sub-regional goals. Potentially more cost-effective, transformational projects that would serve more people are often not even identified for evaluation through Plan Bay Area. These types of projects usually cross multiple jurisdictional and transit agency boundaries and are not squarely within the mandate of any existing transportation institutions that have the resources to put together robust analyses for new transportation projects.

While the Request for Transformational Projects is clearly intended to address that issue, we believe that a professional publicly-funded regional transportation authority with a mandate to deliver seamless mobility would be best positioned to identify truly transformational projects.

The deadline for submissions was September 6th, and finalists are expected to be announced in October. Seamless Bay Area submitted a proposal for Fare, Service, and Branding Integration across the nine-county Bay Area, which we have included below. We are thankful to MTC to have the opportunity to submit this project for evaluation, though we feel that this is exactly the type of project that MTC itself, which lists on its website that one of its roles is to “integrate the region’s vast web of rail, bus and ferry lines into a seamless network that’s easy to understand and ride” ought to be proactively spearheading, and not leaving up to outside groups to suggest. Let’s hope that several truly transformational projects do get studied further as a result of this process — but let’s also pressure MTC to change the way it does regional planning, so that our mobility goals drive project identification, and not the other way around.

Seamless Bay Area’s submission to MTC’s Request for Transformational Projects:
Fare, Service and Branding Integration

What is the project purpose — i.e., what challenge are you trying to solve?

This project seeks to create a predictable, frequent, legible transit network through fare, service, and branding integration. The Bay Area’s transit network is complicated, poorly connected, unreliable, and offers poor value for money for people making regional trips due to the vast differences in quality of transit service. Each transit agency has different route and scheduling conventions, levels of service, fares, and identities. Collectively, the lack of a unified network in the Bay Area makes taking transit uncompetitive with driving for many types of trips and nearly impossible to comprehend, resulting in low use of transit region-wide.

Describe the project in detail — where is it located? Who would it serve? What specific improvements would it make?

This project would affect all of the region’s 27+ transit agencies, and therefore would be in all 9 counties. It would serve both existing transit riders and people who might switch to transit if service was more convenient, reliable, and easy to understand.

Fare, service, and branding integration would establish a unified customer-oriented transit system across the region by simplifying service, reducing uncertainty, and improving quality of experience.

The three pillars of fare, service, and branding integration are not being proposed as separate projects, but rather as a single project, because the benefits of executing all three together greatly outweigh the sum of the benefits of each in isolation. The effectiveness of each of the three components is facilitated by implementation of the other two. (TCRP Report 111: Elements Needed to Create High Ridership Transit Systems [TCRP], 2007) We strongly urge MTC to study the ridership and other benefits of these three programs integrated together, which we believe would be truly transformative.

The three components are further defined as follows:

Greater Berlin is split into three simple transit fare zones — A, B and C — that cover all of the region’s transit operators and modes of travel.

1. Fare integration. Several models for fare integration exist, including flat fares, fares by zone, fare by distance, or a hybrid model that could include a combination of these options. A key benefit of fare integration is that it offers customers an incentive to make transfers between transit modes, rather than a penalty of paying an additional fare each time a new transit agency is used. With fare integration, the fare paid by customers corresponds to the quality and length of the trip taken, not the number of transit agencies used. For most models of fare integration, required capital improvements would include new fare payment equipment on buses and in stations; new regional and local maps and online products to communicate the new fare payment system; and an operating subsidy to launch the program and make up for potential losses in revenue among some agencies. The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, a region similar in size and complexity to the Bay Area, recently completed its Draft Business Case for Regional Fare Integration, finding that the benefits of a “zoned-based” fare system (as an example) amounted to C$1.25 billion over 60 years, with costs being C$180-$250 million, resulting in benefit-cost ratio of 5.0, demonstrating relatively high cost-effectiveness for a publicly funded project.

Many regions, including Los Angeles, have begun to promote “frequent transit networks”, promoting routes with high frequencies with wayfinding and customer information. The Bay Area would need to establish common service standards in order to have a logical, user-friendly frequent transit network map for the region. (Photo: Flickr — Oran Viriyincy)

2. Service integration. Fare integration will be most effective if coupled with service integration and branding integration. Service integration includes rationalizing service patterns across the Bay Area’s nine counties to establish more predictable, regionally integrated routes with a consistent service levels (e.g. minimum speeds and frequencies) in order to provide greater regional predictability and network legibility for customers. A key outcome of service integration will be a frequent transit network, a map of which would display an interconnected set of transit routes across the region that have frequencies of every 10 minutes or greater throughout the majority of the day. Service integration will make all rules for transit consistent, including those related to fares, but most importantly, the expectations for frequency and speed of service when navigating to an unknown part of the region. Another key component of service integration is schedule coordination, particularly important for those routes not within the frequent transit network, and which connect to major regional rail stations. (For more information, see: “Frequent Transit Network,” TransLink)

Vancouver’s recently introduced the “T” system identifier has improved visibility of the transit system and communicates to customers that transit service and fares are integrated. (Photo: Applied Wayfinding)

3. Branding & Customer Information Integration. In order to effectively communicate the benefits and improved convenience of fare and service integration and to change customer travel patterns, the region must develop an approachable, modern customer-focused transit brand, and a simple, rationalized transit information system that makes transit easy to use. Current efforts to establish a consistent regional wayfinding and mapping system will be of limited effectiveness in increasing transit ridership as long as service levels and fares vary unpredictably for each transit agency. While a single transit brand would vastly simplify understanding the network for customers, separate brands will continue to be required as long as fares and service are different on each transit agency. Making transit less confusing is about more than just providing “better wayfinding” between different transit agencies — it requires redesigning the underlying network to make more sense, and then using excellent branding and wayfinding to promote that. Branding integration is dependent on fare and service integration, but it offers potentially the most powerful tool of all to truly transform how the public views public transit. By branding the transit system as a single, easy-to-use, regionally connected system, customers will begin to consider it more for all kinds of trips. It is best executed by single entity with significant resources that can oversee a highly professional customer experience and branding department that can compete with private transportation alternatives.

What is the greatest opportunity associated with this proposed project?

The greatest opportunity is for significantly increased ridership of transit without building new lines. As an example, a 2016 study estimated that operating AC Transit, BART, and Muni as a single seamless system, with fare, service, and branding integration would result in a 6% increase in transit ridership (“Causes and Consequences of Transit Fragmentation in the Bay Area”, Fan, Yingling)

What is the greatest risk associated with this proposed project? Example include: environmental impacts, unproven technologies, potential community opposition, etc.

The greatest risk is lack of political/agency will in tackling this important issue. MTC should take a strong leadership position on this issue and establish the business case for undertaking these improvements.