Transit activists work to make Bay Area commute easier on BART, buses, trains and ferries

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- All this week we are looking at BART and what it will take to get more people to use it. But for many potential riders, BART is just one piece of the transit equation because they have to transfer to other agencies get to their final destination. That is often confusing and expensive, so now a grassroots coalition is demanding a streamlined system that would force transit agencies to work together to put riders first.

One of the leaders of the movement is Ian Griffiths, a public transit crusader. Griffiths is 36-years-old and has never owned a car.

"I love living in places where you can get around without a car. It is something that I wish everyone had that as an option," Griffiths said.

Griffiths has worked for more than a decade as an urban planner, most recently for BART, but it has been frustrating. Only about 12% of Bay Area residents commute on public transit, and the number who ride public transit at all is dropping. That is creating even more traffic and it is bad for the environment.

"If we really want to reduce Greenhouse gas emissions, transportation is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, so we have to be shifting more people to public transit," said Griffiths.

He and a growing network of other Bay Area transit activists believe a big barrier to riding public transportation is confusion. According to Griffiths, the Bay Area has one of the most fragmented transportation systems in the country.

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There are 27 separate transit agencies, with no requirements to make them cooperate with each other. Each agency has its own maps and schedules, and its own fare system.

"When you add it all together, it often takes hours to get across to parts of the region, and it takes double or triple the amount of time it would take to drive," said Griffiths.

The lack of coordinated fares is also sticking point for riders, and transferring often dramatically increases the cost of a trip. Griffiths points to what happens at the Millbrae Transit Center, the biggest multi-agency transfer point in the Bay Area. Many riders there are transferring from BART to Caltrain. When you make that transfer, Griffith explains the cost of your trip "goes up by $5, $6, $7, just because you've switched systems, even if you are only going to go one station on that new system."

That is the kind of issue that made Ian finally quit his job at BART to join other transit activists and launch a nonprofit called Seamless Bay Area. The goal is to create an integrated, world class seamless public transportation system for the whole Bay Area.

Seamless Bay Area began by raising awareness, pointing out problems that discourage people from taking transit. Griffiths showed us one example at San Francisco's Civic Center Station.

The station was supposed to be designed so riders could transfer easily and quickly between BART and Muni. But that did not happen because the two agencies have totally separate fare policies. That means riders have to take a long walk up and down several flights of steps or escalators so they can go in and out of the fare gates for each agency. It adds several minutes to the commute, and, even worse, sometimes causes people to miss their connections.

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Next, Ian took us to the spot he calls the Bay Area's worst transit connection. It is the Oakland Coliseum Station where BART riders can transfer to Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train that goes to Sacramento and San Jose.

It is the same station where there is a new, well planned transfer to the Oakland International Airport. The airport transfer works well, but if you want to transfer to the Capitol Corridor train, you are in for a challenge. It starts when you first step off BART, and there is no sign telling you where to go to find the train. Eventually, if you go down a flight of stairs and head for the fare gates, you might notice a very small sign with an Amtrak logo to keep you moving in the right direction.

Then you come to an elevator with a sign that says 'Elevator to Trains,' but it actually only goes to BART trains, not the Capitol Corridor train. For Capitol Corridor you have to find a different elevator with even more confusing signage. That leads to the last leg of the transfer, a long dingy ramp with switchbacks that finally ends at the train stop.

"We could get a lot more people making that connection and choosing transit, but a lot of people don't even know they could connect between BART and Capitol Corridor at Coliseum (station)," according to Griffiths.

Now here is the good news! The transit activists' public outreach finally seems to be hitting a nerve. San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu just introduced a bill aimed at forcing better cooperation among Bay Area transit agencies. The measure is sponsored by Seamless Bay Area. The details are still being fleshed out, but it is an opening salvo in the battle to simplify and improve the Bay Area's transit coordination.

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Then, just a few days after the bill was introduced, Seamless Bay Area had another victory, this time at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). The commission chose a Seamless proposal for integrating transit fare systems as the winner of a competition for projects that could transform the future of public transportation.

Seamless shared the award with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Research Association (SPUR) and two individuals, Jason Lee and Eddy Ionsescu.

Seamless got another shot in the arm this week from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors which voted to endorse a set of 'Seamless Transit Principals' that call for a more integrated, efficient and rider-friendly regional transit system. The measure was authored by Supervisor Scott Haggerty who is also chair of the MTC. Millbrae, Berkeley and the Cities Association of Santa Clara County have also endorsed the Seamless principles.

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