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The transit myth lingers on
Jack Balshaw 12/5/01

The availability of partial data from the 2000 census has resurrected the idea that we need more transit. A recent Press Democrat editorial notes that Sonoma County commuters spend the same average amount of time getting to work as do workers in Silicon Valley. (The average commute time for both areas is 25 minutes.) This is supposed to make us realize just how congested our highways are. Well, another fact; the average commute trip for the whole United States is 24 minutes.

Data on how people get to work in Sonoma County shows that 2% walk, 2% ride bicycles and 2% ride public transit. The rest, 94%, drive. So, what do these numbers indicate and what can be done about it?

First off, if you walk to work you obviously live fairly close and there's not much that can be done to induce more people to walk. Better sidewalks, safer street crossings, encouragement to exercise might have a few more people walking to work. But, they would still be only those few people who live very near their jobs.

The same could be said for cyclists except their trip could be longer. The negative aspect of cyclists being exposed to greater danger from traffic might counterbalance that. They could use the improved sidewalks but cyclists are a funny lot and want their own paths. They see themselves as somewhere between autos and pedestrians and so want middle ground facilities. A case can be made for this except that in a developed urban area this can only be done by taking a traffic lane away from autos. Not something that is likely to happen on any large scale. We might be able to improve some bike routes but still we're only talking about increasing bicycle ridership from 2% to ? %. Not much no matter what the number is.

Public transit deserves more attention, but not much. The problem here isn't with the numbers (although they're not very big either) but with the probability that people would use an improved transit service in significantly greater numbers. The proponents say they will and the opponents say they won't. Who's right?

The problem with transit is that people won't use a system for getting to work where service is only once an hour or half hour. People want five or ten minute bus headways if they're going to leave their cars at home. This needs to be tested.

How about we find a way to fund five or ten minute headways, during peak hours, on a selected transit route for a year, or at least for a dry season. This could be a route that goes by heavily populated employment locations or that, via a central downtown connection, would improve service to such an area. Very few people, except those working in a downtown, can get to work on one bus.

This would either prove or disprove the various claims of proponents and opponents. It could be done at a fraction of the cost of trying to improve the whole transit system with the hope that maybe it will work.

Here's an important note. Let's remember that when we talk about improving the highway system it's on a section-by-section basis and not an all or nothing improvement. Why can't we do the same for transit, one route at a time?

There is no question that there needs to be a basic level transit system to serve the young, the old and the poor who don't have access to autos. But until there is some evidence that people would use a better transit system if it were there, transit will remain a 2% solution.

We can report on the use of transit in Portland Oregon or San Francisco or New York City, but Sonoma County isn't any of those. People here always want to say Sonoma County is unique to justify doing or not doing something. Let's remember it's also unique when we talk about public transit as a work trip alternative.



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