The San Francisco Bay Area has 8 million people jammed into nine counties, meaning it is not only ripe for public transit, but also ripe for separate fiefdoms by dozens of transit and shuttle systems. Seamless Bay Area’s Ian Griffiths thinks he knows the remedy.
For more about Rail~Volution 2019, read our Rail~Volution recap today!
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Griffiths: Ian Griffiths
Cohen: Welcome to The Movement podcast. I just returned from Rail~Volution in Vancouver, Canada where you’re about to hear our first episode recorded north of the border. What makes Rail~Volution such a great conference is that instead of trying to solve transportation, housing, and job access problems in a silo, the conference looks at the problems holistically in order to address them. Similarly Ian Griffiths, the cofounder of the advocacy group Seamless Bay Area, believes that even without adding new transit lines we can do so much more to unify transit in the Bay Area and make it seamless. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: My guest today is Ian Griffiths. He is a cofounder of Seamless Bay Area. And you may recall that our guest Gillian Gillett talked about Seamless Bay Area as one of the areas that she thought was doing some good work, and so I wanted to have Ian on there. We are live from the Rail~Volution conference. We are in Vancouver, British Columbia. This might be the first Movement podcast being recorded in another country, so we’re making history here.
Griffiths: Wow. Excellent.
Cohen: Maybe get started by sharing a little bit about why you and your team cofounded Seamless Bay Area.
Griffiths: Yeah, so Seamless Bay Area is about two years old, and we are a nonprofit that our goal is to create an integrated, world class, public transit system for the entire Bay Area, a notoriously fragmented region. And so I have been in public transit and urban planning for the past more than 12 years, past dozen years; and I’ve had the luxury of working in different cities and in Toronto for several years at public agencies in consulting. Alongside many other people in my professional network, a couple of years ago we really felt like there was not enough being done in the Bay Area to really analyze the structural problems with our public transit system and why we are not creating a more integrated system.
There’s an organization in the Bay Area called SPUR that is a sort of civic organization that publishes really great research and reports. They came out with a report in 2014 or 2015 called Seamless Transit, identifying all the things that the Bay Area could do to make public transit more integrated, more attractive for passengers without actually building new lines. And that included things like integrating fares, integrating branding, wayfinding, coordinating schedules, creating a high-frequency network regardless of transit agency.
And at the time people throughout our region were falling over each other saying, “This is so important. This is absolutely the direction we need to go into.” And several of my colleagues and cofounders of Seamless Bay Area a few years after the report was published really were asking the question, “Why aren’t these recommendations happening? Why aren’t these reforms being pursued in a serious way?” And we got a lot of encouragement from SPUR and from other transit advocacy organizations at the time that we would benefit from having a really concentrated effort to change the laws and to advance some of the governance reforms that would enable us to take the steps towards a more seamless system.
Griffiths: So since then over the past two years we have been talking to leaders across the Bay Area. We’ve been talking to general managers of transit agencies, transportation consultants to really understand what are the problems with our fragmented system that we have in the Bay Area and trying to engage people in developing real solutions and proposals for legislative reforms that could change that.
Cohen: So paint a picture for me. What does success look like? In your mind, like, when you’ve got this world that you are picturing, what does that look like maybe for a rider?
Griffiths: You know, it’s funny. We’re in Vancouver right now.
Griffiths: And I think this is a really good reminder of what an excellent transit experience for someone who is unfamiliar with using transit would look like. And it would be that anyone regardless of ability, regardless of where they live in the region, or how familiar or comfortable they might be using transit, whether they’re a regular rider or not, can easily access information online, on the street, at a bus stop, plan out a route, understand the information about how the network functions, and be able to take a trip that has reliable, frequent service across all parts of the region and have the confidence in making that trip that at every stage of the journey there’s going to be information that will lead them to the next step, that will provide the access that they need, and that at the end of that they will find it easy to use and they will have enjoyed the experience and will say, “That was really easy. I’m going to do that again.” Unfortunately that’s not the experience of particularly first-time transit users in the Bay Area.
Griffiths: And so often people have a negative experience in using public transit, and then because that experience is so common they essentially avoid it, and they don’t rely or trust in it as an option. I think from a more kind of—so that’s from the rider experience how I would see, you know, what I think when I’m in a city like Vancouver what an excellent transit experience is that truly makes you want to choose transit even when you have options.
From a just pure numbers point of view though, what success looks like is, you know, we have 12% of people in the Bay Area that use transit to get to work every day. And if you look at overall that millions of trips going on, you know, for all proposes, it’s something more like six, six-and-a-half percent.
Griffiths: So success looks like 50% of people during the commute time using transit in our densest areas or 20% across all transit juries, which would be triple of what our current transit trips are.
Griffiths: You know, the real numbers of people, again, using transit instead of driving and using also alternative modes and seeing a true decline in the amount of vehicle miles traveled. That’s really—the proof is in the pudding of we can talk a good game about good customer experience. Unless people are really riding the service and driving less, then we’re not being successful in the way that demands, you know, our generations demands and our current circumstances around climate change and quality of life really demands that we have to actually change behavior.
Cohen: Yeah. So we’re in Vancouver, and I’ve used TransLink—I’m sure you have—which is their regional transit service here. And last night I was able to take their automated SkyTrain and connect with their SeaBus to cross the—I guess that’s the Burrard Inlet?
Griffiths: Burrard, yeah.
Cohen: Yeah, okay. That’s Burrard Inlet—cross the inlet there. And it was all within the same fare structure. We got a pass because we’re here for the conference, but last time I was here in Vancouver I was able to just take my credit card and just tap in, tap out at the gates, which was phenomenal.
Cohen: Like, talk about—I mean, to me that’s like the simplest way for me to, like, get how easy it can be—
Cohen: —which is if you have that credit card that’s got the—it looks like the Wi-Fi symbol on it or if you have Apple Pay or whatever, you can use that to just go right into the fare gates without having to stop at any of the ticket machines. To me that’s like what we all need. Right?
Griffiths: Yeah. There are few examples of that in North America that do it really well. I think Vancouver is really exceptional in that way. And I think it’s great that we’re having all so many transportation professional are here today to really see how powerful that is for the rider when it’s done well.
Cohen: So thinking about the work that needs to happen to achieve that vision that you set out. You mentioned kind of some structural changes or policy changes that need to happen. What needs to change in order to make that happen?
Griffiths: Yeah. Well, first let me—maybe I’ll start by just describing for those listeners who aren’t familiar with the Bay Area just what exactly the situation that we’re in, which is I think similar to many other regions in the U.S., though we are a particularly fragmented and complex region. There’s nine counties, 101 cities in the Bay Area, population of about eight million people, obviously a booming economy. We have 27 different transit operators, give or take a few; depends on really where you draw the line. We have dozens of free shuttles that are operated by different—
Cohen: Oh, yeah. The tech companies?
Griffiths: Some are operated by tech companies; some are operated by transportation management associations that are associated with a given city.
Cohen: Oh, sure.
Griffiths: So we have all of these different transit operators, and we have a few regional institutions, and the MTC is our metropolitan planning organization. It stands for Metropolitan Transpiration Commission, and they are responsible for overseeing transit planning for the nine-county Bay Area. But all of those 27 or 35 or however many operators, they basically do—they operate and put out service however they choose. And there’s really no regional framework for how they deliver service, where they choose to operate service, what frequencies are, what fares they choose. They’re really left to figure all of that out on their own.
Cohen: Done in a silo, basically?
Griffiths: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And everyone is working within their own self-interest. People, you know, they’re making logical decisions given how they’ve been set up and what they’re accountability structures are and who their board might be and what particular part of the Bay Area they might be obligated through law to represent.
But obviously as a system, you know, while they’re doing things that are logical on an individual basis, for the user who is just trying to get from one part of the Bay Area to another that might pass through several jurisdictions or might need to take multiple agencies, the network is not set up as a system. And it is very inconvenient and often times results in—you know, it just does not make sense to use transit for so many types of trips because it just is not time competitive or cost competitive or either.
So in terms of the reforms that we have been engaging with leaders at transit agencies as well as consultants across the region, we really—I think there’s three key reforms that we’ve identified need to happen. One is we need to clearly define what our high-level goals are for mobility as a region and ensure that our policies are moving us towards those goals. And those are increasing transit ridership, decreasing automobile usage, and decreasing vehicle miles traveled. We need to then allocate funding that we are spending on capital and operating to actually help us move us towards those goals. And that needs to be a primary basis for how we allocate our transpiration dollars. And surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly that’s not really clearly aligned right now in terms of how we spend our capital and operating funding.
And thirdly we need then the institutions that have the ability to oversee that regional network and to do that regional planning and network planning function and ensure that any transit operator that does operate service in the Bay Area is doing things in a way that’s consistent with the network goals, the network vision. And right now we don’t have that accountability. We don’t have the entity that exists at a regional level that actually has oversight over all of those functional areas like fare policy, like schedule coordination, like network planning. And then for the institution that we do have, MTC, there is no clear accountability between them. There’s no clear relationship between them and all the transit operators.
So what we have is more of a consensus-based system right now where any kind of regional initiative is basically voluntary, and if any single operator decides it’s not in their own self-interest or they deem something to be risky to take on, they can hold up the entire regions from moving forward with something. And that is really a situation that’s holding our region back, and we believe that the reforms that we need to introduce need to ensure that the interests of the many take precedence over, you know, the self-interest of the minority. And we can’t keep holding up our region by doing always everything on a consensus basis.
Cohen: Do you think MTC recognizes that there’s a problem?
Griffiths: I think they do. Yeah. I think—we’ve spoken to many people, you know, different commissioners, elected officials who sit on MTC, as well as staff. I think people not only at MTC but many of the transit agencies know—you know, we all know that there’s a problem here. And honestly as a transportation professional myself who worked at a transit agency, you can’t not know that the system is not performing the way that it could be. What I think there is, is there’s an acceptance. I think what’s become normal in the Bay Area is a sort of acceptance of the status quo because it’s been this way for so long.
Griffiths: It’s hard to imagine how to change it. There have been initiatives over the past couple of decades to try to address this issue that have failed, and I think for that reason people sometimes are reluctant to really use the G-word—the G-word is governance—you know, to bring that up as a source of our problems because it seems so overwhelming that people sort of—I think we’ve fallen into the habit many times of just accepting, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about governance. Let’s do what we can within the policy framework we have.” I think that really speaks to the distinction between working at a public sector agency and working as an advocacy organization—
Griffiths: —and where I felt like just professionally and personally I needed to be able to and I really wanted the opportunity and I found other colleagues who felt the same way, that we really need to be placing external pressure on our elected officials and on our transit agencies to move in this direction. Because we can’t just expect these things to happen through normal sort of internal processes and that type of self-reflection and reform on some of these structural issues that have become so commonplace.
Cohen: Man, it seems like such a challenging hill to climb. Right? I mean, like, what I hear you saying is that in some ways you’re kind of challenging the mindset of the community a little bit to, like, not accept kind of this kind of the way it has been and instead kind of envision a new world, if you will, that could be.
Cohen: And is that going to be done from a—like, does that have to be kind of a focus thing, or can individual agencies do things along the way to help move you towards that vision? Does that make sense? Like, does it have to be a coordinated effort, like, all together, or can each individual agency kind of make progress towards that vision even by themselves?
Griffiths: I think we need both. I don’t think transit agencies acting just on their own doing what they can within their existing structures—that is certainly valuable and is something we should absolutely be advancing, but without the collective will and without the political leadership from the regional and state level, we will not succeed in making the dramatic transformational change that we need to, to change to get millions of more people. And that’s what we need; we need millions more people riding transit.
We need millions of people to stop driving every day, if we are serious about taking on the climate challenge and the environmental crisis that we have going on in California and the quality of life challenge that the Bay Area particularly has with our incredible lack of housing affordability and an increasing inequality that is resulting from the lack of transportation and mobility options. We are very clearly making the statement that we need the state to take action.
And I think by applying that pressure, I mean, it’s possible that the region might bootstrap itself together and take that action because maybe they feel like, you know, transit agencies all of a sudden that creates the motivation to begin working together and collaborating because they want to come up with their own solution rather than having it be imposed upon them.
Cohen: Yeah. Sure.
Griffiths: But we’ve done a lot a research on other parts of the world and other regions, and in parts of the world and in regions where you have a very high rate of transit usage, 20, 30, 40, 50% of trips being taken on public transit, it is because at some level there’s been a state or regional government taking action and creating the right governance structures and creating the right framework for planning. That doesn’t mean merging agencies into one agency.
Griffiths: And we’re very clear about that. Sometimes when we have this conversation about governance, people jump to the conclusion, “Oh, well, you just want to merge all the agencies, and that’s not good or possible for all of these reasons, so let’s stop talking about it.”
Griffiths: That is not what we are recommending. And we know there’s many examples particularly in Germany and in Switzerland where you have many, many operators, sometimes hundreds of transit operators, but you have a very clear role for a regional government to play to do the network planning, to identify the fare structure, and to coordinate with all of the various transit operators to operate a part of the network in a highly coordinated way. That will be difficult to create without the assistance of the State of California assisting the Bay Area and really coordinating the many, many various actors that I was describing earlier to actually commit us to that as an end goal.
Cohen: So one of the themes that I’ve noticed in the sessions I’ve attended so far here at Rail~Volution just in some of the folks that have been talking from Vancouver about their particular situation is one—I learned one thing today that I didn’t know already, which is that there’s no highway through Downtown Vancouver.
Cohen: And Vancouver actually as a citizenry in the ’70s rejected the highways coming into Vancouver. So in the downtown area it’s actually really interesting, that there’s some what I call boulevards, but there are not highways.
Griffiths: Hmm. Yeah.
Cohen: And so the reason I’m kind of setting that up is that I guess my question for you is does the governance come first or does the cultural desire and willingness to make that shift come first? And, you know, because that’s what kind of jumped out to me. It’s like they’ve got this great transit story happening in Vancouver right now.
Cohen: But I think it was kind of set up from 40 to 50 years ago when they rejected the highways—right—and they said, “This is the way we’re going to tackle mobility going forward. It’s going to be different.”
Cohen: So I’m just curious.
Griffiths: I think they feed off of each other. I think it’s not one or the other. I think when you have poor governance or you have a bad, checkered record of governance, that can exacerbate a car-centric culture; you have less trust in your public institutions to be able to deliver a reliable network, and your assumption around putting money towards transit is that it’s going to be badly used or it’s not going to be—you know, it’s not going to help you.
At the same time, you may not be able to make the case for—like, you’re obviously assisted in setting up the right governance structure if you have a culture that is receptive to that and a sense of the public good. I think in the Bay Area what’s really maybe ironic but also encouraging for us as advocates is that we are a very transit-friendly place.
Griffiths: We’re a very—it’s a region that has put a lot of money into public transit and that is very in many ways environmentally responsible and wants to associate itself with that. There is this sense of the common good. So we have that. I believe we have the culture of transit ridership. And people want—when we talk to customers, people want to use transit. They want to have the option to do that.
Unlike probably other regions that struggle with more of that cultural issue, what we’re lacking is the governance that can really create that virtuous cycle of, you know, trust in government, then government provides a service that you want to use, you trust in it even more, and you result—you know, you can make the case for these transformational investments because—you know, and which is I think what you have here in Vancouver, is you have a track record that’s changing the culture, and that’s feeding back into more investment in the system. I don’t think we’ve cracked that cycle yet in the Bay Area. We have the trust in putting money towards something, but we don’t have then the feedback of the public sector providing it in a way that people feel like, “Well, that was worth it.”
Cohen: Sure. Yeah. No, I think you’re right. I mean, I do think that culture is kind of there. That primordial ooze is kind of ready for life to form here.
Cohen: But I think, like you said, you need that governance kind of help provide that for you. Well, let’s maybe kind of start to wind down here. What do you hope to get out of Rail~Volution here?
Griffiths: Well, I’m hoping to learn and obviously from Vancouver and from other places. I’m going to be on a panel speaking with representatives from the Tampa Bay area as well as Dallas, and they are other regions going through similarly, have very relatable challenges in terms of fragmentation. I’m also—I want to share the message of Seamless Bay Area however I can. I think it’s been incredibly encouraging for us to speak to people in the field and to get the response that so many people have to our cause, which is that, like, “Thank goodness that you’re taking this on; this is really important work.”
And I believe that the more we talk about it, the more likely it’s going to happen. If we stop treating this as a taboo issue and really acknowledge that individuals acting in silos or transit agencies acting alone or even MPOs acting on their own, that there’s a limit to how far we can get and that we need to really revisit some of the structural elements to make large advances in our mobility ecosystem. I believe that’s true, and I think the more that we acknowledge that and talk about it and then talk about the success and how we can actually do it, I think the more likely we’re able to do that. So if I can contribute to that type of mind shift here at Rail~Volution, I’ll be really happy.
Cohen: Excellent. Where can folks learn more about your work or you?
Griffiths: So our website is SeamlessBayArea.org. We have a vision map of what we believe a seamlessly integrated system would look like in the Bay Area. We’ve launched something called the Seamless Transit Principles, which are a set of seven transit principles that we believe. We were inspired by Robin Chase’s Shared Mobility Principles, and we really want to try to commit public agencies, private companies towards this vision of a more integrated system. So our website. We’re on Twitter at @SeamlessBayArea and LinkedIn and Facebook, and hopefully you’ll be reading about us in the newspaper increasingly if we’re able to get some legislation passed in the next year.
Cohen: Excellent. Well, Ian, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate you joining and sharing a little bit of your perspective on building Seamless Bay Areas.
Griffiths: Thanks for having me.
Cohen: You’ve got a great—you’ve defined it so well that it’s like it just rolls off the tongue, a Seamless Bay area.
Griffiths: [LAUGHS] Good. Well, thank you.
Cohen: Thank you so much.
Griffiths: Nice talking to you.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
For more about Rail~Volution 2019, read our Rail~Volution recap today!