Bay Area Agencies Work Together for Better, Faster Transit Options

The 27 transit operators in the Bay Area are collaborating under the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to streamline wayfinding, integrate fares equitably, and improve travel times.

By Arianna Smith
Managing Editor
Transit California 

In California’s Bay Area, 27 transit operators across 9 counties serve 7.5 million residents, as well as many millions more commuters, visitors, and tourists each year. Daily coordination amongst operators, as well as long-term planning, is essential to help transit riders get where they need to go.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and its Regional Network Management Council (RNM Council) lead this ongoing coordination to create a more unified Bay Area transit network.  

“We’re all working together to make the transit experience better for existing riders and to attract more new riders by making transit more competitive with driving,” said MTC Chair and Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza. 

These collaborative efforts are more important than ever as Bay Area transit agencies grapple with shifting transportation uses and needs.  According to the MTC’s website on transit ridership, “Over the past three decades, transit ridership in the Bay Area has transitioned between periods of growth and decline – often in tandem with changes in the Bay Area economy – before dropping precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

“A cornerstone of the Regional Network Management effort is implementation of the Bay Area’s Transit Transformation Action Plan,” said MTC Chair Pedroza. “Thanks to outstanding cooperation among transit agencies, we’ve already made a lot of progress and we’re shifting into higher gear.”  

Executives from Bay Area transit agencies sit on the RNM Council to advise and implement customer-focused initiatives adopted in the 2023 Plan.

“Like a lot of places, the Bay Area is looking at how our transit network should evolve to maximize benefits to all of the region's residents,” said Seamus Murphy, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), an agency that was an early adopter of parts of the Plan. 

According to the Plan website, “transit transformation” means to “design, adequately invest in and effectively manage a public transit network that is equitable, inclusive, frequent, affordable, accessible and reliable.” It’s also critical that transit “integrate with unified service, fares, schedules, customer information and identity” and “serve all Bay Area populations, resulting in increased transit ridership and reduced growth in vehicle miles traveled.”

Alicia Trost, Chief Communications Officer at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), explained that implementing these goals are an important part of securing public support for the future of public transit: “Changes like this will help show the region we are not business as usual and we are committed to improving the customer experience. These are great opportunities to show lawmakers and voters what a well-funded transit network looks like.”

The Plan centers its long-term strategies on achieving a common vision amongst agencies and serving the region’s low-income populations while focusing its immediate-term actions on unified mapping and wayfinding, fare integration, and travel time advantages for buses.

Efforts to Standardize and Unify Wayfinding 

Updating wayfinding infrastructure is a central, visible part of the plan to reform the existing public interface.  

Currently, there is no single look for transit maps or wayfinding signs across the Bay Area; the designs change with transit agency boundaries and reflect each individual agency’s branding. Riders, however, often switch between transit agency boundaries as they travel, and the lack of standardization can confuse and even alienate customers. In a 2021 poll by MTC, over 90 percent of Bay Area residents indicated that “uniform and easy-to-use transit maps and signage” was “an important priority for improving the region’s transit network.”  

Fortunately, “sign streamlining” is coming soon. “We’ve got a whole new design for transit maps and wayfinding signs that will be shared by all of our transit agencies — with prototypes set for installation and public feedback this spring,” reported MTC Chair Alfredo Pedroza. 

“We are working on really exciting changes that will unify the various maps and directional signs that point to transit so they are all consistent and easy to understand,” explained Alicia Trost of BART. “The signs will all have the same color palette and will prioritize language independent transit icons that show a bus, train, ferry or cable car. First time riders and visitors can't be expected to know the names of each transit agency. This unified and consistent approach to signs will create a sense of familiarity as people use transit all over the region.”

Pilot projects to test the effective, well-received signage throughout the region will continue through 2025 and 2026, with full installation occurring in 2027 and beyond.

Fare Integration and Equity: Free Transit Passes That Work Across Systems

Some Bay Area transit riders already have access to transit passes that work across multiple agency systems. Under the Clipper BayPass pilot program, 50,000 college students and affordable housing residents have been invited to test a pass that provides free access to all bus, rail, ferry, and [ublic bike share services in the 9-county region.  

The pilot is helping MTC determine how an all-systems pass would affect Bay Area transit, and it has provided so much useful information that it’s being moved to the next phase. “On fares and payment, we’ve moved into Phase 2 of the Clipper BayPass pilot, which allows thousands of people to test a pass good for unlimited rides on buses, trains and ferries throughout the Bay Area,” said MTC Chair Pedroza. “We’re testing the next generation of the Clipper fare-payment system, which will launch later this year and will allow the transit agencies to begin a pilot program for free and reduced-cost transfers between systems.”

BART’s Alicia Trost affirmed the need for coordinated fare integration. “We are also working collectively on fare changes such as free or discounted transfer between systems.”

Seamus Murphy explained that WETA has already taken steps to address the short-term need for fare integration while advancing the longer-term goal of equity: “[We] aligned our fares with other transit modes so riders could choose the option that works best for them without worrying about cost.”

Ultimately, the results from the two-year pilot program will be used by MTC and the region’s transit agencies to help determine how to best set prices and implement multi-agency transit passes or fare caps. 

Transit Priority Projects, Travel Time Improvements, and a More “Seamless” Transit Experience for Riders

Improving travel times is an important part of attracting and retaining riders on transit systems, especially those riders who might otherwise choose to drive or ride in private passenger vehicles.  

The Plan calls for prioritizing bus travel improvements first. “To make bus travel faster and safer, we’re working with the transit operators and county partners to deliver transit priority projects all around the bay,” said MTC Chair Pedroza. A “transit priority policy” is in the process of being defined, and it is currently being discussed in a series of community workshops.

But agencies aren’t waiting to start coordinating.  Some collaborative efforts are already reaping travel time benefits for riders: “It starts with sharing our service schedules well in advance and lining up transfers as best as possible,” said Trost of BART. “Now, all agencies change their schedules on the same week and tweaks are made so whatever adjustments BART makes will complement the other services our riders connect to. “

Even agencies that don’t provide bus service are making sure that they are part of the travel time improvement solution. Seamus Murphy of WETA explained, “When we relaunched ferry service, we made sure to adjust service to accommodate off-peak travel. . .  As a result, SF Bay Ferry ridership is more diverse than it was before the pandemic and we've seen stronger ridership recovery compared to other systems. We're excited to see the region move forward with more aggressive implementation of the Plan's recommendations."

Additional Proposals for Service Integration and Collaboration

Some members of the California State Legislature recently took up the issue of Bay Area transit agency collaboration and even agency consolidation, and discussions on the topic will likely continue throughout the 2024 legislative session.  

While legislation proposing to consolidate the Bay Area’s transit agencies did not move forward in January, legislation that proposes to consolidate the Bay Area’s transit agencies was re-introduced and legislation to encourage agency collaboration was introduced without statutory details (For a more thorough explanation of this legislation, as well as the Association’s position and advocacy efforts, see Transit California’s February 2024 lead story). With deference to Bay Area Association member agencies, Association advocates will work closely with policymakers interested in this effort.

What’s Next?

Individuals can view or participate in the MTC’s RNM Council monthly meetings on implementing the Plan. They can also learn more about ongoing discussions regarding customer perspectives through the Customer Advisory Group. And of course, the Association will continue to provide relevant updates and advocate for member organization needs in the legislative session and beyond.

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