Many in San Francisco love to hate the Google buses that bring tech workers between Google’s campus in Mountain View and San Francisco’s neighborhoods. The buses are seen a sign of elitism and gentrification.
But Google is taking steps to reduce its role in the transit business – Google has joined Mountain View’s North Bayshore Transportation Management Association as a founding partner. This is a nonprofit with the mission of reducing the drivealone mode share to North Bayshore to 45%. The TMA will run shuttles to Caltrain, carpool programs, transit pass programs, and other benefits designed to reduce driving to the North Bayshore area of Mountain View. Businesses that want to expand their campuses in North Bayshore are required to participate, pay in, and commit to reduce driving.
The North Bayshore TMA is part of a trend where cities are starting to fill gaps in the transit system, starting in downtown and transit-rich growth areas. The City of San Mateo has set up a TMA for its rail corridor area (Hayward Park to Hillsdale) and downtown (which is just getting started). The Peninsula TMAs are the descendants of the Emeryville TMA, which now takes 1.4 million passengers to and from BART per year. According to SPUR, 80% of jobs in the Bay Area are within 3 miles of BART or Caltrain. So the TMAs are helping to make that connection.
With the help of its Marguerite shuttle system, Stanford connects nearly 25% of its employees to Caltrain. TMAs running shuttles provide this benefit – and other transportation benefits such as carpool programs and carshare spots for mid-day trips – to a wider variety of users than employees of the area’s largest businesses.
Another benefit of the city-based TMAs is that they can do what big employers have been doing – and perhaps transit agencies have been doing less well – to survey and analyze the transportation patterns of people in an area – and create programs to incent people not to drive.
The Google bus, and City TMAs, are filling gaps in the market left vacant by the public transit system. Another entrant filling this gap in the market is a startup company, RidePal, that has a web interface that allows organizations to request a shuttle route and list the number of riders who’d use it. When RidePal accrues enough riders they run the route. RidePal makes shuttles available to smaller employers that are not large enough to run their own shuttles, and the shuttles are open to the public. RidePal could potentially serve city-based TMAs as well. A city-required survey could reveal clusters of riders who could fill a RidePal shuttle, and contract with RidePal to provide the service.
So why does our public transit system fail so badly at connecting to the backbone transit services, and delivering routes needed by workers and by people who’d prefer not to drive. One reason is that our public agencies have the self-image that trains are for wealthy people and buses are for the poor (except, oddly enough, the Google and Facebook buses which serve the well-off). So the transit agencies they miss out on the opportunities to use bus technology to *connect* to backbone rail, to serve needed commute routes, and to serve the emerging market of Millennials who would rather not be driving. That gap is being filled by the private services (Google), by private market competitors and cities.
Not long ago, an article in a Stanford publication proposed solving Caltrain’s operating budget deficit by having Caltrain run as a nonprofit, like, say Stanford or a symphony orchestra. It is not at all clear to me that turning Caltrain’s management into a nonprofit with a nonpublic board would help it serve its constituents. But there is emerging role being played by nonprofits with private investment in our area’s transit system. That is the last-mile connection, and the range of transportation benefits serving downtowns and change areas.