Are we missing the bus?
A look at what it would take to get folks out of their cars
The bus system's caught in a Catch-22. People don't want to ride the bus if they have to wait an hour and walk a mile to catch it, but at the same time the public transit agency can't increase service when it sees only a handful of passengers per ride.
"It's a chicken and egg issue," said Tai Williams, transportation services director for Danville. "The longer the headways, the less of a tendency there is for people to use the service. And of course, the less people use the service, the more County Connection might conclude that there's no demand for it."
The cycle deepens even further since County Connection, the bus system that serves Danville and Alamo, may be facing cuts due to a lack of funding.
"When the economy gets bad we look at having to shrink service," said Cindy Dahlgren, County Connection's director of administration.
During an economic downturn about five years ago the agency cut services by almost 20 percent - about $2.6 million worth. They never quite recovered from those cuts, Dahlgren said.
"We have gradually started to add back a little more here and there, but with the way the economy's looking now we're probably going to face more cuts again - just as we're starting to get back on our feet."
Cutting service can be a dangerous, slippery slope if it means fewer and fewer people choose to take the bus. The question is: At what point is convenience so diluted that there's no point in having buses at all?
Shary Lee opens a book on the No. 121 - the route that runs through Danville and Alamo - on her way to work at Costco on Fostoria Way. For almost a year she's been commuting via public transportation to her job in Danville from her Oakland home - a two-hour commute each way.
"The only time I don't like it is if I'm really tired, worked really long hours, and have to wait 30 minutes," she said.
The sentiment is shared by many regular bus riders. A ridership survey conducted by County Connection in January shows passengers' No. 1 complaint is long wait times between buses.
Illustrating this, Lee explains that on Sunday mornings she has to be at work by 9 a.m. and BART pulls into the Walnut Creek station at 8:45 - the exact same time the No. 121 is scheduled to leave. If she misses that 8:45 bus, the next one doesn't come for an hour.
At the end of the work day, the last Sunday bus is at 6:06 p.m., she said, pulling out her schedule to double check the exact time. If she misses that bus, she's stranded in Danville.
Lee represents the most popular category of rider in the area: the commuter. Seventy-two percent of route 121 riders use the bus to commute to and from work. Of those, people in the higher-income bracket are typically commuting from the suburbs to the city, whereas lower-income riders are traveling within the area.
With nearly a quarter of County Connection riders earning less than $10,000 a year, low-income riders represent a substantial chunk of passengers. So do minorities, which make up approximately 60 percent of all riders.
"(We get) just about everybody," said John D., who has been a bus driver with the company for 11 years. He requested not to have his full last name used. "All socioeconomic types of people," he said, motioning from his driver's seat to the dozen scattered passengers behind him.
But there are noticeable trends, he added. It's typical to see elderly or handicapped passengers, immigrants, low-income workers and students. The common thread linking these groups is that - for disparate reasons - they often lack the means to get either a vehicle or a driver's license, or they don't have the ability to drive.
Which leads to an interesting observation: If people are able to drive instead of taking the bus, they usually will. Only 23 percent of County Connection riders have both a vehicle and a license, meaning 77 percent take public transit because it's their only way to get around.
Williams said that in Danville it's students whose parents who don't have time to drive them to school and the town's "working population" that rely on the bus. She said perhaps more people would use it if service were enhanced.
Dahlgren called the bus industry "the height of paradox": It's expected to get people quickly to and from their destination, but has to have many stops so it's convenient for anyone who wants to ride. It's expected to reduce congestion on the roads but doesn't have the necessary resources to compete with private cars.
"How can you do both of those things at the same time? You can't. We have to juggle these competing and sometimes self-cancelling demands, and try to do the best we can with the resources we have," she said. "And it's always an enormous challenge."
And here's another bus paradox.
Considering the extra high price of gas these days it would seem logical to turn attention and resources toward alternatives to cars. What's more, climbing gas prices are generating more funds from its sales tax than was originally predicted - funds many say should go toward public transit. But with the state budget in a slump, the government is tempted to take these "spillover" funds and put them into the state's general fund instead.
The legality of the situation is murky. Proposition 42 stipulates that gasoline sales tax revenues should be used for state and local transportation purposes. But "spillover is not protected under Prop 42," said Dahlgren. "It can be creamed off and used for other things."
County Connection depends on those funds. The agency estimates that it could serve about 1,200 more passenger trips a day with its share of the spillover money. Otherwise it would very likely be forced to cut service.
Dahlgren said Gov. Schwarzenegger has diverted spillover money to the general fund in the past. And while the good news is that this year some of the money is getting paid back, the bad news is that it has strings attached.
A good chunk of the funds from the state are reserved for "regional priorities," she said. "That means that we don't get all of the Prop 42 money back."
Part of County Connection's funding comes from the state and federal government and part from local sales tax. The latter is also posing financial problems for the company. The sagging economy of late means fewer sales, which means less revenue from sales tax, which means less funds for the bus.
With no spillover funds, incomplete payback from Prop 42 and less local tax revenue, the bus company's outlook is dreary, Dahlgren said. "All three of those things combined put us in a very precarious financial situation."
What it could mean
Williams said she understands the financial constraints public transportation's facing, but fears that if service is cut too much it will disappear entirely. At some point, she considered, it wouldn't be worth running a bus system at all anymore.
"Who can really say that they don't want more public transportation?" she asked. "It would be important to have additional service in the right place in the right time."
For example, she would like to see service to key middle schools in the area and enough routes so that folks can make their way downtown or to the Danville Park and Ride from just about anywhere.
"The more service we have, the greater benefit we would derive from it," she said. "It would certainly help alleviate some of the congestion. I think we all understand - globally - that our streets are congested because we have a lot of vehicles."
She said public transit has the potential to be "a huge part" of the solution to traffic congestion. The reason being that when you can't expand roadways or intersections - because the town is at capacity and there just isn't space - you have to instead consolidate the people on the road.
If 50 people need to get somewhere, rather than have 50 individual cars, put all those people on a bus together.
This of course also benefits the environment, by the reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
One-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from automobiles, according to American Public Transportation Association statistics. But a solo commuter switching to public transit is estimated to reduce emissions by 20 pounds a day. And, public transportation saves the country the equivalent of 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline each year.
Get on the bus
On top of benefiting the environment and helping with traffic congestion, public transportation provides an alternative to those for whom owning a car just isn't an option. And it's usually much easier on the pocketbook than its pricey counterpart; statistics show households that use public transportation save an average of $6,000 a year on average.
So given all its benefits, why aren't more people jumping on the bus?
"People are just too into their cars," said John D. "They like that freedom of being able to go whenever, wherever. It's a difficult thing to give up."
Not to mention buses tend to suffer from some bad PR.
"Some people think 'only this type of person rides the bus,' if you know what I mean," he said, elaborating that some of the passengers don't have the advantage of being able to bathe and put on fresh clothes, and the outcome can offend people.
Laura Bozeman, a route 121 regular, said she used to be "kinda snobby" about the bus and the kind of people who ride it. But when she started taking it everywhere after her license was suspended, her opinion turned around.
"I was kind of forced to go check it out, and it was pleasant," said the Danville resident. "It's very convenient and it's cheap, too ... You don't have to deal with other cars. You don't have to buy gas. I usually sit here and read."
Before the suspension, she hadn't taken a bus for 30 years. But she said now that she's started, she'll probably continue riding even when she gets her license back.
"I have been telling people that I ride the bus regularly now and I like it," she said. "I don't have to commute but if I did, I would definitely do it this way."
Lee shares the sentiment. She said her two-hour commute from Oakland to Danville would only take 30-45 minutes by car, but even if she got a car she'd probably leave it at home to save on mileage and gas expenses.
"I think we're finding a lot more people - since gas prices are skyrocketing - jumping on the bus thinking, 'Hey, this isn't so bad,'" John D. said. "I think we could get some more people on if people just gave it a chance, and tried it a little bit."
County Connection Quick Facts
Service Area: 200 square miles; 10 cities and unincorporated areas in Contra Costa County
Service Hours: Weekdays 5 a.m.-11 p.m.; Weekends 6 a.m.-7 p.m.; limited Sunday service
Wait Times: Weekdays 40-80 minutes
Weekends 60-80 minutes
Peak Commute 10-40 minutes
Number of Routes: 37
Annual Ridership: 4.5 million
Fare: $1.50 per ride; $53 per month