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June 26, 2009

Public Transportation is Getting More Expensive, but Biking is Still Free

This week's post from Sierra Club Media Intern Natalie Gaber

In case you hadn’t noticed, life is more expensive these days, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any cheaper.

As a Berkeley resident commuting to San Francisco three days a week, I’ve especially noticed this cost-of-living increase in public transportation Three of the Bay Area’s largest public transportation agencies, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), AC Transit, and MUNI, are all sticking customers with fare increases starting July 1.

BART, the local subway system, is faced with a $249 million budget deficit over the next four years and is implementing a 6.1% cost-of-living based fare increase, which amounts to an average fare increase of 20 cents.

AC Transit, the East Bay bus system, and MUNI, San Francisco’s public transit agency, are engaging in similar fare increases. Fares will soon rise for both agencies by 25 to 50 cents. 

To add insult to injury, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that AC Transit is considering service cuts of up to 15%, which translates to 905 hours of weekday operation and 458 hours of weekend operations disappearing. Clarence Johnson, spokesman for AC Transit, says he hopes the cuts won’t be “too draconian,” but who is he kidding? If AC Transit revenue is down, then they should be providing incentives for people to ride the bus, not reasons to avoid the bus (i.e. increasing fares and cutting service). 

The epidemic of rising fares and service cuts for public transit is not unique to San Francisco, or even to California. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Capital Metro system in Austin, Texas, the  Kalamazoo County Transportation Authority, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, and countless other agencies across the nation are hiking fares and slashing service, all in the name of hulking budget deficits.

So, what’s a working girl to do? 

The answer: bike to work.

Fortunately, biking in San Francisco is set to get a whole lot easier if all goes according to plan. After a 3-year battle between various city agencies, organizations, and courts, approval is expected this week for a plan to improve biking conditions on San Francisco’s streets. According to the Chronicle, the approval would give a green light for the city to start striping 34 miles worth of new bike lanes, installing bike racks, and engaging in 46 other neighborhood-specific projects, such as removing traffic lanes on Second Street and prohibiting left hand turns at various intersections. All these plans are consistent with San Francisco’s “transit first” policy, which has been mandated by voters and encourages alternatives to personal car transportation.

San Francisco’s plans come in the wake of similar measures taken by New York City, where the Department of Transportation is already leading the way for bike-friendly cities with its “Sustainable Streets” program. The program includes expanding “alternative mobility strategies,” such as biking, and D.O.T. Commissioner Sadik-Khan says that NYC is poised to “become the biking capital of the nation.” This is a bold claim, but with over 200 miles of new bike lanes installed in the city and a public bike-sharing program in the works, Sadik-Khan may be justified in her audacity. Other cities, such as Portland, Oregon, have enacted similarly impressive bike programs, showing that bicycle commuting is feasible, and, given the current state of the financial world, an increasingly attractive alternative.

The bottom line: public transportation is expensive, and it’s about to get more expensive. It’s still cheaper than driving in most circumstances, and it definitely has a lower carbon footprint, so if faced with the choice between driving somewhere and taking public transportation, definitely opt for the latter. But, whenever possible, your go-to transportation method should involve two wheels and a set of handlebars. It’s free, it’s convenient (and getting more convenient every day), it’s good exercise, and it’s downright fun.

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