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are we ready to stop driving? right now?

By enelson
Monday, November 12th, 2007 at 5:11 pm in BART, Buses, Carpooling, driving, Environment, ferries, Freeways, fuel, Funding, rail, Smart Lanes, telecommuting, Transit vs. driving.

no-vehicles.bmpLast night I watched “The Amazing Mrs. Prichard,” a British television series about a grocery store manager who become prime minister of the UK  because of that longing many of us have for our leaders to use common-sense governance.

As one might expect, much of the drama comes from home-grown logic colliding headlong with the complexities of how things work in the developed world.

In this episode, Mrs. Prichard is frustrated that a G-8 Summit (eight leaders of the world’s economic powers) has come up with nothing concrete to deal with global warming. So after insulting the U.S. president, she proposes her own stab at the problem: On every Wednesday, no one in Britian drives.

I’ve actually seen this happen in a developed country. On Yom Kippur in Israel, 5.5 million citizens forgo driving. There is no traffic, and children ride their bicycles on the freeways. Exceptions are made for ambulances, and even those are famously attacked in Ultraorthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I got to see this first-hand when my wife ran out of gas on the eve of the holiday and parked our company car on the side of a freeway some 15 miles from where we lived.

But hardly anybody works that day either. The fictional Mrs. Prichard asks all citizens to take public transit (carpooling isn’t mentioned in the story), much to the dismay of some of her more realistic ministers.

Argues one, the system of public transport just won’t carry the weight of all those people who normally drive on Wednesdays. I won’t spoil the surprise outcome, but remember this the story is set in Britian, not California.

The story got me to thinking: What if we determined that such drastic action were required?  Could our system handle it?

The no-duh answer for most people would be, simply, no. This nation, state and region are built upon personal vehicles as the primary mode of local travel.

A few others might soften their pessimism by pointing out that the fiery collapse April 29 of a ramp on the MacArthur Maze, feeding Bay Bridge traffic eastward, proved that Bay Area commuters can make big changes and avert disaster.

I was among those who believed that commuters would not rise to the occasion. I was wrong. There was no massive gridlock problem, and people rode BART in record numbers. The Friday the Bay Bridge was shut down for 3 1/2 days on Labor Day weekend set another all-time ridership record, as people who didn’t want to get stuck on the wrong side of the bridge switched to public transit.

But in both cases, the seemingly miraculous disaster-averting transformation was quite small. All you had to do was drive to work on this Veteran’s Day observed and see what a small decrease in driving does to improve traffic. When 10 or 20 percent of commuters decide not to drive, it can make a huge difference in congestion.

For one thing, freer-flowing traffic means many more vehicles get through much faster. That little bit of traffic that tips the scales in favor of stop-and-go reduces the capacity of a freeway network by many more times that marginal number of vehilces represents. 

So when we had a ramp down, and even the Bay Bridge closed, we only needed a little relief to avert disaster. Making everyone stay home or use public transit is another matter.

Many of our transit systems, especially the big ones, are already hard-pressed to handle the ridership that they already have. Moving just solo drivers — who represent 70 percent of Bay Area commuters — to transit would mean increasing ridership by a factor of seven. We simply don’t have six more BART systems, six more Munis or AC Transits.

To many people, this is just an academic, or even whimsical discussion. People are going to drive their cars and that’s just the way it is. You can nibble around the edges, but there is neither the need for or  the possibility of taking all those cars off the road.

But there are two things going on right now that I belive militate for considering Mrs. Prichard’s challenge: What do we do with all of these commuters if they give up driving?

The lesser of these things is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s new crusade to promote at aggressive regime of charging solo motorists up to five times what it currently costs them per  mile to operate their vehicles. The commission, local governments and even the Bush Administration, are seriously looking at congestion charges for entering busy areas during rush hour, parking surcharges and even a new local gas tax.

These would combine to put the screws to motorists and raise money to improve our transportation network or simply fleece commuters, in the eyes of some critics. Transportation officials believe they might be able to sell some of this to the electorate as a way to fight global warming.

While a lot of work goes into that effort, it pales in significance to the other factor that’s going to make people ask how they, too, can fit onto our buses, trains and ferries.

That’s the very likely reality of $4-a-gallon gas, not just during price spikes, but all the time, with even higher spikes. Oil is close to $100 a barrel, which is a third again what it’s been for most of 2007. So far, we’ve not seen the worst of this phenomenon, but when we do a lot of people will start looking for other ways to get to work. People will still drive their cars to get their groceries and take weekend trips, but regular commute travel will reach a tipping point for the average Bay Area resident.

By this time next year, unless the Iraq war is ended and we open an embassy in Tehran, the train I try to ride every day to work won’t have extra seats to spread out on during rush hour. BART will be bursting at the seams and transit agencies will be struggling to operate more buses on their transbay and cross-suburb routes.

There is one bright spot in all this: Carpools. People who live out in the suburbs where public transit just isn’t that workable will start carpooling in droves. People will start quizzing their neighbors about where they work and making deals to halve their gasoline tab.

Once all of this comes to pass in my little made-for-TV movie, something like Mrs. Prichard’s solution won’t seem so draconian. Back during the 1973 oil crisis, I used to babysit my dad’s car in line at the gas station while he got ready for work, because you could only buy gas on odd or even days, depending upon the last number of your license plate.

In two days, I’ve waited in line twice to buy gas — not because of rationing or a shortage — but because of motorists swarming stations with the cheapest prices.

If things get really tight, we might return to rationing as a way of reducing our nation’s huge appetite for oil. We could accomplish the same thing, however, by instituting an odd-even driving prohibition. Not only wouldn’t we be able to buy gas every other day, but we’d stop using it half the time, too.

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15 Responses to “are we ready to stop driving? right now?”

  1. John Miller Says:

    It seems as thought you are waiting for negative economic impacts to force people onto public transit. I suggest that people are already desperate to get out of there cars in favor of safe, comfortable and reliable mass transit. My experience on the Capitol Corridor is that they are even willing to pay for it. Unfortunately most of our public transit options are not safe, comfortable or reliable.

    Most of the public transit infrastructure has been designed around those who cannot afford a private car. If we want people to get out of their cars, then we need to provide a better commute experience. Doing so may even be profitable. I know I pay $22 a day not to have to drive my car into the bay area, and would gladly pay double that to be assured of a seat with a plug, a table and no neighbor.

    Get folks out of there BMW and onto first class transit.

  2. miked Says:

    If local agencies impose congestion charges, it won’t end car driving. Rather, people will drive to places where they can park outside the congestion zone, then ride transit to their destination. For an area dominated by auto-based development, this might be the best option. More parking at well-located BART and Caltrain stations (Daly City and Milbrae come to mind) could accomodate the extra parking people. Developing homes around tranist will take a long time, but developing habits of driving to the station to park will not take as long. Perhaps this is the better model for the bay area.

  3. South Bay Resident Says:

    John Miller,

    Assuming your $22/day is spent on the Capitol Corridor, then doubling the price wouldn’t make it profitable. In fact your $22 dollar ride costs the CCJPA about 33 additional dollars in operating subsidies. This doesn’t include the $750,000,000 that has been invested in the VAST capital cost of this system that only carries 4000 riders per day.

  4. miked Says:

    South Bay Resident-

    Do you know the cost of roads and subsidies to oil companies per driver along the Capitol Corridor route? This would be a more accurate comparison than the costs between driving and taking the train- and you seem to have a handle on these figures so it would be interesting to hear.

  5. murphstahoe Says:

    well put miked – how much is the Bay Bridge costing? I don’t think VAST covers it…

  6. John Miller Says:

    SBR –

    Your numbers are a bit out of date, 4000/day was ridership in 2005. None the less even at $60 a round trip the cost would not be outrageous for people making six figures.

    Making the CC profitable is not the point. The point is that riding the CC is a pleasant experience most of the time. I can get a couple hours worth of work done, the crew is helpful, and there are no bums who haven’t been able to take a shower sinse last Christmas to smell. There needs to be more mass transit with this model. People are still driving with petrol threating to break $4 a gallon. My guess is that if they were offered a better alternative to driving then is currently available, and not the back alley on wheels that much of our public transit is designed for these days, that they would be willing to pay a premium for it.

  7. Capricious Commuter Says:

    John, I share your appreciation of the Capitol Corridor. As I write this, I’m working in Pleasanton and seriously considering driving back to Oakland just so I can avoid driving out the the Central Valley and back tomorrow.

    But as far as paying that premium, it may be true for your average Beemer owner, but not for me. I’m already straining under the weight of the 25 bucks a day it costs me to take the train. That’s like a quarter of my net income. Yes, we journalists may be famous, but we’re not rich.

    I’m constantly doing the math, calculating how my train fare compares with gas+tolls. Right now, it’s dead even. Wear and tear on the car should also be factored in, but not isurance and other costs, because I must operate a car for work.

    In any case, when the $5-a-gallon hits the fan, you can kiss your extra seat on the train goodbye. I’m already seeing my post-rush-hour train filling up more than usual.

    You can still work, eat and sleep on the train even you’re forced to sit next to paupers like me on the train.

  8. miked Says:

    Capitols riders-

    Are there stops that have many more passengers entering and exiting than other stops? I ask because Caltrain saves substantial time by skipping stops on the express and limited trains, and if the Capitols could do the same, it may shorten the ride, help to fill the train, and bring in more revenue, which could then justify expanded service, etc. A lot of people take I-80 and it isn’t the fastest road around, so getting Caltrain-level ridership might be a real possibility.

    When I commuted from Berkeley to Sacramento (state work just out of college) I joined a vanpool that took 75 minutes door to door. If the Capitols train could beat that time, I would have paid extra to take it, but it was substantially slower and less reliable. In the primary commute direction (Sac to Bay, then back) I assume the drive is even slower so I would expect more people to try the train.

  9. MikeOnBike Says:

    Re: Capitol Corridor skipping stops a la Caltrain Baby Bullet.

    The Capitol stations are (mostly) pretty far apart.

    Berk to Sac is only 5 stops. None of them appear to be easily skipped.

  10. Kit Powis Says:


    Thanks for pointing out the bright spot of carpooling.

    On that note, 511 Rideshare is a free web and phone service that helps commuters form carpools and vanpools. Commuters can sign up for ridesharing using the free and secure online RideMatch Database by visiting, click Rideshare.

  11. murphstahoe Says:

    Caltrain sped up with the baby bullet because the limiting factor was starting and stopping. That is not the limiting factor on the Capitols. The Capitols go through the marshes in Alviso, right down the middle of Jack London Square(!!!), have single track sections where they must hold out, etc… The problems are completely different.

  12. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Where are the single-track sections? Certainly not between Sacramento and Oakland.

    In any case, I agree that the Corridor’s problem is not that it makes too many stops. The biggest factor is that it must take a circuitious route around the Bay shore from Martinez to Crockett and Rodeo. I think it adds nearly 30 minutes to the trip, not just because the train has to make this sharp left turn on its way into the Bay Area, but also because the route skirting the shore has a lot of curves that the trains have to slow down for.

    Last night, I just missed the train, drove my 74 miles home, stopped to pick up take-out dinner and still made it home 35 minutes before the train was due into the station.

    But from Sacramento to Benicia, the train can go almost as fast (top speed 79 mph) as much of the freeway traffic that isn’t jammed up. It’s also about the fastest way to get from Jack London Square to Oakland Coliseum, although few riders use that stop.

  13. Guy Span Says:

    The fastest way to use the Capital Corridor is to drive from your East Bay or SF community to Martinez, park at the station and use the corridor for what is does best – relatively high speed running to Sacramento. This curmudgeon normally enjoys the one hour trip from Martinez to Jack London for the sweeping views of the Bay, but if time is of the essence, then the drive to Martinez will lop off about 25 to 30 minutes travel time.

  14. david vartanoff Says:

    single track south of Hayward to the junction near Niles, west of Newark thru the salt marshes, Alviso, toward Great America.

    It took more than five years for UP to agree to put back the second track from Davis to W Sacremento at state expense even though UP needed it for freight capacity.

  15. murphstahoe Says:

    yes – in fact at the Great America stop in Santa Clara there is only one track at the station itself. While you don’t see the delays this sort of thing causes from Oakland to Sacto, it certainly can factor in to why your train may be late getting to Oakland in the first place. If one train is late getting into San Jose, the next NB train cannot enter the single track section until the SB one clears it.

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