Motor vehicles are a major contributor to global warming and to Bay Area air and water pollution. Accessible public transit is an environmentally friendly and cheap alternative to using cars. New NRDC research suggests that adding good transit service to a neighborhood that previously lacked it can cut driving by as much as 30 percent.
Of course, access to transit tends to be best in dense urban neighborhoods. On top of this, residents of these neighborhoods have more services within walking distance, further reducing the need to drive. In fact, reports from the Bay Area's eight major transit systems suggest that these residents walk three to five times as much as people who live in low-density suburbs. Residents of northeast San Francisco use public transit much more, and drive some 75 percent less, than their suburban counterparts at the same level of income and family size.
The presence of good transit service has yet another benefit: it allows consumers to cut their cost of living -- dramatically. Both nationally and in the Bay Area, transportation is the second largest household expense (housing is first). At the national level transportation eats up an average of 19 percent of household income. In the San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland area this average drops to 15 percent, a savings that can be attributed, in large measure, to regional transit services, which move more than a million people a day.
If good transit allows people to drive, say, 30 percent less, it cuts driving costs (which might typically be $8,000 or $9,000 each year in a sprawling suburban neighborhood without transit) by about the same percentage. In light of these savings, Countrywide Home Loans is now offering Location Efficient MortgagesSM, which make more money available to people who purchase homes in dense neighborhoods where transit options are good.
Increasing Ridership Still More
The Bay Area can do more to increase use of transit. Devoting more dollars to improving and expanding existing transit systems is one way. In addition, equalizing subsidies for transit and parking would help. Many employers offer free parking, but don't give the same dollar subsidy to transit riders. Other employers are participating in the Commuter Check program, which allows pretax dollars to go toward the purchase of transit passes (and some do offer free Commuter Checks to employees who forgo parking privileges). Over the long term, transit-oriented development -- compact urban development located within walking distance of train stations and bus stops -- will also encourage greater transit use.