July 11, 2013

By Richard Marcantonio 

Judging by the avalanche of news reports and tweets about the BART strike last week, you might think that transportation woes only affect commuters trying to get to work in downtown San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

During the temporary BART shutdown, the news was full of stories about people lining up at ferry landings at dawn, steaming in their cars, taking advantage of private corporate shuttles and casual commuter arrangements, or suffering through their first crowded bus trip into the City. In the spirit of journalistic adventure, several enterprising reporters even took buses or drove across the Bay Bridge themselves, in order to “get the story” of just how bad the commute was.

Stranding 390,000 commuters for a few days is, indeed, newsworthy.

But what about the hundreds of thousands of low-income Bay Area bus riders who are stranded day in and day out by fare hikes and service cuts?

The Health Impacts of Reduced Bus Service

Between 2006 and 2011, bus service throughout the San Francisco Bay Area was cut by 8%. AC Transit cut 15 percent of its service between 2009 and 2011 alone. Many bus systems also increased their fares. As a result, low-income families — who rely more on buses than on more expensive transit options like BART and ferries — suffer cost and delay on a daily basis just trying to get to jobs, doctors, schools and grocery stores.

But a new report from the Alameda County Public Health Department shows that the effect of service reductions and fare hikes should be measured not only in delay and outright exclusion from opportunities, but in concrete health problems.

As the ACPHD report notes, the stress of not being able to get to where you need to go is a risk factor for multiple health problems, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, poor immune function and cognitive decline. And social isolation resulting from inadequate mobility can lead (especially for seniors) to increased blood pressure, increased risk for cardio-vascular disease, lowered immune functions, and sleep problems.

Extra! Extra! The Real Transit Story

This ongoing crisis of public transit is rarely covered in the press. But it could be.

Now that the strike is on hold, enterprising local reporters should look for the story behind the strike story: the daily struggles of low-income riders to get where they need to go, including jobs, health care appointments and social visits. Those interviews should include low-income youth, many of whom are having trouble getting to school and jobs because of the service cuts, as well as seniors, who make up 50 percent of all transit riders nationally.

Another angle: Ask regular, low-income riders what it was like to have a deluge of new riders competing for their bus seats. You can bet that wasn’t easy. (The New York Times ran a photo in last Saturday’s print edition of a long line at an AC Transit bus stop, but didn’t tell the story of the impact on low-income riders.)

For context, reporters might take an especially close look at the role of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) in both the BART strike and struggles of low-income riders. MTC funnels billions of dollars in public transportation funds to subsidize rail extensions that cost upwards of $100 million a mile. Pouring that money into new BART track hasn’t increased transit ridership. What’s worse, it comes at the expense of increasing cost-effective local transit service and reduced fares, which are proven solutions to getting people out of their cars and into transit.

Ironically, MTC’s mania for expansion also comes at the expense of existing BART riders, who are saddled with higher fares to cover multi-billion dollar shortfalls in the funding needed to replace BART’s aging fleet.

What’s the Best Plan for the Bay Area?

The struggle of low-income bus riders is just one reason we’ve been advocating to get elements of the Equity, Environment and Jobs (EEJ) scenario incorporated into “Plan Bay Area.” Compared to the plan currently favored by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and MTC, the EEJ’s outcomes are far better for the Bay Area. Those outcomes include billions of dollars more for local bus and light-rail service in the region, as well as 83,000 fewer cars on Bay Area roads each day. That translates not only into less traffic, but also cleaner air, including 568,000 fewer tons of carbon emissions. All of this, the ACPHD report predicts, will result in less stress, fewer missed days of work and school and better access to health care for low-income, transit-dependent community members.

Plenty of people were inconvenienced by the BART strike last week. But instead of focusing on the frustration that BART commuters faced when BART service stopped, we hope the strike will wake people up to the very real need in our region for more reliable and affordable public transit for those who need it most. Without the EEJ reforms, the problems we saw last week could become a permanent reality with an anticipated 2 million more people moving to our region over the next 25 years. And if that happens, existing inequities in transportation will only get worse.


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