We’ve now watched Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott give her presentation about Alameda transportation issues three times this year, once to the Planning Board and Transportation Commission, once to Council, and once at a League of Women Voters forum.
Each time, Ms. Ott has been knowledgeable and articulate – not to mention charming – in describing the public transit options available to Alamedans. But there’s been one thing missing: hard data. Specifically, we yearned to hear the answers to two basic questions:
- How many Alamedans now commute to jobs off island?
- How many of them get to those jobs by BART? By bus? By ferry?
Our point is not to find fault with Ms. Ott for omitting this information from her presentations – not everyone loves numbers like we do. But she (and others on City staff) have stressed the vital role played by public transit in mitigating the traffic impact of new residential developments so often that we’ve come to know the speech by heart. If they’re right, isn’t it fair to examine how well public transit is working today?
We think so. So if you’ve logged onto the Merry-Go-Round to read about the latest peccadillos of our local politicos, well, you’ll have to wait a week or so (or check the archive). Consider today’s column to be strictly a PSA.
For the answers to our questions, we started with one of our favorite data sources, the American Community Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Unfortunately, the data provided by the most recent ACS survey provides only a partial answer. It reports that, of the 37,337 workers 16 years old and over who live in Alameda, 65.3% work in their “county of residence” and 34.1% work outside it. (The remaining 0.7% must have a really long commute: they work outside their “state of residence”). Likewise, the ACS survey reports that, of those 37,337 Alamedans with jobs, 70.6% get to work by car, truck or van, and 16.0% use public transportation.
From these statistics, we could infer that about 12,732 Alameda residents commute to jobs outside Alameda County, but the survey data doesn’t enable us to determine the total number of Alameda commuters, since it doesn’t break down employment inside the County by city. Similarly, the data suggests that about 5,974 Alamedans use public transportation to get to work, but it doesn’t split “public transportation” into BART, bus, and ferry.
So it became necessary for us to dig deeper. We reached out to Ms. Ott and others on City staff and to representatives of the transit agencies serving Alameda.
At the request of Community Development Director Debbie Potter, assistant director Eric Fonstein sent us the appendix to the recent report on the Alameda rental market prepared by Bay Area Economics. According to BAE, there were 35,783 “employed residents” of Alameda during the period between 2006 and 2010, which it said was the most recent period for which comprehensive data was available. The chart below shows where they worked:
Based on this data – which, admittedly, is five years old – we can infer that 26,068 working Alamedans are commuters. Of this group, 5,710 need to cross the Bay to get to their jobs in San Francisco or South San Francisco. Another 16,608 must travel off-island to get to work elsewhere in the East Bay.
These are the people who are the target market for public transit. So how’s it doing?
Kevin Connolly, the manager of planning and development for the Water Emergency Transportation Agency, gave us the most recent numbers for the Oakland-Alameda and Harbor Bay ferries. According to Mr. Connolly, in August 2015,
- 23,906 riders boarded the Oakland-Alameda ferry at the Main St. ferry terminal on weekdays, 17,527 of them during the morning peak hours. (We didn’t ask about boardings at the San Francisco ferry terminal during afternoon and evening peak hours, since these numbers will include riders destined for Oakland).
- 25,534 riders used the Harbor Bay ferry, approximately 45% boarding in Harbor Bay during the morning and 45% boarding in San Francisco during the afternoon and evening. (The remaining 10% are reverse commuters).
Based on these numbers, we can infer that about 835 people used the Oakland-Alameda ferry, and 547 people used the Harbor Bay ferry, to get to their jobs in San Francisco on an average workday in August 2015. It’s possible that not all of these riders live in Alameda, but even if not, it appears that the ferries are providing transit for about a quarter of the Alamedans who work in San Francisco (assuming that the 2006-10 figure of 5,455 San Francisco-bound commuters holds true today).
Three trans-Bay bus lines serve Alameda: the “O,” “OX,” and “W.” AC Transit publishes an annual report showing average daily ridership for each of these routes, but the figures include both in-bound and out-bound trips.
Fortunately, City Transportation Coordinator Gail Payne was able to provide us with a more detailed breakdown. She obtained stop-by-stop data showing that, on an average weekday in 2013-14, 1,507 passengers boarded trans-Bay buses in Alameda, and 1,603 passengers exited those buses here.
It’s possible that some people get on a San Francisco-bound trans-Bay bus in Alameda and get off before it hits the tube. But if not, these figures suggest that the Trans-bay buses are providing transit for about 30% of the Alamedans who work in San Francisco (again, assuming that the 2006-10 figure of 5,455 San Francisco-bound commuters holds true today).
What about bus service from Alameda to Oakland and other job locations in the East Bay? At present, four local bus lines provide service between Alameda and Oakland: the 20, 21, 31, and 51A. Again, we got the breakdown from Ms. Payne: on an average weekday in 2013-14, 6,189 passengers boarded local buses in Alameda and 6,311 passengers exited those buses here.
Ideally, we would have liked to slice this data further to determine how many passengers took one of the four local buses during commute hours. We also would have liked to find out how many passengers who got on in Alameda got off in Oakland at their job locations and how many got off at BART stations to continue their commute.
But when we asked Robert DelRosario, AC Transit’s director of service development, for this information, he replied: “Since we do not have any routes that are completely contained in the City of Alameda, the information you are requesting on existing ridership needs to be calculated, which may take some time.” As a result, we can’t tell you how many of those 16,608 Alamedans who work elsewhere in the East Bay (based on the 2006-10 data) are taking the bus to their jobs.
Detailed information about BART ridership by Alamedans is equally hard to come by.
BART director Robert Raburn was kind enough to meet with us and give us maps showing the home locations of BART riders who boarded trains at four stations: Coliseum/ Oakland Airport, Fruitvale, Lake Merritt, and 12th Street/Oakland City Center. Unfortunately, the maps did not contain data on the number of riders.
Again, Ms. Payne came to the rescue. She pointed us to the 2008 BART Station Profile Study that showed, on a system-wide and a station-by-station basis, how many BART riders began their trips at home and, of those, how many came from Alameda. (The Station Profile Study stated that its conclusions were based on responses to questionnaires returned by more than 50,000 randomly selected weekday BART customers).
According to the Station Profile Study, 656,032 weekday trips on BART originated in Alameda homes in 2008. The chart below shows the average daily breakdown for five BART stations frequently used by Alamedans:
The Station Profile Study thus shows that, at least in 2008, 2,869 Alamedans were taking BART on an average weekday. Again, ideally we would have liked to slice the data further to determine how many Alamedans got on BART during commute hours and got off the train at their job locations. (The Station Profile Study contains estimates, for each station, of the percentage of BART riders whose destination was work, but it does not break down these estimates according to home origin).
We asked Mr. Raburn for this information, but he was unable to obtain it. As a result, we can’t tell you how many of those 2,869 Alamedans who took BART on an average weekday in 2008 were commuting to their jobs, whether in San Francisco or elsewhere.
The final piece of the picture involves transit-to-transit service. An Alamedan whose commute includes a trip on BART can get to the station by car, by bus, or – if he’s John Knox White or Bill Smith – by bike or on foot. We’ve already noted that AC Transit does not compile data on how many Alamedans take one of the four local bus lines to a BART station. But there is another way to get to BART by bus: the shuttles operated by the City and by private operators. Here’s the data provided by Ms. Paine:
- The Estuary crossing shuttle provides service between the West End and the Lake Merritt BART station. According to Ms. Payne, it averages 300 daily boardings.
- The Alameda Landing shuttle provides service between the Target store at Alameda Landing and the 12th Street BART station. It averages 100 daily boardings.
- The Harbor Bay Business Park shuttle provides service to the Coliseum BART station, and the Marina Village shuttle provides service from six locations to the 12th Street BART station. Both of these shuttles are privately operated, and Ms. Payne did not have the ridership information.
(In addition, the City operates the Alameda paratransit shuttle, which provides intra-city service for seniors and persons with disabilities. It averages 350 boardings per month).
Our objective has been simply to present the data we’ve been able to find about the use of public transit by Alameda commuters. We’ll resist the temptation to draw inferences from that data for future development planning – except to say this:
One of the transportation planners’ primary goals is to reduce Alamedans’ use of automobiles (or, more precisely, “Single Occupancy Vehicles”) to commute off-island to their jobs. Expanding public transit service focuses on the supply side of the equation. But maybe we ought to direct our attention to the demand side, too. If Alameda residents could find jobs right here on the island, they wouldn’t need BART, inter-city buses, ferries, or shuttles to take them to work. They could use local buses – or even walk or bike – to their jobs.
According to BAE, 9,715 Alamedans (based on the 2006-10 data) don’t have to leave the City to get to work. Imagine the impact on traffic congestion at the tubes and bridges if as few as a quarter of the 26,068 Alameda residents who are now commuting off-island found employment closer to home.
Isn’t finding a way to create more local jobs the real solution to our traffic problem?
BAE Commuter Flow report: Appendix A Alameda Rent Study 11-9-15
ACS 2010-14 “Commuting Characteristics” data: American FactFinder – 2014 transportation data
AC Transit 2014 ridership report: 2015-03-11 staff report to AC Transit board re 2014 ridership
2008 BART Station Profile Study: 2008StationProfileReport_web