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  • Writer's pictureJim Gunshinan

The Costs of Getting to Work—Comparing Cars to BART

Posted by Jim Gunshinan on March 27, 2023, at 3:57 pm in SCOCO Insights Newsletter


The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission is studying how we might adjust transportation to avoid the worst consequences of Bay Area traffic. In a recent article from the San Francisco Chronicle, the commission reports that traffic congestion will only get worse, reaching a peak of awfulness around 2050. That’s if nothing changes between now and then.

The Commission is still studying the problem and has not made any recommendations. The article did discuss the idea of creating “all lane” tolling on Bay Area Highways. They see three options to consider:

  • Tolls on all lanes of highways, such as 680, 580, 280, 80, and Highway 101,

  • tolls on the major thoroughfares of our area, as above, but also tolls on streets that feed those highways, for example, San Pablo road in Berkeley that parallels 80; and

  • tolls to enter major downtown areas, including San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco.

The article does not mention Highways 13, 24, 242, and 4, but a diagram showing the three options includes them.


Worst Case for Low-Income Families


This raises various red flags for Contra Costa County and the larger Bay Area. For example, how will all lane tolls affect living costs for people in Antioch or Pittsburg who can’t afford to live closer to the three major cities? And what about BART and Muni systems? Will they handle a sudden influx of people not wanting to pay the highway tolls?


A convenient and affordable public transportation system could make the three options above unnecessary, which is probably the best option. But we are not there yet. Ridership on BART, Muni trains, and buses has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. People avoided public transportation for fear of contracting a COVID infection, and more worked from home. So there is less income for public transportation equipment, infrastructure, and maintenance. How much more we will pay in property taxes to cover bonds for improved public transportation service is iffy.


The BART Fare Calculator tallies the costs of commuting on public transit. The calculator says a round-trip ticket on BART between Pittsburg Bay Point and Montgomery Station in downtown San Francisco, starting at 8 am, is close to $15. (This is less for seniors—about $5—and other groups.) This adds up to about $3,750 per year. That does not include the costs of getting from home to a BART Station and parking there. It costs $3 to park at the Pittsburg/Bay Point station if you can find a spot before 10 am. Reserving a spot costs $6 per day. This adds about $1,500 per year to the Pittsburg to San Francisco commute, to about $5,250. For a person living on minimum wages, that adds up to close to 18% of yearly income before taxes. To park in Walnut Creek could cost you as much as $15 a day for prime parking spots.


Suppose you show up to BART on a bike. That cuts the cost. If you carpool to BART and share the costs, you can cut the price of your commute.

But the alternative is much more expensive. According to SFGate, driving to and from Pittsburg to San Francisco, including the current cost of gas, the car’s efficiency, wear and tear on your car or truck, parking in the city, tolls, and auto insurance, driving a vehicle will cost you more than twice as much as taking public transportation. Driving could cost you well over $10,000 per year. BART is looking pretty good in comparison.


The Carbon Elephant In the Room


So far, we haven’t discussed the environmental costs of single-occupant vehicles versus public transportation—the elephant in the atmosphere.

Some quick facts, courtesy of BART.

  • A typical BART rider, traveling 14 miles round trip every weekday, saves 300 gallons of gas and 6,000 pounds of CO2 per year compared to a similar commute by car.

  • During peak traffic hours, BART riders get the equivalent of 250 miles per gallon used in driving an average car, which gets 21 miles per gallon.

  • BART is all-electric, with two-thirds of its power coming from clean hydro and renewable energy sources.

Summary: Taking BART is much better for the environment and your bank account than taking a car.

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