A Santa Cruz Metro bus bound for Watsonville
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

Why do other communities have better transportation options than Santa Cruz?

An equitable transportation system is a matter of political will; other communities have better transit and safer streets, writes Rick Longinotti of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. In a Community Voices opinion piece, he outlines how the likes of Boulder and San Francisco have succeeded and invites Santa Cruz County residents to the Transportation Justice Conference on Aug. 26 in Aptos.

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Pop quiz: Which of the following strategies to redress the economic struggles of many Santa Cruz County residents could be accomplished first:

  1. Raise the incomes of workers to a level that housing becomes affordable?
  2. Build enough affordable housing for families that need it?
  3. Improve our transit system to the point that it competes successfully with the automobile in our main population corridor and make our streets safe for bicycling and walking?

If you chose No. 3, we agree.

With a transit system that offers frequent, safe and convenient service, many households could live with one fewer car. That would make a huge difference in Watsonville, where the average household owns 1.93 cars and spends 20% of its income on transportation. The average household in Santa Cruz spends 18% of income on transportation. In San Francisco it’s 9%, due to good transit and “complete neighborhoods,” which means residents have stores, recreation, schools and amenities nearby.

Our Regional Transportation Commission invited well-known Portland transit planner Jarrett Walker to speak in 2018. Presenting graphs of local population density and bus frequency, he told the RTC, “For a community of your size and your density, let alone the degree of progressive values that operate in this community, you do not have very much transit.”

With sufficient political will and investment, our transit system could become as effective as Boulder, Colorado, where “more than a quarter of the population is riding on a bus on any given day,” according to a video on Boulder transit. Interestingly, Boulder had roughly the same daily ridership as the Santa Cruz Metro in 1990. Over the next 25 years, Boulder ridership tripled, while Metro ridership dropped by 20%.

In the video, former Boulder mayor Will Toor explains that around 1990, community leaders got together and decided, “We want a public transit system that can compete for people who have other choices.” Boulder staff says getting a free bus pass into the hands of workers in 1,200 businesses has been a key to their success.

Other communities have been creative about strategies to support transit. San Francisco uses revenues from public and private parking facilities. It charges developers a transit impact fee. In our county, developer fees are devoted to auto-centric projects such as the River Street/Highway 1 intersection expansion in Santa Cruz.

Local government leaders need to make transit a priority on our roads as well as our budgets.

San Francisco has an extensive network of bus-only lanes. Santa Cruz County’s best opportunity for bus prioritization is on Highway 1.

Currently, an express bus goes from Main Street in Watsonville to the county building in Santa Cruz in just 36 minutes — in non-peak hours. Imagine an equivalent travel time during periods of congestion on Highway 1 if the bus were to travel in a dedicated bus lane.

Santa Cruz Metro buses
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That was Metro’s vision when it led the successful effort to pass state legislation in 2013 allowing “bus-on-shoulder” on Highway 1. Instead, our county’s Regional Transportation Commission decided to pursue auxiliary lanes (exit-only lanes) instead of bus-only lanes. This choice is reversible — with enough political will.

Moving toward a less auto-dependent community will require good land-use planning. Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City,” writes, “Even in areas of high density, public transportation cannot thrive in the absence of a neighborhood structure, since it is the pedestrian-friendly nature of neighborhoods that allows riders to walk to the transit stop.”

That means local government needs to support complete neighborhoods, safe streets for walking and bicycling and focus development at transit corridors.

The proposal to build a large Kaiser Permanente office building and 730-space parking garage in a transit desert was the opposite of good planning. Fortunately, Kaiser withdrew its application.

Rick Longinotti, chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation.
Rick Longinotti, chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation.
(Via Rick Longinotti)

On Aug. 26, the public is invited to the Transportation Justice Conference, at the Unitarian Church, 6401 Freedom Blvd. in Aptos. Speakers from the Bay Area will join local advocates to address three topics: prioritize transit, safe streets, and transit-oriented development without displacement. For more information and to register, click here.

The first step toward a sustainable and equitable transportation system is learning what other communities are doing.

Rick Longinotti is chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. His previous piece for Lookout appeared in July 2022.