How to Create a Culture of Public Transit: The 'Marci Option'

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An exurban office park in California shows that we don't have to spend long commutes alone in our cars if we don't want to

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Today's national average gas price is $3.77 for regular, which means we'll spend about $1.428 billion dollars on gasoline today. But what if we decided not to? Instead of bloviating about drilling our way out of high prices, or coming up with magical green fuels and sparkly green cars, or punishing these alleged speculators in the oil market, we could--as a nation--take our foot off the gas. Think of it as a sort of Shock and Awe at the pump.

The American driver buys about a quarter of the world's oil production and has been willing to put up with higher and higher prices, despite the extraordinary drain on our household and national economies. (In March, we spent more than $42 billion on gasoline. Our gas tanks have become a stimulus program in reverse.) If we significantly reduced our commutes, we'd not only reduce the amount of money we're spending on oil, we might also send a message to the oil market that there are limits to what we'll pay, thus dampening prices.

But conventional wisdom says that Americans will not get out of our cars. Only 4.5 percent of us take public transit because it's too [fill in the blank] inconvenient, expensive, slow, unpredictable, dangerous, or un-American. Another 10 percent or so use carpools, but nearly nine out of 10 of us commute to work in cars, mostly alone. (Outside transit-rich cities like New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco, this number is higher.) The hurdle to change the way Americans commute seems impossibly high, and made of expensive investments in high-speed rail, light rail, and long-term changes in development patterns.

Marci and her team see leaving the car at home as a lifestyle choice rather than a sacrifice—something you'd read about in Real Simple or Oprah.

But is that really true? Last week I went to an exurban office park in San Ramon, California where 33 percent of the park's 30,000 workers leave their cars at home. Despite the fact that Bishop Ranch is 37 miles from San Francisco, a dozen miles from the nearest BART rail station, and home to Chevron's corporate offices, its parking lots are surprisingly empty, and it has won many awards for transit. Marci McGuire, the program manager for the Ranch's Transportation center, describes the attitude at the park as "a culture" where it's cool to have a bus pass. "When you do it right, it's like a cult," she says.

I spent a couple of hours with Marci to find out how she nurtures this cult that gets 10,000 people out of their cars daily. It seemed to me that there were three aspects of the program that operate counter to the current thinking. First, logistically, there are a lot of buses that terminate and originate within a few blocks of all the 30,000 jobs in the park. Secondly, the focus of the transit program is not exclusively environmental, but encompasses health, stress, and financial benefits. Thirdly, though there are 500 businesses at the park, a single office takes pride in its ability to get people on transit, and thus there's an evangelical zeal to the whole operation. It's not "just a program"--it's Marci and her team's program.

First, the logistics: The park was developed from farmland by Masud Mehran's Sunset Development Corporation in 1978 on the belief that San Francisco real estate would soon become expensive and companies would need cheaper space for their administrative services. His grandson, Alexander Mehran, describes the transit program as "a necessity that developed into a whole different animal." When the park started, it was simply too far from anywhere. "We were getting crushed by people going to work in Walnut Creek and Dublin," where the BART stations are. As a result, the ranch bought a fleet of buses and worked with the city and county transit agencies to subsidize both bus routes and bus passes for workers. There are now 13 different bus routes running to the park, and the connections to BART and various local train and express bus services are coordinated. On its website, the Ranch now pitches its transit program as a competitive advantage.

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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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