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

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


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.

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.

The need for employment-centered transit often falls out of debates about Transit Oriented Development, but recent analysis by economist Jed Kolko of the Public Policy Institute of California shows that making sure that transit ends at job sites reduces car commutes more than putting the transit near homes. Policy-wise, transit oriented employment could be easier to encourage through tax breaks and enterprise zones.

Secondly, 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. While Marci tells everyone that one Ranch rider got rid of his car and saved $10,512 a year on his auto lease, maintenance, fuel, and tolls through the transit program, she sees that as the start of a long discussion. "If they're just looking to save money, it won't work," she explains, "If you're riding because it helps you make several changes in your life, you'll ride longer. It really matters that people feel they have a choice."

Marci says she often tries to figure out what's causing stress in people's lives and uses transit to solve it. One of the biggest problems is that people feel pressed for time, and she suggests they get off transit a stop or two early and walk so that they can avoid spending time on the treadmill later. The ranch is also along a bike path which is used by hundreds of workers for occasional rides. Marci herself lost 40 pounds taking transit and sprinting to make a difficult connection. The one hurdle Marci says she can't overcome is childcare problems, but for easier problems the Ranch also provides free taxi rides home--though only 2-3 percent of the coupons are ever used.

Marci says that once riders begin leaving their cars at home they go through a stressful period of two weeks or so where they feel that they've lost the control they had in the car. But within three weeks they notice their overall stress levels are lower. "Transit requires that you go at a different pace. You have to wait. If there were roses, we'd smell them," she says, "There's not much of that in our lives." She says HR people have called her saying some of their meaner workers have become pleasant people after switching to transit.

Do you believe her? Would you believe that taking transit solves problems other than getting to work and avoiding oil use--if that? You probably would if Marci were standing in front of you. She's a small, passionately chatty evangelist. Because she and her small staff have been tasked with transit for the whole park of 550 businesses, they take pride in every rider in the program. While urban planners tend to see bus ridership as a design issue, Marci sees it as a cultural endeavor. A conversation with her ricochets from practicalities like transfers to aspirations (that stress!) to an academic understanding of traffic. Typical of her approach is a packet of microwave popcorn --the currency of office afternoons--adorned with a sticker reading: "What do popcorn and traffic have in common?" (Answer: They both expand rapidly to fill empty space.) Will that abstract concept alone get a person out of her car? No, but Marci sees the impact as cumulative. While policy pundits like myself gabble on about the need for policy leadership and pricing externalities and the like, Marci works the gig more like an Avon Lady -- hand delivering bus passes to offices in the park so she can get to know the receptionists who then refer frustrated auto commuters to her.

Sitting in Marci's office, the path towards reducing our oil use in a hurry seems clearer than elsewhere--and possible. Maybe we don't need to wait for years of expensive infrastructure buildouts, new development patterns, technology, and punishing taxes or high oil prices. We need some of that, to be sure. But in the short term we could do a lot with policies to encourage employer-centered transit, a lot of connector buses, and a whole army of Marcis.

Image: Wikimedia Commons