Express Bus and Express Lanes System for the San Francisco Bay Area
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Policy Study

Express Bus and Express Lanes System for the San Francisco Bay Area

This study examines how a new approach to bus transit could assist in improving mobility in the region.

Executive Summary

Traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area is generally ranked near the worst in the United States. The region has one of the nation’s best transit systems and has long-standing smart growth and transit-first policies, but surface transportation mobility has continued to worsen even as government and private transportation costs have increased markedly—and transit use continues to decline.

This study examines how a new approach to bus transit could assist in improving mobility in the region. The primary focus is on long-haul commuter express bus service on what are known in the Bay Area as “Express Lanes,” particularly on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (Bay Bridge). Depending on the specifics for each lane, Express Lanes can be used by buses, high-occupancy vehicles (HOV), and/or by single-occupancy vehicles that are charged a toll (high-occupancy toll, or HOT). The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the nine-county metropolitan planning organization (MPO) that coordinates planning and funding, has been planning on expanding Bay Area Express Lane system for many years.

Imporatant Qualifications 

This study was finalized as the COVID-19 public health emergency is still dominating both public and private life. The eventual post-pandemic transportation impacts, both short- and long-term, are impossible to know at this time other than that the impacts will likely be profound and require years to fully play out.

This study does not attempt to make predictions or projections of what surface transportation in the Bay Area will look like in a few months or years; instead, it makes a generalized assumption that transportation conditions will return to something approaching the status quo ante within a few years. All transportation data used in this study is for pre-pandemic operations unless specifically stated otherwise.

Similarly, there is an assumption that the state of California, Bay Area, and local government policies and practices for land use and housing—some of the most important influences for transportation—will continue largely as before. These policies include continued efforts to densify existing central cities; support transit-oriented and mixed-use development; implement “complete streets” to shift some roadway width and capacity from auto/truck usage to transit, pedestrian, and non-motorized transportation; and discourage more single-family detached housing and suburban development. This study assumes that past decades’ governmental action patterns are likely to continue in the Bay Area.

Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Status Quo

As in common throughout the U.S., land use planning in the Bay Area has a long-standing emphasis on the core city center—originally, the San Francisco (SF) central business district (CBD). As the name clearly states, the SF CBD is the center, with transportation systems designed to bring workers to and from jobs downtown, as can best be seen through the original five-county design for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) rail plan. It was clearly to serve the SF CBD with three lines from the East Bay, one from the north, and one from San Mateo County in the south.

As Silicon Valley grew into one of the major economic engines of the nation and the world, and San Jose became the Bay Area’s largest city and Santa Clara County its most populous county, some degree of power-sharing has developed, along with transportation planning and funding. Oakland, the third and smallest of the three largest cities, never had the power or the influence to gain as much as its two rivals but is still getting a significant, but lesser, share of the resources.

These land-use plans and practices have continued even as jobs have primarily increased outside of the CBDs. While there has been growth in jobs in absolute terms in the major Bay Area CBDs, the share of CBD jobs has declined locally as it has nationally—and transit does not work well for suburb-to-suburb commutes.

Transit has been a major component of the region’s efforts to deemphasize the importance of the automobile and work toward what is believed to be a superior urban form. As in the rest of the United States, Bay Area transit has had difficulty responding to the transportation needs of increasingly suburban Bay Area residents. Other than the continued robustness, and even growth, of single-passenger auto trips, the only major modal shift appears to be the continued increase in the work-at-home cohort, which nationally now exceeds transit in home-to-work commute share nationally. It appears safe to count on an increased share of work-at-home post-COVID-19 recovery.

For many decades, the region’s primary emphasis in transit has been on major capital expansion projects, particularly passenger rail projects such as BART extensions, initiating and expanding the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail system, new ferry boat service and terminals, the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) from Stockton in the Central Valley to San Jose, Capital Corridor intercity rail from Auburn and Sacramento to Oakland and San Jose, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), and Caltrain service improvements into the SF CBD from Gilroy, south of San Jose, through San Mateo County. While these have had some successes in increasing transit passenger-miles, they have not had much success in replacing former drive-alone trips overall.

The emphasis on new rail and ferry projects has come at the expense of improved transit service to the transportation-disadvantaged. While some higher-income suburbanites have been able to reduce their commute driving, the bus service that has traditionally been an important component of mobility for many urban dwellers has been reduced. Fare reduction, one of the few well-proven (although little utilized) ways of increasing transit use, has not been tried; indeed, transit fares have continually increased, which tends to hasten the move away from transit to auto ownership, particularly for those who are looking for work and finding that transit can’t get them to the jobs they prefer.

The Bay Area planning community recently initiated the second step of a plan to increase transit access to the SF CBD from the East Bay. While this study is still in its earliest phase, the two main alternatives are a second BART tube and/or a commuter/regional/intercity rail tube, which would likely require well over a decade to go into service.


1. Implement long-haul high-speed commuter express bus service on express lanes.

This study proposes another option, a network of long-haul commuter express bus service from multiple East Bay and further distant origins into San Francisco, both to the CBD and other major trip generators, operating predominantly on high-speed Express Lanes, used for buses, high-occupancy vehicles, and single-occupancy vehicles paying a toll. The bus service would be designed to minimize door-to-door travel time and to minimize the number of transfers. This study includes potentially converting an existing Bay Bridge general purpose lane in each direction to an Express Lane.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has created and expanded a priced Express Lane network throughout much of the nine-county area, with an eventual target of 600 lane-miles. The Bay Area Express Lanes (known nationally as managed lanes) allow both high-occupancy vehicles (generally, two or three occupants) and single-occupant vehicles that pay a variable toll. Since the purpose of the Express Lanes is to provide faster and more reliable trips, they are ideal for buses. But, to date, the planning for express bus service has generally been only a minor component of the Express Lanes network planning. There is little or no express bus service on most of the new Express Lanes thus far, with the notable exception of AC Transit service on the I-80 Express Lanes to and from the Bay Bridge.

Express bus services have a long record of providing higher-speed transit that can be competitive with both passenger rail service and driving. In addition, some such services have very low taxpayer subsidies. The long-standing express bus service operated between New Jersey’s suburbs and Manhattan actually covers its operating costs from fares, advertising, and other operating revenues.

Currently, most Bay Area transit planning is developed on the “transit center” concept. For example, a long-haul transit passenger will start with a local bus route in the morning, taking her to a bus, rail, or ferry transfer center for the next vehicle for the higher-speed portion of the trip, and then a transfer to a local bus or another transit vehicle for the last leg to the job or other destination. While the transit center concept is useful and should be part of the Bay Area transit route network, this study also discusses methods to reduce the number of transfers, which are known disincentives to transit use.

Specifically, as an initial step toward regionwide express bus service on the Express Lanes network, this study proposes bus routes across the Bay Bridge that begin with local service through residential areas or park-and-ride lots, with the “local” bus then proceeding onto a freeway, preferably an Express Lane, directly to its destinations. Since it is impractical to serve all origin-destination sets with direct bus lines, this proposal includes a pair of Bay Bridge Transfer Centers between the toll plaza and the incline section where riders will be able to quickly transfer from their “collector” bus route to an array of “distributor” routes with a higher probability of seated rides from the beginning to the end of their travel. These routes would serve either the Salesforce Transit Center or other major SF destinations.

2. Foster support through community outreach, information and politics.  

Implementation of the proposal summarized in the first recommendation will require a project sponsor and a serious effort to explain the rationale for the project and answer many of the concerns and objections that may be raised. Elected officials in affected communities and state legislators from the Bay Area will be critically important in this effort, along with various community and stakeholder groups. The region’s MPO—the MTC—will play a key role in such a project, and it is unlikely to move forward unless the MTC becomes convinced that it would be a worthwhile improvement. Also critically important is Caltrans, which owns the Bay Bridge and is responsible for its operations.

3. Take into account the likely increase in telecommuting.  

The future of commuting post-COVID-19 is still very uncertain. Predictions of what fraction of the workforce will become full-time or frequent telecommuters after the pandemic vary greatly and even modest increases from the Bay Area’s current 6% could have a significant impact on all forms of commuting. If that fraction doubles, triples, or quadruples within the next year or two, it will call into question current proposals for multi-billion-dollar capital improvements, such as an additional BART tube or an under-Bay commuter rail line.

The proposal set forth in this study can be implemented incrementally, at modest cost and risk, while the post-pandemic situation evolves and larger-scale capital projects can be re-analyzed in light of changed commuting behavior.

Full Policy Study: Express Bus and Express Lanes System for the San Francisco Bay Area