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With Plummeting Ridership In San Francisco Bay Area, Transit-Oriented Development Is Recalibrating

Mass transit needs riders for transit-oriented development to function as intended.

Yet Bay Area ridership plummeted over the course of 2020 and into this year, according to data from the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force, which convened at a Feb. 1 meeting. Total Bay Area transit ridership dropped from about 40 million in January 2020 to just over 5 million in April. By November, ridership was about 10 million.

The continued low ridership counts have necessitated emergency funding to save public transportation systems. Such funding may also help salvage the trend to build mixed-use residential development close to major transit hubs around the country.

For years bolstering TOD has been a major aspect of urban planning that has included incentives for developers with the goal of re-creating walkable cities with cars out of the limelight. TOD has been gaining steam even outside of core markets, but the coronavirus pandemic's upheaval raises questions about the planning strategy's future.


The descent of transit usage has caused staggering revenue losses, hampering the expansion efforts of transit operators. It also mars the lofty outlook of an interconnected region as symbolized by the recently built Salesforce Transit Center that remained conspicuously without travelers throughout 2020. 

“One of the very critical things is knowing who has come back in these last 10 months,” Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Therese McMillan said at a Feb. 1 task force meeting. “The ridership return patterns are very, very different in the region.”

Caltrain is still down 95%, while AC Transit is back up to about 60% of this time a year ago, according to McMillan.

Urban planners in places like the Bay Area have spent decades promoting TOD, which aims to place live-work-play development within walking distance of mass transit centers to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. This high-density form of development also provides a framework for building more housing units per acre, a method to alleviate California’s stubborn housing shortage. Yet, the pandemic’s shift to remote work has complicated TOD planning.

“Is transit safe? That’s the one thing stopping folks from getting on a bus or a BART train,” BART board of directors member Mark Foley said at the meeting. “Is it safe, is it clean? Are people wearing masks? Is there social distancing? Is it touchless? If we can’t address those things, then I don’t think people will return to public transit.”

In light of the vaccine rollout, getting riders back on transit is vital to getting TOD development back on track. Agency leaders hope that by giving transit an image makeover as a clean, safe and efficient way to travel around the region, riders will return.

In April 2020, in response to receiving emergency federal funds directed at transit under the CARES Act, MTC created a 32-member Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force to help the region’s public transit operators collectively adapt to the novel challenges. In addition to facing the immediate predicament of low ridership, the task force is also working on pre-pandemic measures to offer better connectivity between transit operators, better wayfinding and an overall better experience for riders.

One of the hurdles of increasing public transportation ridership, in general, is crafting seamless connectivity between different modes so that a commuter could conceivably travel from San Jose up the Peninsula and to the North or East Bay with ease. 

State Assembly Member David Chiu, a member of the task force, is expected to reintroduce legislation to streamline the region’s public transportation network of 27 different agencies into a more coordinated approach. He had authored Assembly Bill 2057 last February to implement a regional wayfinding system and require real-time transit information standards, among other changes. That iteration of the bill had stalled in the legislature, likely partly due to the timing.

BART data indicates that ridership in January was between 79% and 90% below baseline for the entire month. Despite the low numbers, extra train cars are being added to facilitate distancing between passengers. Hospital-grade disinfectant is being used in public areas and train cars are fogged every 24 hours, according to BART’s website. 

Were it not for federal assistance, implementing improvements to the system would be improbable. MTC recently received $982M in another round of relief funding to be allocated to the various transit agencies. 

BART is still moving forward with a plan to promote TOD. In August, the agency released an “ambitious and opportunistic” 10-year TOD plan that includes completing “high-profile” mixed-use projects on BART-owned property near stations in San Francisco, Oakland, Millbrae, Concord, Richmond and Walnut Creek, among other cities. Last June, the agency approved a West Oakland TOD project that will yield 762 residences, 240 of them designated as affordable, 300K SF of office and 53K SF of retail.

Although uncertainties linger about when ridership levels will recover along with the economy at large, plans to continue the transit-oriented development trend appear to still be underway. In January, a major TOD affordable housing project broke ground at 2233 Calle Del Mundo in Santa Clara. On Feb. 8, the city of Berkeley is holding a public visioning workshop to steer the future of development around the city's BART stations. 

There is momentum in other parts of the country as well. In Atlanta, Morgan Stanley and the National Equity Fund are putting $100M toward furthering TOD, according to the Saporta Report. Last month Lendlease announced plans for a $600M TOD mixed-use residential project on a 3.5-acre site adjacent to the Los Angeles County Metro Rail station, ConstructionDive reported.