Crowded buses, less frequent bus service, and longer commutes are linked to heightened stress, missed medical appointments, and more social isolation among transit-dependent bus riders.
These are among the findings in a first-of-its kind study titled “Getting on Board for Health: A Health Impact Assessment of Bus Funding and Access”, which gleans directly from bus riders reflections on how service cuts and fare increases affect their bus-trip experience and their ability to travel to jobs, school, friends and family, and health-care appointments. The Sierra Club participated in shaping the study.
The Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) along with 16 non-profit organizations and public agencies, conducted the assessment to explore the health implications of recent bus-service cuts and fare increases on transit-dependent bus riders. Other studies have explored health impacts of transportation projects in terms of physical activity, traffic safety, and air quality. This study adds a missing perspective to regional transportation discussions by focusing on the potential health benefits of improved mobility when public transit is affordable, reliable, and accessible to all.
The health-impact assessment, completed in 2012, included surveys and focus groups with 477 transit-dependent bus riders in highly transit-dependent areas of Alameda County. Bus riders were asked how recent service cuts and fare increases affected their bus-trip experience, affordability, and access to essential destinations.
Among transit-dependent riders in this study:
- 9 in 10 student riders (89%) take the bus every time they go to school;
- 8 in 10 working riders (83%) take the bus every time they go to work;
- 1 in 4 riders (24%) take the bus every time they go to see friends or family.
Fare hikes and service cuts have a discernible impact on the health and wellbeing of transit-dependent bus riders. Among those surveyed:
- almost 9 in 10 (88%) were affected by recent service cuts;
- over 8 in 10 (83%) say they have more difficulty getting to their job, school, social activities, or doctor’s office; riders report how service cuts have led to missed work and wages, late arrivals and absences at school, increased social isolation, and missed health-care appointments – situations that can be harmful to long-term health and well-being;
- over 6 in 10 (61%) are experiencing longer bus wait times, over one-third (37%) are experiencing more-crowded buses, and almost one-third (31%) are experiencing longer commutes. Longer waits, crowding, and longer commutes contribute to increased stress, which can lead to a range of health problems;
- a small portion (6%) began driving or getting rides in cars. This additional driving will increase vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Everyone needs affordable, reliable transportation. For local residents without access to a car, public transportation is a lifeline to jobs, education, family and friends, recreation, medical care, and healthy food,” explained Alameda County public-health director Dr. Muntu Davis. “When service is reduced, many are left without a reliable way to get to their daily needs, which can have significant quality-of-life consequences.”
The study is timed to inform funding priorities that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) will make in July. Those decisions, included in the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), will determine how $289 billion in local-state-federal transportation funding is distributed across the nine-county Bay Area over the next 25+ years.
The RTP shapes a large portion of the funding that goes to public transit. For many operators, RTP will be a critical factor in determining whether there are enough funds to maintain existing levels of service, and to restore and expand service, or whether operators are forced to cut service and raise fares again.
Elena Berman, coordinator of St. Mary’s Center Senior Advocates for Hope and Justice, remarked, “We chose to be a part of this study because . . . for our members at St. Mary’s Center, the bus serves as a lifeline. It can be their only mode of transportation to the most basic of needs. Well-run and affordable buses allow one of the most vulnerable populations to remain independent.”
With these health impacts identified, the study recommends that MTC increase funding for public transit, including bus service, in the upcoming RTP. While this study focused on transit-dependent bus riders in Alameda County, there are 2.2 million residents in the San Francisco Bay Area who do not own or have access to a car. Increased transit funding would support the health of transit-dependent riders throughout the region.