Oakland: “Transit-first” only on paper

But not the kind of paper they use to print bus passes.

Do you guys remember a couple months ago when the City Council was talking about how they could bring in some extra revenue by limiting the amount of City employees who got free parking in City garages and renting those spaces out to the public instead? Except that the list was like, really not very limited (see the list here) and it turned out that all that free employee parking is costing the City like $400,000 a year?

So when this came to the Council, District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan asked for the free parking issue to return to Committee, and that she would like staff to address more of the revenue implications of all the free parking, say what the monthly charge at the garages are, and explain whether there are any employees who have free parking guaranteed by their collective bargaining agreement. Also, they were going to look into the option of providing some sort of transit pass for City employees. Which makes sense, right? After all, we have terrible budget problems. And we have been officially a “transit first” City since 1996. So giving employees transit passes instead of free parking spaces that cost the City money makes a lot of sense and would seem to be consistent with adopted City of Oakland policy. Right?

Well, maybe not. Perhaps that logic exists only in my head. The free parking issue returns to Committee on Tuesday. The new report (PDF) offers none of the revenue related information requested — not even a passing reference to the $400,000 in forgone revenue that was stated at the previous committee meeting. Instead, it talks about a marketing campaign the Parking Division is going to start to advertise the newly freed up parking spaces on the upper floors of the Clay Street garage.

As for the transit alternative, well, it’s hard to imagine how that idea could have been taken less seriously. From the report (PDF):

In February, City employees with parking privileges were asked if they would be interested in receiving a free public transit pass in lieu of free parking benefits. Of the 154 who responded to a survey, 8 indicated interest and 146 did not. The most frequently cited reason for not using public transit was that employee worked late hours, need their vehicle during the day to perform site visits and other City work, make side trips before and after work such as day care, or that public transit was not convenient to their place of residence.

While current interest among City employees seems to be low, staff nevertheless explored the option of establishing a transit pass program in the City, at the request of the City Council. Staff identified three transit options provided by other adjacent municipalities. Oakland already has in place one of the three programs and may offer additional options if there is sufficient interest.

  • AC Transit Easy Pass program. Under this program, the City can purchase AC Traqnsit passes at a discounted rate. AC Transit requires that a minimum of 100 employees participate in order to implement the program. The discount increases as the volume of passes purchased increase. For 100 to 500 employees participating in the program, the City would pay between $77 and $115 per year per pass. If the City purchase 100 passes at $115, the annual cost to the City would be $11,5000.
  • Employee transportation accounts. Some municipalities crease transit accounts into which a specific dollar amount is deposited that employees can use to pay for transportation alternatives, such as BART tickets, van pool, bus passes, bicycle commuting or paid parking. The City of Berkeley, for example, deposits $20 each month into an account that employees can use towards the transportation option the employee chooses.
  • Commuter Benefit Program. Allows an employee the opportunity to set aside pre-taxed dollars that are specifically designated for utilizing mass transit. The City of Oakland already has this program available for its employees.

What’s that, you say? You asked 150 people if they would rather have free parking or a bus pass, and most of them didn’t say a bus pass? No way. I’m shocked.

Oh, except I’m not at all. It doesn’t take a Masters Degree in Transportation Planning to figure out that if you make driving cheaper and easier than other forms of transportation, people will choose to drive instead of taking the bus.

There is simply no excuse for the amount of free parking the City gives away, especially in light of the devastating cuts to basic services they’ve been making for two years, and will continue to make. If they want to reserve parking spaces for certain employees, and those employees want to pay for a reserved space, that’s fine.

The report also completely misses the entire point of an EasyPass program, which is that you give the passes to everybody. Not just people you would otherwise give free parking to. The ridiculous theoretical Easy Pass program described in the report essentially comes down to buying bus passes for the City Council and their staff, plus Department heads. What a joke. A Citywide EasyPass program for employees would likely cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 a year. Which, for the math challenged, is $100,000 less than the cost of giving away all this parking.

If cost is still an issue, there are ways to reduce the financial impact of the program. For example, instead of giving all employees the Easy Pass, the City could offer it at cost or half-cost to anyone who wants it. And not offer any free parking. This would result in a slightly higher per-pass price due to a lower number of participants, but I guarantee you that when you go around offering unlimited bus passes to people at $100 per year (versus $80 per month), you’re going to get a lot of takers.

The dismissive attitude towards a simple measure that will encourage transit use among City employees, one that is already in place and unbelievably successful in Berkeley and Alameda, is truly disheartening.

The Council is always claiming they support public transit and want to encourage people to use public transit and that they love transit oriented development and blah blah blah blah blah. But change begins at home. Apparently, in the City of Oakland, “transit first” is really nothing more than a catchy slogan.

The Finance Committee meets at 11 AM (PDF) next Tuesday, April 13th. Contact info for members below:

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28 thoughts on “Oakland: “Transit-first” only on paper

  1. david vartanoff

    Start buying them the passes and renting the parking spaces at full market pricing. They can decide to sell off the passes and pay for parking if they really are auto-centric.
    similar comment sent to the above CMs

  2. livegreen

    So City Staff ignores part of the request of a Council Person, but then asks the employees with free parking what they want? Who works for who?

    In a private business if you didn’t prepare the report your boss requested, you would get a warning or two. Maybe. Then you’d get fired.

  3. Patrick M. Mitchell

    So a report prepared by the very people who would be negatively impacted is missing key information that was specifically requested? Fire them! Then they won’t have to worry about parking at all. Lame!

    I will say that even though iingored the question about a guarantee of free parking via the collective bargaining agreements, they still provided the answer. This really is disgusting.

  4. Patrick M. Mitchell

    Oh, and how much do you want to bet that the people answering the phones at the Council offices are people who would suddenly have to pay for parking? I can just hear it:

    Nancy Nadel: “So, have people been calling about free employee parking?”

    Staff Member: “Yes.”

    Nancy Nadel: “Ummmm…and what have they been saying?”

    Staff Member: “”Of the 154 people who called, only 8 wanted to eliminate free parking.”

    Nancy Nadel: “Oh. Hmm…maybe we should consider offering free parking for life as a part of the next contract.”

  5. Barry K

    In the last complete City Council Report on the City Car Allowance Program posted on Oaklandnet.com, (March 2003), issued by Robert Bobb, he found


    the City was paying $700,000 a year for the City Car Allowance Program with $400,000 from the General Fund. He proposed cutting the Program by $200,000 for the FY 2003-2005 budget.

    What is the current cost of the Car Allowance Program and who is benefitting from it?

  6. Eric Fischer

    Does anyone even know what Oakland’s Transit-First Policy actually says? I have never been able to find a copy of it. The closest thing to it I have been able to find is this “based on” reference in the General Plan:

    Policy T3.6 Encouraging Transit: The City should encourage and promote use of public transit in Oakland by expediting the movement of and access to transit vehicles on designated “transit streets” as shown on the Transportation Plan (Policies T3.6 and T3.67 are based on the City Council’s passage of “Transit First” policy in October 1996)

    Policy T3.7 Resolving Transportation Conflicts: The City, in constructing and maintaining its transportation infrastructure, should resolve any conflicts between public transit and single occupant vehicles in favor of the transportation mode that has the potential to provide the greatest mobility and access for people, rather than vehicles, giving due consideration to the environmental, public safety, economic development, health, and social equity impacts.

    But is this the Transit-First Policy or is it just related to it? I don’t think anyone actually knows.

    Probably the more relevant policy here is actually Policy T3.10: “The City should balance the parking demands and parking charges in City-owned facilities with the need to promote economic activities in certain areas (such as Downtown and neighborhood commercial areas).” I doubt the subsidized parking here is promoting any economic activities.

  7. dontbotherdelores

    My beady little eyes focused here “The most frequently cited reason for not using public transit was that employee worked late hours, need their vehicle during the day to perform site visits and other City work, make side trips before and after work such as day care, or that public transit was not convenient to their place of residence.”

    Well boo hoo. Some people don’t have cars at all, they have to walk to the county and city buildings from their homes in West Oakland cause they can’t afford public transit. They do it and you expect them to do it and you don’t do no site visits to their homes.

    Plus, ever get to Frank Ogawa at 5:01 pm? Every door is shuttered and the Plaza is a ghost town. Empty. The free parking area? Empty.

  8. Ken O

    All the more reason for Oakland city and region to have a Transportation Planning Committee… since “nobody” is in charge right now and MTC is…

  9. oakie

    Why should city employees get a transit pass instead of free parking? Why should they get either? They are spending money we don’t have. What is the definition of a deficit?

  10. Patrick M. Mitchell

    Another advantage of eliminating free parking is that it encourages city employees to live nearer to their place of work. Maybe even in Oakland.

  11. david vartanoff

    They should get a transit pass because the greater the number of downtown workers using transit the stronger transit will be. As to the city buying passes in bulk, the net cost is very cheap, but for AC it is a guaranteed first of the month check. Everyone wins except the oil co’s and the oil states.

  12. Robert

    david, why on earth should we be giving transit passes to employees who currently pay for their own transportation costs? This would just be one more perk given to them at cost to the taxpayers. And oakie is right, why are we giving free parking to anybody?

  13. We Fight Blight

    In a major budget crisis we need to focus priorities. Providing free parking or even free transit passes should not even be on the table when we are talking about cutting fire and police or otherwise asking the public to pay more taxes. If the City eliminated all free parking, except that which is provided for in bargaining agreements, and then when the bargaining agreements expire eliminate the remaining free parking, the City would save $400,0000 a year. Regardless of the City’s transit first policy, why should City employees be provided a subsidy to get back and forth to work? Really, what is the moral, ethical or practical reason tax dollars should be given to public employees so they can either drive to work or take transit. City employees have one of the most generous compensation packages in the entire state and the country and yet taxpayers should also pay for them to get to and from work or pay for their parking? The BART station is across the plaza. If Oakland actually had a visible police presence in DTO and had normal crime rates then this yammering about safety of a very limited number of staff who stay into the evening for meetings or other work related tasks would not even be an issue. A self-serving report by the very staff that would continue to benefit from the retention of free parking is exactly why the City is bleeding. Perhaps we should also continue to send these employees to Alaska for Eskimo Yo Yo making classes. Did we ever poll the saff on whether they would prefer to take training in the Bay Area or Alaska?

  14. david vartanoff

    So, why should we do ANYTHING to incentivize transit use? Having the city of Oakland buy transit passes for employees is one piece of “gubmint” helping another in the move away from auto use. Let me be clear. In my view charging user fees for public transit is like having turnstiles and tollbooths on the sidewalks. So any time I see a way to eliminate single fare payment, I am on board, and as has been documented numerous times, flash passes are the fastest way to check fares while boarding. Boarding dwell is one of AC Transit’s major delay causes.

  15. Quercki

    I think bus passes are an excellent idea. The more people who ride the buses, the better the service gets. If only the poor and disenfranchised ride the bus, service suffers. It still saves money.

  16. Livegreen

    –So Oakland taxpayers subsidize ACT 2x, once through our Property Taxes, once through paying for Oakland City workers passes? (Maybe more than 2x if one includes fares & other taxes to AC County);
    –Instead if we do the alternative discussed above, we offer the discounted fares but City employees have to pay for them, that’s still a hefty discount for City Employees and ACT still benefits;
    –The Flash Passes are a good idea. I still don’t understand why Hong Kong’s system using Smart Cards hasn’t been adopted here (much faster than single fare or monthly swipe passes).

  17. david vartanoff

    @ livegreen, You pay to subsidise me riding AC, some of my taxes are “wasted” subsidising auto usage (I don’t drive) And FWIW the kids I helped raise are a couple decades past public school. Its called a polity (people grouping0 we all contribute for the common good which we debate and vote to change endlessly–pretty much like the Athenian assembly. So I ‘vote’ to constrain auto use in hopes there will be oxygen available to the great grandkids…
    And, here is CM Kernighan’s response to my e-mail
    Thank you for writing in support of ending the subsidized free parking for City employees. I proposed this at the City Council’s Public Works Committee four months ago when the City Admin brought forward its recommendations for updating guidelines about who gets that perk. My proposal was considered too harsh by many in the City Admin and on the Council and was delayed for hearing. Please encourage others to write all the Councilmembers to express their point of view. In light of the City’s “Transit First” policy, GHG issues and the City’s budget problems, this old practice needs to go.

    I note that in the couple days since e-mail went to the CM’s listed by our blogmeister only Pat has been polite enough to respond.

  18. Robert

    dv “So, why should we do ANYTHING to incentivize transit use?”

    An excellent question that you really should answer. You appear to believe that transit is inherently good and should be supported by the taxpayer just because it is ‘good’. I believe that transit is good if it provides a cost effective solution to problems. So can you answer the question of how it would be cost effective to give city employees yet another job perk?

  19. david vartanoff

    @Robert, Yes, I BELIEVE transit is inherently better than single driver auto use no matter gas, hybrid or even pure electric. Am I dogmatic? Yes, no point denying I have long since become convinced of the social detriments of sprawlburbs, long single driver commuting, huge destruction of fertile land by parking lots and freeways, not to mention GHG/climate shift and auto pollution by products such as increased lung disease, asthma, groundwater contamination at gas stations and auto repair facilities. Do I expect to convince you? No. So, I am not going to try to justify transit for Oakland City workers as an isolated economic issue as if the arbitrary $ ## were the only consideration. We just have different criteria for what a civilised society provides for the citizenry.

  20. matt

    We need to get a little Allen Michaan like on the council members about this.

    There is obviously a debate about transit passes and such, but no debate about the idea city employees should not receive free parking. We might see some movement from our council members if we simply push for the change that we all agree on: free parking for city employees must end.

    Now everyone -write those emails!

  21. We Fight Blight


    I think you have hit the nail on the head here. While I do not believe free transit passes as an employee benefit are appropriate during this fiscal crisis, particularly when you throw in the issue of unfunded pension obligations (see http://www.sacbee.com/2010/04/11/2670020/pension-promises-threaten-california.html), I am solidly behind you that free parking has got to be eliminated from both the environmental and fiscal perspective. Enough said. I will be emailing the City Council this afternoon.

  22. David


    The MTC points out that we have not been getting much bang for our buck when it comes to public transit. In the last decade we almost doubled the amount of money we put toward transit, while increasing service only 16 percent and ridership only 7 percent. Which calls for more strong words from the report:

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/transportation/detail?entry_id=61502#ixzz0lKGiVASz

    Gee, ya think maybe we should think more about ‘efficiencies’ and maybe cutting down those $150K/year station matrons at BART whose only function it seems is to glare at farepayers and let their buddies go through for free.

  23. david vartanoff

    Yeah. Those of us who read most of this data in a presentation via AC a couple months ago were not surprised. The problem is that we have a completely crazy economy wherein those with clout arrange to be overpaid and the rest of us are scrambling. The “Wal Mart” greeters in the BART and Muni stations have very soft jobs IMHO. That said, this society has NEVER organised salaries with ANY connection to social utility–it has always been brute force such as strikes, lock outs, replacement workers(scabs), right to work (be underpaid) laws, outsourcing to yet cheaper areas. As the recent disaster in WV reminds us, a pro-business regulatory and safety regime can be deadly.
    So, indeed SOME consolidation of agencies probably is in order, but as BART has demonstrated from its inception, having a regional agency with a suburban bias does not give the urban transit user a decent system. And for those who believe in democracy, AC Transit has for years reminded us that an elected board can make as many bad decisions as anyone else.

  24. david vartanoff

    They bought Van Hool buses at extra cost both per unit, and shipping. They bought the huge green interstate cruisers for transbay service. Why do I think the cruisers are a bad deal you ask. Because they are very heavy per seated passenger–in transport one of the goals is minimal “tare weight’ so as to waste less fuel. As to the Van Hools, if you don’t already think they were a mistake, we could go through this again, but I think I and others have beaten that horse way beyond death.
    They enacted a transfer surcharge which a. redlines neighborhoods off the trunk lines. b. tends to discourage discretionary trips. c. encourages long routes (such as the 1,1R) which inherently are more difficult to keep on schedule.

  25. len raphael

    DV, who were the AC Board members who made the final decisions on those items?

    Who were the board members in place when the home loan was made to the former general manager. btw, was that loan paid off or written off?


  26. david vartanoff

    @ Len, the last mtg I was at I said positive things to the board — they are gearing up to post performance measures on their site. As to board members, Joel Young replaced R. Kaplan, otherwise the current folks have VH fingerprints. While I don’t have offhand , the earliest votes on Van Hool or the sweetheart loan, they should be public record in the minutes. As to finding them, in the most recent board agenda there is a GM Memo detailing each individual VH deal. AFAIK the loan is still on the books. A look at the severance document should make that clear. I read it when it was posted, but did not retain much detail.

    I will say, that although I voiced very bitter objections to some of the cuts in the recent service adjustment, I also believe and said as much to the Board, that they made a genuine effort to be creative in cutting costs while preserving as much service as they could. I remain dismayed by the split of the 51, but that came out of a major effort on AC’s part to clean up the 51. Again they made an effort, and in both cases held community outreach meetings. . I applaud that and the 1R study as good efforts. In both cases I have opinions about better strategies, but at least they are aware they have problems and are working to fix them. I should also say AC has a weak hand when dealing with auto sabotage. In reading recent Berkeley documents on BRT, it seems Berkeley residents EXPECT double parked street vendor vehicles and expressed worry that these vehicles would not be able to continue blocking traffic under some plans. The pro auto use (green as I preach, but not as I do) folks are not likely to ever give up a lane of parking on College, yet there is NO way the 51 will ever run well in rush hour in that traffic.

    About the long routes, this goes way back to Key System/East Bay Traction times. As a counter example, CTA has very few lines that work straight thru the Loop,