Every day, thousands of commuters from north Santa Barbara County and Ventura come to jobs in the South County, including many in Goleta and UCSB. Most drive alone, but getting people out of their cars is becoming a little easier with the rising cost of gasoline. Add to this the years of highway construction near Milpas Street facing the 15,000-plus commuters from Ventura, and alternative ways of getting to work are beginning to look more and more attractive.
The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) study of commuting patterns in Santa Barbara County from 2002 to 2007 shows a seven percent reduction in people driving alone, a 3.5 percent increase in carpooling, a 1.2 percent increase in bus riders, and a 3.7 percent increase in telecommuting. A similar trend was seen for commuters from Ventura County. It is likely that these numbers have moved even further in the same direction in the last year.
Two factors are at play here: traffic congestion, particularly from the south, and the cost of driving. It seems that $4 a gallon for gas may be the tipping point for many drivers, making it cheaper for them to take the bus. Kent Epperson of SBCAG’s Traffic Solutions estimates that a Ventura commuter switching from driving alone to riding the Coastal Express bus can save about $5,000 a year. The Coastal Express runs from Oxnard and Ventura to Santa Barbara and Goleta, while the Clean Air Express runs from Lompoc and Santa Maria to the South Coast. Riding the bus can be relaxing compared with fighting traffic alone. You can read or sleep, and both bus systems plan to add Internet access in the near future so you can look at email, work or play on-line games, all the while looking down on the cars slowly crawling beside you! 30 to 40 riders on the bus can take that many cars off the road, reducing both congestion and air pollution. The disadvantage is that you are without a car at work, but a number of larger employers such as UCSB have cars available during the day.
Traffic Solution’s “Curb Your Commute” is designed to provide incentives for people to get to work some other way than driving alone. While focused at this time on mitigating the problems from highway construction to the south, the same advantages pertain to commuting from the north. Carpooling is promoted through an online commuter matching system at trafficsolutions.info, enabling people taking similar routes to find each other. It also helps employers set up car pools for their employees.
“Curb Your Commute” is going further, putting several vans with Internet access on the road in August that will be free for the first two months. Then the vans will be turned over to interested commuters on a month-to-month lease, though “Curb Your Commute” will continue to pay for Internet access for two years. Carpooling is more flexible than taking the bus since it can be tailored to individual riders. It can also lead to camaraderie and lasting friendships.
Flexible work schedules and telecommuting also take cars off the road at peak hours and give more options to employees.
Then there is the train. For those of us of a certain age, there is a romance to riding the rails, and there they are running parallel to 101! A group spearheaded by Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Roger Horton, Helene Schneider, and Grant House believe we need “a lane and a train” to get us out of the 101 bottleneck between Santa Barbara and Ventura. Their On-TRAC proposal is endorsed by the Ventura County Transportation Commission and SBCAG, the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Ventura and others. To initiate a commuter train service, Caltrans would need to adjust the timetable for the morning and evening Amtrak trains to times that work for commuters. To be successful, they must be reliably on time and this will require some track upgrades including an added and lengthened siding. The tracks belong to Union Pacific Railroad and for them, freight is the priority. Its trains run as they fill up at the docks in Los Angeles and Long Beach, on no fixed schedule. To establish a commuter train between Oxnard and the South Coast will require some major negotiations. There would also have to be coordination with bus service or vanpools at the train stations. But the logic of adding this option for commuters is inescapable.
Ideally, everyone who works on the South Coast would be able to live here. But the possibility of building enough affordable housing to make this more than a dream is remote. What we can do is make it a little cheaper and easier to get here.