Inspired by efforts in Riverside, some Santa Ana officials this month have proposed the idea of bus discounts for residents to drive up public transportation use in town and combat climate change. 

It’s one suggestion to address low bus ridership, cut down on automobile emissions, and provide commuting alternatives for low-income families living in this central OC city of busy, car traffic corridors like Bristol St. and major neighborhood parking issues.

It also comes as some leaders in densely-populated, highly-developed areas of the county look for ways to stem the quality-of-life impacts of climate change and rising temperatures from the ground up. 

[Read: Are OC Officials Preparing Enough for Rising Temperatures? Garden Grove Next Week Looks to Trees]

Meanwhile, equitable transportation advocates say it comes down to much more than bus fare to see real changes toward sustainable transit in a city that has long relied on the car, widened streets for them, and even boosted local car dealerships with subsidies in recent years.

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“What I would like to have staff review … is to implement a program similar to what we see in the City of Riverside, in their ‘Go Transit’ program,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra, posing the bus discount idea at a City Council meeting earlier this month, on Nov. 2.

“And that would be to provide a discount of up to 30% on regular monthly bus passes for all Santa Ana residents, in order to offer an incentive to use public transportation,” he said. 

Public buses run by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) get the most riders in Santa Ana, topping other Orange County cities.

“You have to understand that the bus system in Orange County is not a legacy system like in San Francisco, where wealthier people also use public transit. In Orange County, it’s a lifeline — a social service — to the poor,” said Peter Garcia, a transportation planner and policy advocate with the Santa Ana Active Streets coalition (SAAS), in a Monday phone interview. 

In recent years, county transportation officials have reallocated bus service away from low ridership areas of the county and more toward core areas like Santa Ana — though even the removal of some thought-to-be-underused bus lines saw protests from their riders, at the time

In October, Santa Ana saw 25,000 average weekday boardings on the public bus system, according to OCTA data provided on Nov. 22. 

Anaheim, which came in second that month, trailed by just over half that amount: 13,000 average weekday boardings. 

“While Santa Ana does have the highest amount of transit use in Orange County, which we should be very happy about, unfortunately, that’s maybe about 10% on a good year,” Bacerra said during the Nov. 2 meeting. “Not everybody uses transit as a necessity, some use it as a choice, and I think anything we can do to further that would be very important.”

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Bacerra during the discussion pointed to California Assembly Bill 2766, adopted by lawmakers in 1990, which set out to provide funding for programs to reduce motor vehicle pollution.

Money for the bill goes to the South Coast Air Quality Management District and is distributed to cities within the South Coast Air Basin, where Orange County’s cities, including Santa Ana, are located. 

“One thing eligible (under the bill) is subsidizing transit use,” Bacerra said, adding the city as of June this year accumulated a balance of AB 2766 funding in the amount of $1.7 million.

Some of those funds were appropriated for the current fiscal year, “but what I would like to have staff review is the ones that have not been spent,” Bacerra said.

“This would be a great way to help those here in Santa Ana struggling to pay for transportation and encourage more people — especially those that do have the choice of whether or not they take transit — to take immediate action here to address climate change, by reducing the burning of fossil fuels that happens when we see more and more cars on the road, more driving taking place,” he added. 

Bacerra’s colleagues appeared to welcome the idea during the Nov. 2 discussion, but took no action because it was a discussion item for staff to take notes on and come back with something at a later date.

Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who sits on OCTA’s Board of Directors, expressed uncertainty whether funding from AB 2766 could actually be used that way and indicated that OCTA’s CEO, Darrell Johnson, had doubts about it as well. 

“OCTA remains unsure of whether money from AB 2766 could be used for the purpose of encouraging more people to ride the bus. The South Coast Air Quality Management District would be the agency to make that decision,” said OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter in a written response to Voice of OC questions, weeks after the council’s discussion.

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The agency has embarked on similar efforts on its own. 

In September, the agency kicked off a “Youth Ride Free” program allowing kids ages 6 through 18 to ride the county buses for free until February 2022. 

A watershed public transit moment for the county came in 2016, known as the OC Bus 360° effort, in which OCTA eliminated or reduced bus service in parts of the county with low ridership and reallocated the resources to areas like Santa Ana, the core of county bus ridership. 

“That effort continues with a bus restructuring study now underway,” Carpenter said, adding that OCTA is looking at additional discount passes to encourage bus ridership in 2022.

The bus discount proposal comes after the City Council in September passed a sweeping climate resolution committing the city to total clean energy usage by 2045 — a resolution which Councilmember Jessie Lopez introduced and Bacerra opposed.

At the time, Bacerra criticized the resolution as targeting many of the same environmental objectives City Hall had already set out to tackle through upcoming policy decisions like the long-awaited General Plan update, in which the city will — for the first time in decades — revisit its cornerstone urban planning strategy document.

Still, the climate resolution’s September approval was celebrated by various environmental advocacy leaders and groups as a “courageous, visionary” commitment, as California officials work to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% statewide by 2030.

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The car is still the dominant mode of transportation in Orange County. The widening of Bristol St. displaced Santa Ana residents and businesses in the 2010s. A number of plans to widen the Interstate-5 Freeway’s stretch through the county are in the works.

Over the last several years, cities like Santa Ana and Westminster have even supported the automobile industry with subsidies for car dealerships.

Transportation experts, like Garcia, say lowering the cost of bus passes is just one piece of the puzzle.

“I think the pricing is useful to an extent at getting ridership numbers up, but the frequency or reliability of a bus line is also something a passenger values extremely well,” Garcia said.

He added that officials should consider commuter patterns, when setting bus line schedules and frequency, beyond peak hours when people go to and from work: “Going to the grocery store, picking up the kids … Those things don’t always happen during peak periods.”

Garcia said city officials should also place a higher priority on public transit during the urban planning process if they want to see ridership in their areas go up — meaning “conversations about increasing density in some areas, reserving space in the roadway for bus lanes, and reducing parking minimums for new developments.”

Improving ridership requires “much more than tackling pricing,” he said. “It requires land-use reform, parking reform, and requires a change in transportation systems.”

“But this,” Garcia said of the bus discount proposal, “I think it’s a good step.”

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