This overview was prepared for the mission of the Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN) to Silicon Valley (30 October-3 November 2017).
Author: Author: Marc Thomas, Research Administrator
Short link to this post:
Available languages:

Transport in California

Download the Study

California: 4.4% of the area, 12.2% of the population and 14% of the GDP of the United States:
With nearly 40 million residents, California is the most populous state in the North American federation. Its population is growing at a rate that has currently stabilised at around 1% per year (+9 % between 2006 and 2016, i.e. over 3 million new residents) and is concentrated in the major urban coastal areas, leaving a vast part of the state almost deserted (the county of Los Angeles has over 10 million residents; the county of Alpine has barely 1 000).
California is also the richest state in the Union. In 2016, its GDP in volume (USD 2 301 billion) was equivalent to that of the United Kingdom, making it equal to the fifth largest world economic power. In the same year, economic growth (+2.9 %) was higher in California than at federal level (+1.5 %). The unemployment rate (4.7% in June 2017) is, on the other hand, comparable to the national average (4.4%), and has dropped sharply since its peak in 2010. The transport and warehousing sector (including postal services) employs nearly 530 000 people in California (45 000 of whom work in public transport), representing 3% of the state’s total labour force.

Strong transport demand and predominance of road transport:
Economic and demographic dynamism are generating a strong demand for transport. In 2015, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were the largest and second largest container ports, respectively, in the United States (with Oakland port ranked eighth). In 2016, Los Angeles airport stood at second place nationally in terms of number of passengers flown, and in fourth place worldwide, while San Francisco airport was seventh nationally. In the same year, the Los-Angeles-San Francisco air route was the second busiest in the country.

Globally, the impact of the 2008-2009 recession on mobility has been eliminated, following economic recovery from 2010 onward: whereas traffic volumes on Californian roads decreased by nearly 2% between 2007 and 2009, they rose by nearly 5% between 2009 and 2015 (the trend is similar for the US as a whole).

California: road traffic in billion vehicle miles

Californians (25 million drivers; 33.5 million motor vehicles, of which 24 million are cars, and over 5.5 million are lorries) mainly get around by road, and mainly in cars: of every 100 journeys within state limits, 76 are made by car, 18 on foot or by bike and 5 in public transport. Los Angeles and San Francisco are therefore, respectively, the second and third busiest conurbations in the country, behind Washington and ahead of New York. The majority of freight transport within the state (96 billion ton-miles in 2015) is also by road (nearly 80% of volumes transported), followed by oil pipelines (17%) and train (3%). Trade with the rest of the country follows the pattern of national modal distribution, with road transport predominant, as shown by the following graphics:

USA: Modal split of passenger transport

The share occupied by public transport is not growing much:
Cars remain the preferred means of locomotion but, in California as in the rest of the country, car transport decelerated between 2004 and 2013, mainly to the benefit of soft transport modes (walking and cycling) and slightly to the benefit of public transport. The number of passengers per year in public transport thus grew by more than 11% between 2003 and 2015.

California: Number of passengers/year in public transport, in million
However, this increase should be seen in context: over the same period, the state’s population grew by over 10%. In fact, changes in habits over recent years have not been sufficient to significantly change modal distribution. Once the overall increase in the number of journeys has been taken into account, the public transport share is revealed to be stable.

California: Means of transportation to work, in %
Investment in public transport is significant:
This nearly constant picture of modal distribution is seen at a time when, since the 1990s, local and regional authorities have invested significantly in public transport (and particularly in urban rail systems). This investment has been further accelerated by policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, with the notable exception of San Francisco, these efforts have not so far attracted the hoped for numbers of travellers, particularly to rail.

The BART network

In Los Angeles, for example, considerable investment has been made since the early 1990s in the regional rail network (METROLINK) – but it was less well used in 2016 than in 2007 (-4.3%). In the more central parts of the city, development of the light rail network is accompanied by an increase in use, but also a decrease in bus use: in the final analysis, despite the increased population and the millions of dollars invested, the number of passengers has not increased. The same applies in the San Jose region, where the number of travellers has fallen dramatically despite significant investment (more than USD 2 billion) in light rail (which does not serve the headquarters of the major hi-tech companies). As for light rail in Sacramento, the state capital, it has lost a third of its passengers since 2009 and is planning, as an economy measure, to temporarily close one of its lines which carries, on average, only 440 passengers a day! San Francisco has always been an exception, with its regional rail network, the ‘Bay Area Rapid Transit’ (BART) which, in 2016, carried 47% more passengers than in 2003.

Despite the disappointing results achieved to date, investment in public transport is not expected to suffer, because it forms part of combating greenhouse gas emissions (GES), an area where California wants to be at the forefront. In 2011, the California Transport Commission estimated that a third of investment in the state’s transport system should be made in public transport (including inter-city trains) for the 2011-2020 period. The Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which plans transport in the San Francisco region, is set to allocate over 60% of its investments to it in the decades ahead. The Southern California Association of Governments (which includes Los Angeles, among others), evaluates the proportion at 47%. As for the state’s authorities, they plan to allocate to public transport 15% of the amounts invested under the Road Repair and Accountability Act adopted in 2017, i.e. nearly USD 8 billion.

In addition, the California State Rail Plan, adopted in 2013, provides for the modernisation of the whole of the state’s rail network, to improve its performance and appeal. The plan envisages, for example, total integration of the local, regional and inter-city networks, including timetabling and ticketing. Above all, by 2029, a high-speed train (travelling at 350 km/h) is set to (gradually) link San Francisco to the south of Los Angeles (Anaheim), a journey of over 800 km, in less than 3 hours (compared to the 11 hours plus required currently, because the rail link is not continuous, and part of the journey has to be made by road). The line could then be extended to Sacramento (in the north) and San Diego (in the south). It would also be integrated into the state’s rail system. However, the construction of this high-speed line, which is a first in the United States, has already been significantly delayed and is much criticised (although the Californians adopted the principle in 2008, by referendum). Environmental impact studies are yet to be carried out, and the high degree of earthquake-proneness of the zone between Bakersfield and Los Angeles appears to raise technical problems that have not yet been resolved. Finally, it is now estimated that the cost of the line will be over USD 60 billion, but it is unclear where the necessary funds will come from.

Link to the full study:

Please give us your feedback on this publication

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Leave a Reply