Monday, July 31, 2006

Spare the Air free transit experiment

The free transit experiment, probably the largest in this country, is now over, after the first six days of Spare the Air days ended on July 21.

Some of the press reviews of the free transit days are critical. After all, the transit ridership went up by about 10%, and some regular transit riders complained about the crowding. Most of all it carries a heavy price tag of about $14 million.

To some of the transit supporters who advocates for free transit: there's the result.

The problem of providing free transit as a smog-reducing measure is that free transit has to be offered to everybody, not just commuters who regularly drive and take transit on Spare the Air days. Regular transit riders Spare the Air all the time and they pay a share of the transit operating cost. Giving regular transit riders free rides, while it could be justified in other ways, won't spare more air.

Another problem of free transit is that public transit is no longer only a transportation option, rather it becomes a public lounge space used by the homeless and others who have nowhere else to go, which drive away legitimate transit riders. Reports of alleged criminals using free transit is also disturbing.

The 10% increase in ridership can also highlight the relative inelasticity in transit demand in terms of fares as supposed to other factors like transit service improvements. In contrast, during the last two years, Caltrain was able to increase ridership by implementing the Baby Bullet service, despite having two fare increases.

However, regionwide free transit is a great marketing tool, especially in light of the very fragmented fare media in the Bay Area without Translink. Free fare removes the complexity of figuring out the fare, speed up bus service as passengers don't have to slowly feed dollar bills into the fare boxes, and allows low income riders to use more expensive rail service like BART and Caltrain for faster trips instead of local buses. Most importantly, free transit is like a trial offer as a way to increase the number of regular fare-paying transit riders who Spare the Air everyday rather than just on Spare the Air days. BART has reportedly seen an increase in fare paying riders after the free transit days.

Free transit has its values and its downsides. A free transit program should be designed in a way to encourage new transit rides that would translate into more fare paying riders after the program ends, and discourage free transit abuses.


Anonymous said...

I think the Spare the Air days are a little overloaded by making them both a tool for both pollution controls and a test drive for transit.

Some spare the air days have come with very short notice and as you pointed out overcrowding was a problem, but so were delays. Here in San Francisco, I was on a bus delayed as the driver had to answer a persons question about where the bus was going.

I wonder about holding an annual "free transit day" in place of one of the Spare the Air days, that works more like Bike to Work day where there are people out there helping those not used to riding their bikes. Transit operators could plan additional service, but they could also staff up stations with additional personnel to answer questions, prepare fliers and FAQs or just make sure they've stocked up. They could schedule for as many fare inspectors as possible and work with local police departments to beef up their presence.

It probably wouldn't be a popular idea to take away a spare the air day, but it could be scheduled for a day which has historically been very hot.

accountablevta said...

What is so typical in San Francisco is that people tend to ask the bus drivers for directions, which delays bus trips.

It is true that Spare the Air free transit days come in a very short notice. Unless you sign up for the Spare the Air alerts or watche the transit agencies web site constantly, you will have to rely mostly on the mass media for promotion.

Lowell Grattan said...

As VTA fare box only provides just over 10% of costs it should be able to provide free travel with out loosing much. I heard 2 million a week is being spent on plans for BART to San Jose. If this was stopped surely we could provide free busses and possible double the number of busses which would take many cars off the roads.