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What if transit were free?
July 27, 2006 10:25 AM   Subscribe

What if transit were free? For six days last month in San Francisco, it was. At a cost of about $14 million (USD) for all six Spare the Air days, about 1.3 million (15%) more people took transit. Festivity ensued. Now LA's mayor is proposing a Free Transit Week. More opinions.
posted by salvia (85 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
A few more facts -- motor vehicles cause 75% of Bay Area smog. On each of the six days, there were approximately 64,270 fewer vehicle miles traveled and 226 fewer pounds of smog-creating emissions (Contra Costa Times, today, infographic unfortunately not online).
posted by salvia at 10:27 AM on July 27, 2006


I think the concept of free rides is great, but in practice, not so great. I commute on public transit in the Bay Area every day. I would love to ride for free. Problem is, so would everybody else, including people who aren't riding public transit to get to and from work (and also idle troublemakers, as one of the FPP's links points out). If public transit becomes so crowded and clogged with passengers that it's impossible for me to catch my bus or train home without waiting in a long line for the next scheduled bus or train, the free ride program will have the opposite of its intended consequence: it will force me to buy, beg, or borrow a car to get to and from work, and I will be sitting on Highway 4 in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
posted by blucevalo at 10:32 AM on July 27, 2006


"Free"?

Someone's getting taxed to pay for it, right?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:36 AM on July 27, 2006


blucevalo:

I wonder if the demand for public transit is actually that elastic. If it were free, do you think most people would start using it instad of their cars? In that one week, only 15% more did.

A well-designed public transit system has capacity sufficient to meet even peak needs, though I'm not sure such a thing exists anywhere in California.
posted by JMOZ at 10:36 AM on July 27, 2006


A well-designed public transit system has capacity sufficient to meet even peak needs, though I'm not sure such a thing exists anywhere in California.

I'm not sure how many places that exists, period. I'd say not in DC, anyways...
posted by inigo2 at 10:38 AM on July 27, 2006


i think they need to actually get transit in the bay area working, and then start thinking about making it free.

i work in an academic environment that focuses on transportation research and planning, and there are some interesting models coming out to reduce "headway" between trains, and buses, but until muni and ac transit actually implement similar measures, what's the point?

maybe making transit in the downtown shopping areas free, but subsidised by the shop owners. the real money is in suburban commuter trains, that tend to be slightly more expensive, serve a wealthier demographic, but are faster and cover a greater distance. i know sacramento has some buses from folsom to downtown for this.
posted by kendrak at 10:39 AM on July 27, 2006


City buses in the Belgian city of Hasselt have been free of charge since 1997.
posted by easternblot at 10:42 AM on July 27, 2006


So, if you wanted to increase ridership by 20%, would you have to start paying people to ride it?

There seems to me to be a classic whaling problem in all of this. To increase ridersihp by something massive, like 50%, you probably have to get more trains, more cars per train, redesign the station so more people could embark and disembark at once, maybe add more track etc. That's going to be insanely costly and huge, and in the end you've only dealt with one city's problems. Furthermore, the solution doesn't scale well as the population grows.

But if you think small, and figure out how to reduce the emissions of just one car by 50%, then you've made a huge impact everywhere, and the solution scales beautifully.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:42 AM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure how many places that exists, period. I'd say not in DC, anyways...
posted by inigo2


Right here in Chicago. The trains turn into sardine cans at 5:00pm and the buses suffer the same traffic fate as the cars depending on the day, but it is remarkably good at getting you where you need to be on time as long as you budget a few minutes here or there for momentary delays.
posted by ninjew at 10:45 AM on July 27, 2006


They should do this in Boston. Because I wouldn't feel like I was getting ripped off by the criminally shitty service if I wasn't paying for it.

As for the riff-raff, I don't see how it could possibly get any worse. Teenagers already ride for pretty much free, and the atmosphere of a Boston train couldn't get any more invasive unless people urinated right on you.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:48 AM on July 27, 2006


Furthermore, the solution doesn't scale well as the population grows.

Public transportation scales better than individually owned vehicles. I think the whole point of mass transit is that it operates on the economy of scale.
posted by adzuki at 10:50 AM on July 27, 2006


The only time we ever get free buses is when the drivers go on strike ;)

Public transport is one of those catch 22 situations though isn't it? In order to have enough money to constantly develop they need more customers, but more customers will only use it if it is redeveloped and more useful.
posted by Fence at 10:51 AM on July 27, 2006


What ninjew said. As much as I and those I know complain about the CTA; it's a hell of a lot better than driving a car in Houston was for me. I can read or watch video (I've mastered the art of reading/watching my iPod with one hand and holding on for dear life with the other; especially on the blue line, which at times seems to be going 200 miles per hour on a bald tire), I don't have to deal with maintenance or gas, and all for $75 a month for unlimited rides. I'm content, if not happy.

mr_crash_davis nailed it as well. TANSTAAFL. People in general (and Americans in particular) don't appreciate something if it's free.
posted by weirdoactor at 10:53 AM on July 27, 2006


Austin has been doing this for years:
Capital Metro buses will continue to be free to passengers on all routes on Ozone Action Days in 2006. Ozone season runs from April 1 through October 31 when temperatures, and as a result ozone levels, are at their highest.

This marks the 13th year Capital Metro has been providing free rides to customers on Ozone Action Days, and is one component of the agency's overall efforts to reduce emissions and improve the air throughout the region. On Ozone Action Days, Capital Metro sees an average increase in ridership by up to eight percent.
posted by blendor at 10:54 AM on July 27, 2006


Buses have drivers who have radios, so there's some adult supervision, in theory at least, of each discrete small group of passengers. And cell phones work.

BART is an automated system, and in tunnels -- much of the system -- cell phones don't work.

People who are worried or scared can and do get up and go to the next car -- unless they're at the tail end and have to go past the problem to get out. And the operator, when called, replies over the PA system (often with "please repeat, did you say ...?")

Just a few reasons built in why BART's experience got scary.
posted by hank at 10:59 AM on July 27, 2006


JMOZ, you're right, demand probably wouldn't be that elastic. I was engaging in hyperbole, partly because it felt like a hell of a lot more than an 15% increase in ridership occurred when I used free public transit here in the Bay Area last week.
posted by blucevalo at 11:00 AM on July 27, 2006


It is strange that people would be opposed to "free" transit yet ignore that they are driving around on "free" roads.

People will use the bus if it is convenient and affordable. The mandatory U-Pass^ programs at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University have been extremely popular, reducing car traffic by as much as 60%.
posted by angrybeaver at 11:03 AM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


kendrak writes "i think they need to actually get transit in the bay area working, and then start thinking about making it free. "

Increasing ridership if a proportional increase in service was provided increases the utility of the transit system. It's kind of a network effect. Buses come more often and go to more places.

blucevalo writes "If public transit becomes so crowded and clogged with passengers that it's impossible for me to catch my bus or train home without waiting in a long line for the next scheduled bus or train, the free ride program will have the opposite of its intended consequence:"

Obviously there would have to be an increase in transit resources. It might be painful in the short term during the ramp up period but things would actually be better in the long term (assuming rational management). For example assume a run away success and ridership doubles. Once transit resources doubles your bus comes by every 3.5 minutes instead of every 7 minutes.

It's pretty cool to be able to walk the 200m to the bus stop and know that you won't be there much more than a couple minutes. Also the system is easier to use because you don't need to sweat transfers.

There has been some talk about this in Calgary (in fact we have a 13 block free fare zone downtown on our light rail system). The only thing holding it back I think is the byzantine compensation structure from the province is based on revenue generated by riders. The bookkeeping costs eat much of the revenue generated from passengers.

As a social benefit the impact as a untaxed benefit to those too poor to afford cars is huge. A person in Calgary making minimum wage would save 3-6% (depending on family income) of their gross income. $70 is a lot of money to someone grossing $1200 a month.

mr_crash_davis writes "Someone's getting taxed to pay for it, right?"

Just like much of the road network is free.

JMOZ writes "If it were free, do you think most people would start using it instead of their cars? In that one week, only 15% more did."
I'm amazed they saw 15%. People plan their lives around their cars, a paradigm shift to transit takes months to be fully felt. Some nice $4-5 per gallon gas would speed that along.
posted by Mitheral at 11:03 AM on July 27, 2006


This is nice, but right now Caltrain is fighting to increase fares. A dozen incompatible systems coupled with a price structure that seems designed to discourage people from using it. I calculated the price of riding vs. driving for an entire year, and I will save approximately $10 for the whole year if I take Caltrain. Why would anyone use it?
posted by 1adam12 at 11:03 AM on July 27, 2006


This wasnt just city buses, though. Also the BART system (san francisco's "subway") as well as CalTrain, which runs down the peninsula and ferries. From a recent article:

Twenty-six transit agencies, including BART, Muni, AC Transit, Caltrain, SamTrans and Golden Gate Transit, will offer free passage on their boats, buses and trains all day today...

posted by vacapinta at 11:06 AM on July 27, 2006


I ride the BART to work every day and what I found the most strange about this is the lack of promotion of it. If I drove to work every day, I'd have no idea it was a Spare the Air day until it was too late. Do they announce these on the radio and TV the day before?
posted by bertrandom at 11:07 AM on July 27, 2006


So how much was the smog reduced during those six days? Was it $14 million dollars worth? I'd be willing to guess it wasn't.

If you made companies that pollute pay for their pollution past a certain level, I'd be willing to bet that $14 million spent to reduce pollution would have a much greater effect. Especially if you realize the results would last a lot longer. Expand out the numbers, we're talking more than $700 million dollars a year to make the change permanent. If all the companies that polluted in California received that in tax credits a year to reduce their pollution levels, it would go a lot farther.

The majority of people don't LIKE mass transit, they TOLERATE it. They use it because it's cheaper. It's rarely more convient except in very dense urban areas, and even then, I think people forget to factor in how much time they spend walking to and from the transit system, and how much time is spent waiting to get on, etc.
posted by inthe80s at 11:08 AM on July 27, 2006


Some nice $4-5 per gallon gas would speed that along.

And ultimately put a great deal of small businesses, airlines, and transportation companies, among all the other industries I can't think of right now, in jeopardy of going out of business. Be careful what you wish for. Gas prices don't just affect consumers.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 11:08 AM on July 27, 2006


I agree with everything you say, Mitheral. Food for thought for a frequent public transit user like me.
posted by blucevalo at 11:09 AM on July 27, 2006


mr_crash_davis and weirdoactor: You're too damn skeptical. Hadn't you heard? You're supposed to reflexively suspend disbelief when something sounds too good to be true. Now personally I'd hear more about that "free" healthcare that's just around the corner...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:11 AM on July 27, 2006


LIKE TO
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:18 AM on July 27, 2006


It'd be lovely if we could get a transit system to the level of Tokyo's in place in LA, for instance... but I doubt the will of the people is there. Too bad, as transit is so much more convenient when done right.
posted by fet at 11:29 AM on July 27, 2006


"Free"?

Someone's getting taxed to pay for it, right?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:36 AM PST on July 27


Of course. But it actually makes more sense to tax everybody than to "tax" the people who use it given that its a general good thing. This is one of the functions of taxes (e.g. no tax on charitable gifts) to provide tax relief for projects which are for the social good.
posted by vacapinta at 11:30 AM on July 27, 2006


About costs. The Bay Area has nearly lost billions in federal transportation grants for air pollution violations. Air pollution leads to asthma-related emergency room visits, costs also paid by society, though filtered through the health insurance system. Plus, we could pay for 3-5 free years of free transit in the Bay Area for what the federal government spends on a single week in Iraq.

Really, though, one of the best reasons to consider this is economic. The Bay Area Council warns that traffic congestion and high housing costs may undermine the Bay Area's competitiveness. Free transit would offset the high cost of housing and make this region -- already one of the greatest places to locate a business in the United States -- that much greater. More taxes, etc, the idea practically pays for itself.
posted by salvia at 11:33 AM on July 27, 2006


angrybeaver writes "People will use the bus if it is convenient and affordable. The mandatory U-Pass^ programs at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University have been extremely popular, reducing car traffic by as much as 60%."

UofC, SAIT Polytechnic, Mount Royal College, Bow Valley College, Alliance University College, and Nazarene University College are all participants of Calgary transit's U-Pass program. There is some talk of extending elegability to large corporations. There is a similar program in place in Edmonton.

SeizeTheDay writes "And ultimately put a great deal of small businesses, airlines, and transportation companies, among all the other industries I can't think of right now, in jeopardy of going out of business."

Get ready it's coming sooner rather than later.

SeizeTheDay writes "Be careful what you wish for. Gas prices don't just affect consumers."

I wasn't wishing for it or advocating it just speaking reality. Expensive gas is on its way. Also I don't remember the gas shortages of the 70s but a destructive hurricane season could mean I'll be experiencing it fresh. What do you do if you have to drive to work and gas isn't available regardless of what you are willing to pay?

in the80s writes "So how much was the smog reduced during those six days? Was it $14 million dollars worth? I'd be willing to guess it wasn't. "

Moving people from cars to transit isn't just about smog (though obviously that's the focus here). The capital costs of the road system are reduced because there is less wear and tear and less demand for expansion. Less land is taken up because roads are smaller. Less rubber pollution is dumped into the system because fewer tires are expended. How much oil is saved because of shorter, better peak times. The number of people killed in traffic accidents is reduced. Those are just some of the first order effects off the top of my head.
posted by Mitheral at 11:51 AM on July 27, 2006


If people were paying the true cost for driving their car, transit (free or otherwise)might be a more attractive option, for users and the providers.
posted by Bearman at 11:51 AM on July 27, 2006


"Just like much of the road network is free."

"If people were paying the true cost for driving their car ..."

To be clear, my objection is solely to the use of the word "free" to describe a government-funded enterprise, not to the enterprise itself. It's annoying and inaccurate.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:56 AM on July 27, 2006


It is strange that people would be opposed to "free" transit yet ignore that they are driving around on "free" roads.

So, tax money doesn't pay for construction, maintenance, traffic signs, signals, cameras, and police patrols?

Some nice $4-5 per gallon gas would speed that along.

When you increase the price of fuel, you might as well plan on an increase in the price of any product that is brought to market in vehicles powered by fuel. That is, until we have anti-matter powered bullet trains for freight. Or transporters.

So, to summarize: for transit to be free, taxes would need to be raised...for more people to use transit, it would have to be a) more reliable, b) safer, c) smell less like pee...in order to make that happen, they'd need money...to get money they'd need to raise taxes...the cirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrcle of liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife...
posted by weirdoactor at 11:57 AM on July 27, 2006


weirdoactor writes "to get money they'd need to raise taxes...the cirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrcle of liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife..."

What's better weirdoactor, spending a couple million per lane kilometre (let alone intersection/interchange costs) increasing road capacity (and then paying maintenance on it) or upgrading transit facilities (and then paying maintenance on them)?
posted by Mitheral at 12:10 PM on July 27, 2006


If this happens in LA, I'll take cabs for a week. The bus is barely tolerable now - especially since MTA installed tv's and now BLARE COMMERCIALS at the riders. Shove more sweaty people into the can and it will be a nightmare.
posted by goofyfoot at 12:13 PM on July 27, 2006


Isn't a free train derailed?
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:19 PM on July 27, 2006


Can we factor into the cost-benefit analysis the costs of addressing global warming?
posted by salvia at 12:26 PM on July 27, 2006


Cheap-as-free transit coupled with congestion charging for polluting private vehicles are inevitable in the future if we want our growing cities to remain tolerable.
posted by riotgrrl69 at 12:33 PM on July 27, 2006


Can we factor into the cost-benefit analysis the costs of addressing global warming?

Don't worry, global warming will only be a problem for our great great great grandchildren, er, our great grandchildren... our children...? ah bugger it.
posted by Bearman at 12:41 PM on July 27, 2006


I think in the future the only viable cities will be those with an actual public transit infrastructure.

Cities in the past were small for reasons of defense (everyone wanted to be inside the protective walls) and cities in the future will be small because driving anywhere will be obsolete.

History books of the future will note the outrageous existence of cities like Los Angeles as aberrations in time.
posted by vacapinta at 12:46 PM on July 27, 2006


angrybeaver writes: It is strange that people would be opposed to "free" transit yet ignore that they are driving around on "free" roads.

Deserves to be repeated, along with what Mitheral is saying. The costs for building and maintaining roads are "invisible" so to speak, but very real. Improved public transportation in the States makes sense on so many levels (and I realize it wouldn't work everywhere, and in some case has been screwed over pretty badly, like in LA. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.).
posted by bardic at 12:51 PM on July 27, 2006


With transit systems, there is too much concentration on fixing everything or nothing. That's where the Catch 22 feeling comes from. Instead, a city that wants to attract new riders needs to pick one small but very crowded (very popular) part of its system and fix that part thoroughly but relatively cheaply (compared to fixing the entire system).

For example, take just a few blocks with far too much car traffic. Triple or quintuple the number of buses feeding and circulating within that area, pay for them in part with horrible taxes on parking in and around that same area, but make those buses free to people who show a parking stub from one of those lots with the horrible prices. It would make the excess road traffic in that area directly pay for the needed mass transport in that area and it would encourage people who still insist on driving into that area to park their cars and ride the bus in that area. People won't notice if you make the entire system a couple percent better and raise their parking fees a little, but they will notice if you make the bus system 500 percent better, make the parking fees horrendous, and give drivers a cheap or free way to sample the nice new alternative to cars.

Use that improved section to convert people from "oh, dear, I'm afraid it will smell like other people!" folk to "hey, this isn't bad" folk. Then work on expanding it, chunk by chunk.
posted by pracowity at 12:54 PM on July 27, 2006


(And it's not to much of a stretch to think that in cities where the public transit has been poorly implemented, such as LA, that had a lot to do with a sort of planned obsolescence on the part of the auto industry and their lackies.)
posted by bardic at 12:55 PM on July 27, 2006


What's better weirdoactor, spending a couple million per lane kilometre (let alone intersection/interchange costs) increasing road capacity (and then paying maintenance on it) or upgrading transit facilities (and then paying maintenance on them)?

Option two. Which costs money. Possibly raising fares, possibly tax money; more likely both. Ergo, not free, not by a long shot.

I'm cool with that. But speaking selfishly; I don't want more people to start riding until there are more trains and buses, at least at rush hour/peak times. At least here in Chicago. ninjew's "sardine cans" reference was quite accurate. I have a three hour commute (around 90 minutes each way) involving two trains and a bus. I don't have or want a car. I would, however, like to be able to stand (or sit occasionally) on the bus or train without having to work myself into a yoga position whilst wearing a heavy backpack. That would be swell. And don't get me started about trying to ride the red line full of rowdy drunks after a Cubs game...the CTA should hire bouncers armed with CS/pepper spray.

The costs for building and maintaining roads are "invisible" so to speak, but very real.

Especially if you pay more than just income taxes. If you are a property owner, and your city wants to improve transit; you are gonna help, whether you want to or not. Again; I'm cool with that, so long as said improvements aren't being done in such a way as to screw everyone in the process.

Triple or quintuple the number of buses feeding and circulating within that area, pay for them in part with horrible taxes on parking in and around that same area, but make those buses free to people who show a parking stub from one of those lots with the horrible prices.

I believe that this plan would make people not want to travel to that area. Why would I want to drive my car somewhere, pay for parking, and then ride a bus? Why wouldn't I just pay for parking at my destination, even if it was more expensive?
posted by weirdoactor at 1:06 PM on July 27, 2006


weirdoactor writes "If you are a property owner, and your city wants to improve transit; you are gonna help, whether you want to or not."

The SF article mentions a levy on car registrations, that seems like a good method.
posted by Mitheral at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2006


Interesting article, but laden with unnecessary fearmongering. My girlfriend used BART and Contra Costa public transit quite a bit and th Spare The Air days have been a nice bonus for her. She hasn't mentioned roving gangs of sociopathic axe murderers though, and hasn't been killed. Not even once. She did mention that a raving lunatic got onto a train once and was promptly escorted off the train by the BART police. Somehow I doubt that BART Police Do Their Job Quickly And Effectively would work well as a newspaper headline.

That said, the only way I'd ride the CC buses is if they were free. The routes have been scaled back over the past five years to the point that they are practically useless for commuters.
posted by lekvar at 1:37 PM on July 27, 2006


There were packed cars, blaring boom boxes, food and drink containers (which are banned) being tossed everywhere -- even reports of homeless people flocking in to beat the heat.

Jeez, they make it sound like a Van Halen show. I was there for every day of it, and I guess I messed the party cars. More riders than usual, yeah, but hardly the chaos this suggests. I'm disappointed with the SF Gate reporting on this; they went for the sensational at the expense of both the factual truth and the rhetorical high ground.

Also, for all your grumblers complaining about giving free public transit rides, think of the taxpayer-subsidized health care reductions we would see if we knocked 20% of the current emissions levels out of the air. Better to pay in the front than take it in the rear, you know?
posted by squirrel at 1:39 PM on July 27, 2006


There were packed cars, blaring boom boxes, food and drink containers (which are banned) being tossed everywhere -- even reports of homeless people flocking in to beat the heat.

Actually, that sounds like Caltrain on Giants game days. And drink containers arent banned - far from it. You can drink alcohol on Caltrain.
posted by vacapinta at 1:52 PM on July 27, 2006


Here's the thing: free public transit might act as an incentive for more people to use it instead of driving, but as it stands, it's already substantially cheaper than owning a car.

I'm in Boston, which (as mentioned a bit earlier) has one of the most epically shitty public transit systems known to mankind, especially if you live out on one of those miserable above-ground lines (which I do). But, if you want a monthly pass to ride that god-forsaken thing all you want around the downtown area (and even 5 or 10 miles out, depending on where you want to go), it's less than $50. If you want to add on to it to ride the light rail further out from the city (much further, in many cases), it starts to get more pricey, but tops off at about $200 a month, which is if you're commuting daily to Worcester, or someplace else 50 miles away from downtown. $200 a month is NOTHING, compared to the cost of gas, car payments, and insurance (especially urban insurance).

Thus, I'm led to believe that the incentives provided by offering free public transit aren't going to attract that many people, at least not to the point where they make it their primary means of conveyance (which would be necessary to effect the gains associated with the reduction of miles driven in personal cars). Sure, there's a marginal decrease in cost, which will bring some folks around, but those of us already operating to minimize cost are already taking the commuter rail rather than driving out on Rt. 128. I don't know much about the SF Bay area, but it seems to me that the situationa are analogous.
posted by Mayor West at 1:55 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


since moving to San Francisco over ten years ago i haven't bothered to renew my driver's license, and i generally like the public transportation systems here. i know a lot of people who grew up in San Francisco and have never used them, and look down upon them for some reason. it's a good system as long as one does not have the expectations one would have of a private limo service.

with MUNI there's already an issue of people riding without paying, though they're cracking down on that more. i think making it totally free is a bad idea, because although the behavior reported on BART might have been minimal, having at least some charge for passengers keeps away some of the riff-raff who do not tend to respect other passengers or the physical property of the bus. i mean, i think it's a cool and noble idea for the benefit of humanity, but that can wear a bit thin when you're on a bus packed with a bunch of stinking homeless guys with who knows how many varieties of parasite jumping around. i would rather pay and have a better system than ride a broken one for free.

since so much of the issue with public transporation is the commute, i think a good 'free' system could be implemented via employers; i think there are deals now in which employers can provide public transporation passes to employees as a benefit (either free or discounted for the employee), though i'm not sure if the employer pays a discounted price. why not set up a system in which all employers get free passes for their employees, renewable on some reasonable basis? this would turn over much of the administration of the process to the employer (many of which would accept their admin cost in order to provide an extra benefit and also lighten their own parking issues, if they have them) and i think could have a large impact on the commuter aspects of the problem...
posted by troybob at 2:24 PM on July 27, 2006


Free isn't ever going to work. Walking is free, bicycling is free, but a lot of people won't do it because they don't like to get more exercise than it takes to walk from the door to the car. Free just attracts freeloaders. (Unless you mean the rider doesn't pay but someone else buys the rider a pass and only people with such a pass can ride. Then you could control who rides the system.)

Go the opposite direction and raise the prices on some of the cars (or on alternate buses) but make them nice. Then poor folk will take the cheaper buses and cars, leaving the scared-of-poor-folk folk with nicer but more expensive cars. When a red bus pulls up, you know it's going to cost you twice as much but it's clean and the air conditioner works and there's somewhere to sit and the poor folk are all on the green bus. When a green bus pulls up, you know it's basic service and you'll probably have to stand, but it's at a basic price. If Boston can offer current services for 50/month, let it instead offer two-tiered service for 40/month and 100/month on the same routes. If you're in a hurry, a red-card holder can also ride a green bus.
posted by pracowity at 2:41 PM on July 27, 2006


Free isn't ever going to work. Walking is free, bicycling is free, but a lot of people won't do it because they don't like to get more exercise than it takes to walk from the door to the car.

I used to live on my bicycle - it was my only "owned" form of transportation, as I didn't get my driver's license until my mid-20's. (A state ID card confuses the hell out of folks, by the way...) Until I moved back to Connecticut, I didn't need a car. But, that was years ago. Now, I don't have much of a choice - here in the Pacific Northwest, I live 22 miles from where I work. Thanks to traffic congestion in Puget Sound, that trip takes anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour or more by car (one way.)

I don't take the bus because it takes longer - it's 15 minutes to the nearest bus stop from my house, by foot, three bus trips (my stop to SeaTac Airport, SeaTac Airport to Renton, Renton to my destination), and another 15 minutes on foot. Total time? Between 1.5 and 2 hours.

But, I've done it - my employer subsidizes public transportation, so it's free for me, and it's useful when I don't have access to my car. I use it often enough to keep my pass renewed.

I don't cycle it because the neighborhood in which I live doesn't easily connect to where I work via surface roads, and bikes on the highway just don't seem to work. I can't get there from here without breaking the law.

Free works just fine. It's access and availability in a country where, if you don't own a car, you're not quite human, that seems to be the primary problem.
posted by FormlessOne at 3:17 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


hehe...well, besides the big argument that's going to start when the green-bus people complain that their service is being reduced to favor the red-bus people, the red bus provides a helpful landmark for robbers who prefer their affluent victims conveniently preselected...
posted by troybob at 3:18 PM on July 27, 2006


weirdoactor: So, tax money doesn't pay for construction, maintenance, traffic signs, signals, cameras, and police patrols?

Yes it does, that's why I said "free". My point was why are transit users charged user fees to use the service while drivers are not charged fees to use the roads? (other than relatively rare toll roads and bridges).
posted by angrybeaver at 3:23 PM on July 27, 2006


because the roads can be used by the military to keep its citizens in check.

sorry that was totally pointless.

i think it's good when employers not only subsidize public transit for employees, but also give them access to cars for emergencies, like when you have to pick up a sick kid from school RIGHTNOW! i've never owned a car, and prefer to walk as much as i can, but i know many people who don't like driving to work, but feel they have to because of the kid issue. my employer doesn't do that, though i can get a reduced bus pass.
posted by kendrak at 3:51 PM on July 27, 2006


I read an interesting book that suggested public transportation becomes economically viable if you transfer costs for road construction and maintenace from property taxes to wheel and gas taxes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:20 PM on July 27, 2006


Go the opposite direction and raise the prices on some of the cars (or on alternate buses) but make them nice. Then poor folk will take the cheaper buses and cars, leaving the scared-of-poor-folk folk with nicer but more expensive cars. When a red bus pulls up, you know it's going to cost you twice as much but it's clean and the air conditioner works...

These "red buses" are called taxis.
posted by vacapinta at 4:21 PM on July 27, 2006


troybob writes "i think it's a cool and noble idea for the benefit of humanity, but that can wear a bit thin when you're on a bus packed with a bunch of stinking homeless guys with who knows how many varieties of parasite jumping around."

This shouldn't be a problem, the "a yak peed in my pocket" crowd are all hanging around parks where they can get a free sandwich and menace children.

troybob writes "i think a good 'free' system could be implemented via employers;"

Many of the people who would benefit most from free transit are between jobs.
posted by Mitheral at 4:28 PM on July 27, 2006


it's a great idea--we used to do it here on New Year's Eve, but they stopped
posted by amberglow at 4:40 PM on July 27, 2006


If even 20 people switched because of that free week, you'd be doing a public good. Carpooling should be mandatory too, into cities.
posted by amberglow at 4:40 PM on July 27, 2006


(oops--that was the LA subway link--we did it here in NY in the past tho, too)
posted by amberglow at 4:44 PM on July 27, 2006


Mitheral: in San Francisco they ride the buses!...and i have nothing against the homeless, but if my brother smelled like pee i wouldn't want to ride with him either...

...and yeah, people between jobs would benefit, but i think the issue is more how much the area benefits from targeting commuters specifically...it seems the most likely group where, with an incentive, you might have a significant effect...

...it might be too optimistic to think there would be a noticeable difference--especially since many people would consider driving to work every day a necessity just because they are used to thinking about it that way and not for any compelling reason (my favorite are the regular car commuters who complain how much heavier traffic is when some part of public transportation goes down!)...
but it's nice that someone is starting to consider weighing the cost of a car in traffic versus providing public transportation for free...

...and also, i think the city should consider some solid incentives (like free public transportation, for instance) for residents who forego owning a car altogether...not just because i'm one of those people, of course ;-)
posted by troybob at 4:50 PM on July 27, 2006


As a daily rider of Muni here in SF I can honestly say that Spare the Air days are the biggest fucking pain in the ass. Last Thursday and Friday the trains were so packed going outbound that, were you lucky enough to wedge yourself in among the rabble, you would find that there was no air left to spare. Newbies just don't get the system so as a result they jam the doors open only causing more stoppage. All this, coupled with general muni incompetence, makes for a less than ideal commute.

The point of my rant is that I don't think that these Spare the Air days are going to convince anyone to start taking public transportation. The experience is so unenjoyable that I'm actually considering driving my car the next time they have one.
posted by quadog at 5:03 PM on July 27, 2006


Having spent many years commuting around the Bay Area on BART, I feel that I should point something out.

"On one Spare the Air Day, said BART police Chief Gary Gee, "we had a train car taken over by 10 young males in white T-shirts and baggy pants, and they were holding the door open and acting like they were on the playground."

This is not limited to Spare the Air days. Incidents like that occur regularly on BART and I've seen people jumping around in half empty cars and acting like the train was a jungle gym quite a few times. Most of the time, said groups would get on at West Oakland, act like idiots for a few stops, and get off at MacArthur. They may be loud and obnoxious, but generally they're harmless and stick to their own groups.

And troybob - why didn't you just keep the license current? Without a license, you can't rent a car in SF from City Car Share for that trip to IKEA. :-)
posted by drstein at 5:32 PM on July 27, 2006


weirdoactor writes: Especially if you pay more than just income taxes. If you are a property owner, and your city wants to improve transit; you are gonna help, whether you want to or not.
mitheral writes: The SF article mentions a levy on car registrations, that seems like a good method.

There are also gas taxes and bridge tolls (which tax cars directly and, actually, some of that money does go to subsidize transit, iirc). There are also sales taxes -- in most counties in the Bay Area, voters have levied quarter- or half-cent sales taxes on themselves to fund local transportation (they spend some of this money on highways and some on transit). There'll be measures on the ballot in both Marin and Sonoma Counties this fall.
posted by salvia at 6:36 PM on July 27, 2006


There are also gas taxes and bridge tolls (which tax cars directly and, actually, some of that money does go to subsidize transit, iirc).

Yep. In New York, it's brilliant. Bridges and Tunnels subsidize the entire transit system. Then, the MTA convinces voters to give it money to build another subway line, and everyone who owns property along the new line gets rich off the higher rents. So renters get screwed, the B&T club gets screwed, and the rich get richer.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:00 PM on July 27, 2006


To me, the idea that transit should be much cheaper to the user is such a no-brainer. We're in a transition period when many people still own cars, and the idea is to get them out of the habit of using them. Transit is already a headache, because of transfers and waiting and stinky people. And once someone owns a car and is already resigned to paying insurance, etc, the incremental cost of any trip -- transit fares are so high that it's cheaper or comparable to drive in so many situations.

My cousin went round-trip to visit his gf in Sacramento (from Emeryville). He drove.
Cost of taking Amtrak? $40
Cost of driving? $25.40 ($3 toll + 160 miles * 1 gallon / 25 miles * $3.50 / gallon)
He would've paid 60% more to take Amtrak. Plus, he gets to go door-to-door, on his own schedule, and he can control the temperature.

Last week, my brother and cousin, his gf, and I went from Oakland to the Mission for dinner. We drove.
Cost of taking BART? $24 ($6*4)
Cost of driving? $8 (a $3 bridge toll and maybe $5 in gas).
We saved $4 apiece, plus a long walk to the station, waiting for trains, and that screeching noise in the tunnel. Even going by myself, I'll gladly pay that extra $2 because the trip takes half as long. With a group, it's pure social charity to take BART. That's why there were so many families on BART on those free days -- the exact same math probably keeps them away the other days. I imagine parents living in the suburbs with three kids -- they wouldn't be able to justify paying all those BART fares when they have a car. You want to talk about culture change, why not let kids ride free? (4 and under is free now on BART, but c'mon, it's not like the five-year-old is paying his own way.)

Keeping people off the road is such a public good. I rarely take transit for my own convenience -- it's out of a sense of public and environmental responsibility. Maybe it shouldn't be free -- I do wonder if people will appreciate it then -- but man. I want to take transit. I'll even put up with a lot of hassle and waiting. But right now it's inconvenient and more expensive. $500 million just seems like such a small amount of money to make transit rides free for everyone. Plus, it was so nice to see some of the buses I take actually be somewhat full.
posted by salvia at 7:10 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


free public transit might act as an incentive for more people to use it instead of driving, but as it stands, it's already substantially cheaper than owning a car.
That, of course, depends on wher eyou live. I pay $58 for a weekly ticket for my hour-each-way commute by train. I can do the same trip by car and pay around $35 in fuel and $30 for parking, so it's definitely cleaper to travel by train. However, if I had two people in the car, it becomes significantly cheaper to drive.

Until governments make the barrier to var commuting into large cities economically unviable unless you really have to have a car in the city with you, people will always choose the convenience and comfort of car travel. City centres need to be forbidden to all but essential traffic and parking needs to be prohibitively expensive, but this needs to be balanced by regular, reliable transit services and ample car parking at suburban stations. When you look at the cost of providing new roads against providing more train lines, the difference is not that great, but the result is dramatic.

Disclaimer: I am a recently converted public transit convert who, until 18 months ago, would not have caught public transit for any reason.
posted by dg at 7:21 PM on July 27, 2006


If buses were fee then beggars would ride.. oh wait.
posted by uni verse at 7:28 PM on July 27, 2006


Also, everything that saliva said. Even were I to use my already-paid-for weekly ticket to take the kids to the museum on the weekend, it would still be significantly cheaper to drive.
posted by dg at 7:28 PM on July 27, 2006


Driving a car is ridiculously expensive, and not simply a matter of paying for gas. The car itself costs a shitload, insurance is ridiculous (especially when living in the vicinity of a big city with mass transit), car repairs, and then gasoline. Gasoline by far as been one of the cheapest parts of owning a car, compared to the other parts. (Of course, that was when gas was 1.50, but still...)
posted by SeizeTheDay at 7:57 PM on July 27, 2006


Ha, I dream about fuel prices like that - we are currently paying the equivalent of around USD4.50 a gallon. For various reasons, we need to own a car, so the ownership costs aren't a significant factor for me with regard to commuting. The only costs to consider are running costs and the difference is not that significant. I use public transport partly because it is the right thing to do, but mainly because then I can use the time to do something productive.

The bottom line is that, while the choice is still one between:
a - drive a comfortable car in my own company (or that of my choosing) at the times I want, taking the route I want and stopping where I want and
b - standing in a crowded tin can full of sweaty and/or wet and/or smelly strangers, travelling at times that suit someone else and stopping at places I don,t wnat to stop
the choice if pretty easy. Until it becomes a choice that is going to cost people significnat amounts of money, they are not going to shift. Public transport is currently expensive, uncomfortable and inconvenient, while private transport is currently (relatively) cheap, comfortable and convenient.
posted by dg at 8:16 PM on July 27, 2006



If you want Americans to use public transit, you would have to build cities in ways that are transit-friendly. Densely packed urban areas with geographically distinct business districts lend themselves to public transit better than sprawled-out, low-rise cities where people have to drive to one of dozens of suburban campuses.

The catch is that most American metropolitan regions are auto-based sprawl cities like Los Angeles. Public transit isn't going to capture even a large minority of commuters in such circumstances because, as so many others have noted above, it just isn't convenient. And those cities aren't going to change at any point in the near future.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:31 PM on July 27, 2006


Actually, I think that can be largely dealt with by building sufficient car parking at suburban rail stations. That way, people in the suburbs have relatively easy access to the public transport network from home. Still, the financial incentive needs to be there and restricting parking in city centres would be a good start.
posted by dg at 9:00 PM on July 27, 2006


I believe I recently read a stat on bus use in BC. And if I'm recalling correctly, that stat was "$10 a rider." As in the ridership is so miserably low that it's costing the tax payer ten bucks to provide one rider one bus ride.

Which makes me believe we're doing it completely wrong. For ten bucks, I can catch a freakin' cab!

We need to use more mini-buses, a smart call-in system, real-time route planning software, and we need to make it free. It would cost less and more people would make use of it.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:16 PM on July 27, 2006


Absolutely smarter is what we need. In my city, a bus company was given sole rights to operate bus services on the basis that they had to provide a minimum level of service throughout the city. As there are only two routes in the city that they can possible hope to make a profit, that is what almost all of the city gets - minimum service which, in some suburbs is two services a day and none on weekends. You would think they would get smart and start using smaller. more flexible services, wouldn't you? Instead, they run empty buses all over the place because the service is so piss-poor that nobody can use it and make up the losses in the two routes that pay.

Sometimes people are so dumb I wonder how they remember to breathe.
posted by dg at 10:45 PM on July 27, 2006


BART could save enough money to cover the bill for things like this simply by not turning on the heaters when it's 80 degrees outside at 5PM and the trains are completely packed. Running the trains' special "make any problem worse" climate control systems is probably quite expensive.
posted by majick at 11:07 PM on July 27, 2006


I don't take the bus because it takes longer - it's 15 minutes to the nearest bus stop from my house, by foot, three bus trips (my stop to SeaTac Airport, SeaTac Airport to Renton, Renton to my destination), and another 15 minutes on foot. Total time? Between 1.5 and 2 hours.

That's a common excuse people make for not taking public transportation, that service is not good where they live. I don't know what the situtation is with you, but people by and large choose to live where they live. If they choose to live where the public transportation is nonexistent, they are choosing not to use public transportation.
posted by pracowity at 1:37 AM on July 28, 2006


Public transit ought to be paid for with taxes of cars & gas. I see nothing wrong with reducing abuse by applying a nominal fees, like a "copay", but the fees should be targeted at preventing abuse, not paying for the system.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:33 AM on July 28, 2006


I live in Seattle, and we're playing a desperate game of catch-up in terms of public transit. While we're making some progress on this, it's taken decades to get something approved, and even so, we're having trouble making those decisions stick. A well-designed, forward-looking transit system will always seem like overkill to those living with the construction and design phase. But look at BART or the Portland (Oregon) Metro system. These are now an integral part of the city's core infrastructure. I'm looking forward to having light rail in Seattle, but until then it's carpooling and when necessary, the dreaded solo-passenger commute...
posted by jhendow at 8:27 AM on July 28, 2006


people by and large choose to live where they live. If they choose to live where the public transportation is nonexistent, they are choosing not to use public transportation

Agreed. When me and my gf were shopping for a place; first we'd find a place we liked, then we'd see if there was a CTA or Metra train station within walking distance. I'm two blocks from the CTA red line, and four blocks from a Metra station. I can't imagine NOT living near a train station, or at the very least a major bus line.

Other options in my area? There is a major "owl" (24 hour) bus line about three blocks from our place. Catching a cab in my neighborhood is a joke; not impossible, just unlikely. Owning a car? We own a parking space with our condo; but since the gf switched jobs, and no longer has a company car (and now she gets to bike to work...lucky), we only have a car when we use iGo (a local car sharing company) or rent one for the weekend (usually to visit her folks in Michigan).

The thing about most transit systems (and this is obviously not a shocking discovery) is that they have developed over a number of years based on need; with no thought as to future needs. With trains, we're not talking about legos; we're talking about welded steel and power stations that are pretty immovable. If population density and customer need changes; all they can do is maybe create a linking bus route. It's expensive (from a construction, local business, and PR perspective) to build a whole new train line. And when you do; it's either badly executed or unappreciated...google "chicago CTA pink line problems" if you want a current story on that subject.
posted by weirdoactor at 8:57 AM on July 28, 2006


correction: developed over a number of years based on current needs
posted by weirdoactor at 8:58 AM on July 28, 2006


pracowity writes "but people by and large choose to live where they live. If they choose to live where the public transportation is nonexistent, they are choosing not to use public transportation."

This is one of the reasons that though interesting a 1 day trial doesn't tell you what things would be like if transit was permanently free.
posted by Mitheral at 11:29 AM on July 28, 2006


But since it's busier than usual that day you actually are getting a good idea of what the worst is like--even tho it's usually not free. If it's unbearable, then you go back to driving. If it's bearable, you'll at least think about it.
posted by amberglow at 3:43 PM on July 28, 2006


It'd be best to give people ocasional free rides, like a lotery. Such unreliable rewards make people stay around.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:00 AM on July 30, 2006


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