Making transit freeFuture mayoral candidate Bill King's recent op-ed calling for free transit has generated a flurry of responses from Rad Sallee at the Chronicle, reader letters, and a Christof and Carroll Robinson op-ed. There was some confusion that Bill might be calling for free transit instead of rail, which he was not (Rad apology here and here). I remember pitching something similar to the Berry campaign years ago when I learned how little Metro recovers from the farebox (17% recently).
Here's the essence of the arguments:
- Increase ridership (people love FREE)
- Reduce congestion by getting people out of their cars
- Speed up boardings and therefore trips (less "fumbling for money," although the Q-cards are solving that problem)
- Homeless, "delinquent" and "troublemaker" riders (my solution: clear the bus at each end of the route to discourage "hang out" riders)
- The cost is not what's discouraging riders
- Investing in quality would attract more riders than reducing costs
- New riders are unlikely to be car drivers
- Metro still needs that money
Metro is a public agency subject to the will of the voters. It started out as subsidized alternative transportation for the poor and disabled. Then people wanted commuting alternatives (the HOV buses). Then they wanted local rail. Now, given the local boom of $100 oil, they'd like to see some freeway congestion reduction by attracting more riders out of their cars.
Metro's downtown commuter service is quite successful, helped by high parking costs and employer subsidies (recently a little too successful: the Park-and-Ride buses are full). But my impression is that their commuter services to the Med Center, Greenway, and Uptown are less successful, probably due to a combination of less frequent and less convenient service as well as free parking by most of those employers (TMC excepted). On a full-cost basis, including depreciation, commuter buses are a bargain vs. driving. But a lot of people just look at the cost of gas vs. the commuter buses (a few dollars each way), and it looks like a wash - or even cheaper to drive. We need to tilt that equation more strongly towards the HOV commuter buses. I think that means not only more and better service, but maybe lowering the price - potentially all the way to zero. Those three job centers total up to roughly twice as many jobs as downtown, so moving a significant number of those commuters to transit could make a noticeable impact on congestion.
If necessary, we might look at some sort of fee for employers in those districts to partially cover the subsidy costs. Maybe a property tax surcharge, through the special districts, or maybe a per-parking-space tax. I don't know the political feasibility of something like that, but I do believe greater commuter bus subsidies to non-downtown job centers will draw more riders and improve our rapidly deteriorating traffic situation, while costing Metro a lot less than universal free service.
Addendum: Christof recently posted eight excellent common-sense suggestions to improve transit. A very good read. Let's hope leaders at Metro and elsewhere are paying attention.