Monday, February 18, 2008

Making transit free

Future 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:

Pro 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)
Con arguments
  • 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
If we could go back in time to before the 2003 rail referendum, I think this option would deserve a healthy debate as an alternative to the rail plan. Imagine if all that rail money had been poured into frequent free bus and shuttle service all over town, helping develop a real "transit culture" in this city. As it is, I think we're pretty locked-in to the rail plan at this point, and Metro will need most of that money to make ends meet. But a more targeted "free" service may make sense.

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.

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At 10:15 PM, February 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Some thoughts:

Before going into the current discussion, I should say that the entire government funded monopolistic transit industry largely leads to maximizing costs, not minimizing them. Numerous instances of this abound.

1) Many buses around town run empty most of the time, but Metro employs large buses that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars anyway on those routes when small ones which get better fuel economy (and cost quite a bit less) could be used. Nonetheless, they don't bother to do so.

2) Some of Metro's bus service is contracted out (a good thing), but much of its bus service is operated by the agency, giving rise to unionization since the concept of government funded transit isn't going away anytime soon. This is something that plagues the industry everywhere.

3) From reading the latest cost estimates for light rail projects from Portland and Dallas and then applying FTA evaluation guidelines for light rail projects, if one assumes that each person boarding light rail will ride trains for a distance of 5 miles per boarding trip and takes Metro's EIS ridership estimates for these routes, one comes to a cost of about $2 per mile. The cost of attracting new riders to light rail is far higher.

Owning and operating a $25,000 truck or car (including depreciation, insurance, probable repair costs, etc), even at $8 per gallon gas, is still about $1 per mile when taken over the entire life of the vehicle, if the vehicle lasts for 120,000 miles and the vehicle gets 24 miles per gallon.

4) Frank Wilson hired his old friend Frank Russo as a consultant on the Metro Solutions project for 2 years at a cost of $1.1 million plus automobile expenses. There is a whole cottage industry of people for whom Metro Solutions is a kind of make work program.

Mr. Spieler's impassioned pleas to do some sensible things like provide maps at bus stops are good (you see them at bus stops in London and other places), indeed I have considered shelling out money out of my own pocket to provide these items at the bus stop at the corner of where I live. But the fact that Metro has never bothered to do these things (indeed it still isn't doing them) says volumes about what the agency is really all about.

As for your comments, you note that new riders are unlikely to be car drivers (true), but further down you state that the public (at $100 per barrel petroleum) would like to see freeway congestion reduction by attracting drivers out of their cars.

Since the Nixon administration started the program of offering federal help to build rail transit, the political selling of rail has revolved around the argument that people will abandon their cars by the millions and that air pollution will be reduced by building rail lines. Rail has been built in some 25 cities across America, but there is little or no evidence that either has been accomplished.

Your observations regarding HOV commuting into the Galleria, Greenway Plaza and the Med Center are spot on. I might speculate that what also may be hurting transit commuting into those job centers is that the employment base may be more scattered and that getting them to collection points is a much greater challenge, verses building big park and rides in the distant suburbs and shipping workers to downtown. Most big city CBD's have transit commutes in the 20-50 percent market share range (in some European cities it is higher), but repeating that hat trick elsewhere for other employment centers is far more difficult. In effect, what we are trying to do is reduce the cost of shipping workers to their jobs. If we can't do this, then employers will find it is cheaper and easier to move closer to their workers, which is one of the drivers of suburbanization.

One comment about employer subsidization of commutes. Employers do not do this out of the goodness of their hearts, nor in the name of the public good. They do so because the Clean Air Act of 1990 compels that large employers find a way to get a certain percentage of their employees to take transit into work - or else they face penalties. I work downtown. My employer requires that employees pay $56 of the $125 monthly bus pass. Some employers are more generous than this, giving them away for free and some of those passes end up being auctioned off on Ebay.

Your sentiments regarding that if all the rail money were to be poured into a frequent free (or highly subsidized) bus and transit culture were part of what I alluded to in my MetroRail limousine post where I analyzed what the opportunity costs of rail are verses buses. That blog post was read nearly 5,000 times. We would get many many more transit vehicles out onto the road, but unfortunately rules are rules and the feds will only pay for capital projects and not allow use of federal funds to help with operating expenses.

This is a good debate and a needed one, but we'd better make sure we keep on the road building program.


At 10:46 PM, February 18, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks, Neal. Good stuff.

> you note that new riders are unlikely to be car drivers (true), but further down you state that the public (at $100 per barrel petroleum) would like to see freeway congestion reduction by attracting drivers out of their cars.

Just to clarify, it's unlikely too many new riders of free *local* transit would be drivers, but I do think they would for the HOV commuter bus services. The $100 oil comment was noting our economic boom - and it's attendant increase in traffic congestion - more than the cost increase of commuting.

At 8:42 AM, February 19, 2008, Blogger Unknown said...

A couple of things:
First, there is no evidence of any strategy reducing congestion in any corridor in the United States ever. Indeed, congestion and travel delay have risen with road building. Only congestion pricing - and not just tolls, but real congestion pricing - can reduce congestion in a corridor. (Of course it moves the congestion somewhere else).

Putting the burden of reducing congestion on transit is a bad game for a lot of reasons. First, it's transit's role to provide choices, not reduce congestion. Every driver taken off the road opens a space for another driver, and that's how markets work.

But transit can provide people with a choice, and if it's accompanied by development around stations that is appropriate for pedestrians, the reduction in regional vehicle miles traveled is dramatic. (H-GAC has done some ground-breaking work to show this).

Second, it is absolutely true that the very successful park and ride service needs to be expanded to hit the rest of the major activity centers, as the light rail system will do for urban dwellers. But that park and ride system obviously needs no fee reduction; as you note, the buses are full.

Further, that service is heavily subsidized as it is. It is a fantastic bargain, and simply needs to be expanded.

At 8:47 AM, February 19, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Everyone has mentioned the problem of derelicts riding if the price is free. What if we made the price anything greater than $0. The Art Institute of Chicago charges "something" to get in. Whether it's just a penny, you have to pay something to get in. Offer no exact change to keep things moving. I don't know if it would make a huge difference, but FREE makes people do stupid things.

At 10:12 AM, February 19, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> congestion and travel delay have risen with road building

But, according to the TTI data I've seen over the years, they have risen less than similar-growing cities that did not do road building, or did proportionally much less building.

I'm pretty sure if you "dramatically" reduce VMT, you've reduced congestion too.

I'm advocating the fee reduction for the non-downtown centers, because most of those employers offer free parking. I think the expense of downtown parking is a big driver of the downtown express services. In essence, I think most people look at the cost of gas + parking, and if it's anywhere comparable to the bus fare, they'll probably stick with the convenience of driving (even if the bus is a bit faster in the HOV lane, the actual time to park and catch a bus often eliminates a lot of the time savings). For the non-downtown centers with free parking, people need more incentive with reduced or even free fares.

At 12:37 PM, February 19, 2008, Blogger Unknown said...

So are you saying perhaps have no fee for park and ride service to the Medical Center, Uptown/Galleria, Greenway, Westchase, and Greenspoint, but charge the fee for going to downtown? Isn't that a little discriminatory against downtown?

At 1:52 PM, February 19, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, I'm not sure about Westchase and Greenspoint (at least not at first), but, essentially, yes. Markets set prices by demand. If demand is high (downtown), prices can be higher. If demand is low (TMC, Uptown, Greenway), a lower price is needed to stimulate demand. Airlines, for example, do this all the time, charging more for flights to NYC or DC National than Orlando or Vegas, even though they're similar distances.

In an ideal world, Metro would have economic analysts calculate supply-demand curves for each job center, and find the optimal price to maximize marginal demand - and make all that info public to justify their prices. Downtown price decreases may not stimulate much additional demand relative to the loss of revenue. But I think price decreases to the other centers may stimulate much more demand relative to the lost revenue.

At 3:47 PM, February 21, 2008, Blogger Unknown said...

Well, of course, the big trick is to actually have direct service to the other centers. As it is, a little organization named TREK delivers people from Ft. Bend County to Uptown and the Medical Center. I suspect the demand for those trips is pretty high, but there's not good service. If there was, and people weren't using it, then maybe consider lowering prices. But price isn't an issue today. It's lack of service.


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