Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Why METRO should eliminate transit fares

Apologies for the infrequency of posts - it's been a busy holiday season.  The big item this week is my mention in this Chronicle article for getting Metro to reconsider spending $100 million on new fare-collection equipment while they're still looking at going completely fareless:
(Metro Chairman) Patman said she spoke with Tory Gattis, a local blogger who has argued for free transit as a way to boost use, on Wednesday after the Houston Chronicle reported on the agency’s plans to expand payment options. Gattis, she said, urged the board to give the contract more consideration in view of the fare study. 
“I agree we need to think carefully about the connection between the two,” Patman said. 
Gattis, in a Twitter post Wednesday, called spending that much to collect about $70 million each year “silly.” 
“$100 (million) could buy and operate enough buses to handle the surge in demand from going fare-less with only a 6 percent revenue loss,” he wrote.
This is something I've discussed here before when I was supporting the Metro bond referendum, and Harris County Commissioner Radack supports it as well.  Kansas City and others are also looking at going fareless to boost ridership. Both Forbes and Aaron Renn have written about the benefits of free transit fares. Here's how I see the case for free fares:

Benefits of METRO going fareless

Affordable: Only 4.9% of Metro’s budget comes from the farebox ($67.5m from $1,363.8m revenue budget). That's less than a couple years of normal sales tax growth.

Increased ridership:
  • People are strongly attracted to “free” and discouraged by any cost
  • Attract the occasional/discretionary rider (including tourists) who won’t go through the hassle of getting a Q card. From Forbes:
"This increased demand is not due solely to the availability of free and convenient transportation, but also to the fact that it is frictionless: people don’t have to worry about travel cards, cash or identification."
Reduced congestion and increased air quality:
Reduced drunk driving as more people choose transit to go out

Faster and more on-time trips from speeding the boarding process
  • Also lower fuel consumption lost to excessive idling at stops
Stimulates the local economy and vibrancy: people will go out more and do more shopping, eating out, nightlife, entertainment, socializing, etc.

Reduced costs from not having to collect, process, and enforce fares
Eliminates fare-based confrontations between drivers and riders (a larger problem than you might think)

Huge PR boost from being the first major city in America to go fareless
From my understanding, it sounds like they could consider fareless off-peak right away, but would need a few years to add capacity to be able to handle the extra demand at peak hours.  I've suggested a 5-year steady ratcheting down of fares (20% reduction per year) while adding incremental capacity where demand increases beyond existing capacity, which is especially likely on commuter routes.  Going fareless off-peak in the near-term can also attract the discretionary rider to move their trip from peak to off-peak hours, freeing up additional peak capacity.

That's the case for fareless. I'm looking forward to the results of Metro's study and what they decide to do. I sincerely hope they look at going big and bold rather than playing it safe.

UPDATE: Bill King sent me an older Chronicle op-ed of his making similar arguments, but with more detailed analysis on the costs and benefits.

UPDATE 2: Kansas City beat us to it, but it shows it's possible for a major city to go fareless and we could still be the first top-30 metro to do it. Hat tip to Chris.

UPDATE 3: CityLab: Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

UPDATE 4: A Kinder analysis of some of my arguments for Metro going fareless.

UPDATE 5: Vox: Kansas City is making its bus system fare-free. Will other cities do the same?

UPDATE 6: Metro determines it's too expensive.

UPDATE 7, 12/5/22: newer post on this topic

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At 10:17 PM, December 04, 2019, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

Free public high school attendance has not helped reduce bullying, harassment and violence there, has it? Free access has instead caused greater migration by quality students from such schools and geographical regions. How's THAT for a waste of tax dollars in the name of inclusiveness?

The harassment on buses by thugs is hazardous. At least if thugs have to pay a little something to get to ride, and remain on the bus, there's a barrier to entry and also a pretext for evicting the thugs when the fare's due.

At 11:24 PM, December 04, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

There are other solutions to "problem riders", which are already an issue, fares or not. Facial recognition systems to deny boarding to banned rule-breakers would be one.

At 2:59 PM, December 05, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the first time (to my knowledge) on the Uptown-Post Oak corridor they will be installing dedicated ramps for the BRT. When we were in Honolulu last year we saw the 'above grade' system they are installing for a bus shuttle from the airport to downtown. Besides price the major issue with buses is that they are slower than cars because of traffic lights and congestion. Why isn't this being considered for future designs?

At 10:50 AM, December 08, 2019, Blogger ian said...

Tory, as someone who counts local Houston transit options as a primary mode of transportation and who is 100% a choice rider, I'm not entirely opposed to this idea. However, I will say that it runs counter to my gut libertarian leanings of paying for things that I value. Transit done well is a very valuable service. At the very least it means I don't have to pay for parking, don't have to deal with the stress of driving in traffic congestion, and can sit back and read, write, work, or relax. At best, it means I have an option for zooming past that congestion in dedicated lanes.

People pay for what they value -- and, to a certain extent, they value what the pay for. I never trust free postings for stuff on social media. The thought that runs through my head is: "what's wrong with it?" I am much more likely to consider purchasing something that has some cost associated with it. I'm also more likely to better maintain something with a higher cost, so that it will last longer and I can make the value of my purchase go further. I don't think these are strictly eccentric personality traits on my part: I think these go much deeper in humanity and should be considered in the pricing of public services.

I also think the discussion of fare revenue may be a little tone-deaf. Who is asking for free rides? The people actually riding transit? Or armchair transit riders, pushing for decisions that impact transit riders without actually being a regular one? I ask, because I think the two groups may have very different takes on the question of: "what should be our higher priority: improving transit service, or increasing ridership?" Or even a step further: "what do you think will do more to increase ridership: improve transit service, or reduce fares?" Yeah, we can do all of these things. But I fail to see how reducing any form of revenue for transit can improve transit service.

Many of the neediest groups already have reduced or fully subsidized fares. So the biggest impact of reducing fares would presumably fall on choice riders. But does anybody really think that people with financial means don't use transit because they can't afford it? That almost seems laughable. I'm a person of means from Houston. People like me don't take transit because we don't have a culture of valuing transit. And because our transit infrastructure is pretty dang lacking anyway. "It's for poor people, not people like me." "Oh, and anyway, the buses (and trains too, the way we design them) just get stuck in traffic like everybody else, so why should I give up the comfort of my personal space in my own car?" "Ehh, $1.25 doesn't both me, but I'd rather pay more than that in parking fees, tolls, car payments, and maintenance than share space with other people while waiting in the same traffic." <"Also, climate change is a hoax, and even if it's not, my personal decisions won't impact it anyway, and I really don't want any extra inconvenience in my life, even if it means the destruction of the planet." (Screw that mentality, but hey, it's out there)>

Maybe a better idea would be to reduce transit fares to something that can be paid with a few quarters. Two quarters? Maybe three? Once you introduce those dollar bills, the boarding process slows quite a bit.

So, okay, not entirely opposed. But I suppose pretty dang opposed.

At 1:17 PM, December 08, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Fair thoughts, Ian. But just as people value what they pay for, they also have an irrational desire to get great or especially free deals. Notice the lines around the block when Chik fil a gives away free chicken sandwiches? People waiting an hour to get a $5 sandwich for free. The goal is to increase ridership, esp. on the commuter buses (getting traffic off the freeways), and those are not $1.25. Those can easily be $10 round-trip every day. Probably still cheaper than a full-cost car drive (depreciation, insurance, maintenance, etc), but people only look at marginal cost (gas) and figure its cheaper and less hassle, so why not drive? But make commuter buses free, and people have to re-calculate their driving choice.

At 6:15 PM, December 08, 2019, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

** Attract the occasional/discretionary rider (including tourists) who won’t go through the hassle of getting a Q card. **

The point of upgrading the payment system would be to allow contactless payment methods (many credits not to mention phones and even smart watches have this capability) and eliminate the need for a separate card. You don't have to eliminate fares to accomplish this.

Sydney/New South Wales has had great success in deploying just such a system in Australia. There's no reason Houston couldn't roll out such a system, although not at the expense and over the length of time that was being proposed (that's just typical governmental incompetence when it comes to procurement, and should certainly be called out).

At 6:16 PM, December 08, 2019, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

Correction: many credit CARDS (not many credits)

At 9:45 PM, December 08, 2019, Blogger ian said...

Re: Chick-fil-a. I appreciate the attempt for a useful metaphor, but this one falls apart on all levels for me.

People have an existing experience with Chick-fil-a, or they are familiar with the highly positive social feelings towards those delicious, fried chicken sandwiches. A positive experience that I've previously paid for is now free? Count me in! (Well, if I were to totally discount the costs of waiting in a long queue, which I don't). Say the same happens for a transit service that may or may not be great, and one that perhaps I've never considered until now and that I may have only associated with people in a lower socio-economic standing: ehh, more for you!

Also: these products are utterly, completely different. A chicken sandwich is a consumable that requires absolutely no maintenance or upkeep. If you eat yours as fast as I eat mine, the experience is over in a flash (and you're left with the sinking feeling that maybe you should have gotten some waffle fries too). I don't have to keep it warm and toasty for the next person to enjoy my sandwich, and then the person after them, and so on. The only associated cost is that original, reasonable purchase price on any day but Sunday. But a transit vehicle? Those things gotta last. For hours a day, days a week, weeks, months, years, decades - including Sunday(!!!). That's something we need people to value and take ownership in. If the previous load trashed the bus before I got on and graffitied threatening messages all over the seats, then my experience sucks, and I'm probably not going to be riding that bus much longer.

Stepping away from the metaphor for a moment: I'm not sure how many P&R buses you've been watching, but I've never been concerned about the ridership on those comfy coach buses downtown. They are frequently standing room only. Also: many employers already fully subsidize transit for commutes. Where I work, I can get a parking spot in an inconvenient location downtown -- or I can get transit fully covered. That's not at all uncommon, and most of my coworkers don't even hesitate to go with the transit option. They'd simply rather not be stuck driving in traffic, and they like the chance to work or nap on their commutes. That calculus becomes clearer and clearer along the busier travel corridors, especially those with high-quality transit lanes. People on 290 or 45 don't need free transit to ride the bus. They're already doing it. If we want them to do it more, stop expanding the freeways and instead improve the transit quality. That'll do a hell of a lot more than reducing fares.

There's also a question of goals. I care about ensuring that people have a speedy, efficient, environmentally-friendly alternative to the traffic congestion we have now and that will be getting much, much worse in the coming decades. I care less about actually making sure people use it. If people *want* to be stuck in their tiny little cages while commuting in terrible traffic, more power to them! But I'm really just not all that worried about that happening. People are going to watch those shiny buses zoom past them only so many times before the say: hmm, let's give that a try! (And maybe talk to their boss about paying for the ride).

At 11:13 PM, December 08, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Lol, love the extended metaphor ;-D The faulty assumption in your argument is that employers will all stay downtown or in the core while traffic degrades instead of giving up and moving to the suburbs like Exxon did. If employers feel like their employees can't live in the affordable high-quality suburbs (inc. great school districts) they want to live in and still have a reasonable commute, they'll give up and move out to them, degrading Houston's tax base and vibrancy. Free transit actually gives employers an incentive to stay downtown or in core employment centers, because they'll have to give that up if they go out to the Beltway. It also helps them attract talent from anywhere in the metro area.

I do agree that the buses can't be trashed though. Metro has to be aggressive on that.

At 2:16 PM, December 09, 2019, Blogger ian said...

Hehehe, you started it! But glad to continue it :-)

I'm not entirely sure why Exxon decided to move (maybe you have some insights?), but my guess is that it has to do with similar kinds of mentalities that lead Apple and other big, international companies to similar decisions. We've got the money, we've got the vision, and we don't really care about what our employees think anyway, so let's do a BIG ASS, BRANDED, CORPORATE CAMPUS! (Oh, you're stuck owning a car and have no choice but to drive in with no transit, walking, or biking options? Sorry lowling! Steve and Rex wanted you to live in the 'burbs for some reason). Many of the people I talked to who worked in the old Exxon building were absolutely horrified by the decision.

So I'm honestly not sure how much general employee commute options played into the Exxon relocation decision, but my guess is just a bit at best. But I'd be very, very, VERY surprised if lower P&R fares would have made any difference whatsoever. The people I know where already very satisfied with their transit options when they were downtown.

At 3:28 PM, December 09, 2019, Blogger ian said...

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I could only resist so long. I succumbed. Late afternoon Chick-fil-A sandwich. And waffles fries. Thanks, Tory.

At 3:51 PM, December 09, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

😅 Hope you got a cookie too - they're amazing!

At 4:38 PM, December 11, 2019, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I would ask why you want to increase ridership? What good does that serve? Ridership is an indicator of the quality of the system not a goal. The goal should be a system that is self sufficient, or reduces traffic congestion, or moves people faster or more comfortably, or provides mobility to the neediest or the least physically able. Those are all worthwhile goals. But to increase ridership, for the sake of increasing ridership, while incurring increased cost... uh, no.

At 4:42 PM, December 11, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Assuming most transit vehicles are nowhere near full occupancy, increasing ridership increases efficiency (more riders per vehicle-mile). It also implies fewer cars on the road, which reduces congestion.

At 4:56 PM, December 11, 2019, Blogger ian said...

I do think "ridership" as a goal serves as a useful proxy for a lot of other goals, so I don't mind it so much myself. But for the transit vehicles that are not near capacity, I'd submit that there are a LOT of other, more important factors for what that is. Such as:

-Transit vehicles get stuck in traffic
-Sidewalks are in poor condition, so there is no way to walk to the transit stop
-Generalize sidewalks to: I can't take transit, because I can't walk. That requires sidewalks sure, but also lighting, curb ramps, shade, a feeling of personal security, separation from cars, safe ways to cross busy streets
-Transit vehicles are slow because there are too many stops
-Transit serves many low-density, low-income areas that simply don't have enough people to generate high ridership.
-Perception of transit for lower income/social classes

Reducing or eliminating fares will do nothing to impact these things. It will just remove a source of income (small, sure, but still something) to actually do something about them.


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