Sunday, December 04, 2022

Should METRO reconsider eliminating transit fares? (again)

Back in 2019 I laid out the case for METRO to eliminate transit fares and essentially be free (and Bill King did it way back in 2008). which they considered but ultimately decided against. Since then we've had a pandemic that has devastated transit ridership nationwide, and momentum is building around the country for more transit agencies to eliminate fares to raise ridership and speed up trips.  Kansas City has been very successful with it, and now DC is moving ahead (hat tip to Jay). 

Houston could totally do this since fares are such a small part of their revenue (maybe 3% at this point?). And it would be especially good now because Metro is looking at a huge contract to upgrade its payment systems – all that could be completely saved! But the counterargument completely ignored in this piece is homeless semi-living on the buses, which drives off other passengers. 

I think the solution to homeless would be to kick everybody off at the end of every route before turning around. The question is how hard would that be to enforce by the driver? It might take a few months of stationing transit cops at key places to enforce and build the routine. Another option would be like with driver's licenses: you have a transit pass, and it can be revoked or suspended at any time for violations. Nobody boards without a valid transit pass. Or something similar could be done with facial recognition cameras so people don’t have to carry a transit pass, but suspended riders could be identified.

So there are options for minimizing the downsides of free transit, but METRO would have to be willing to be bold and innovate and experiment. It's potentially the second-best initiative METRO could take on (after a true moonshot of aspiring to offer half-hour or less express trip times from every park-and-ride and transit center to every major job center and both airports using a network of MaX Lanes in collaboration with TXDoT and HCTRA, with vehicle size and frequency tailored to demand).

If new METRO board chair Sanjay Ramabhadran and the rest of the Board are looking for a way to leave an amazing legacy to Houston and METRO, either or both of these would definitely fit the bill!

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At 6:41 PM, December 04, 2022, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The link to the DC WMATA system is an article in October. It involves the District of Columbia City Council. It was a discussion. What has happened since? The final decision will be made by WMATA’s Board. What has been there opinion and action. We know you think this is the answer but is it really? Vague references to other cities is not helpful to this that must consider all of the facts and make a final policy decision.

At 5:41 PM, December 07, 2022, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

You suggest, that since routes are such a disaster, with declining ridership providing only three percent of total revenue, we may as well, throw in the towel and leave the taxpayer on the hook for the full 100 percent. There are other alternatives you know.

One strategy, among many, might be to drop the lowest ten percent of routes, revenue wise, and allocate those drivers and buses to enhancing ridership and revenue on the top ten percent of routes, revenue wise. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum. Or, drop the lowest revenue routes and fire the drivers, thereby truncating the system into something more cost effective. Following one of these rubrics, Metro might give the impression of providing some value to the taxpayers who currently contribute 97 percent to system revenues. This may ultimately reducethe taxpayers contribution to something less than 97 percent.

More radically, if taxpayers are providing 97 percent on a service that is only less and less utilized with each succeeding moment; why not throw in the towel on Metro, altogether and dismantle it? In its place allow private services to operate on the routes which they deem fit. The only reason we don't have such services now, is because Metro has a legal monopoly on such service, i.e., it is a crime to compete with Metro and its three percent fair box recovery.

Less radically, let's keep Metro and eliminate fares, as you suggest. Let Metro get 100 percent of its revenue from the taxpayer. In return, allow competitors on the street to compete with Metro for fare paying riders. This would not be a threat to Metro since zero percent of Metro Revenues would come from the farebox. Riders who want value for money could ride a fare charging private service. And cheapskates and homeless people could ride Metro for free. A win win for everyone.

At 10:01 PM, December 07, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If only those were options! As far as eliminating low-performing routes, METRO has an obligation to completely cover the service area, so they run a lot of bad routes just to get the geographic coverage.

At 10:29 AM, December 10, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The counter-argument, which I think is pretty naive and idealistic:

At 1:50 PM, December 10, 2022, Blogger Neil Strickland said...

I think we can improve on KC’s performance by de-universalizing it. Market only certain designated BRT corridors as B-FREE-RT METRO HTOWN. The system network stays unchanged except, on this route, Metro charges a fare only at the point when or if those riders have transferred onto another route and mode. Making a complete B-FREE-RT loop of Post Oak, Washington Avenue, Bagby, Wheeler TC and Richmond Avenue back to Uptown would be a good place to begin. Please try not to call it the Inner Loop though. :)

At 6:03 PM, December 10, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's not a bad start. Certainly would make sense to do it with the LRT/BRT lines first. It's always been hard to enforce those fares anyway.

At 11:26 AM, December 14, 2022, Blogger Neil Strickland said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:40 AM, December 14, 2022, Blogger Neil Strickland said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:48 AM, December 14, 2022, Blogger Neil Strickland said...

Haven't had an update here on Inner Katy BRT from Oscar in a year.

Richmond Avenue is so convenient for stops; but each convenient stop deters other stops’ riders from ever using it (too slow).
METRO’s right of way from Midtown out along Westpark would be speedy; it’s too out-of-the-way for riders’ demand.
These facts fit together nicely for future BRT service.

The major transit centers at Lower Uptown, at Wheeler, and at 1900 Main downtown could simply offer to _bypass_ the linear series of stops that has to be offered by traditional service routes.

Just go instead from “man coverage” — where buses follow a lengthy parade of intermediate stops along the same thoroughfare — to “zone coverage.”

Depart one TC, zoom most of the distance on the fast right of way, head onto Richmond for just a couple of stops, and then jump back to the fast right of way to arrive at the far TC. As long as there are enough buses to cover the whole Richmond Corridor with little curlicues then the only origin-demand pairs that this model would serve poorly would be the rarer riders who want to go directly from say Richmond and Buffalo Speedway into Richmond at Montrose. These might be better and less unprofitably served by jitneys anyway.

Same strategy would be available and effective for Washington Avenue with Inner Katy’s fast busway!

And some day, board permitting, the Uptown Silver BRT could tie those two together with an express busway running north from Westpark (by the Channel 26 KRIV lot) up to Buffalo Bayou by Memorial Park’s railroad bridge, then cutting west to Post Oak or even Uptown Park boulevards. Then the Northwest Transit Center could get in on the action as well, forming an efficient rectangle around the northwest quarter of the inner loop.

At 3:15 PM, December 14, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Love the idea of more long-distance express service between transit centers, which is part of the Metro Moonshot proposal I linked to. You are absolutely right that all the stops bog down the service.

At 9:44 PM, December 14, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Also Neil, here's a METRO presentation on the inner Katy that Oscar sent me - otherwise no news:

At 11:01 AM, December 20, 2022, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that homelessness issue is going to be the major objection to any free plan. Maybe as you suggested kicking everyone off at the end of the line would work, but it is a risk.

That said there is a simple half measure that could be put in place. Free local fares for students and senior citizens. Both groups already pay reduced fares so the revenue is less than negligible.

Just require both groups to still use the metro card and reduce the fare to zero. That way you are still collecting data. If the results are after several years that free fares cause a major jump in ridership in these groups that will be justification to expand it further.

At 11:08 AM, December 20, 2022, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I like that idea. Good experiment to run. As long as METRO doesn't invest in a massive new fare collection system during that time...


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