To start with, free transit is good, smog or no smog.
At least thats what nearly everyone Ive talked about it believes.
Secondly, free things are often taken for granted.
Photo by Josh Birnbaum – STAFF
Think of the panhandler on the street who sneers when your donation doesn’t meet with his expectations.
With those points established it’s time for the kvetching.
Complaining, that is, about Spare the Air Days’ unprecedented run of free transit, six days, starting with June 23 and ending tomorrow, unless the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District can scrape
together a few more millions to cover any other bad air patches we might hit between now and October 13.
What’s to complain about, you ask?
- Monthly pass holders still pay. A colleague just came up to me and noted that “people who are on monthly passes are (let’s just say, “cheated”). My girlfriend has a monthly pass on Muni ahd she said she doesn’t get anything out of this.” This is true, but as I pointed out, most pass holders, with the possible exception of AC Transit riders, probably already saved as much as they would have if they had paid daily fares and rode free for three days in June and three days in July.
- Commuter crush. One Bart Rage poster had this lament: “I usually really like Spare the Air days, cuz I save a couple bucks on BART. Monday’s, however, was extremely unpleasant. Since everyone wants a free ride, at 5 p.m. when all the commuters were getting off work (myself included) the 12th Street Oakland BART station was jam packed. There were at least double, if not triple the amount of people down there that there normally would be. When the Fremont train arrived, it too was jam-packed. We all tried to get on the train, and the operator closed the doors on us! I realize that they are on a schedule, but bruising your passengers arms isn’t very nice!
- Its expensive. At more than $2 million a day, the six budgeted (three of them technically yet-to-be approved) Spare the Air free-transit days add up. The tally is now at $13.6 million, give or take. Some have suggested that the money might be better spent improving transportation.
- It attracts ner-do-wells, the de-institutionalized and freeloading tourists to transit. This has been noticed by nearly everyone Ive talked to about fare-free days, mostly on BART and the Sausalito ferry service, which is a piker-tourist magnet.
- Its value is unproven. This is perhaps the strongest argument that Spare the Air is a big waste of money. So far, no one has been able to demonstrate that free fares + more riders = fewer cars and less smog. Its an eminently logical assumption, but some are calling for empirical evidence.
Most of these complaints are annoyances that detract from the secondary purpose of encouraging people to use transit even when they have to pay. An air district official responded, paradoxically, that if commuters don’t like some of the negatives of free transit, they should try transit that isn’t free.
But the cost-benefit question is a big one with no adequate answer. The bottom line is that denizens of the Bay Area have to believe that more transit use and less driving is better, and that’s not such a difficult pitch to make.
And the monthly pass question may be discouraging for those of us who are already blue-ribbon campers, but it’s not as if we’re going to start driving again in protest. And the money you save on a monthly pass is probably more (unless you’re an AC Transit pass holder and you have my sympathies) than you would have saved by getting three free days in June and three more in July.