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notes from an imperfect utopia

By enelson
Thursday, July 20th, 2006 at 11:27 pm in Environment, Funding, Safety.

fast moving train - Josh Birnbaum - x26spar2.jpgTo start with, free transit is good, smog or no smog.

At least that’s what nearly everyone I’ve 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!’’


  • It’s 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 n’er-do-wells, the de-institutionalized and freeloading tourists to transit. This has been noticed by nearly everyone I’ve 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. It’s 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.

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7 Responses to “notes from an imperfect utopia”

  1. Robert Kelley Says:

    It’s not FREE TRANSIT. It’s just paid for by other people. By sales taxes. Property taxes. State income taxes.

    If everyone you’ve talked with believes “free transit” is a good idea , then you’ve only talked to people on your public transportation lines. You need to speak with people who are footing the bill.

    Bus lines and trains should be economically self-sufficient and not an attempt to force one’s views on others. For many people, buses and trains are not viable alternatives at all for
    a variety of reasons. And these are choices that each individual must make for themselves. It’s not your place to force your lifestyle onto others. If you want to ride a bus or a train, go for it. But don’t force others to pay for your choice. And don’t force others to live your lifestyle.

    AC Transit has existed for decades and the bus lines of southern Alameda County have miniscule ridership. Check out the AC Transit web site and you can see the statistics. It’s not your place to FORCE people to live YOUR lifestyle. Why not let people CHOOSE FOR THEMSELVES?

  2. Jason Says:

    “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!”

    It’s hard for me to imagine it was entirely the BART operator’s fault in this case. When I’ve been on a train that was completely full, which has happened several times, the operators have made multiple announcements telling people to move away from the door. Reasonable passengers tend not to try to crush onto the train at that point. I don’t know what happened in this case, but if the complainer above tried to dash in without hearing an announcement, or pile in after that announcement was made, it’s their own damn fault.

    “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.”

    I don’t find this paradoxical at all.

    The negatives of free transit are mitigated when transit is not free. The main drawback of free transit is the overcrowding. When transit is not free, there are fewer passengers, making it nicer for those who are using it.

    I’m not sure what the other negatives might be, though….

  3. Joel B. Says:

    This is kind of why I see “Free Transit” as a good representation of why “Cheaper Transit” is really the way to go. It is the way of the world that BART, ACE, Capital Corridor, and the rest (although mostly BART) that Transit gets more expensive. And the price keeps going up. $10 is a lot of money to get between San Francisco and back from Dublin. Now maybe $5 round-trip would be a lot more appealing. Of course, this all gets back to the parking problem from earlier, but really…I think overall cheaper transit would be beneficial all around.

  4. Robert Raburn Says:

    We agree that the value of the program is unproven.

    After three consecutive weekdays of unhealthy levels of air pollution (June 21-26) depleted the funds for free transit at a very early date in the “smog season,” I reported to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission on June 28 on discussions from the East Bay Bicycle Coalition list server. Many members questioned the sustainability of the current spending program to improve air quality, and raised the notion that offering free transit actually induces some motorists to drive on less congested freeways. As a solution to these problems, we suggested implementing Spare the Air bridge-toll increases to discourage driving and fund free transit.

    Too bad the MTC did not listen before extending the expenditure for another three days. Now the Bay Area has gobbled up over $13 million for the program, and there are now neither funds left for free transit, nor effective deterrants to driving. All but the pollution has evaporated!

  5. John Koktosin Says:

    A much better strategy would be for them to apply the money to give further discounts to actual commuters who purchase big Bart tickets all at once. Or, they could have discounted fares on spare the air days (though I think that would be harder to administer).

    I actually think that the free fare days push people *away* from transit, since their initial experience with it on the free day is so awful.

  6. Gary Morris Says:

    My question about transit in SF (and East Bay) is why in the hell have they never been able to come up with a single, reasonably priced monthly pass that includes all the various systems, or at least Muni, AC Transit, and BART. The idiot in charge of technology at BART has stated how “complicated” this would be, but other cities (including London) seem to be able to manage it. It’s just appalling that public transit is so damned expensive. I lived in the East Bay for 12 years, then moved to Portland, Oregon for the last 6, and am contemplating coming back to the East Bay, but the level of incompetence (probably based on patronage hires and corruption, like so much of SF) down there on issues like this is giving me pause. So much for the Bay Area’s much-vaunted image as a center of high-tech “thinkers.”

  7. david vartanoff Says:

    There WAS a Bart Plus which was an all you can eat AC, Muni, and VTA plus various levels of Bart usage. But AC gave riders the finger three years ago and quit. Meanwhile Bart persists in its complex and hostile fare structure.

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