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fairer fare in bowels of NYC?

By enelson
Monday, September 18th, 2006 at 11:48 am in AC Transit, BART, Buses, Fare systems, Transit vs. driving.

Photo by Richard Brome from

NY subway farecard entrance2-Richard Brome from nycsubwaydotorg.jpg

My story about the idea of flattening BART fares provoked a thoughtful response from transplanted New Yorker Meg, who e-mailed these observations regarding BART board member Joel Keller’s reference to New York City as an example of flat-fare mass transit:

As a Bay Area resident who has lived in New York, I can tell you that there are a few factors which make the flat fare workable there. BART administrators ought to consider some of these when making their decisions.

1. Very few people in New York have cars. So most of them don’t have the option to drive. In the Bay Area, by contrast, many if not most people have access to cars, and therefore have an alternative to BART. People grumble about a subway fare increase in New York, but ultimately they more or less have to pay it.

2. In New York, most people who use the subway regularly get a weekly or monthly pass, where you pay a fixed amount and then get unlimited rides during that time period. For example, right now a 30-day pass costs $76. So if you ride more than 38 times a month (17 round-trips), you save money. Commuters – and, in fact, most people who rely on public transit – easily make that many trips a month.

3. The New York subway has special deals on pay-per-ride tickets too. I had to laugh when I read the proposal to have smart cards which give you a free ride after forty rides. FORTY rides? Are you kidding? In New York, you get an extra $2 on your card when you purchase a $10 ticket. That’s six rides for the price of five. If you buy a $20 ticket, you get $24 on your card. Now THAT’s an incentive.

4. In New York, the bus and subway systems are owned by the same company, so the same MetroCard works for both. This is especially good if you get an unlimited weekly or monthly MetroCard, which you can then use on both the bus and the subway. But even with just a regular pay-per-ride MetroCard, it’s very convenient to be able to use the same ticket for both. Here, on the other hand, you have multiple different transportation companies (e.g. BART, AC Transit, Muni), so you wouldn’t have that level of convenience.

In my opinion, all of these things make a flat-fare system less workable here than in New York. Some of these could be remedied – for example, BART could offer unlimited cards and better deals on pay-per-ride cards (which, frankly, I was really surprised not to find when I moved here. And how is it possible that “high-value” BART cards, which aren’t even that much of a savings, are not sold at BART stations? That’s just weird. But I digress.) Several transportation systems could get together to collaborate on a joint flat-fare system with a common card. But unless some of these things happened, I think a flat-fare system would create a lot of problems.

I must say I, too, was shocked at the paltry discount offered for “high value” BART farecards. I mean, 6.6% on a $60 commitment? Come on! And, as I said to Bob Franklin, do I really want to put that much money on that flimsy piece of paper that all too often ends up getting “lost” at the drycleaners?

Others Latched onto the NYC subway example, like David V, who left me a voice mail this morning:

New Yorkers don’t really pay $2. Yes, that’s the single-fare price, and a few people actually pay that, but the average fare paid in New York last time I knew was $1.37 because most people buy passes of one sort or another. And, that $2 fare … buys you ride on buses to and from the subway as long as it’s a single trip.

So, a $2 fare would be just fine if it meant you got on AC, got to BART, got off BART, got on Muni and all paid a $2 fare. That would be cheap.

Cheap, indeed. On the other hand, if you’ve already invested in a computerized fare system that allows cheaper fares for short rides, and vice versa, do you necessarily want to chuck the whole system?

Hopefully, the great thinkers at the nation’s mostly efficient mass transit system will come up with ways to charge fares that make it more attractive to take BART when, unlike in the Big Apple, driving will do just fine, thank you.

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8 Responses to “fairer fare in bowels of NYC?”

  1. South Bay Resident Says:

    I think that the New York City subway is the wrong comparison to BART. The primary purpose of the NYC subway is to circulate people around the densest part of the NYC metropolitan area. It doesn’t cover the outlying areas. Bart is different in that it primarily functions to move people between San Francisco and its outlying suburbs. BART’s operations are far more comparable to the Long Island Railroad, which, like BART charges distance based fares. The Muni Metro lines are much more comparable to the NYC subway in terms of function than is BART.

  2. Bob Franklin, BART Board Says:

    I think the solutions and answers to the above-mentioned problems reside in the smart card. As it can be registered, lost cards can be canceled, to protect any balance.
    The BART fare structure is very complex, with over 94 different fares. A smart card would be able to track the number of trips taken in a month, and then reward frequent travelers after they hit a threshold (i.e. 40-44 trips per month) If you travel less, then you would only be charged for the trips you took. And after the threshold, discounts or free travel would begin for the remainder of the month.
    When Translink (the universal smart card) comes online in the next several years, BARTPlus will go away. This is the main Bus to BART fare instrument, aside from the Fast Pass in SF, which is good on both BART and Muni within SF.
    We will have to come up with a new fare structure to encourage people to use BART and buses in conjunction with each other.
    My latest thought is for people to pay for bus and BART separately on their smart card, but if you go over 40 trips on each in a month, you would get a compounded discount for using multiple systems together, as well as some type of bonus for travel after 40 trips. 40 trips is a current number of trips on which a price of a monthly pass is usually based. And again, if you travel less than 40, you only would pay for the actual number of rides taken. A monthly pass would automatically kick in, and you wouldn’t have to commit to it at the beginning of a month.
    I will be posting on my website the progress on this monthly pass issue at BART. Please feel free to forward me any thoughts here or on my website.
    Also, there are a couple of quick corrections: I didn’t say that you only would get 1 free ride after 40 as is Meg above claims. Also, in Erik’s original story, I wanted to point out another correction. BART developed its own smart card internally to allow employees access to the BART system. Stanford did not develop this. Stanford is the first external organization to use BART’s smart card aside from BART’s employees. We will gradually begin to roll this card out to the public. This card is in the advance of Translink and will be replaced by Translink when that card is available in the next several years.
    Thank you,

  3. Another New Yorker Says:

    I think the LIRR comparison is right (though the the actual distance from say, downtown SF to Daly city is proably about the same as Manhattan to the end of the F line in Queens.) I’d also point out that in New York many people ride a train like LIRR, New Jersey Transit or Metro North, all of which charge distance based fares, and then get on the subway, so commute expenses are often much higher than the subway fare alone would indicate. On the other hand all of those commuter rail systems offer monthly passes that are far cheaper than the per ride fare, about 30% less.

  4. Paul Says:

    By not offering discounts to frequent users, BART maintains one of the most equitable fare structures in the nation. It’s also interesting to note that BART achieves an unusually high farebox recovery ratio — historically about 50%.

    Transit agencies that offer unlimited-use passes create a situation where the most frequent users account for a relatively large share of trips taken, but a relatively small share of fare revenue.

    Frequent users set a high-water-mark for an agency’s capital and operating needs. Supplemental peak-hour service is the most expensive to provide, since the assets (and sometimes the operators) remain idle for the rest of the day.

    The discounts are financed by higher cash fares. This, in turn, penalizes low-income-earners (who may be “cash-poor” and unable to afford the up-front cost of an unlimited-use pass all at once) and deters “choice” occasional riders (who are known to be more price-sensitive than regular riders).

    AC Transit staff have twice proposed the following revenue-positive and ridership-positive combination: eliminating passes and charging everyone a much lower cash fare. It’s an economically-sound idea, but one too radical to win political approval.

    For details, see:

  5. david vartanoff Says:

    Passes priced in the 35-44 single fare range DO NOT “set a high-water-mark for an agency¬ís capital and operating needs”. These are the average trips of a regular 40hr jobholder. The “bonus” rides typicaly are off peak, evenings and weekends–all times of excess capacity. Encouraging riders outside rush hour benefits both riders and transit agencies.

  6. Paul Says:

    The trips of a regular 40-hour jobholder do indeed set the high-water mark for a transit agency’s operating and capital needs, since, for most such people, the trips occur when service is at its highest level, i.e., during the morning rush hour and the evening rush hour. The highest service level is the high-water mark: the moment when you need the most vehicles and the most employees.

    If there are to be unlimited-use monthly passes, pricing them at 40 times the single-ride fare is certainly better than pricing them even lower.

    Still, would you say it is fair for passholders to provide, say 30% of all fare revenue but take, say 50% of all trips? This situation is not at all unusual.

    People should pay for what they use.

  7. david vartanoff Says:

    The point is precisely that the rush hour capacity MUST be sufficienr for the ecomy of the service area. Once that is in place, encouraging non rush usage incurs minimal expense while the various workers necessary for rush are still at work. As to some nebulous equity issue, transit is a public service–do you want to charge for police and fire servuces based on use?

  8. Steven Hauser Says:

    “Pay for what you use”, when trucks pulverize the freeway and road system compared with auto traffic the minimal gas fees and little increase in license costs that do not come close to “pay for what you use”, trucks cause 90% of the damage to the roads and pay close to nothing.

    Anyone who declares and enforces that people who commute on freeways pay
    for them by mile driven and damage done (trucks) would be shot as a terrorist in this society. So why try to impose that same reasoning on transit? These people say this to make transit unusable. Transit systems cost nothing compared to massive road system costs. When you recover those huge road costs from the truckers and commuters that drive more than one mile, then you can impose “fairness” on transit users.

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