I really never thought that a story about one BART director’s idea to switch to a flat fare of perhaps $2.40 or $2.50 would generate so much interest, or end up at the top of the Trib’s Sunday front page. But what do I know?
Now the PhD’s are weighing in.
Aaron Golub, a researcher at the UC Berkeley California Transportation Center, sent me a copy of the open letter to the BART board he penned after hearing the flat-fare idea trumpeted on the radio Sunday.
I won’t reproduce the whole thing here, but he makes some interesting observations, such as how subsidizing longer-distance fares helped get more people to move to the suburbs a century ago in Boston and New York.
Ahh, let’s imagine a time when you had to pay people to move out of the city:
This expansion helped to depopulate the overcrowded urban cores and help settle the country’s first suburbs. More recently, the movement from zone and time of day fares to flat flares has helped to simplify payment options for riders, and reduce disputes between drivers and riders over proper fares. Even for systems where flat fares have been used for decades, flat fares bring questionable benefits to riders and operators and have troubling implications as well.
Point No. 1 Golub makes is that fares need to reflect costs better than they do now, and flattening them would make inequities and budgetary problems even worse:
The costs of operating BART vary greatly by time of day, by distance and by route. On the operating side, electricity, labor, wear and tear and maintenance all induce costs by distance traveled. Long trips cost more to produce than short ones. On the capital side, expensive tunneling in the East Bay and Transbay Tube means trips which use these facilities are using more expensive infrastructure than other trips. The large number of trains purchased and maintained to be used only during peak hours also exacts large storage and maintenance costs on BART, meaning that trips made during the peak hour cost BART more than trips made in the off-peak. In sum — BART costs vary significantly by time of day, by distance and by route, and fares should be structured to reflect this. Indeed, current fare structures do attempt to account for distance and route cost differences, though arguably, the function of distance is not steep enough.
The problems of not linking fares to cost are many. A rider making a Saturday trip from Fruitvale to Downtown Oakland subsidizes the long commute-hour trips from the far East Bay. This has important social equity implications, to be discussed later, but is also inefficient. By not varying fares with cost, expensive trips are subsized, meaning that more of these long trips are taken than would be if fares were more accurate. On the other hand — cheap trips are overpriced, and therefore underused. This exacts a cost on BART by being forced to provide more trips at a fare discount (long trips, peak hour, etc) and fewer trips where riders overpay (short trips, off-peak). BART loses fare revenues by not charging more accurate fares and this will only be exacerbated by moving to a flat fare.
Golub also believes ridership is likely to decline with a flat fare, and I have to give him credit for talking about my favorite economic concept, price inelasticity (I get shivers whenever I hear it):
For riders making peak-hour commute type trips to downtown jobs, parking rates, parking availability, traffic congestion and gas prices are all onerous enough to make these riders fairly committed to using BART on most mornings. BART fares are a very small part of the calculus in the commute costs — BART could probably increase fares quite a bit from the far East Bay before seeing any appreciable ridership changes. In economics, this behavior is called price-inelastic: behavior does not respond very much to changes in prices. By far, most of long trips from the far reaches of the East Bay are these fairly inelastic commute trips. On the other hand, riders in the urban core (Between say Berkeley/Rockridge to Coliseum to 24th street/Mission) make more off-peak and discretionary trips which are more price-elastic (respond more strongly to fare changes). Because of the inelasticity of the long commute trips, the substantial fare reduction from implementing flat fares will likely not increase ridership significantly. These riders might make the to-and-from commute trips on BART, but are unlikely to make other discretionary trips by BART.
You following this? There will be a quiz later.
Then Golub tackles a subject I’ve seen grownups kick sand into each other’s eyes over:
Furthermore, in only a few outlying parking lots is there additional capacity to handle more automobile access to BART. Indeed, in many stations, access problems are likely a bigger barrier to BART ridership than fares. Solving these access problems could probably lead to a larger ridership increase than fare reductions.
Some people just HATE providing parking for suburban commuters, expecting that they’ll walk a half-mile or so to catch a WHEELS or County Connection bus that will take them 30 minutes to get to BART when they could have driven there in 15.
And people out in the far burbs making long trips are in the minority, so to speak, Golub notes:
It should be noted that one subset of the long trips — those from the East Bay to SFO or OAK – could rise following a fare reduction. These trips are such a small share of total BART ridership that they are unlikely to have an appreciable impact. It would also be questionable public policy to introduce such drastic changes to exact a benefit for a small segment of the riders.
And the majority will suffer:
In the urban core, fares will rise for a large number of riders. These riders, because of the availability of other cheaper travel options such as MUNI and AC Transit, and because they are making shorter, more discretionary trips, could leave BART for other options. The question here then is one a balance between the slight increases in ridership for the long trips, with the quite likely higher loss of ridership in the urban core. The higher elasticity for those trips with a fare increase should overwhelm the numbers of trips increased and lead to a reduction in overall ridership. Much more careful modeling of this question should be performed before proceeding with a decision on this matter.
And speaking of minorities and the disadvantaged, there are social equity issues to be pondered, such as how much we chose to cater to “choice” riders:
The riders making the overpriced (currently, and under a flat fare, even more so) trips are more often low-income and people of color. The riders making peak hour commute trips are so-called “choice riders” — wealthy and overwhelmingly white. Low-income riders mostly use the Richmond-Fremont line between Bay Fair and El Cerrito — the cheapest part of the system to operate — and are more likely to use the system off-peak and weekends than other riders. It is highly likely that a flat fare would exacerbate the already questionable social equity impacts of the current fare structure.
Then we fall deeper into the quagmire that is transit equity:
In 2005, AC Transit evaluated its fare proposals using detailed ridership information, and included a Title VI analysis of social equity impacts of the proposals. I urge BART to take the same measures to insure that board members and the riding public, to whom they are responsible, are fully informed of these impacts. In a time when MTC and the LA MTA and other operators are under increased scrutiny for purportedly inequitable funding policies, BART cannot ignore this issue.
There are also benefits to having a flat fare, but Golub implies that BART riders don’t much care about those issues, such as simplifying the fare structure. In our nation’s capital, for instance, fares are based not only on distance, but also according to peak-commuting hours.
And that brings us to the conclusion (when the bell rings, you may proceed to your next class):
BART should move to, not away from, fares which better reflect costs — fares which vary by distance, route and time of day. As smart media becomes adopted over the next decade, many operators will be making this move to better pricing and numerous discount options. BARTs recent move to un-bundle the charge for parking from the BART fare is a great step in the right direction. I write this letter as a regular BART rider, a transportation researcher and an advocate for better transportation options throughout the bay area, of which BART is an important part.