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the bitterness of the long-distance commuter

By enelson
Monday, November 27th, 2006 at 6:29 pm in AC Transit, BART, Buses, Fare systems, rail, transit equity, Transit vs. driving.


Janmarie recently posted a comment that got me started on such a rant that it threatened to overwhelm the comments of my Nov. 1 post.

It’s about fares. Not flat fares, but fairer fares for commuters who use public transit on a regular basis. Janmarie, like the Capricious Commuter, is sort of biased here. We both commute from the Central Valley, and as such, lack standing to tell Bay Area residents how they should be structuring their transit fares.

Janmarie’s beef:

I feel BART should give “true” commuters a BREAK. You can’t afford to live in the BAY AREA, as homes cost too much, not to mention the “CRIME” that is out of control in Oakland. So what are people supposed to do? BART has all these parking lots and there are never any spaces to park. Your car gets broken into (yet there are supposed to be BART POLICE). What do they do?

And by break, Janmarie means cheaper fares. You know, like Muni gives its regular riders on both its own buses and trains and on BART trips strictly within San Francisco. It’s $45 a month for adults. That’s $1.02 per trip if you take two trips (transferring from BART to Muni buses or streetcars in the same trip, even) each weekday for 22 days in November (Ok, so Thanksgiving throws this off, but I’m not counting weekends).

The best that a stair-sprinting young-to-middle aged adult BART rider from elsewhere can hope for, if they’re not hooked into some special deal through work or whatever, is a 6.25-percent discount. The BART website acually exclaims, “$48 ticket costs only $45 and $64 ticket costs only $60!” Yee-hah!

Lets do the math: On that same 22-day month, riders traveling San Francisco-style distances and paying the minimum $1.40 regular fare would save a whopping $3.85 cents for the month, or would knock down their single-trip fare to $1.31. That’s nearly a dime!

Now consider the long-distance BART commuter, paying $4.95 for a regular fare from Dublin/Pleasanton to Civic Center. Buying the big-ticket ticket saves them 40 cents per trip, or $13.61 for a discounted monthly BART bill of $217.80, weekends not included.

BART board member Bob Franklin would like to exploit the flexibility of the system’s new replaceable EZ Rider smart cards, which are ideally hooked to your checking account so you never have to add to them. An innovative (for BART, anyway) way to reward riders might be to make the remainder of the month free after you’ve paid for a certain number of rides, like, say, 42.

But such changes won’t be easy, Franklin says, because “I don’t think BART’s staff wants to change. You can predict what your revenue’s going to be, so why risk it?” 

AC Transit’s bus service is similarly ill-suited to monthly passes, considering that a monthly pass is $70, which amounts to something like an 11-cent discount if you’re just riding to work.

At least AC Transit board member Chris Peeples could offer up a defense for that: “Many of the people who use our montly pass are like me, they do not drive a car. Then the monthly pass is very worthwhile.”

He also wonders why any transit system ought to subsidize the kind of long-distance commuting done by Janmarie and yours truly: “Why should we subsidize people for living in the exurbs? That’s a question I have about ACE and Capitol Corridor.”

Setting aside my own personal interest, I’d have to say he raises an excellent point. Do we really need to encourage people to live in Tracy and work in the Bay Area’s urban core? How can I sleep at night, knowing that the tax dollars of millions of Californians are paying three-quarters of the cost of my trip to work?

Here’s how: Because that subsidy is keeping the likes of Janmarie and myself off of some of the busiest traffic snarls in the Bay Area each morning. The only difference is that Janmarie takes BART for the last part of her journey, and so is paying a much higher proportion than I am. If she were able to take ACE, she’d get a major break, at least in part because it gets a heftier subsidy as a commuter, rather than intercity rail line.

People don’t live in Tracy because they can get a cheap train ride. Most of those people drive. They live there, as Janmarie noted, because the housing is cheaper, the schools are decent and it’s safer to walk the streets at night.


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17 Responses to “the bitterness of the long-distance commuter”

  1. Doug Faunt Says:

    I don’t see that people buying those cheaper houses in Tracy are subsidizing my house purchase in Oakland, which also keeps me out of those “busiest traffic snarls…”. And BART fares already subsidize those people who ride in from the exburbs.

  2. V Smoothe Says:

    As someone who use public transit as my exclusive form of transportation, I find the argument that I should subsidize long distance commmuters to an even greater degree than I already ready do because it makes traffic better extremely unsympathetic. Bay Area BART riders who own cars are also staying out of those “busiest traffic snarls.”

    The sense of entitlement displayed in Janmarie’s comment is mind-boggling. How is she any more of a “true commuter” than someone who lives in Oakland who commutes to work on BART daily? If people want to live in Tracy because housing is cheaper, then they have to understand that part of the trade-off is that transportation costs to the city will be higher. And how expensive is it really to park at a BART station, paying both the parking fee and the fare when compared to the cost of driving into San Francisco to work, paying for gas, bridge tolls, and parking every day?

  3. transit-dependent Says:

    Indeed, we should be doing the opposite of what Janmarie suggested: curbing our ridiculous subsidies to suburban commuters and rewarding (rather than punishing) people who choose to live in transit-oriented neighborhoods. It’s not really exurban Capitol Corridor commuters that are subsidized for living far away from their jobs (since the trains are relatively efficient), but suburban BART riders. Didn’t we already go over this in your post about flat fares and their inequity? What about the environmental justice lawsuit filed against BART-to-SFO? The tide is turning toward urban living and a greater recognition of the importance of transit dependency, not just commuting by transit. If train riders want a subsidy for keeping themselves off the roads, they should should ask it of the car drivers, not of their fellow (less costly) urban transit riders.

    PS: The current Economist has an article about the unique transit challenges in America’s most densely populated metro area, Los Angeles.

  4. Bob Franklin, BART Board Says:

    I wanted to provide the context for my quote and to clarify it. Since a new monthly pass at BART would involve a short term financial loss, BART staff will not suggest this. It is up to the Board to structure fare changes that are consistently fair throughout the BART district. I have been exploring how BART can structure its fares to encourage more transit use (free or discounted travel after taking 42 trips per month?), and exploring the greater need for improved discounts when transferring between rail and bus (you now get 25 cents off of AC Transit if you also ride BART). People like to have a well packaged public transit pass, regardless of whether you are a long haul suburban commuter or a city resident who takes shorter trips on multiple systems.

  5. Amanda Says:

    I certainly can understand Janmarie and other people in that position. I’m in a similar positon. I don’t make a lot of money and a significant amout of my check goes to transportation. And to think I moved to the east bay to save on rent! I am more than making up the extra rent I would have paid in SF. You can’t blame people for moving to the burbs if that is the only place with housing they can afford. It’s also not their fault that the good jobs are located in urban areas. Yes, folks should be subsidized or at least get some kind of tax credit for this, perhaps on a “need” basis. Someone who cleans houses for a living needs more consideration than an executive making 100k.

    I think BART and AC transit need to change their system dramatically. I live near the fruitvale BART and I pay at least $200.00 a month in transit fares to get to work and school and occasional excursions just for fun. I work and attend school in SF. I almost never ride AC Transit because the fares are insane. Sometimes I do ride the bus because Oakland is too dangerous to walk around in alone after dark.

    I buy a BART plus and do all my shopping and hanging out in SF because I can use that ticket as a normal bus pass in SF, so it’s more economical. I’m suprised Alameda county never considered that drawback of AC transit’s overpriced fares. Folks, get a BART plus and do most of your commerce either on a bart route or in cities whose buses honor the BART plus ticket, this is probably the only way to get AC transit to notice and fix their broken system.

  6. david vartanoff Says:

    Bart Plus started out as AC/BART Plus. Muni only came onboard after Loma Prieta. AC gave riders the middle finger even though they received the lion’s share of the ticket fees.

  7. Reedman Says:

    There is no such thing as a “fair” fare system for
    public transportation as long as the massive subsidies
    exist. All that is being discussed here is who gets a first
    or bigger piece of the government pie. If these systems
    paid their own way (in both initial investment and operating
    costs), the argument would go away. Instead, we have
    a self-rightiousness competition for political influence. None
    of the transit providers is “overpriced”, because none of
    them cover their expenses.

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Considering that all public transit is subsidized, we are still left with what we, as a society, are trying to accomplish with all that tax money. Are we simply trying to move people? Are we trying to get cars off the road so they won’t be so clogged or so there won’t be so much smog? Are we helping lower-income folks get to work, school, shopping and medical care? From what I know, we are doing all of those things. The question that brings us to this forum, if I may use such a word, is how do we balance all of those things. I’m fascinated by how passionate some people can get about high-speed rail, medium-speed rail, light rail, etc., while at the same time others fume that rail transit wastes billions that could be spent on more buses and drivers because, it would seem, buses are the only efficient and/or unbiased way of moving people from one place to another.

  9. BART Fan Says:

    I have to agree with V Smoothe and transit-dependent. If you live in far out places you pay the price. I take BART from Dublin every day, pay for parking and suck it up. It’s far more economical than driving when you add up the true costs of driving. In my opinion, distance based fares are fair.

    A question for Director Franklin, how is “free or discounted travel after taking x trips per month” any different than the high value discount already available? Mathematically and practically speaking, it’s the same, or very similar, isn’t it? In any case, further discounts would mean BART would have less revenue thereby increasing the need for tax subsidies. As I understand it, BART is already more than 50% subsidized by taxpayers. While nationally, this is on the low side, BART should be working toward reducing the need for subsidies with smart cost reduction and more efficient operation. Public perception of safety, cleanliness and reliability will go a long way toward increasing ridership, which is the ultimate goal of transit.

  10. Michael Krueger Says:

    Actually, the ultimate goal of transit is not to increase ridership. Transit is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The ultimate end is maintaining and improving the economic, social, and cultural life in a region. Work, study, and play require mobility, and transit is a means to that end.

    I realize that living for six months in Europe without a car doesn’t make me an expert, but one of the things I noticed was a different attitude toward the place of public transportation in society. Where I travelled (primarily in Germany), people seemed to view transit as an essential city service, much the way we view fire and police departments. Just as we don’t expect such services to “pay their own way,” the Europeans I met did not expect transit to pay for itself.

    Instead, public transit was seen as a means to the end of mobility in an urban setting. It was not just a conveyance for those who could not drive or who are too poor to afford a car, though it did serve that important purpose as well. I saw people of all backgrounds, incomes, and walks of life on the same buses and trains — in other words, it was truly public transit, not just transit for a certain subset of the public. Here we are stuck with the stereotypes of buses for the urban poor and commuter trains for the suburban rich.

    What I saw in Europe was certainly not utopia. For one thing, it cured me of the delusion that good transit will solve the problem of urban traffic congestion. The only thing that truly eliminates congestion is restricting (either physically or financially) the number of cars entering an urban roadway network, not providing transit alternatives alone. (London’s congestion charge is a great illustration of this.) However, I found the “transit as essential public service” attitude was much more productive than the “transit is a business that must pay its own way” attitude that is so prevalent here. Failing to plan and budget for high-quality public transit is the main factor that makes so many contemporary American cities a great deal less livable (not to mention less energy and land efficient) than their European counterparts.

    I should say in closing, however, that I actually agree with American transit critics on one point: Far too much transit spending in this country is, in fact, wasteful. We need more focus on cost-effectiveness and accountability and less on transportation spending as a means of political horse trading. A positively disgusting example of this is San Francisco’s Central Subway boondoggle, which was born as a political favor of Willie Brown’s for Chinatown power brokers and, in the face of cost overruns, it has been whittled down to the point where it brings little to no transportation benefit at a staggering $1.4 billion cost. This is precisely the kind of public transit spending we can all do without.

  11. Michael Says:

    Capricious Commuter Says: “Considering that all public transit is subsidized…”

    Not just public transit, but nearly all transportation is subsidized. Public roads, public airports, shipping ports, nearly all transportation infrastructure is publicly owned and paid for through taxes. We subsidize this infrastructure with sales taxes, property taxes, bonds (paid back through other taxes), etc.

    Examples: County sales taxes used for road and freeway projects. The recently-passed twenty billion dollar transportation bond which will be spent largely on roads and freeways, and paid back through future general fund revenue (e.g. sales taxes).

    Capricious Commuter continues: “…we are still left with what we, as a society, are trying to accomplish with all that tax money.”

    True, and that’s not just for public transit, but our entire transportation system.

  12. Capricious Commuter Says:

    BART Fan, I just checked with BART spokesman Linton Johnson and he tells me that the fares you and your fellow riders’ fares are paying 60 percent of operating costs, and the taxpayers are picking up 40 percent. When you consider CAPITAL expenses, however, you’re in a whole different ballpark, with local, state and federal revenues paying nearly all of the freight. This is where the Metropolitan Transportation Commission catches heat (in the form of a lingering lawsuit) from people who say subsidies favor richer, whiter, longer-distance rail commuters over poorer, darker, short-distance commuters. The thing is, rail costs tons on the front end, when you build onto the line, while bus service has little such capital costs and major opearating expenses, every hour, every mile, every gallon of fuel consumed.

  13. transit-dependent Says:

    I agree with CC that a balance of priorities is one of the important questions facing how society manages transit, and I am optimistic that this discussion is becoming more informed and more widespread both in Oakland, in the region, and in Sacramento. I think of transit as a key necessity for urban economies (ie, the vast majority of the US economy), not as welfare or even as pro-environment. The entire New York City metropolitan area seems to be united in their concern for the most efficient ways to move people and goods. I was very impressed with their shared legislative priorities as reported by the New York Times.

    Unfortunately, the Bay Area is California, and a large proportion of the population is unwilling to take transit. Also, our job centers are not as neatly divided as New York’s, and so our needs are less obvious. But if we look at transit as economic necessity (Amanda above is completely right that AC Transit, especially because it depends on sales tax revenue, should try to make it more convenient for Oaklanders to shop locally), and are rational about allocating resources, we’d be focused more on buses and existing rail than new light-rail and BART. There’s just no excuse for Silicon Valley to want a multi-billion dollar BART extension when there is an existing commuter train serving the same route, just an obsession with image and an overemphasis on attracting leisure riders (though BART Fan is right that our transit options need to be desirable).

    A big problem for setting priorities is that the MTC / ABAG* is completely unaccountable and unrepresentative. The Los Angeles MTA was overhauled ten years ago to be more democratic (ie, population-based representation rather than strictly jurisdiction-based), and they’ve unquestionably done a better job expanding and improving transit than we have. They also lost the same lawsuit currently in litigation with the MTC, which forced them to stop rail expansion until buses were brought up to equal levels of service; they used that ruling to pioneer Rapid Bus.

    If the region can agree on some fresh and rational priorities (and abandon the awful Central Subway and BART-to-SJ projects), we could use our newfound clout on the national (and state) level to make some smart investments. It would take real leadership, but the headless MTC and unexciting local transit officials are not up to the task. Maybe Mayor Dellums will step into the void!

    * FYI, the Metropolitan Transit Commission is an agency of the Association of Bay Area Governments; Iwriting about transit involves much more jargon than other local issues! Maybe CC could provide a glossary, so the casual reader knows what everyone’s talking about?

  14. BART Fan Says:

    Capricious, I think you’re opening the doorway for an interesting philosophical discussion. Nearly all transportation projects are politically driven, most often using the premise of reduced congestion, cleaner air, and better quality of life for the users. But don’t forget that these projects generate jobs for years. A road construction project could have several years of design involving hundreds of jobs. The construction phase could be worth a thousand jobs. Ongoing maintenance and operation several dozen or hundreds for many years. If I were to be cynical, I would deduce that public transportation projects exist to provide employment, which always bodes well for the politicians that champion the projects. In any case, it’s likely that that close to a hundred thousand cars a day are taken off Bay Area roads by BART alone, so I have to believe that what we are trying to accomplish with the tax money is a better quality of life for citizens.

  15. Capricious Commuter Says:

    TD, what a fine idea! A Lexicon of Bay Area Transportation Jargon, or LBATJ for short.
    I’ll start with
    CMIA: Corridor Mobility Improvement Account. n. At $4.5 billion, the largest section of the $19.9 billion statewide transportation bond approved Nov. 7 by voters as Proposition 1B. In simple terms, it’s the biggest pot of highway money planners have seen since the 1970s.

  16. transit-dependent Says:

    Yeah, highway money and not transit money. We’ve come a long way since Gray Davis’ “this is the last freeway” speech.

    While it may seem daunting to create a lexicon, it would be beneficial to casual but interested readers to have a little glossary at the side of this blog. That’s what Web 2.0 is for, right? Bringing everyone into important discussions?

  17. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    It is not just that rail needs capital while buses need operating expenses. The definition of operating expenses varies from mode to mode. If BART rebuilds a car, it is a capital expense. If AC Transit rebuilds a bus, it is an operating expense. Definitions move around according to whatever point someone wants to make. Any lexicon should have all the variations. Like “Police – A right for automobile drivers, but an operating expense for transit operators.” Or “Empty – What a transit vehicle is if there is still standing room on it, but not a parking lot filled with cars, but not a single person.”

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