It seems fitting that tomorrow, what will probably be the area’s last Spare the Air free transit day, is planned to be a public relations, or, if you prefer, consciousness-raising event.
Like so many others in the Bay Area, I was excited about the expanded 2006 free summer transit program aimed at reducing vehicle emissions that cause smog. In fact, “Spare the Air” became synonymous with free transit that summer to the point where I had to constantly remind people that they weren’t the same thing.
Spare the Air will go on, but it will be up to drivers to switch to transit and pay the appropriate fare when smog is looming in the forecast.
But getting the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to shell out $2 million a day to pay for all those free rides isn’t likely to happen after tomorrow.
Part of the idea behind the program, which started four years ago with the Wheels bus service in the Tri-Valley area, was to try to get the public back into public transit. Until recently, only 10 percent of area commuters used public transit. The thinking was that people needed those free fares as an incentive to try BART, ferries and bus services and hopefully discover that the alternative to driving wouldn’t bite.
It’s difficult to know how well subsidizing free trips on 26 Bay Area transit agencies it worked. We know that BART ridership went up, but so, too, did joyriding and day-tripping by people who wouldn’t have been driving anyway. When the program was curtailed such that BART and some other agencies were free only in the morning, those numbers dropped considerably.
Ferry services were overwhelmed with passengers, a symptom that reinforced the theory that a high number of the extra riders were taking advantage of a free trip to San Francisco. To make matters worse, commuters complained of being intimidated by young hooligans cruising the BART trains.
I never for a moment believed $1.40 was enough of a fare to exclude troublemakers from the system, but it’s hard to resist things that are free, so it makes sense that this was a genuine problem.
But the worst of it came from environmentalists. All those millions of dollars, I believe it was in the neighborhood of $14 million in 2006 for six days, could have been used more effectively to combat smog. An oft-cited example is the program whereby the air district pays people to junk their ancient cars that were built before modern emissions standards. As my colleague Denis Cuff pointed out, that’s a lasting reduction.
But Spare the Air’s free-ride program wasn’t lasting or measurable or cheap. And now, it would seem, it’s done.
One thing it did do was made a lot of people happy, even if it did annoy some regular transit users. It was a kind of community event in which many people got to feel good about helping the environment and good about getting a freebie at the same time.
Tomorrow’s forecast is moderate for the Coast and Central Bay areas and for the Santa Clara Valley. Everywhere else will be fine. That means the free transit will be a gesture, a public relations event and not something that has a chance of making the difference between attainment of air quality standards or not.
And of course the other factor that made this whole free-transit question pretty much moot is that gas prices have given transit such a financial advantage over driving that all those Spare the Air ridership boosts seem quaint in the Summer of 2008.