Dependable Erection

Monday, December 08, 2008


Kevin has a post up indicating that the Durham Area Transit Authority (DATA) is making a high priority of going to a fare-free system. I don't have any real objections, in the long run, of doing away with fares, but in the short term, i think it's a mistake. Here's why.

Public transportation systems rarely generate enough revenue to be self-supporting, and thus almost always require taxpayer funded subsidies. A small minority of Durham residents see public transportation as a public good, and are willing to subsidize it, even if we don't use it, because we see the benefits of a decent public transportation system. A much larger number thinks "I don't use the bus, why should i pay for it?" so when DATA needs more money for things like increasing service levels, they really have to fight for that kind of support, and it's really easy for our elected leaders to bow to the public will and not find as much money as is needed. In order to reshape the political calculus making it easier to improve bus service in the city, you'll need to increase the number of stakeholders who see the system as a public good. Which means increasing ridership. By a lot.

And you'll do that by making the bus a more convenient alternative to the car, especially for trips to and around the urban center, but also for daily commutes. Dropping fares to zero doesn't increase the number of stakeholders who will support making our public transportation infrastructure more extensive. All it will do, in the short term, is give more ammunition to those in our community who will make the argument that they don't want to subsidize a system that they never use. If you need to get people on the bus who can't afford the current fare structure, then develop a subsidy system that gives folks vouchers good for X number of rides at discounted rates, or even for free. But those folks who can afford to contribute to the fare system should still do so. In fact, bus service levels need to be increased so that people will consider paying the $1.50 per ride, or $40/month a bargain that they're happy to buy. Drop fares to zero, and people will figure that they service they get will be equal to what they pay for it.

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  • I would pay up to $3.00 per ride if a bus came past my neighborhood. Just another DATA point. :)

    By Blogger Valerie, at 3:06 PM  

  • Just wondering: does it make a difference whose budget the subsidy comes out of?

    I know it's all still the taxpayers' money, but does it make some difference (politically, administratively, otherwise) if the money comes from, say,

    (1) the transportation department (or the State DOT) as their way of saying, "well, we can either send $X million to the bus department, or else spend $1.1X million on building and repair work. Let's send $X million to the bus department"

    as compared to,

    (2) a line item on the local government's budget that says, "bus department $X million"?

    -> Valerie: Gaaah!!!!!

    By Blogger Marsosudiro, at 3:08 PM  

  • M- i think it would. Local subsidies have to be funded out of tax revenue, and the people making those decisions are directly answerable to the local electorate. Money from the state or the feds (which Kevin points out could be used to subsidize the fare reduction if ridership increases by a certain extent) is spread out over a much bigger pool, and it's harder to organize against. (See, for instance, the recent prepared meals tax).

    Valerie - how much would you pay if having a good transit system meant you could give up (at least) one of the vehicles you currently need?

    Combined vehicle costs in our household, including car payment for one newer car, insurance, maintenance, gas, and oil, comes to about $7K per year. With a decent transit system and car sharing, we could easily knock $4500 of that off, while spending about $2K on transit and car sharing.

    I haven't reached the tipping point yet, but there will come a time when being able to live without a car again will be important enough to me that i'd find a place to live that wasn't Durham where i could make that happen.

    By Blogger Barry, at 3:21 PM  

  • i'm going to quote a friend's comment on this story verbatim. i hope she doesn't mind:

    "actually, i was talking to a trasportation planning student about cities that make the bus system fare-free. she said some big cities like SF and NYC are looking into it. the reasoning isn't increasing ridership, it's decreasing congestion. basically, a bus system will never pay for itself or be a revenue-generator; i think she said they generate like mayyybe 30% of what they cost, so they are already mostly-subsidized. the biggest issue is how freaking slow it takes to get everyone on and paid-for. the time-cost gets the buses off schedule, and there is a psychological cost of sitting there, waiting to get on. if the bus is free, its quicker to get people on, less idling, some more people will ride, and they can increase headways bc it will take less time between stops. interesting thought."

    By Blogger John B, at 5:03 PM  

  • I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the payment of fares is not a contributing factor in Durham to the half hour headways that we now have on most routes.

    On my recent trip to SF, where i took the buses for most of the time there, most people buy weekly or monthly passes which they just flash at the driver. You can even climb aboard the back door and never get asked to show proof of payment.

    On those rare occasions when an enforcement officer is on the bus, and you can't produce a fare card or transfer receipt, though, i would imagine there's a fairly stiff penalty.

    By Blogger Barry, at 5:35 PM  

  • Well, our car doesn't cost us a lot--no car payment and it gets great gas mileage, so a strict money comparison isn't going to be helpful.

    I was just thinking about what would feel too much to pay.

    But maybe we spend, um... $600 gas (obviously variable), $75 registration/inspection/taxes, $500 max car repairs, $300/year cost of car spread out... let's say $1500/year on the car, then that's $125 a month. Let's say 50 in-town trips a month, so $2.50 a trip.

    Hey, my guesstimate was pretty spot-on! :) The extra 50 cents is because I think it's a really good idea and would add a lot of value to Durham.

    By Blogger Valerie, at 8:07 PM  

  • Outside of my car payment (my first new car since 1986, btw), insurance is far and away my biggest automotive expense.

    The new car costs me about $1000/year, and Mrs D's van and my old truck (the same one i bought new back in 1986) run another 500 or so per year combined.

    By Blogger Barry, at 8:16 PM  

  • I'll be following the free fare concept if it comes to NYC or SF.

    There is a concept among some folks, like the people who distribute condoms in the 3rd world, that if you don't attach monetary value to something, like a price, people won't take it seriously or consider it...valuable.

    Transportation is a service, though, so maybe that won't be the case. But I expect to hear something along the lines of "what do you expect--you get what you pay for" among critics of public transportation.

    I'm also a little concerned about the homeless finding buses to be convenient homes on wheels.

    Just sayin'.

    I agree with Dependable, if you can afford to pay, then pay. If not, then some subsidy should be made available.

    By Blogger Tony, at 9:30 PM  

  • Oops, I knew I was forgetting something. I do insure the car, too. :) Add $450/year... ~$2000/12/40=$4.16 a trip. Okay, 4 bucks and a little then. Still seems reasonable. Still would like a bus route near my neighborhood! I'd pay $4 and keep my car for emergencies!!

    By Blogger Valerie, at 9:31 PM  

  • Tony, you don't have to look far to see a free-fare system... Chapel Hill/Carrboro.... and what they do re: people that are homeless, and lots of people (student and otherwise) who (presumably value and) fill up the buses.

    By Blogger Valerie, at 11:36 PM  

  • I would be interested to hear what sort of ridership changes Chapel Hill experienced when they went fare-free.

    Newspapers charge for copies, not so much to generate revenue, but as a deterrent - to keep everyone from grabbing one, even if they don't need or really want it.

    Would free fares encourage people to jump on for one stop - crowding the buses with riders who should really be walking? I seems as if some spatial-behavioral analysis should be done.

    By Blogger Dwight & Karen, at 11:20 AM  

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