When Buses Are Free but Trains Aren’t

I’m in Bloomberg CityLab with a piece on the dangers of applying free fares to buses but not to trains in the same city.  Key quote:

When we encourage people to get off trains and onto parallel buses, both kinds of transit lose. Buses are smaller, so they run out of capacity at a lower level of ridership. This requires the transit agency to put out more service — buses that could have been used in areas away from train lines where they provide the only mobility.

I go on to challenge the “buses are for poor people” assumption, which both equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on.

To many, buses and trains symbolize positions in the class struggle. Equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on this view. The equity advocate will say that we need to focus on buses because poor people use them, while I have heard elites argue (often in private) that we should neglect buses for the same reason. Most obviously, when developers and other elite urbanists argue that transit-oriented development requires rail, they are understandably privileging the view of people who are in the position to buy market-rate urban real estate. Those fortunate folks are especially likely to say, openly or not, that they would never ride a bus.

But in an urban transit network that’s trying to give everyone the greatest possible access to destinations, rail and bus services work together, and many trips involve both. You use a train for longer trips along corridors with high demand. To travel in lower-demand areas, or to make many shorter trips, you take a bus. Sometimes you ride the subway for part of the trip and a bus for the rest. An efficient and therefore liberating urban transit network encourages people to think about the total network, and to use buses or trains according to which is better for each part of their trip.

Anyway, the whole piece is worth a look.

Fare Policy vs Ticketing Technology: San Francisco Edition

Many, many times, I’ve asked a transit agency’s leaders about their fare policy, and been told instead about their ticketing technology.  “Are you thinking about fare structure?” I ask.   “Yes, we’re on it!”  they say. “We’re working on this fabulous smartcard!”  Don’t trust a fare expert who can’t distinguish the policy decisions that set fares and the technologies that implement them.

Arielle Fleisher of SPUR has a good piece on fare policy in the Bay Area, which will be useful to anyone in multi-agency regions in North America.[1] Describing Clipper, the smartcard shared by almost all of the region’s 27 transit agencies, Fleisher writes:

There is no denying that the Clipper card is a magical piece of plastic. Since its debut in 2010, Clipper has made it much easier for people to switch between different transit systems and travel throughout the region. But if you look under Clipper’s hood, it quickly becomes apparent that the card’s magic masks a complex web of transit farclipperLogoLarge.pnges, passes and policies that ultimately limit its effectiveness. Put simply, a close look reveals that the Bay Area has a fare policy problem.

Back in the 80s and 90s, when I worked in the Bay Area, there was no “hood” to look under or “mask” to hide behind.  The mess was in everyone’s faces.  The many transit agencies required their own paper tickets or passes, and your only hope of moving freely across agency boundaries was to carry numerous rolls of quarters.

As the Bay Area considers the next generation of Clipper, Fleisher rightly warns of the risk that the region’s leaders will focus on making the technology cool rather than making the fares logical.  She enumerates five problems a multi-agency fare policy should solve:

  1. Disparate fares make using transit confusing.
  2. Separate fares for different agencies are a problem when one agency substitutes its service for another’s, as happens during disruptions.
  3. There isn’t a single pass that employers can purchase for their staffs.
  4. The system penalizes trips that happen to require multiple operating agencies.  (And note that some agencies still charge for connecting between services of the same agency!)
  5. The system makes it hard to do coherent discounting for low-income persons.

To which I can only say, yes!  And yes, we were yelling about all this 30 years ago.  The smartcard “solved” this problem only for relatively fortunate people.  If you don’t have to think about what you’re spending, you can just buy a Clipper card and wave it everywhere.  So there’s a risk of elite projection, in that many decision makers, who tend to have above average incomes, no longer experience the problem in their daily lives, the way everyone did back in the pre-Clipper days.

Still, the fare problem in a multi-agency region is genuinely hard.  If it weren’t, we’d have solved it long ago, because technology was never the real barrier.   Consolidating all the agencies into one isn’t the answer.  The point is to have clear boundaries and clear relationships across those boundaries.   But as long as there are multiple agencies, each agency has its own budget to balance.  Introducing new inter-agency fares costs money for each agency, as more fares have to be shared with other agencies that were part of each person’s trip.  Unless there is some new funding, the money has to come from raising the base fare, which is one of the most unpopular things a transit agency can do.  Integrated fares, when they happen, will be a cost item. They always are.

And as I can’t emphasize too strongly, every time you tell a transit agency to use its limited funds to do something other than run service, you’re telling them to cut service.

Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, Fleisher’s article is a good read.  Chapter 11 of my book Human Transit also explores fare issues.  And if you’re interested in the dynamics of how a big North American metro deals with having 27 transit agencies, and why that might not be a bad thing, there’s my article on seamlessness, itself a response to an excellent SPUR paper on the subject.  (And again: if you want to see how influential, respected, and popular a local policy institute can be, you should learn about SPUR!)



[1]  The transit agency structure that I describe here is mostly a North American concept.  Elsewhere, the problems described here arise between operating companies (publicly or privately owned) that have the right to set fares and keep fare revenue while also getting subsidy from a government transport authority — a so-called “net cost” contract.”  The new best practice is “gross cost” contracts, where the government keeps the fare revenue.  This lets the government authority control the fare policy decision, because only its own revenue is at stake.  (It also lets the government design a coherent network.)

Basics: Public Transit “Integration” or “Seamlessness”

When you hear the word integration or seamlessness in conversations about transit, it usually means making it easy to make trips that involve multiple public transit agencies or operating companies.  (In the US we are generally talking about entangled government agencies, but in countries where private operators control patches of the network, the issue is the same.)

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been one of North America’s most difficult integration challenges, so it’s a good laboratory for exploring the issue.  If you can get transit integration right in the Bay Area, you can probably do it anywhere.  The Bay Area’s particular challenge is that it has no recognized central city.  Instead, it’s named after an obstacle, the Bay, and its geography of bays and hills provides natural psychological divides.  Wherever you live in the Bay Area, most of the Bay Area is “across the water” or “over the hills” from you, and this matters enormously to how people perceive issues as local or regional.  (Los Angeles, mostly a city of vast continuous basins, could not be more opposite.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 11.31.30 AM

The San Francisco Bay Area, with county lines


Fig1-WholeBayArea BS2_REV3_040915

Map of Bay Area transit agencies (SPUR, “Seamless Transit” 2015)

The key types of seam are:

  1. Fare barriers, where a trip involving two agencies requires paying both agencies’ fares, and sometimes also keeping track of two kinds of ticket or pass.
  2. Information barriers, such as the lack of a clear map.  (In many regions, the only regionwide map, if it exists, is more like a diagram of turf.  It’s designed to clarify what agency controls what rather than help people understand their travel options.)  Other information barriers include information systems that don’t describe how to use other agencies’ networks to complete common trips.
  3. Service Design Barriers, where a route ends at an agency boundary even though almost everyone on the bus is trying to go further.

A typical old regional transit diagram, showing areas of turf but no sense of what service might be useful (no indication of frequency, for example).  (MTC)

For decades, it’s been easy to propose that some grand merger of agencies would solve problems of integration, but the obvious problem was you would have to merge the whole Bay Area into one transit authority serving almost 8 million people, in a region around 100 miles long.  That population would mean little citizen access to the leadership, while the huge area would mean that people planning your bus routes may be working in an office 50 miles away.  It just doesn’t work when the sense of  citizenship is as understandably decentralized as it is in the Bay Area.

What’s more, if you value transit-intensive core cities, places like San Francisco and Oakland, or if you want your city to be more like those places, you have an especially strong reason to want local control.  These places need more transit than the whole region wants on average, so they will struggle to get adequate service from a regional transit agency, whose decisions will tend to converge on the average regional opinion.

Many North American regions are seeing conflict around this issue, and are evolving a fascinating range of solutions.  Many of these solutions involve additional funding from the cities that want more transit than the regional average.

Some core cities are proud to have their own city-controlled transit systems separate from what regional agencies do (San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago).  Some pay their regional transit agency for a higher level of service in the core city (Seattle, Salt Lake City).  Some run their own transit systems overlaid, often messily and confusingly, on the regional one (Washington DC).   Many more core cities are going to face this issue soon, especially if regional politics continue to polarize on urban-exurban lines.

Apart from the issue of urban-exurban differences in the need for transit, there are also real challenges when a single transit agency becomes enormous, especially if it provides local service over a vast geographic area.  Los Angeles is a great example.   As an undergraduate in the 1980s, living in the region, I marveled at what I assumed to be the stupid chaos of provincialism.  The region had a big transit agency, which has evolved into what we now call LA Metro, but many cities within the region ran their own transit systems, which were tangled up in each other, and with the regional agency, in complex ways.  As an undergraduate, I assumed that progress would mean merging all this into one giant agency that could provide the same product everywhere.

And yet: in those days, everyone hated the regional agency, but loved their city ones.  And there were good reasons for that that weren’t anyone’s fault, and still aren’t today.  You could get your city’s transit manager on the phone, but not the regional one.  Small city governments can fix a bus route and put up a new bus shelter in the time it would take the regional agency to organize the right series of meetings.  Again, nobody’s at fault there; these are natural consequences of smallness and bigness — in corporations as well as in governments.

Which is why, even in Los Angeles, the trend is not toward mergers.  Today, many city systems in the county are doing excellent work at their local scale.  LA Metro has improved massively as well, of course, but its costs are still high; more important, it’s still very big and therefore inevitably feels distant to many people — again, not the fault of the folks working there.

Meanwhile, a clearer negotiated boundary between regional and city functions is slowly starting to emerge.  One idea, for example, is that a key role of city systems is to run services that don’t meet regional standards for ridership, but that the locals feel to be important.  The division of labor among agencies is not what anyone would design from scratch.  But great work has been done over the years to build clearer relationships, or what I will call, later in this post, “good fences.”

City-operated transit is growing more popular in North American for another excellent reason:  Most of transit’s ability to succeed is already controlled by city government: specifically the functions of land use planning and street design.  If a city government feels in control of its transit, it is more likely to exercise those other functions in ways that support transit rather than undermine it.  San Francisco’s recent decision to combine traffic and parking functions with transit under one city agency shows a new way of thinking about the need to get this right, but it would be impossible if San Francisco relied on a big regional agency for its transit service.  Whenever someone proposes to turn a city transit system over to a consolidated regional agency, I have to point out that integrating in one dimension (between geographically adjacent services) means disintegrating in another (between key functions of city government.)

So there’s no simple answer.  City control creates a nasty patchwork of geographic integration problems across adjacent cities in a region.  The big regional agency has a different integration problem, which is with the land use and street design functions of municipal governments that don’t control their transit and therefore have trouble caring about it.  Whichever thing you integrate, you’re disintegrating the other.

What’s the answer?  It’s for each region to feel its way through the inevitable tensions to its own solution.  But I’d propose we start old fashioned idea made famous by a Robert Frost poem:

Good fences make good neighbors.

Neighbors have an easier time being friendly if they have a very clear agreement about where their boundary is.  Collaborating with your neighbor to mark the boundary, and fence it if need be, is a peacemaking gesture.  This is as true of neighboring landowners as it is of nations.  And it’s certainly true of transit agencies.

What does it mean to have a clear sense of boundary?

It’s not just that both sides agree where the boundary is.  It’s also that it’s easy for both sides to live with the boundary, and work across it as need be.  For nations, it’s much easier to manage a boundary that runs across a natural barrier, so that the natural boundary reinforces the agreed boundary — the Rio Grande River between the US and Mexico, say, or the Great Lakes along the US-Canada border.  The worst possible national boundary is something like the 49th parallel, the US-Canada border in western North America, an arbitrary line that runs perpendicular to most mountains and valleys.  Only the extreme friendship and cultural affinity between the two countries makes this boundary workable.

All that is true of transit agencies as well.  Let’s talk first about local networks, and then, separately, about the relationship between networks of different scales.

Boundaries between Adjacent Local Transit Agencies

A bank of hills or a water body means that there are limited points of access across the boundary, called chokepoints, and this in turn means people are used to going out of their way to cross that point.  That means, in turn, that a well-placed transit connection point adjacent to the bridge or pass is an easy place for transit agencies on the two sides to converge.

On the other hand, a boundary that runs across a flat expanse of urban area, so that many people are literally across the street from the other side, is a problematic transit boundary.  In this case there is decentralized demand in all directions crossing the boundary at many points.  This makes it harder to bring both agencies to a shared focal point for connections between the agencies.  It also means there are lots of relatively short trips flowing over the border, and these benefit from a continuous network of service rather than an interrupted one.  As in many US states, California transit agency boundaries tend to default to county lines, and where these create that problem, it’s a mess for transit.

Some of this wisdom is already encoded in the boundaries of the East Bay agency AC Transit.  Near the Bay, the border between Alameda and Contra Costa counties cuts across dense urban fabric, so it would be an awful place for a transit network to end from the point of view of either side.


Fig1-WholeBayArea BS2_REV3_040915_0

Regional transit map, with boundary between Alameda and Contra Costa Counties highlighted red. Note that AC Transit extends across boundary next to the bay (SPUR report)

Recognizing this, AC Transit was constructed to unite the two sides of the county line where the urban fabric was continuous, while dividing from other agencies along natural hill and water boundaries, even where the latter are not county lines.  This is an important example for many US regions where counties are the default planning units, and arbitrary boundaries drawn in the 19th century (or before) risk turning into walls that sever transit access.

For AC Transit, the “good fences” solution was to put the border in a place that worked well for both sides — worked well for transit customers, that is, not for anyone’s desire for turf or empire.  That tends to mean looking for the natural chokepoint and putting the boundary there.

This observation also helps to clarify the city transit option.  Even in big urban areas, some cities have a geography that makes it easy for much of the transit to be city-controlled, typically because of natural chokepoints along the edges that help isolate the city-scale network from the regional one.  On the other hand, if the city boundary is logically pierced by long, straight local transit corridors that logically function both within the city and beyond it, a municipal network is less viable.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 12.59.36 PMBurbank, California is a good example of a city where most main streets are parts of much longer logical lines running deep into adjacent cities, so its city limits would make especially poor transit boundaries.  Burbank therefore profits from its reliance on LA Metro, which runs long, continuous lines across city boundaries many of them converging on Burbank’s downtown.  The regional network is also, logically, the local one.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 1.00.05 PMNearby Pasadena (considered together with Altadena) has good geography for a larger city role.  It has hill barriers on three sides — only the east edge is really continuous with other dense urban fabric — so fewer of its internal corridors necessarily flow into other cities.  (Areas whose density is so low that they might as well be wilderness as far as transit is concerned — San Marino in this case — count as natural barriers to some degree.)  Another important feature is that Pasadena has a frequent regional rapid transit line running through, so its local lines don’t need to extend far out of the city to make regional connections.

So Pasadena could run most of its local transit system if it wanted to, because a logical network would consist mostly of internal routes.  Burbank could not, because most of its local service is logically provided by routes that continue beyond the city limits.

Do not quote me saying that Pasadena’s transit should be more local.  I am not saying anything about what the regional-local balance should be in these cases, but merely observing how the geography makes the opportunities larger or smaller.  One value of Pasadena being served by the regional agency, for example, is that it can eventually be part of a larger high-frequency grid, with all the liberty that brings.

Local – Regional Transit Boundaries

All that is about what happens between local networks.  But another “good fence” can be a clear division of labor between local and regional services.   Regional services that are designed as rapid transit (widely spaced stations for fast operation between them, relying on local transit connections to get closer to most destinations) do not need to be the same agency as the local service meeting them; in fact, this can be a very clean “fence.”  Obviously you have to work on the specific problems of integration: information, fares, etc., just as adjacent local agencies do.  But there’s little need to merge or change boundaries in these situations.

There will always be seams in a transit journey, just as there will always be the need to make connections.  The conversation should not be about how to get rid of seams but how to put them in the right places, so that they work for both sides, and how to manage them so that travelers can flow through them easily.

Another way of thinking about the geographic issues I’ve been laying out here is that if you require a connection to continue your trip, there should be a rich payoff in terms of destinations you can reach.  The same is true for any hassles created by seams.  It’s like planes: it’s a drag to change planes, and especially to change between airlines, but it’s kind of cool, while you are changing planes, to look at the departure board and think about all the other places you could also get to via this connection.  What’s more, all those connections are crucial to making your flights viable for the airline, even if you don’t use them.

The logic of connections is the logic of good seams in general.  They happen in places where it already makes sense for transit services to be discontinuous — either because of a natural boundary or because of a clear division of labor between regional and local service.  Those “good fences”, once found, can make for happy neighboring transit authorities, which will find it easy to work together for the sake of the customer’s liberty.

Sure, let’s regionalize the right things: fare media, information systems.  (An often-neglected one is service change dates, so that timed connections between agencies don’t get broken because the agencies change their schedules at different times.)  Some mergers may make sense, such as between BART and Caltrain to create a regional rapid transit agency.

Big transit agencies and little ones are both excellent things.  The trick is to get the fence right.


UPDATE: For a book-length academic analysis reaching a similar view, see Donald Chisholm: Coordination without Hierarchy.  1992, UC Press.  H/t David King.

Charging for connections is insane

Congratulations to Los Angeles Metro, the latest transit agency to make connections (also called transfers) free.  There are footnotes: you have to be using a smartcard, but if you're in Los Angeles for more than a day or two you should already have one.  The big point is this:  The core of the Los Angeles transit network is the liberating high-frequency grid, which relies on the assumption that passengers can be asked to change buses once.  Until now, the agency's policy of charging passengers extra to change buses was in direct conflict with the foundational principle of its network design.

Once more with feeling;  Charging passengers extra for the inconvenience of connections is insanely self-destructive.  It discourages exactly the customer behavior that efficient and liberating networks depend on.  It undermines the whole notion of a transit network.   It also gives customers a reason to object to network redesigns that deliver both greater efficiency and greater liberty, because by imposing a connection on their trip it has also raised their fare.

For that reason, actual businesses don't do it.  When supposedly business minded bureaucrats tell us we should charge for connections, they are revealing that they have never stopped to think about how the transit product is different from soap or restaurants.   The difference is that your success relies on products working together, the so-called network effect.   So tell them to think about airlines:   Fares that require a connection are frequently cheaper than nonstops.   That's because the connection is something you endure for the sake of an efficient and broadly useful airline network, not an added service that you should pay extra for.  

There was, for a while, an argument against free transfers that arose from the ease of abusing paper transfer slips.  These slips, issued in return for a cash fare and to be presented on your second bus or train, were easy to give away or sell.  Many US systems eliminated transfers and offered day passes instead, which improved security but at the high cost of discouraging spontaneous trips.

In any case, as soon as a transit agency has a working smartcard, there's no excuse for connection charges.  They sometimes linger because managers and elected officials are desperate for revenue but are afraid to raise the base cash fare.  In some cities, local journalists are too lazy to understand fare structures and just write quick scare stories whenever the base fare goes up.  This motivates transit agencies to do desperate and devious-looking things to raise other charges, just as a simplistic obsession with low fares has caused  airlines to invent endless fees. 

But what matters is not just that the fare be low.  It needs to be fair, and it needs to encourage people to use the system in more efficient ways.  An efficient and liberating network requires connections, so penalizing connections is an attack on your network's efficiency.  

ask your transit agency about mobile ticketing!

Everyone! This is the next app that Every Serious Transit Agency Needs to Implement ASAP.  It could easily be as transformative as realtime information.  

PhonesA while back, our Portland transit agency Tri-Met unveiled a mobile ticketing app, which my colleague Evan Landman reviewed here.  It allows you to purchase tickets in bulk with a credit card and store them on your phone.  When you need one, you push a button and a "ticket" appears on your phone, very much like an airline boarding pass.  Right now in Portland, you just show that to the driver, but before long I expect we'll scan a barcode just as we do to board airplanes.  

Our two fulltime staff and I are all occasional transit users, so not motivated to buy monthly passes, and all three of us can now report that we use transit more in Portland because we can use it spontaneously without worrying about whether we have $2.50 in cash.   This not only reduces cash handling and thus speeds up boarding, it attracts more occasional riders!  

And if you're a transit agency, you need to love occasional riders, not just regular ones.  A vast number of citizens who find you occasionally useful, and whom you welcome with an easy boarding experience no matter how long it's been, can be a big part of your political base.

So congratulations to Capital Metro in Austin for rolling out a similar app.  And if your transit agency doesn't offer this liberating tool, encourage them to develop it.  It increases ridership, builds broader loyalty, and speeds up boarding.  What's not to love?

when is a fare hike really a fare cut?

Images-6When it provides free connections, as a Los Angeles Metro report is finally proposing to do.  The Bus Riders Union is screaming about a fare hike, but for many riders — those whose trips require a connection — the proposal is a fare reduction, because the transfer penalty to be eliminated ($1.50) is far bigger than the hike in the base fare ($0.25)

The vast dense core of Los Angeles is one of North America's great grid systems, designed to allow easy travel between any point A and any point B via a single connection.   Unfortunately, their current fare structure charges for a connection.  This makes as much sense as a road tolling system that charges only for turns. 

It's nonsense.  Connections are an inconvenience to passengers that is required by the structure of an efficient network.   Charging for connections encourages riders to demand wildly inefficient services like the late and famous 305, which zigzag diagonally across the grid, increasing complexity without adding much useful service.  It amounts to punishing customers for helping Metro run an efficient and attractive service pattern. 

Like other fees, fare penalties for connections arise in part because journalists and activists over-react to the base fare figure, creating more political heat for raising that number.  So like money-losing airlines, the agencies have to look for other things to charge for to hit their fare recovery targets.  But charging for connections is counterproductive, because connections are the foundation of the network.  Airlines don't do it.  In fact, airfares via a connection are often cheaper than the nonstop.  That's because the connecting itinerary lets the airline run a more efficient service pattern.  

So don't believe the news about a proposed fare hike in LA.  Some people will experience one, but many cash paying passengers, who are often among the lower-income riders, will save.  

And one thing's even more important than that:  The pricing scheme won't be crazy anymore.


portland: TriMet’s new mobile ticketing app reviewed (guest post)

By Evan Landman

Evan Landman is an associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, and serves as a research assistant and ghostwriter on this blog.   He holds a BA in Human Geography from University of British Columbia and was formerly an intern for the Portland area regional government, Metro.  He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

For as long as I can remember, every bus trip in Portland has started with the counting and recounting of small bills and change held in a sweaty palm, always with the low-level anxiety from the thought of dropping a quarter and being unable to board. Pay your fare at the farebox, recieve a flimsy newsprint ticket. Secret that ticket in a secure pocket, to prevent it from being carried away by a stray gust of wind. If you have to transfer, check your pocket every 30 seconds to make sure it's still there.

TriMet, the transit agency here in Portland, finally launched their long-awaited smartphone app on Wednesday. I've tried it out for most of my trips since, after a summer spent jealously reading tweets from people lucky enough to be invited to the beta test. My first impression: this application suddenly makes using Portland's bus system much more relevant to me, and I suspect to many others.

Photo 1

Trimet Tickets ticket window

TriMet's ticketing application was developed by a company called GlobeSherpa, which is in the business of building mobile ticketing software for clients like sports arenas, concert venues, transit agencies, and parking providers. TriMet didn't have to lay anything out financially in developing this tool; angel investors covered those costs. GlobeSherpa skims a percentage off the top of each transaction.

The app is free to download, but once you've got it, you'll have to use a credit or debit card to buy electronic tickets at the usual price. To use a ticket on a trip, you simply press the "use" button, and an animated ticket screen appears. It's as easy as showing this screen to the driver upon boarding; no need to fumble for change or a flimsy paper transfer. This screen remains animated as long as the ticket is good, and shows the exact time at which it expires. It is even possible to use multiple tickets at once, a valuable feature for parents and caregivers. 

I'll admit that since relocating back to Portland in 2012, despite living without a car, I have rarely used TriMet's bus network. This is not because it doesn't go to the places I need to travel to, or because it is too infrequent; rather, I simply do not often find myself in possession of change or small bills, and generally choose modes that don't require those things. I pay for most everything using a debit or credit card, because it allows me to track my funds with more accuracy, and because the rounding error that is change adds up over time, but is difficult to spend, keep track of or incorporate back into my accounts. 

The agency is no doubt targeting young adults like me in developing this product. Numbers from Pulse, a research arm of Discover, find that members of the Millenial generation have the highest rate of ownership of debit cards (80%) and of contactless payment devices (12%); and the highest rate of online micro payments.

Lest I be accused of spreading propaganda for the agency, it is worth acknowledging that this is a tool useful only to people who have both a credit or debit card and a smartphone. As of May 2013, according to Pew, 56% of Americans had a smartphone, which means that 44% did not. Rates of ownership track with income and educational attainment, but are most strongly correlated with age. This sort of payment system largely excludes seniors, among whom only 18% report ownership of a device capable of running the software. As you might expect, many more Millenials (81%) own smartphones. 

Freedom of mobility is a frequent topic here at Human Transit. How well does the network design and operation enable a person to move around the city? How well do the transit agency's materials communicate the possibilities for personal mobility? How does the agency make transit a reasonable choice? In the age of Amazon, Paypal, and in-app purchases, giving riders the option to pay in this way is an important step towards creating a truly civilized transit experience.

rebutting the “vagrancy” argument against free fares

Smart-Card-Reader-Light-Rail-Jake Blumgart did a good article back in March summing up the current status of debate about free-fare transit.  

Generally, transit systems without fares are either really small and often rural — situations where the fares may not even cover the costs of charging fares — or else college towns, where the university is often subsidizing most of the ridership anyway.  But there's the interesting case of Tallinn, Estonia.  This is a significant city and capital, population 426,000, and it's posting results:

Tallinn’s transportation department reports that traffic fell by 10 percent, meaning about 7,600 fewer cars in the city per day.  

In that context, this passage from Jake's article was interesting:

Would such a scheme work in a mid-to-large American city? According to Jennifer Perone’s 2002 study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Florida Department of Transportation, it isn’t likely. While she wrote that free transit is manageable and worthwhile in rural regions and small towns, she cautioned against such a policy for larger systems:

All well-informed transit professionals that were contacted for their opinions spoke strongly against the concept of free fares for large systems, suggesting some minimal fare needs to be in place to discourage vagrancy, rowdiness and a degradation of service.

These experts drew on the experiences of three mid-sized American cities that briefly experimented with fare free transit. Between 1978 and 1979, both Trenton, N.J., and Denver, Colo. offered free transit during non-peak hours. In both cases, ridership increased (by 16 percent and 36 percent, respectively). The authors claim however, that these were generally not people lured from cars, but were what they call “problem riders.” In Trenton, 92 percent of transit drivers reported that their jobs were less enjoyable after the free fare program was instituted. These issues, along with revenue problems, caused both cities to discontinue their experiments after a year.

It would be interesting to see if the last 11 years have changed US expert opinion.  I'm sure it wasn't true that a 16-36 percent increase in ridership consisted largely of "problem riders," though I'm sure there were enough problem riders to be an issue.   The new riders were probably mostly people getting where they're going, and quite possibly triggering fewer car trips as a result.  And are we sure that nobody sold a car as a result of the free service? 

(A significant share of transit trips by people without cars would be "chauffeured" if transit were not available; that is, someone would have made a car trip to transport the person.  This is especially true of senior/disabled riders and essential errands, which therefore count as Vehicle Miles Traveled reductions due to transit, not just social-service benefits.  Is your transit agency taking due credit for these?)

It sounds as though the authors were operating on the old binary model of choice-vs-captive ridership, under which additional ridership by people who don't own cars is assigned zero value to environmental or traffic outcomes.  In fact, the overall transit service offering (including its cost) is an important in many people's choice not to own cars.  The choice to not own a car is one of many complex possibilities that fries the circuits of algorithms (and experts) that rely on dividing all riders into boxes called choice (car owners who left the car at home) and captive or transit dependent.  In fact, we're all on a spectrum between choice and captive, and we are each in different situations that may make us responsive to small improvements in transit service or, in this case, cost.  If that weren't true, small changes in frequency or fare wouldn't cause small changes in ridership, as they almost always do.

It is likely that in the US experiments, there were enough "problem riders" to be a problem, but the obvious solution to this is Tallinn's solution, which is to require each free rider to use a smartcard, one that takes some effort to get and that can be revoked for bad behavior.  

The problem with free-fare systems in big cities is not the "problem rider."  The problem is that free fares cause such a huge ridership increase that no big-city US transit agency could possibly fund enough service to handle it.  It would not just require the purchase and operations funds for hundreds if not thousands of new buses (and new facilities for them to be housed and maintained).  It would also quickly require whole new rapid transit lines.  Most of our current modelling of rapid transit in the US assumes that fares will continue to hold ridership down.  

So yes, free fares would be a big deal in big cities (though not as much for small ones).  They are a huge barrier to cross, especially for impoverished US transit systems in major cities.  They would require a transformative degree of new public investment.  All that must be debated.  

But don't let the "vagrants" scare you. 


are free fares realistic? it depends on the alternatives

In response to my post on Tallinn, Estonia's experiment in free transit for all city residents, a freelance reporter asked me:
The idea I'm most interested in exploring from your post is your proposal that smart farecard systems can be used to easily subsidize fares and "opening up a huge range of subsidy possibilities for any entity that sees an advantage in doing so." I'd like to get more of a sense of what you mean by that and whether this is possible even in today's austerity-obsessed environment.  
What I mean is that as long as the transit agency sets a price for an unlimited ride pass — with appropriate discounts for bulk purchasers — anyone can buy those passes for anyone.  Universities can buy them for their students, companies for their employees, and as in Tallinn, cities can even buy them for their citizens.  Any other entity can also buy them for any group of people it cares about, yielding possibilities that we can barely envision now.
Is this realistic in an age of austerity?  It depends on what the alternatives are.  The alternatives may include building wildly expensive parking, or losing out in a competition for the best people.  

Urban universities with constrained sites often subsidize transit because without it they would need unmanageable amounts of parking.  One common reason that universities get into transit subsidies is that they want to build on their surface parking lots, and the cost of structured parking (and its impacts) turns out to be higher than the cost of buying transit passes for many years.  So it can be a logical business decision.
We're used to the idea that companies leave the cost of commuting to their employees, but companies that are competing for the best talent don't have that luxury.  Witness the huge fleets of shuttles that ferry employees to Silicon Valley giants like Google and Apple from as far away as San Francisco.  Companies that compete for talent can find transit subsidies to be a reasonable part of a total compensation package. And of course, corporate campuses can have expansion crises much like those of universities, where they'd like to build on their parking lots and look for alternatives to expensive structured parking.
City governments are the hardest to imagine financing free fares in the US, if only because of how broke most of them are.  But if it goes well in Tallinn the idea will spread.  One problem in much of America, and notably in California, is that residents are net consumers of government services while employers are net subsidizers of them; this motivates cities to minimize their populations and maximize their employment.  (This explains many odd shapes of city boundaries that seek to include jobs but exclude residents.).  In those distorted tax environments, cities don't want people to live there so much as to work there, so subsidies to residents don't make much sense.  But of course residents are the voters, and wealthy cities that value green credentials may sometimes see merit.  And of course cities aldo benefit if it can reduce their parking requirements, which may increasingly be the nexus that makes fare subsidies make sense.
Remember, though, that massive fare subsidies don't just require the replacement revenue for the fares but also the revenue needed to add service to handle the crowding that the free fares will generate.  I will be interested to see how this plays out in Tallinn.  This has been the barrier to free transit in big cities that have studied it, and the main reason that only small towns — especially university towns — have made large scale fare subsidies work.

fare-free transit spreading in europe? can cities do this on their own?

LogoIt's too soon to say, but Tallinn, Estonia (pop. 425,000) is now by far the largest city to offer fare-freefree public transit — not just in Europe but anywhere in the world as near as I can tell.  Most other free-transit communities are either university-dominated small cities (like Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Hasselt, Belgium) or rural networks where ridership is so low that fares don't pay for the costs of fare collection technology, let alone contribute toward operating cost.

Tallinn — along with Hasselt and the small city of Aubagne, France — are also forming the Free Public Transport European Network, to spread the idea and disseminate experience about it.

As the city's webpage explains, Tallinn citizens must still buy a farecard, which will allow them to ride free. This allows the transit network to continue to collect fares from tourists and people living in other cities.

This raises the interesting possibility that any city, inside a bigger metro area with a regional transit system, could elect to subsidize transit fares for its own residents, by simply buying fares in bulk and giving them away to its own residents — just as some universities and employers already do for their own students or staff.  Indeed, smart farecards make it possible for anyone to subsidize fares without much complexity, opening up a huge range of subsidy possibilities for any entity that sees an advantage in doing so.  Yet another reason that city governments are not as helpless about transit as they often think, even if they don't control their transit system.