When Public Transit Ceases to Be Public

by Paul Hogarth on December 30, 2008

First published on September 16, 2008.

Last week, the BART Board considered whether—given the huge spike in demand, and certain future increases to come—to charge higher fares during rush hour. Yesterday’s SF Chronicle editorialized in favor—deceptively calling it “congestion pricing” (which until now meant charging motorists a fee for driving Downtown.) Never mind that more commuters on BART means less cars on the street. Now that the public is finally taking public transit, why do we want to actively discourage the public from riding it? The financial implication of such a fare hike for transit-dependent riders also ceases to make it a public system. BART offers no discount for low-income riders; and while they finally launched a pilot program in San Francisco to give access to Muni’s senior and disabled riders, low-income who buy the Muni Lifeline Pass (and youth pass holders) still have no BART access. It’s one thing for a transit system to raise fares to keep up with rising costs; but it’s ass-backwards to do it as a means of discouraging customers from riding—at a time when they need it the most.

Of course, people aren’t taking BART—or other transit systems—because they saw Al Gore’s movie, and finally understand the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels. With gas prices going through the roof, commuters are simply making a rational economic decision that it’s cheaper than driving.

Now transit systems are overwhelmed with commuters. Our regional transportation plan, which is a guide on how to invest transit dollars, does not include money for systems to increase their capacity. Rather than take steps to increase supply (consistent with the “public” mission of public transportation), it’s more expedient to decrease demand—by making it more expensive to ride during peak hours.

It’s also grossly deceptive for the Chronicle to call this proposal “congestion pricing”—which really is about charging people for driving into the Financial District. One more commuter on BART also means one less car driving Downtown. If you make BART more expensive during rush hour, you will have more (not less) traffic congestion on the streets.

In fairness, the BART Board explored several good options at their September 11th meeting besides discouraging people from riding BART. Short-term solutions included removing train seats to squeeze more riders in the cars, and faster escalators to shuttle riders through the station more efficiently. Medium solutions included getting 3-door trains that can more efficiently handle riders. Some long-term solutions included the obvious: more trains, more drivers—and even a second Transbay Tube.

But even if hiking fares at rush hour to handle a sudden spike in demand is a stop-gap measure, it contradicts everything that a public transportation system is about. Raising fares to deal with rising service costs is consistent with the mission of a public transit system, because you need money to keep the trains running on time. But raising fares to discourage riders is simply elitist; it tells some people they’re not wanted on the system.

In an article last week, the Chronicle quoted an upper-middle class white-collar worker who has to be at her desk by 8:00 am—and so will have to pay the extra fee for the “privilege” of being a rush-hour commuter. But what about the worker at Macy’s who commutes from Hayward (since they can’t afford to live in San Francisco) and also has to be there on time? Chances are, her job makes it even less flexible to come into work late. If they can’t afford a new BART fare, they’ll have to get a different job.

Public transportation—like public schools and public hospitals—are just that: public. It’s available as an option for everyone to use, but people who cannot afford the private route rely on it for their sheer livelihood. If you take it away from them, they have nothing. No doubt some commuters can afford a modest spike in fares for the privilege of riding BART during regular peak hours. But for the others, you’re foreclosing the opportunity.

BART’s frightening proposal to take the “public” out of public transportation cries out for the need to have a regional discussion about transit access for low-income people. For example, how do we implement a regional low-income pass system that incorporates multiple transit agencies? There’s a lack of coordination between various regional transit operators, making the long commute that low-income people who’ve been priced out of certain areas even more burdensome.

Muni has taken the lead with its low-income fast pass—and efforts are underway so that it works for people who buy it. But much more needs to be done …

At its meeting last week, the BART Board okayed a pilot project for something that San Francisco’s senior and disabled community have been clamoring for decades: access on BART throughout the City with their respective discount Muni pass. But Muni’s Lifeline Pass, which gives low-income riders who don’t qualify as senior or disabled a mere $10 discount, still has no BART access to speak of. And now BART might end up making it more expensive for these same low-income riders to use their system during rush hour.

While Muni looks at ways to improve their low-income pass, BART considers making their system less accessible to low-income riders. With escalating gas prices driving everyone onto mass transit, we need leadership to make our public transportation system more robust—and more able to serve the whole Bay Area. That means creatively dealing with demand by accommodating a reality—not thinking up ways to discourage people from using the system by making it more expensive.

Because doing so simply takes the “public” out of public transportation.

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