Sunday, April 8, 2007

We want a free ride

UTA is planning a massive redesign of Salt Lake's bus system, eliminating lots of routes and apparently reducing the number of buses traveling to and from the University of Utah. Then they're going to raise rates just as my school transit pass expires. Nicole over at Where's my bus, UTA has been working hard to raise public awareness. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to attend most of the public events UTA has scheduled, but I did manage to fire off a public comment taking them to task for the poor job they're doing engaging the public.

It's been more than a little disillusioning to see our public servants in action. They didn't bring the public into the process until they had decided on most of the details of the service cut, and at best they seem interested in minor tweaks to their awful plan, not comprehensive critiques. I asked how we'd know that our comments had been taken seriously, and their representatives basically said to look at the differences between the current proposal and the final proposal. That advice is only a bit more helpful than telling us to consulting an Ouiji board.

UTA has also dragged their feet in providing information that should have been made public from the beginning (ridership statistics, facts about the overall changes in bus capacity, surveys of bus drivers, etc.). They seem to believe that the less the public knows, the more easily they can ram the proposal through. That's never a good sign.

So I'm here to suggest a disruptive alternative to the current fare structure. It's a much simpler structure, and it's sure to promote the primary goal of increasing ridership: everything is free. Let's call it the FreeUTA plan.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

There are several key advantages to free service. The first and most obvious is that you no longer have to collect fares. If ten people get on at a stop, and they each spend six seconds just putting change into the machine, that's a full minute delay. As a frequent bus rider, I've seen people fumble for change, drop change (sometimes straight out the bus doors), miscount change, argue over change, beg other riders for change, and get thrown off for having insufficient change. All that sturm and drang takes time, time that could be better spent moving people from place to place. Free service is faster service.

Other people use tokens, which are much faster. I use an EdPass, which is the fastest because I just flash the card at the driver as I amble on. TRAX riders buy their tickets before the train shows up, and fares are (occasionally) checked as the train is moving. The downside of that is that you end up paying police officers to ride TRAX all day, checking for fares and issuing citations.

The current fare structure effectively penalizes short trips. If you can hop a bus to get yourself four blocks, but to do so you have to pay as much as if you'd ridden it all the way downtown, you probably feel like you've gotten less service for your money than you should have. But four blocks is still further than most people want to walk[1], so most likely people will hop in their cars. Any time a person is weighing the decision of how to get somewhere, and their solution is "the car", it should be seen as a small transit system failure.

It should go without saying that the FreeUTA plan is a huge incentive for riders. But the disincentives in the current structure need to be pointed out. If you double the cost of a bus ride (as the current proposal does), you're getting into territory where there is little reason for car owners to take the bus. A trip downtown, including all-day parking, might cost the driver five bucks. For the bus rider, it would cost four bucks. That's hardly worth the hassle, and for new customers who haven't mastered the whole mass transit experience, there isn't much of an incentive to learn.

UTA is trying more and more to run the transit system like a business. But the simple fact is, it's not a business, it's a public service. Transit users are heavily subsidized -- fares only account for about 20% of UTA's operating budget -- which only makes sense, since many of the benefits being purchased fall on people who aren't paying fares. Drivers benefit from decreased congestion. Everyone in the Salt Lake Valley benefits from better air quality. Everyone everywhere benefits from reduced CO2 emissions. Employers benefit from increased access to employees who might not be able to afford or drive a car, and businesses get a similar benefit from greater access to customers. Downtown Salt Lake and the University of Utah both benefit from less demand for parking spaces[2]. It's only right that riders -- who don't reap all the benefits of the system -- shouldn't pay all the costs. In fact, if the public benefits alone are enough to justify a given mass transit plan, then charging fares seems counterproductive at best.

I don't have hard numbers to back up my intuition that a 100% subsidy would be a net gain (even without the other benefits I mentioned). But I do know it is pure insanity to see riders as "customers" who we should extract as much money from as possible. That's just the approach UTA seems to be taking.

Instead, the goal should be to get as many people out of their cars as possible. In the long term, that's going to require a major rethinking of our current land use policies. Sprawl makes effective mass transit virtually impossible. And walking. And biking. And pretty much every conceivable not-car solution. In the near term, however, we should be making mass transit as attractive as possible to riders. The FreeUTA program is going to take a good deal more money than UTA's budget has. I'd always figured that such a change would have to go through the state legislature (unlikely, given that the legislature is filled with road-happy chimpmonkeys), but I've heard a couple of proposals floated where the Salt Lake City government would pay UTA to maintain the service the city needs.

Update: I've just received a copy of the market research on which UTA based the redesign. I'm only a few pages in, but it's giving me a better understanding of what the people at UTA are thinking.


[1] I'm a bit of an exception in that regard. I don't really consider walking a burden for the first six blocks or so, and I'm willing to walk as much as ten blocks if I've got the time.

[2] As Nicole points out in this post, service to the University will be effectively reduced under the proposed changes. Parking space is already at a premium up at the U, and many of the roads up there are already heavily congested during peak hours. If we don't stop the current plans, and begin improving transit service to the University, we'll be forced to pay anyways, for wider roads and more parking.


Nicole said...

Thanks for the shout out. I really like hearing your perspective on this. If UTA was serious about ridership, they could definitely implement some of the things you talk about here in literally 2 minutes.

Bryce said...

I appreciate that, Nicole. But I think most of my proposal would be difficult to implement. Primarily, it requires more money from the legislature. That requires the legislature (and UTA's board of directors) understand that UTA isn't a business with a goal of maximizing income, but a public service whose primary benefits fall on the public at large, in the form of less congestion, less pollution, less land paved over for parking lots, and a more egalitarian community that doesn't disenfranchise the automotive have-nots.

That reframing of the issue is going to take time, effort, and clarity of purpose. FreeUTA is going to take more taxpayer money than is currently available for mass transit.

Now I'm just preaching to the choir. Please turn your hymnals to page 119...