BART Pricing

On Friday we learned BART is considering using pricing to alleviate congestion during peak periods and at busy stations. Today we learned what the San Francisco Chronicle thought, along with the reaction of Oakland SF Chronicle reader Sarah Babcock.

The thing that struck me most was the poor framing exhibited by BART. Consider the opening sentence of the article on Friday,

"BART is becoming so popular during peak commute hours that agency officials are looking to charge patrons more to ride trains, park in its lots, and use certain stations when demand is highest."

Now if you reread the above statement, replacing the words "more" with "less" and "highest" with "lowest", you understand what I mean. And really this is how the issue should have been presented, that BART would discount fares of those who ride at off-peak times. Either way it is disconcerting that BART board president Gail Murray expressed her skepticism of the plan by saying, "when you have market rate pricing, that's essentially a fare increase." That is false - it is only a fare increase if revenue from fares increases.

You could devise a plan (as I think BART should) that would be revenue neutral, or even one that would lower overall revenue from fares slightly (which might not be a bad idea, since they've bungled the PR), by increasing the fares during peak times, and lowering them at all others. Ultimately, I think it would be good to have a three tier system, with highest fares for the peak hour of commuting, a slightly lower fare for the hour on either side of the peak, and a considerably lower off-peak fare.

Certainly I would generally like to see transit fares go down across the board because, as we saw with "spare the air" days, transit usage increases dramatically with lower pricing. And there are so many external benefits to transit, it really is something our government should be funding more. But the reality is that BART is more valuable as a commuting option for most people, and should be priced accordingly. And while I sympathize with Ms. Murray's concerns for social justice in relation to BART pricing, I'm not sure BART is the correct governmental agency to address income inequality, and besides there are other, better ways BART could mitigate the impact of higher peak fares on the poor.

Finally, I'm always amused by people like Maggie Frank (quoted in Friday's article) or writer Sarah Babcock, who both ask BART to contact their employers regarding their ability to start later. I wonder if their bosses would mind if they started earlier. And if, as Ms. Babcock suggests, a fare increase will not change the behavior of high demand hour patrons, then BART has been undercharging those customers for years, and we have all suffered for it through the less extensive routes and lines she bemoans.

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