What is happening with AC Transit’s fares?

Tonight, Thursday, February 17th, AC Transit will be holding a public meeting from 5:00 to 7:00 PM at their headquarters (1600 Franklin Street) in downtown Oakland to solicit rider input on a proposed new fare policy.

If you can’t make the meeting, no worries. You can also offer feedback on the proposals through an online survey or by sending an email to planning@actransit.org.

AC Transit provides a good summary of the issues related to the fare policy proposal on their website, so if you’re in a hurry, just go read that.

And for the rest of you…

Why a fare policy?

The idea of a fare policy has been bandied around at AC Transit Board meetings for a while, and last July, the Board directed staff to go ahead and start working on it. In January, staff presented the Board with an initial proposal reflecting their research, got initial comments from the Board, and will come back to the Board again after receiving feedback from riders. The Board will likely adopt a proposal in April, and we’ll get our first round of fare changes starting this July.

Perhaps you’re wondering why they’re talking about this at all. Or maybe whether “fare policy” is just a coded way to talk about raising prices yet again. The answer is, sort of. I’ll let the staff report (PDF) explain:

AC Transit’s fare and pass price structure has been developed on an ad hoc, as-needed basis. As such, it has been inconsistent and not integrated with any structured plan.

The process of raising fares has been unpredictable, episodic, and anxiety-provoking, especially for the riding public. Each fare increase is decried by some as a surprising imposition, despite the District’s steadily rising costs. The proposed fare policy seeks to create an orderly, transparent, and rational process for regularly scheduled increases that provides stability for both patrons and the District’s budget process.

Basically, in the past, the way AC Transit approaches fare pricing is to just keep prices steady until they need money, and then raise them. Sometimes six years will go by without a price increase. Other times it’s only one. The cost of monthly passes, youth passes, transbay passes, senior passes, and whatever other kind of pass or fare they might have bear no logical or structured relationship to one another — they’re just kind of set based on what the agency thinks they can get away with charging.

A fare policy would change all that. The agency would outline a regular timeline for scheduled fare increases, the way BART does. You have perhaps noticed that although BART is constantly raising their fares, people don’t flip out and act like it’s Armaggedon every time it happens. Again, from the staff report (PDF):

Maintaining the stability of the fare structure over time is also very important. Fare increases should occur at predictable intervals, to allow both the District and passengers to plan accordingly. BART implements regular fare increases once every two years. Fare increases should maintain the relationships among different fare types, so that the structure of fares remains understandable.

In all the materials and discussions on this subject, AC Transit is placing a great deal of emphasis on the importance of transparency and predictability in fare prices. Laudable goals, no doubt.

What would the fare policy be?

After reviewing fare structures used by other transit agencies, both within and outside of the Bay Area, they’ve come up with a set of proposed guidelines to dictate the way fare prices are set:

  1. Monthly Passes should be 36 times the relevant base (cash) fare
  2. Transbay fares should be 2 times the local fare (cash and pass)
  3. Discount fares (senior, disabled, and youth) should be 50% of the adult (cash or pass)

So basically, the normal cash fare for one normal, non-discounted adult ride on a bus would be the basis for the prices of every other kind of fare or pass. I think that makes sense. It seems simple and logical enough.

The cash fare

We’re clear so far, right? Everything stems from the basic cash fare and the cash fare increases on a regular, predictable, pre-planned schedule. That proposed schedule goes like this:

Staff recommends fare increases in a 2 year/3 year cycle; at the beginning of FY2011-12 (July 2011), FY2013-14, FY 2016-17, and FY 2018-10. If current low inflation levels continue, base fares are anticipated to be $2.10 in FY 2011, $2.25 in FY 2013, then $2.35 in FY 2016-17 and $2.50 in FY 2018-19.

So I will just say upfront that I do not find this fare increase schedule nearly as simple and transparent as AC Transit staff seems to. In fact, it seems really convoluted to me. 10 cents this year, no cents next year, fifteen cents the next year…I mean, I guess that yes, it is predictable in the sense that if you go look up the chart of when the fares are scheduled to increase, you can see what it says and therefore know the future. But is anyone going to remember this and expect it? I mean, nobody who isn’t working at that agency looks at these charts and thinks “25 cents every five years at predictable intervals every other year. Duh.”

Then there’s the line immediately following the ones I just quoted:

Higher rates of inflation may warrant greater increases.

That I do not get at all. I mean, I understand that from the agency’s perspective, sometimes they’re going to need more money. But I thought the entire point of this policy was to make things predictable for riders. Doesn’t that mean that when you adopt the schedule of increases, you stick with it, whether it’s convenient for you or not?

Youth Passes

But the erratic fare increase schedule, or the fact that in general, people don’t like it when prices go up (even if it is just ten cents) is not the rough part of this proposal. Youth passes are.

Remember that line above about discount fares, and how they should be half of the regular fares? Well, that is in accordance withmost transit agency practices, and it seems like a fair deal to me.

However. Well, you know what, I’ll let the staff report explain this one too:

The pricing of discount passes — youth passes in particular — has been held below market value (when compared to both other transit agencies and the District’s current fare structure) for a number of years. The Youth pass, priced at $27.00 in 1999, was lowered to its current $15.00 in 2000 at an estimated additional cost to the District of $4 million per year. The current $15 price is the lowest monthly Youth pass of any major transit agency in the nation. The Senior/Disabled monthly pass was last increased in 2002 and costs an estimated $2 million per year when evaluated under the proposed fare structure.

You see the problem here? It continues:

The severity of the discount is also highlighted in these pass categories when compared to the proposed 36-ride base rate. The Youth $15 pass is currently discounted at a 15-ride rate instead of the proposed 36-ride rate, a discount of over 58%. The $20 Senior/Disabled pass is discounted at a 20-ride rate, more than a 44% discount over the proposed 36-ride rate.

Staff acknowledges that many issues and vested parties are involved in this matter. However, staff also recognizes that the current deep pricing discount offered for these passes are unsustainable and corrective action should be undertaken. Staff recommends a gradual, multi-year increase in both pass categories that eventually aligns the pass price at the proposed 36-ride base discount rate. The recommendation is detailed in the Attachment.

Basically, the way youth passes are priced now is nowhere close to being in line with the proposed fare policy. And while raising fares is never a popular thing to do, dramatically raising fares on kids is an especially unpopular thing to do.

When they outlined this part at the January 12th Board meeting, Director Joe Wallace jumped in to point out that trying to enact such a change would be a “major political fight.” No one disagreed. Staff acknowledged that dramatic increases in youth fares is a “highly charged” issue, and offered that they were trying to do it in a “humane fashion.”

The plan is to phase the change in over a number of years, so that the discount fares slowly come into alignment with the fare policy. So the monthly youth pass is $15 right now, next year it would be $20, the next year $26.50, and so on, until 2018, when it matches up with the goals.

Director Chris Peeples, apparently sensitive about the idea of betraying the trust of the voters (what a novel concept!), stated firmly that he would not support raising fares on youth and disabled passengers as long as they’re still collecting money from Measure VV. And you know, he has a point. AC Transit campaigned for Measure VV on the promise of keeping fares low for kids and disabled passengers. I think it’s okay to have some wiggle room to raise fares sometime during the life of the tax, but we are talking about a tremendous increase here. Obviously that is not something the Board or the public is going to take lightly.

On the other hand, the bus does need to keep running. And just in case anyone had forgotten about that in their hesitancy to raise fares, General Manager Mary King stepped in to inform the Board that they were “whistling past the graveyard” if they think they can just not raise fares and also not cut service.

So, I kind of adore Mary King. Specifically, I adore her when she does stuff like this. The Board will go off on some thing, and it always sounds well intentioned of whatever, but she’ll step in and scold them, like a stern mother and be all “Yes, these decisions suck. Boo hoo. It’s your job to make them. Grow up and do it.” I’ve never been to a Berkeley City Council meeting, but someone told me once that their City Manager is like that too, which is perhaps why they do not have a huge budget crisis right now. In my dreams, once AC Transit hires a permanent General Manager, Oakland can hire Mary King to come sit at Council meetings and scold the Council when they’re being stupid.

One public speaker at the meeting got up to talk about how the idea of increasing the youth passes made her “ill,” and I expect that we will hear a whole lot more of that rhetoric tonight and in the coming weeks. While obviously nobody wants to run around banging the drum in favor of charging kids more to ride the bus, I do think it’s important to broaden the context of the way we talk about this issue. As sympathetic as I am to the particular problems of young people, I also have to ask how it is fair to every other rider of the system that everyone’s service has to suffer because we’ve made a choice to subsidize youth riders to a degree unmatched by any other transit agency in the country.

Seven day passes

So the youth passes are obviously the big battle here. But if you find that whole issue too depressing to think about, well, there’s other stuff the agency is looking for feedback on as well. Some of it is even really good!

One such issue that staff asked the Board for feedback on was seven day passes. Right now, you can either buy a single ride pass for $2.00 (supplemented with a transfer for a quarter) or a 31 day pass for $80. Those are your only options.

If AC Transit were to add a seven day pass, it would be good for unlimited rides for one week, and would be priced probably at 10 times the basic cash fare (so, $20 for now, more when that cost goes up). The reasoning behind introducing such an option is that it is often very difficult for low income riders to come up with the $80 to buy a month long pass, even though they might ride the bus enough to justify getting one. $20 at a time is a lot easier to produce, so a seven day pass would be expected to have some social equity benefits by making it easier for low income frequent passengers to get at least some break on their fares, even if it’s not as good as the monthly pass.

So I think seven day passes are a great idea. AC Transit should totally offer them — I think it’s a no brainer.

I am happy now to have reached a point in my life where, should I decide I need a bus pass some month, I can pretty much always do it. However, I recall vividly a time not all that long ago when this wasn’t the case, and I was totally one of those people who rode the bus every day, more than enough to justify the monthly pass, but I could never come up with that much money at once. And it totally sucked.

So while I no longer have to worry about that, I think AC Transit should definitely do it, just from an equity standpoint.

Also, seven day passes would be convenient for people like me. I ride the bus a couple of times a week, probably, but almost never enough to justify a monthly pass. However, my use patterns are very irregular irregular. Some weeks, I’ll have lots of things to do all over the City and will be riding the bus constantly. Other weeks, most stuff is downtown. If I could get a seven day pass for the bus-heavy weeks, I totally would do it, it would be super helpful.

Staff also said they were interested in feedback on the idea of going back to monthly passes versus the 31 day passes they’re doing now. A 31 day pass is like it sounds — good for 31 days from the time you buy it. A monthly pass is good for a specific calendar month. They mentioned that switching from monthly passes to 31 day passes had caused some “issues,” but if they elaborated on what they were, I missed it somehow. I don’t know what difficulty 31 day passes create from a system operations perspective, but I can’t imagine any problems they could make for riders. To me, that is a million times more convenient. Nobody really seemed particularly interested in that idea.

Transfers!

Should AC Transit offer transfers? Should they offer transfers to everyone? Or to only people with Clipper cards? Or to everyone, but make them cheaper for people with Clipper cards? Or free for Clipper card users? How long should they be good for? How many times should you be able to get on the bus with one transfer? I could go on all day asking questions about transfers.

Right now, AC Transit’s transfers cost twenty-five cents. You can use them only once, within two hours of the time you got on the bus. It used to be 90 minutes, but they expanded the allowed time last year when they cut service.

I have perhaps a spoiled perspective on transfers, since I never rode a city bus until I lived in Portland. In Portland, the transfers are free, everyone gets one when they get on the bus (or used to, I haven’t been back in a while), and they’re good for unlimited rides for three hours! So when I moved here, and discovered that not only did you have to pay, you can hardly even use the transfer at all — well, that seemed pretty lame to me. I would much prefer a more generous transfer policy.

On the other hand, AC Transit earns money from people buying transfers. So, sure, as much as riders like me all want everything to be as cheap as possible, that often is not practical from the standpoint of the people trying to actually operate the buses.

Still, I think that with the strict time limit, it’s crazy to also limit them to one use. I have definitely taken trips where I need to use three buses to get somewhere (such trips are more common now after the service cuts), and it is really frustrating to have to pay $4.00 for that each way.

The Board seemed pretty into the idea of allowing unlimited transfers within the transfer time period for Clipper users, since Clipper by nature circumvents the problem that the one-use rule for transfers was created to address, which is that people were using legally acquired transfers to get on a bus, then passing them out of the back window to other people, so the transfer would just get used over and over again by different people until it expired. With Clipper, you can’t have that kind of fraud.

Equity

There was some discussion of continuing to charge for cash fare transfers, but making them free on Clipper. I think that makes a ton of sense — free transfers would give people a huge incentive to use Clipper instead of cash. However, there was some concern that giving such special treatment to Clipper users could be a Title VI issue. I found that confusing. If the issue is that poor people aren’t using Clipper at the same rates as wealthier riders, it seems like the combination of a generous discount and an aggressive Clipper promotion campaign in areas of concern would be a logical solution to that problem.

It is in every rider’s interest to have as many passengers as possible using Clipper cards rather than cash, because it makes a significant difference in the speed of the bus. The less time every bus spends loading while people fish for dimes in their pockets, the faster they can move and the more reliable they will be. Everyone wins.

Day Passes

Another thing staff asked about was the idea of offering one day passes. Director Chris Peeples responded that they had tried day passes for “about ten minutes” some number of years ago, and that nobody used them.

Then he started going on about how things were in the time before BART, and how the buses used to run in different zones and you bought zone-based tickets and everyone was taking these long distance express buses everywhere all the time. And also the buses had racks for men to put their hats on. Not terribly relevant to the issue at hand, but it was kind of entertaining. You don’t hear people talk about getting around the Bay Area on transit in pre-BART days very often.

What do you think?

So hopefully, all that has given you guys some things to think about. You can listen to the whole discussion at the January Board meeting below:

And of course, those who have strong opinions about any aspect of this are encouraged to share their feelings with AC Transit. There’s the meeting tonight (5-7 PM, AC Transit HQ, 1600 Franklin Street) and the online survey, of course. Also, you can send in your comments by email (address messages to planning@actransit.org). Those of you still living in 1992 can fax your comments to (51) 891-4874. Voicemails are accepted at (510) 891-7293. And there’s always the old fashioned paper letter, which you can mail to: AC Transit Fare Policy Input, 1600 Franklin Street, Oakland, CA 94612.

4 thoughts on “What is happening with AC Transit’s fares?

  1. Chuck

    It’s great to see AC Transit being reasonably proactive with some of these issues. I agree with you on a lot of the points you make (and filled out that survey (http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fareinput) to let them know).

    I guess what I’m most shocked by is the rates for monthly youth / senior passes. Those prices absolutely must go up. Absolutely. I know affordability is an issue but I feel like that needs to be addressed in some way other than discounting an already-discount fare for the whole swath of riders. I think of it like school lunches: yes, they’re subsidized to keep the general rate low for everyone, but for people really in need, there’s a way to access the same service at a further substantial discount or even for free. But it’s only done *for people who really need that discount*. The big discount isn’t just given to everyone so as to also rope in the people who really need the extra help, which seems to be ACT’s current fare schedule.

    Transfers on cash fare are doubly-shitty right now. Not only do you have to pay (at best) bill-bill-quarter to get to the $2.25 base fare plus transfer rate, you’re then given a card that has to be scanned later on (a “dunk pass”, I learned from reading the 1R route improvement report found here: http://www.actransit.org/wp-content/uploads/Line-1R-Task-Force-Final-Report-Fall-10.pdf) which is also a horribly slow way to process fares, see said report for more; it’s 6x longer than using Translink. If we’re going one-transfer-only going forth, make the transfer ticket surrenderable to the driver and move on for speed*. If we’re not doing that, perhaps a visual check a la Muni would be better. It’s not just a revenue issue, it’s a service reliability issue. When the whole bus is held up because someone can’t find the extra quarter to get their transfer, or is waiting for their transfer to be scanned, all riders suffer.

    Finally, the one-week pass idea is brilliant. Hope they go through with it!

    * – Where I used to live, transfers were one-use-only and free; you just asked the driver for a transfer ticket on the first bus, and gave it to the driver on the second. No fuss, no muss. Whatever that means.

  2. Andrew

    When I travel to other cities, I often get a multi-day transit pass ahead of time. It simplifies things so much that I don’t care about saving money–I save time staring at schedules and I save anxiety. AC Transit should get on the stick and offer them here.

  3. david vartanoff

    passes/transfers. Given how many trips now require 3 buses because of route redesign/elimination, transfers need to be FREE and unlimited within 2 hours (look at headways, not every transfer is quick)
    One day passes are a great idea–the devil is in the price. If they are double one way great, triple not so much. The critical issue is being able to buy them on boarding. Should be no slower than paying cash for a transfer and once bought, it is a quick flash for the rest of the day.

    Discounts for seniors/youth/disabled some rise may be justified, but the real issue is stable funding, trying to ratchet farebox recovery from 22 to say 24 % is meaningless compared to the state transit embexxlement during the Governator’s term.

    Predictability and “legibility” of the fare structure and projected raises is a good thing.

  4. Dax

    Obviously an important element in fare structure, is what is driving the fares higher.

    I wonder if the staff ever had a similar public meeting where they reviewed those cost pressure items.

    AC Transit has about the very highest cost benefit program in the entire Bay Area.

    Benefits, including pension, as a percentage of salary are now about 111%.
    Thus for every dollar of salary, there is another $1.11 of benefits (including pension)
    About 38% of the total operating expenses goes for benefits.
    About 73% for total labor costs.

    Here is a interesting document which spells this out.

    http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:OwfdaCJ-drwJ:www.actransit.org/aboutac/bod/memos/5a0bb9.pdf%3FPHPSESSID%3Ded3827876f0e68dcd70f5a83e292e5c6+%22AC+TRANSIT%22+benefits+pensions&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESijefu7RRdaK42yvJAeNqfTCEeYMaPYjThh9TiaiYC_t78EthdB60mQgpwlKrcv01eI6Jf_x2qY8jYkRvtiz5nzLmiGQVAYGIo9W6ovrR7qlIp3b3jxvcP5_KguoBtAzxDr0dv4&sig=AHIEtbRUMZ0VKYkzLvk91y8sIccfrgcXmw

    I wouldn’t believe what I was reading except that is seems to be true.
    Almost unbelievable.

    I doubt the riding public is aware of the data shown.