Could Off-Peak “Bargain Fares” Bring More Revenue to Muni and BART?

53297946_77c81ce6be.jpgCould cheaper fares fill these seats? Flickr photo: 24thcentury

The new head of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Jay Walder, is considering a novel approach to attracting more transit riders: lowering fares during off-peak hours. In an interview with the New York Times he outlined his ambition to get more out of a system designed for peak capacity, even late at nights and on weekends.

"We might imagine that we offer discounts at later times, or we offer weekend discounts," Mr. Walder said in an interview on Wednesday. "Time-of-day pricing might be very attractive."

The goal would be to encourage use of buses and subways during traditionally quieter hours. And it would bring New York’s subway system in line with local commuter rails, which charge a range of fares.

"We have an infrastructure that is set for the capacity of the peak," Mr. Walder said. "What we really want to do is use that infrastructure all the time."

The chairman ruled out charging higher prices for longer trips, a system used in cities like Washington and London, saying such a move in New York "would be a mistake."

That approach to encouraging off-peak ridership would be a marked departure from BART’s proposed solution to peak-hour overcrowding a year ago. BART would have raised peak fares, in an attempt to more-evenly distribute ridership. Overcrowding has eased somewhat since the economic collapse, making the proposal more or less moot for now. But when riders do return en mass, BART director and Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich thinks an incentive to off-peak riding, instead of a disincentive to peak riding, might make sense.

"The staff [at BART] have been really conservative. They always think if you lower the price, you’ll make less money," Radulovich said in an interview with KCBS radio. "But I think, as we’re seeing in this economy, people are looking for value. Sometimes, if you lower the price in such a way that you got a lot more people to ride, then we’d come out ahead." He’s asked BART staff to look into the possibility of charging less at off-peak hours.

2711254089_a2bd664409.jpgWhile some Muni vehicles experience light loads in the evening, others remain packed. Flickr photo: juicyrai

MTA spokesperson Judson True said Muni has looked at experimenting with fare structures, but it’s not currently a priority. "There was some discussion of this in the TEP, but I do not believe that is something on the table at this time," said True. "But it is, always, one of the fare ideas in the mix."

Reducing off-peak Muni fares could be an especially equitable solution, since transit-dependent riders are more likely to ride during off-peak hours, according to a 2007 Metropolitan Transportation Commission memo [PDF] to the MTC’s Minority Citizens Advisory Council. Non-peak transit users tend to be more price sensitive.

Time-of-day pricing is already used in many transit agencies, but discounting off-peak fares without raising peak fares at the same time is less familiar territory. If the economics work out, which is still far from a given, the issue of conveying a time-of-day-based fare schedule to riders would still remain. With the NYC MTA’s Walder gung-ho on the concept, though, Muni might get a chance to see how making such a change works out before trying anything in San Francisco.

  • Alex

    I’m not sure where the statement that overcrowding is no longer a problem is coming from. I use BART at least 5 days a week between central Oakland and SF, and it’s always packed- not only during peak commute hours, but well into the evening and on weekends too. I’m sure the off-peak crowding is partly due to the recent cutbacks to evening and weekend service, and partly because BART seems to underestimate how many people take BART on weekends to get to the City for fun or for other reasons. Stil, I’m curious to see what BART can do to finance a level of service where trains may be full, but people can ride without wrapping elbows!

  • It’s a good idea, but not all riders go from points A to B. At any given commute time, a rider could be on a peak direction train, then pass point B and the train is suddenly nearly empty.

    Peak pricing makes workers pay more to ride. I like the idea of making the system more attractive to off-peak users, but there’s probably a better way.

  • Seven

    Such a “novel” approach. I can remember taking Amtrak from Sac to SF for a discounted fare during noncommute hours in the early 1990’s.

  • Peter Smith

    call it peak-, off-peak-, congestion-, de-congestion-, or market pricing — it might help get us to a better place.

    my initial thinking on free public transit is that it would require a ‘but’ — free public transit, except at peak periods.

  • I’d like to see discount pricing for families on BART and Caltrain on the weekends to encourage families to come to the city some way other than driving. There could even be discount fares for couples on Friday and Saturday evenings. (I seem to remember in Europe both kinds of discount tickets.) There should also more than just slow stop-every-stop trains on Caltrain on the weekends.

    I took Bart back to the city from Berkeley at 10pm on a Saturday a couple weeks ago. I was amazed at how many people were on the train.

  • Dave

    The key is to label it as a discount for off-peak. But its detractors will inevitably call it an increase for peak rates. Anyone know how they are going to approach it?

  • Tom Brown

    Frequent riders use a pass and won’t be affected. If they want to get people who don’t use the bus on board they should focus on speed and reliability.

    Adding another variable into the fare calculation gives new and infrequent riders another thing to learn.

  • david vartanoff

    rush hour surcharge or off hour discount the bottom line is the lower wage workers tied to jobs which begin and end during rush hour are the ones getting screwed. BART fares in general have been a ripoff from the get go–the urban core which are the majority of riders pay 2 to 4 times as much per mile as the extreme suburbanites. BART needs to sell at the least zone passes. in order to encourage more off hour usage. The NYC system saw a jump in ridership when MetroCard passes were introduced. The pass changes the decision because there is no point of use cost. As to why BART SEEMS more crowded even though riders stats show otherwise– deliberate;y shorter trains. BART needs to do a total rethink of service patterns using actual ridership ##.
    As for Muni, the off hour problem is that we KNOW the bus will be either late or AWOL. No amount of fare tinkering will fix that. While Nextbus is great (when it is working right) a reliable service wouldn’t require it.

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