BART Board Member Urges Agency to Consider Unlimited Monthly Pass

Photo: Matthew Roth
Photo: Matthew Roth

At a recent BART board meeting where directors discussed various options for spending or saving an operating budget surplus, Director Tom Radulovich suggested the board consider the ramifications of instituting an unlimited ride monthly pass, which had been previously discussed but never seriously pursued. The issue came up most recently in 2005 and 2006 when BART’s board of directors requested the agency look into the costs and benefits of monthly passes. The staff report [pdf, detailed pdf] recommended not moving to a monthly pass and the board declined to act.

Radulovich wasn’t satisfied with the findings then and he currently laments what he characterized as staff’s intractability on the issue.

“There’s a conservatism in the BART finance group, they’re just very attached to the current fare structure,” said Radulovich, who noted similar conclusions were drawn when considering a Daly City Fast Pass option. Radulovich pointed to the Muni/BART Fast Pass arrangement that has been in place since 1983 as evidence that monthly passes shouldn’t be discounted outright within BART’s fare policy.

BART spokesperson Linton Johnson said BART is reluctant to significantly alter its fare structure because it is working well right now. He said the current fares are a large reason why BART realizes 55 percent farebox recovery (e.g. how much of the cost of a trip is paid for by the fare), nearly double the next best Bay Area agency (Caltrain). He also noted the agency had a multi-million dollar budget surplus in a year when most transit operators cut service and laid off workers, in no small part because it charges a distance-based fare.

“We’re hesitant because we’re so reliant on sales tax and ridership,” said Johnson. According to Johnson, 90 percent of all revenue comes from the farebox and the district sales tax assessed in BART counties. “We’re hesitant to tinker with things that are working right now.”

Johnson pointed to the findings of the 2005 presentation, where BART staff determined offering a monthly pass would only bump ridership by 1 percent, while costing the agency a $2.7 to $5.9 million one-time investment to convert the existing BART fare revenue cards to monthly passes and $5.4 million annually in lost revenue. At the time of the study, 120,000 regular riders accounted for 65 percent of BART’s farebox revenue, while 1.4 million annual leisure or non-frequent riders accounted for the remainder. In conclusion, staff suggested when BART converted over to Clipper, the agency could realize gains and offer rewards to regular riders in numerous ways without converting completely to a monthly pass.

Regular riders account for the vast majority of fare revenue on BART. This chart represents conditions in 2005, courtesy BART.
Regular riders account for the vast majority of fare revenue on BART. This chart represents conditions in 2005, courtesy BART.

Radulovich said now that BART is ramping up Clipper usage, the one-time BART ticket transition expense is moot and the issue should be revisited. He also claimed that if staff studied a monthly pass option with a consideration of how many part-time or occasional riders would become regular riders, the cost-benefit equation would change.

“There was very little or no assumption made for elasticity, that we’d get new riders as a result of having a monthly pass,” he argued. “If you put a monthly pass in people’s hands and they change their travel patterns to ride more, then you’ve vastly increased your ridership by offering a little discount on every trip they take.”

Radulovich noted with some frustration that BART has a monthly pass to park at BART-run facilities and he asked why, if such a policy worked for parking, it wouldn’t work for the actual transit trip.

“Their logic on the parking spaces is hey, if you buy a monthly pass for parking, you’ll ride BART more often. Why that thinking doesn’t apply to the ride on the train itself is a puzzlement to me,” he said.

Johnson said a trial would be difficult because it would have to be systemwide and there was no guarantee that ridership would spike. Once it was in place, if it became popular with riders, going back to the distance-based individual ticket format would be difficult.

“Your hope is it’s wildly successful and it makes you more money or you break even,” said Johnson. “If it doesn’t work and you try to take it back, there’s hell to pay.”

Though Radulovich brought the issue up at the August board meeting, if he wants staff to do another study, according to Johnson, he will need to get the issue agendized,. The easiest route is through Board President James Fang, who can simply put the issue on the agenda and ask staff to study it. Another option is to get three board members to agree to put the issue on the agenda.

Fang told Streetsblog he was always interested in options to give back to regular riders. “It’s something we can take a look at. I think it’s worth taking a look at,” he said, but noted he “would like to do more study of it before I put it on the agenda.”

For his part, Radulovich said he would “just keep pounding on it. You just have to ask ten times and you’ll get a discussion on it.”

  • “BART spokesperson Linton Johnson said BART is reluctant to significantly alter its fare structure because it is working well right now.”

    Obvious followup question: For WHOM is it working well?

  • It’s unreal that they don’t have a monthly pass. I just take BART occasionally, and I can’t believe that I pay the same price as regular riders. On Caltrain, an occasional rider pays something like $6 PER RIDE from Palo Alto to SF. As a regular rider with a Go Pass, between myself and my company (we split the costs), we pay about $1 per ride (if that).

    I think that balance is too much in favor of regulars, but BART’s plan of making everyone pay the same is nuts. I’m sure ridership would boom more than 1% if they had monthly passes.

  • James

    I’m not so sure the distance-based method should go away. A flat rate monthly pass sounds like a great way to have short-distance riders subsidize the commuting costs of long-distance riders living out in the burbs.

  • I don’t see why distance-based and monthly aren’t compatible.

    And if the BART board catches wind of James’ idea, I’m sure they’d run with it.

  • Tough call if a pass system would work or not for BART.

    If Muni can have a city/county pass by using the “A” pass, it would be nice if something could work out with an Alameda county pass in conjunction with AC Transit, and a San Mateo county pass with Samtrans.

    Caltrain runs on a zone system, and monthly passholders with two zones or more can get free rides on Samtrans and VTA. I wonder why BART can’t be more friendly towards other county agencies?

    I do like the second alternative which was proposed by the Clipper management board, a “pass accumulator.” Once a passenger accumulates so much e-cash transactions within a period of time, the rides are free until that period ends. Odds are, that’s too hard to do because not many will benefit if the tolerance limit is set too high; might be nice for those SFO employees who live in Bay Point, where the fare is crazy expensive.

    One curious thought, if Clipper takes over as the majority payment method for commuters and the mag stripe tickets are typically for visitors and infrequent riders, how much will BART save? The savings could be substantial as they can reduce printing plastic tickets, less need to distribute to vendors (e.g. postage costs, labor, etc.), and reduced maintenance on ticketing and gates (such as fixing jams and busted bill readers).

  • Ricky

    Maybe looking abroad can provide some ideas. I lived in Tokyo for a year and fell in love with the public transit system over there so I think of it as nearly perfect. JR, one of the train operators, had a distance based pricing structure not unlike BART plus 1 month and 3 month passes. You could get the passes at any time not necessarily at the beginning of the month.

    As a student, I went to a counter in one of the stations scattered throughout the system with my student ID and my home address. The fastest route was calculated and I received a card not unlike clipper. The electronic card “held” my pass. The cost for the card was determined by distance and a set discount given to students and I could add money to the card for trips outside my route. Every station within that route was free. If I traveled outside, the cost of the trip was calculated starting from the closest station to my destination.

    So for example, if I had to travel from Ashby to Embarcadero for work everyday, I’d get a pass covering that route. The cost would be determined by the distance but it would be cheaper than paying for the ride 5 times a week. It’d be free to stop at any station, meaning MacArthur, Oakland 19 & 12, West Oakland and Embarcardero at any time. If I decided to travel outside that route, then I would have to pay the same cost everyone did. So if I went to North Berkeley, I’d get charged for the trip from Ashby to North Berkeley. If I went to San Leandro, I’d pay for the trip from Oakland 12th to San Leandro. To Orinda, then I’d pay starting at MacArthur. And so on. The cost is deducted from the funds I add to the card separate of the monthly pass cost. So the cost is deducted automatically when I pass through the gate at my destination.

    Make sense?

    Unfortunately, I’m just describing a convenient system for the rider. I don’t know enough about the implementation and the ways the different systems are financed.

  • BART commuter

    Why must it be an “either-or” discussion, where we must choose to have monthly passes or distance-based fares alone? I’d suggest to Tom Radulovich that many frequent BART riders would love a zone-based monthly pass that only applies to the urban core of SF/Oakland/Berkeley (i.e., something akin to the existing Bart/Muni Fast Pass, but valid for use in the inner East Bay as well.) I suspect that most people who would use BART often enough to desire a monthly pass live in the SF/Oakland/Berkeley area anyway.

    To mollify BART’s finance staff, perhaps the longer-distance trips (think Pittsburg/Bay Pt to SF, or Pleasanton to Oakland) could remain pay per ride. I imagine the vast majority of people making those trips are only using BART for their weekday commutes to work anyway, and have little desire to use the system outside of their “9 to 5” lives. However, if someone raises concerns about equity, a “Zone 2” pass that includes outlying stations could be implemented, but sold at a higher price.

  • BART commuter

    @Ricky – Just read your post, and I like your suggestion as it would allow passengers to buy the specific pass they need for their most frequent origin/destination pair, and “top off” the pass for any occasional trips to stations outside of their normal travel. But I imagine the thought of accounting for all those variables would drive BART staff crazy, which is why I think a “transbay zone” of the sort I described would be preferable.

  • EL

    “Radulovich noted with some frustration that BART has a monthly pass to park at BART-run facilities and he asked why, if such a policy worked for parking, it wouldn’t work for the actual transit trip.”

    What a hypocrite. How much does BART charge to park at Glen Park? ZERO. NADA. ZIP.

  • Alex

    I’d much rather see the Daly City station added to the exorbitant MUNI fast pass than a general purpose pass. If nothing else, it would greatly benefit SFSU students and reduce the burden on the M.

    If a more general purpose monthly pass were to be implemented, given the disparity in trip lengths, it ought to be a zoned pass.

  • Good God, people.

    DISTANCE-BASED and TIME-BASED fares are orthogonal concepts.

    You can have one or both. BART’s loathesome neolithic executive management chooses not to and has the former without the latter. Muni has the latter without the former.

    Moreoever, DISTANCE-BASED and ZONE-BASED fares are the same thing, in the limit that a “zone” covers one station. The difference between Caltrain and BART ticketing isn’t that Caltrain advertises zones, it’s that Caltrain tickets are good for more than one boarding and that Caltrain doesn’t (yet) waste hundreds of millions of dollars shelling out for faregates (ka-ching profits to Cubic) and mezzanine levels and airside and landside and secured platforms and all that utter waste that is associated with BART and with the Muni Metro contractor-profit-first subway mentality.

    The western world’s most successful transit operators tend to have zone-base (all you can ride within certain areas, which reduces to between certain points for very simple networks)
    AND time-based (all you can ride within a certain period, be that 1 hour, 3 hours, 24 hours, 7 days, 30 days, 90 days, 365 days)
    AND mode-independent (doesn’t matter if it is a train or a ferry or a bus as long as you are within the zone validity area and the time validity period) tickets.

    The San Francisco Bay Area, in contrast, has whatever makes the most profits for MTC’s very very very very VERY special defense contractor pals at Cubic.

    PS in terms of subsidizing exurban riders: BART already does that by explicit policy, in spades. The most efficient short trips on the most used and least subsidized urbsn parts of the BART network in San Francisco, Oakland and the inner East Bay are far more expensive per-mile than the highly subsidized trips to the exurbs.

    A time-based all-you-can-eat fare instrument might instead have the effect of slightly mitigating this backwards situation: nobody is going to ride to and from Dublin 4 times a day, while somebody might choose to hop on and off BART in SF/Oakland while running errands.

    In short, a combination of zone/distance-based and time-based mode-neutral ticketing would be ideal. The odds of it happening, with MTC (the nominal regional “coordination” agency) existing solely to sleazily bolster favoured contractors’ bottom lines, and Radulovich always outvoted 1-8 at BART, is zero.

    So enjoy being taken for the ride. Mmmmm….. faregates….

  • Alex

    As for zoning, I’d think about maybe:

    Zone 1 – Daly City to Downtown Berkeley
    Zone 2 – North Berkeley to Richmond, Rockridge to Walnut Creek, Lake Merritt to Colseum
    Zone 3 – Colma to Millbrae, Pleasant Hill to Bay Point, San Leandro to Hayward

    Zone 4 – SFO, Castro Valley to Dublin, South Hayward to Fremont

    Or something along those lines so that the big transfer stations get lumped as close to the core zone or ring as possible. And then issue monthly passes that are priced based on the distance from the inner zone (Zone 1) that you’d like to travel (and maybe a one zone only pass).

    This is vaguely similar to how the Underground is priced (for single trips and passes). Of course the big problem is that each county has their fingers in the pie and doesn’t really want to cooperate (see also the absurdity that is not having the Daly City station on the fast pass).

  • Nick

    The Daly City station is right at the County line- that extra 40 feet cost you something like $1.10 or 1.25. Sucks for SFSU students and residents out here.

  • Nick: At least Muni gives free rides from Daly City BART, a $4 value, and SF State provides a free shuttle.

  • Alex

    A fast pass with BART is an eye watering $70 (which is in and of itself quite a scam considering the huge discount the MTA gets on BART fares). Round trip, five days a week, four weeks per month equals $118. That’s nearly $50 per month extra because of some asinine political wrangling.

  • Using BART’s own numbers, a monthly pass would generate 6x greater number of new transit trips as the Oakland Airport connector — at 20x lower cost.

  • Kristin

    I am now in my second year as a student here. I must say that having spent a great deal of time in NYC – where I could go anywhere for $2 – I have been, and continue to be, astonished by the cost of public transit in the bay area. I don’t have a car right now, but as soon as I do I will drive it and avoid BART at all cost, because it is cheaper to drive than to take BART. For a region of the country that claims to be green and innovative – it is the exact opposite. The current fee structure drives people into their cars – literally – because it is cheaper, and this contributes to both pollution and congestion. Having a cost effective transit system, which would cost less per ride and would include a monthly pass, is essential because it will make this area be as green as it advertises it is and, more importantly, will make transit to employment more accessible for those of us who can’t afford to spend $11/day on a commute – that’s MORE than the minimum hourly wage! Can you imagine an entire day’s pay going towards your weekly commute for work?!

    Outrageous. Things have to change.

  • While I agree that a monthly pass for BART riders makes sense with the cost based on distance traveled (and if Caltrain can do it and other countries and localities can do it, BART should certainly be able to do it) it is important to be accurate about how the BART fare structure compares with other comparable transit systems.

    Washington DC Metro–Silver Spring, MD to downtown Washington, DC–8 miles–$3.70/$3.95

    BART–Ashby to Embarcadero–10.4 mi–$3.50

    NY MTA–Stamford, CT to Grand Central Station–40 miles–$7.50/$10

    BART–Fremont to Embarcadero–36 miles–$5.60

    For any transit system covering a vast area, the fare structure should correlate with distance. It is basically just not a great idea to live 60 miles from where you work.

  • Rodzzz

    a good solution that wouldn’t result in short-distance commuters subsidizing long-distance communters would be a bulk discount card.

    for example: a pre-paid card with $60 worth of BART fares for $40 that must be used within one month, or for heavy commuters, $100 for $60, something along those lines.

  • Winston

    People often claim BART is more expensive than driving, but this just isn’t usually the case.

    Example 1:

    Pittsburg/Bay Point to Powell st.

    BART $5.95 + $1 parking = $6.95
    Driving (full cost): 37 mi @ $0.50/mile + $5 toll + $5 parking = $28.50
    Driving (out of pocket cost) = 37mi @0.18/mile + $5 toll + $5 parking = $16.66
    Driving (gas only) = 37mi@$0.12/mile = $4.44

    Winner: BART unless you ignore everything but gas.

    As a side note, these calculations are also exactly the same for Fremont BART to Powell except that BART is $0.35 cheaper and thus a bigger winner.

    Example 2: Fremont BART to Lake Merritt BART

    BART: $4.00 + $1 for parking

    Driving (full cost): 26 mi @ $0.50/mile + $1 parking= $14.00
    Driving (out of pocket cost) = 26mi @0.18/mile +$1 parking = $5.68
    Driving (gas only) = 26mi@$0.12/mile = $3.12

    Winner: BART

    In fact, BART wins big every time you have to cross a bridge or pay for parking. The only time when BART loses is when you only consider out of pocket expenses (maintenance and gas, but not depreciation) and when you are going very short distances (say Pleasant Hill to Concord) or where driving allows you to take a much shorter route (say Dublin – Walnut Creek).

    As an aside, I think that BART’s fare structure is quite good and that a monthly pass would be moving in the wrong direction. I would prefer to see higher peak hour fares, especially for riders using the transbay tube since this is where BART is most congested and has the biggest cost advantage. This would also allow for a fare reduction for suburban riders where BART is less competitive and not as well patronized. Yes, this would be a case of the center subsidizing the suburbs, but given that we’ve built this expensive infrastructure, we should price it to get as much benefit from it as we can.

  • david vartanoff

    For BART to offer an unlimited monthly is just a question of software. Typical monthlies are priced between 30 and 40 times the single fare. Taking the AC Transit base + transfer, a BART/AC monthly should price around $90 but cover both agencies within ALL of AC’s service area. Pricing monthlies for the further suburbs should follow the same formula, and include CCCTA feeder buses or Wheels.

  • david vartanoff

    Winston and taomom have both documented how skewed BART fares are against the very areas that use it the most.
    BART charges artificially low fares for the distant riders while overcharging the urban core users.

  • EL

    “Winston and taomom have both documented how skewed BART fares are against the very areas that use it the most. BART charges artificially low fares for the distant riders while overcharging the urban core users.”

    Is that what Donald Shoup recommends for parking – charging based on demand? It’s amazing how Streetsblog applaud this theory when it applies to the automobile, but when it’s applied to transit, it has to be WRONG.

  • EL, how does this have anything to do with parking? Are you suggesting that transit where it is need should be charged more while at the same time used to subsidize long distance transit? I think you are way off base.

  • The Shoupian argument is for situations where there is greater demand than there is supply, causing people to be turned away. If there is a time or place where there are more people wanting to ride BART than physically will fit, then sure, the service probably should be more expensive there or then to shift the demand away. BART rarely experiences quite that high a level of demand though.

  • DominicTof

    LOL LOL LOL