All-Door Muni Boarding Still Means Quicker Buses, Less Fare Evasion

Muni bus boardings are quicker across the board since 2009, despite increasing ridership. Image: SFMTA [PDF]
Two years after Muni launched all-door boarding, the agency continues to report [PDF] quicker boardings and lower rates of fare evasion.

As SFBay reported, SFMTA Performance Manager Jason Lee told the agency’s board yesterday that “dwell times,” the amount of time buses spend waiting at stops, have decreased by an average of 38 percent systemwide. Dwell times are also more consistent across the city, since the longest bus stops have seen the most improvement. Since 2011, average bus travel speeds have increased from 8.41 mph to 8.56 mph.

Photo: SFMTA

“That may not seem like a lot, but it adds up,” said Lee.

Fare evasion, meanwhile, dropped from 9.5 percent in 2009 to an estimated 7.9 percent in 2014, translating to an estimated $2.1 million in annual savings.

The results contradict predictions from critics who said all-door boarding would encourage fare evasion. Previously, bus operators had to verify and enforce payment at the front door. Now, buses use a “proof of payment” system, as had been the policy on light-rail lines for decades, where fare inspectors randomly check whether passengers have paid their fares. Inspection staff levels were boosted from 41 to 54 when all-door boarding launched.

Image: SFMTA

Other factors beyond boarding policy could have influenced bus speeds and fare evasion. Christopher Grabarkiewctz, SFMTA’s director of security, investigations and enforcement, noted that an improved economy could mean more riders have money to pay fares, and more riders are tagging Clipper cards rather than paying with time-consuming cash.

The flip side of the economic boom, Lee noted, is that rising employment and population also have increased ridership, and longer lines to board could obscure gains from all-door boarding. Lee said that across the board, riders are making better use of buses’ rear doors.

SFMTA Board member Joél Ramos, who was one of the biggest advocates for launching all-door boarding, said the SFMTA needs to push forward with more street upgrades to give transit greater priority while moving on the streets. Such upgrades are underway for many routes as part of the Muni Forward program.

“The findings that [all-door boarding] hasn’t increased the overall speed of the system very much is not so surprising,” said Ramos, “in the sense that even if you have all-door boarding, you sit in traffic… without dedicated lanes to really speed transit along.”

Image: SFMTA
  • Jeffrey Baker

    Are any other agencies planning to do this? AC Transit spends lots of time with people queued up behind cash-paying customers. Using all-door boarding, requiring Clipper, or making the fare a round number of dollars would all reduce dwell.

  • Andy Chow

    A lot of other agencies are concerned about the revenue implications. In Muni’s situation, the about 50% of the riders use Clipper, while AC Transit and SamTrans are at about 30%+. Since all monthly passes are sold on Clipper only in these agencies one can conclude that more Muni riders buy passes than at AC Transit and SamTrans.

    While I don’t have the data, it is likely that the median income of Muni riders is higher than the AC Transit and SamTrans riders. What we know that the Clipper penetration for transit agencies that are more patronized by higher income folks are much higher than buses (Caltrain at 70%+, ferries at 90%+).

    I believe Clipper is more used by the higher income folks because of access to technology, having regular work schedule to justify pass purchase, having bank accounts, and having access to commuter tax benefit programs. Low income folks tend to use cash only, not having steady income, and work in businesses that don’t offer commuter benefits. More kids and elderly use local transit but most may have no access to bank accounts and commuter benefits. So for a lot of these riders they stay with cash rather than switching to Clipper.

    With Clipper there should be no need to pre-buy monthly passes like it was during the paper era. Such cards have the ability to place a monthly fare cap. People with low income can put cash on the card as they can afford yet still enjoy the savings of a pass if they ride regularly, and not having to come up with a lot of money upfront when they have other things (like rent) to pay for.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I do sympathize with the cost questions, but if that’s what you’re worried about then it makes even more sense to use Clipper than not. You save a dime or a nickel every time, depending. And, for AC Transit customers, it takes uncertainty out of the equation: if you’re not sure you will ride twice or three times in a day then you don’t have to buy the $5 day pass up front. I never understood the argument about bank accounts. I put value on my card using cash at BART stations. It’s easy and there’s no way I’m giving my bank account details to the bozo contractors who run Clipper. So you don’t need a bank account to use Clipper.

  • murphstahoe

    What you say makes sense, but while I don’t necessarily agree point for point with Andy’s assertions there is a definite correlation between Clipper adoption and income.

    The 72X bus from Santa Rosa to SF carries mostly Financial District commuters. Clipper adoption is ~100%, it’s very annoying when a cash customer appears, so much so that I carry an extra clipper card and say “Give me $10” and tag them on (saves them $1.75 and I make 60 cents, but mostly it gets the bus moving). Not only are we all saving 20% up front, almost everyone is getting another 20-30% in tax savings.

    When I occasionally take the 101 bus which is intra Sonoma/Marin as well as going to SF, Clipper adoption is ~15%. I look at the ridership and my reaction is that they could really use the 20% discount.

    There just is a huge part of the population that is just unplugged. Best way to get money is to have money.

  • Amanda Clark

    The VTA 181 takes forever to board in Fremont, because so many people pay by cash, and I have a feeling very few of them are familiar with the various transit systems and don’t have a clue as to what is going on. In that case, all door boarding wouldn’t work.

  • EastBayer

    Somewhat off-topic, but I’m not entirely familiar with Muni boarding procedures. Is there ever any reason for people to tap their clipper cards after boarding a rail car in an underground Muni Metro station? I’ve always paid at the gate while entering the station, but I still see some people tapping their clipper cards in the vehicle. It looks to me like those people might be paying twice!

    Help me figure out if I should speak up next time…

  • Nicasio Nakamine

    On my morning commute, I see people tag before exiting the train all the time. The N Judah is often crazy-packed until Montgomery station, so my assumption is that it was too difficult to tag in when they boarded, and are tagging before exiting since enforcement is most likely to be at the top of the stairs in the station.

    Nobody is paying twice – if you tag a second time, it just shows “transfer” and doesn’t charge you.

  • voltairesmistress

    The graph on fare evasion shows an ongoing trend toward proper payment, a trend not affected positively or negatively by the onset of all door boarding. I am glad the all door boarding appears not to be interrupting that trend, but I would like to know what has caused a lesser percentage of riders evading fares. Is it that some fare avoiders were unemployed? Was the local economy already that much better in 2010 than 2009? Has enforcement really changed all that much, and is that affecting behavior? Or are greater numbers of people with sufficient incomes riding Muni than before? Ideas from frequent riders? It would be good to know the causes, so that we can pursue even further what works.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I think it’s the increased fare inspectors and maybe free Muni for youth contributing as well. I’ve only been checked on Muni once in the last year, but I see fare inspectors almost daily while riding my bike around the city.

  • voltairesmistress

    Sorry, I placed this wrong. It is in reply to coolbabybookworm.
    Interesting. I hadn’t even considered the free muni for youth program. I have only seen fare inspectors board my bus once, and the results were surprising: all the people I assumed were avoiding paying had paid, and the well dressed woman had not! Same once on a German subway: a middle aged woman who looked the soul of legal compliance was riding “schwartz” as they say.

  • Andy Chow

    I think from a business perspective businesses generally offer discounts to their best customers, and that their best customers tend to pay fast, pay on-time, willing to consume more, and don’t underpay, which also tend to favor customers with higher income. Low income folks generally are targets for predatory lending businesses with very high interest rates.

    If you look at the Greyhound bus fares (Greyhound is used by a lot of low income folks), fares are much lower when purchased online in advance rather than paying at the terminal with cash for the same trip. The rationale is probably the same like other businesses as well as airlines. They don’t even mind offering very low fares online since some customers may not even show up and paid for the ride anyway.

    Amtrak on the other hand doesn’t offer that type of discounts and fares are very similar whether the tickets are bought in advance or at the station for the same class of service, unless the trip is heavily impacted (like around the holidays).

    Mass transit on the other hand has a social role in trying to lift up the less fortunate population. While from operational and business perspective Clipper usage is advantageous, it is also a barrier for low income folks from getting the best fare.

  • mx

    They absolutely should use a dynamic model for monthly passes, capping monthly cash fares at the monthly pass price. I doubt such a move would cost more than a trivial amount in revenue (of course, Cubic would probably demand millions of dollars to implement it), but it would avoid the inconvenience of needing to purchase a monthly pass and the current dilemma of needing to decide in advance whether to buy one. It would be a great improvement for customer service.

    For instance, I bought a Muni pass in November, but didn’t buy one for December because I knew I’ll be out of town for part of the month. My Muni ridership varies depending on the weather, how often I feel like riding my bike instead, if I work from home, days out of town, etc… It would be far easier to just know I’m getting the best deal without having to try to predict these factors a month in advance.

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