Even as bridge tolls increase, gap with fares widens

This week, tolls increased on the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in 6 years, to $6 with FasTrak. Though there was some grumbling and a bit of consternation from drivers who now need to deal with a more expensive commute, these cost hikes are no stranger to transit riders, who have faced annual fare increases for over a decade.

A quick look at the discount toll and average discount fare (adjusted for inflation) starts to get at the picture:

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare's increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare’s increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Though it’s obvious from above, the point is best expressed from the ratio of fares-to-toll:

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases despite annual toll hikes.

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases from 2014 through 2018 despite annual toll hikes. That’s because, as fares increase by 5 percent per year, tolls increase $0.25 per year, a percentage increase that gets less each year.

In 1992, the average round-trip bus fare was 1.62 times the discount toll. That ratio reached a high of 2.44 last July 1, when the latest fare increase was made. Now that the tolls have gone up, the ratio has dropped to 2.03, the lowest it’s been in 5 years, but that will be transitory. On July 1, when fares increase another 5 percent, the ratio will head back up again, to 2.14.

If fares continue to increase 5 percent every year, that ratio will continue to widen, even with annual $0.25 toll hikes, to 2.22 in 2018.

Strictly from an equity perspective, this is unjust. Bus riders tend to be lower-income, and so have a more difficult time taking fare hikes, while the opposite tends to be true of drivers. Not only that, but others who can’t drive – those who are blind, albino, elderly, and others - are disproportionately hit by fare hikes.

By pushing away those who have access to the driving alternative, too, the fare hikes render transit more and more into a second-class social welfare service rather than the first-class transportation service it could be.

From a technical perspective, those new drivers adds to congestion at the rush hours, forcing everyone, rider and driver alike, into a slog every morning and night. It’s a terribly inefficient transit system, destroying any advantage of having a freeway. San Francisco, Sonoma, and Marin all suffer.

Narrow goals lead to bad outcomes

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has as its explicit goal that fares should cover at least 25 percent of bus operations and 40 percent of ferry operations. By raising fares regularly, GGBHTD is trying to hit that moving target. Bus ridership has dropped dramatically since 2000 and with it has fallen transportation income, while operating costs have jacked up the price of providing service.

To compensate, GGBHTD has hiked fares every year since 1998, boosting inflation-adjusted fares 82 percent.

The problem is that GGBHTD isn’t thinking like a business, where income is more than just a function of price, and it’s not thinking like a government agency, with broader societal concerns than mere income. The end result is a nonsensical and unjust policy of never-ending fare hikes far beyond inflation and ever-slower commutes.

Broaden the goals, reformulate the prices

The core technical mission of GGBHTD should be to help prevent congestion in the areas most immediately effected by its policies, namely Central and Southern Marin, and work with the transit and congestion management agencies in San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma to prevent or mitigate it in the rest of its commute shed. This would fit with the original founding purpose of Golden Gate Transit, which was to resolve congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge.

To ensure its historic, technical mission is fulfilled, GGBHTD needs to rework its pricing scheme with congestion in mind. This will mean tolls will rise, but not necessarily too much. If fares stay flat or even decrease, that daily congestion toll may not need to rise nearly so much to ensure congestion is alleviated. Physical changes, such as creating carpool lanes on 101 as far as Lombard in San Francisco, will also help mitigate congestion and, therefore, that toll hike.

The core social justice mission for GGBHTD should be to ensure transit is a tool of freedom for the poor and car-free, rather than make this one more way they can’t succeed. This would fit with the original purpose of having Greyhound take up the transit slack once our light rail system was put out of business by GGBHTD.

Yet progress is made in this equally historic social justice mission simply when GGBHTD meets its technical mission, which by necessity will decrease the fare/toll gap. If the district invests the new toll revenue in more frequent bus service and better bus infrastructure, it will elevate raise the prestige and enjoyment of using the bus system.

Finally, GGBHTD’s efforts will increase ridership (and therefore fares), to meet its new mission of keeping fare revenue in sync with operating costs.

The ever-rising gap between fares and tolls is symptomatic of deep dysfunction in the heart of GGBHTD. An obsession with a single metric – revenue – has led to an incredibly inefficient transportation system and caused the district to fail in the missions it was founded to accomplish. Drivers, riders, the poor, the rich – all suffer under this scheme.

*As Golden Gate Transit doesn’t keep historic bus and ferry fares available online, rather just fare increases, this is backwards-calculated from the average cost to travel from the North Bay to San Francisco on bus and ferry. GGT also doesn’t keep historic fare increases available from before 1993.

Substandard bus stops drench, humiliate riders

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

During Marin’s big Pineapple Express a few of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking the bus all over Marin. Stepping off a bus without worrying about parking or gas or finding the car always feels liberating to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. But thanks to bad stop design, I and my fellow riders got soaked.

After chatting up some of protestors of WinCup, I walked along the narrow sidewalk to the closest southbound bus pad, not just to see what the walk was like but also because I had to get to Mill Valley. Aside from protestors using up the entire sidewalk width, forcing me to walk in the street, it wasn’t so bad. The bus pad, though, was another story.

The bus pad shelter allowed the wind to whip rain right in the face of me and my fellow travelers. The bench was so soaked that sitting would have made for a cold and soggy experience. Someone else waiting spoke very little English but pointed at the rain and the bench and laughed. “Very wet,” she said, and it was quite clear she thought the situation was ridiculous. Though she was heading to Mill Valley, too, she hopped on the next bus that came (Route 36) just to get out of the wet. I decided to stick it out, though, and my Route 17 bus arrived soon enough.

Alas, the Mill Valley Depot, central bus station of this most wealthy of towns, was in even worse shape. The roof dripped everywhere, soaking not just the benches but anyone who risked standing under it without an umbrella. Water trickled in from every slat in the roof and positively poured in through the light fixture.

The state of repair on the Depot and the quality of the bus pad stops tells riders, You don’t really matter. For one of the wealthiest counties in the country and one that prides itself on being green and supporting the less fortunate, that’s unacceptable.

If buses are a travel mode of equal stature to the car or ferry, bus stops – especially signature stops like the Depot – need to be treated like it. They should be comfortable, or at least bearable. The people who ride the bus for work or out of necessity do matter.

Requiring transit officials to take transit makes sense

In light of some criticism regarding a $300,000 transit marketing study, Dick Spotswood makes a good recommendation: require Marin’s elected officials take transit to their meetings at least once per week. Though it won’t take the place of a marketing study, the observations of actual use are irreplaceable.

Spotswood writes:

If transit directors ride their own buses they’ll have a splendid opportunity to fully understand the system they govern. They’ll gain direct input from bus passengers and drivers without consultants in the way.

This isn’t about Golden Gate’s excellent commuter buses serving San Francisco’s central business district. Sears understands that, as she once commuted by bus when she worked in the city.

It’s about buses that start and end in Marin, funded by Marin taxpayers and governed by county supervisors and two council members, Novato’s Madeline Kellner and Stephanie Moulton-Peters of Mill Valley.

A theoretical understanding of a transit system doesn’t always comport with some of the day-to-day inconveniences. Golden Gate Transit (GGT) and Marin Transit (MT) both have some pretty glaring theoretical issues – lack of real-time arrival data, lack of fare coordination, three-transfer trips, poor quality bus pads – there are some things you just need to experience to have them in the top of your mind. When a bus is late and you miss your timed transfer, that’s a huge inconvenience. When a bus stops running just before your event is over, that’s a major problem. When you arrive to your stop on time but the bus passed by early, that might mean an hour wait.

What’s big to someone on the ground might only appear as an obscure metric on a report, or not appear on a report at all. As an infrequent rider, I’m surprised when I ride at how fantastic the system is, on one hand, and how much room for improvement there is on the other. [If you want to report on some of these day-to-day inconveniences, drop me a line on Facebook, Twitter, or email. -ed]

Putting this understanding and frustration into the hands of elected officials can be a powerful tool to push back against staff when they’re dragging their feet. An applicant of GGT’s citizens’ advisory committee recently told me about staff brushing off a question about real-time arrival data, which was promised to be available “in six months” for over a year now. Though this advisory committee can’t do much, a county supervisor would be able to do quite a bit.

We do need marketing studies and we do need a marketing campaign for GGT and MT, as there are issues that might apply to an area elected officials just don’t encounter, but that’s just one part of an integrated whole. We need our elected officials riding the bus around Marin. Perhaps then they’ll find not just why Marinites don’t ride the bus, but also some easy ways it could be so much better.

The incredible efficiency of Golden Gate Transit

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

Mass transit an incredibly efficient way to move large numbers of people from two fixed locations or along a constrained space, like a bridge. Buried in a recent Marin IJ article we found out just how efficient they were: at rush hour, buses make up less than 1 percent of all vehicles on the Golden Gate Bridge but, along with ferries, carry 27 percent of the people. In other words, GGT adds a full lane and a half of capacity to the bridge and 101.

That is astounding, and a testament to the value of transit. The toll fees paid to support the transit system are well-spent, as they keep the freeway running smoothly for all users.

Well, somewhat smoothly. The HOV lanes through San Rafael and the Twin Cities are jammed, and without the old reversible lanes from Marin City to San Francisco, buses are prone to get stuck in bridge traffic. Finding ways to fix that problem would go a long way to improving bus traffic flow. Extending the planned Van Ness bus-only lanes along Lombard to the Bridge would go even further, and help ease a commute for thousands of Marinites and Sonomans.

Parking charge coming to Larkspur Ferry Terminal

In a stroke of good news, GGT will begin charging $2 for parking at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) on January 6.

The charge is part of a progressive plan to manage access at LFT. Last year, there were few ways to get o LFT without a car, but the parking lot filled up after 8:30am, leaving mid-day travelers stranded and depressing ridership.

GGT tackled this high demand by implementing a shuttle bus in Ross Valley, called the Wave, to give people an alternative to driving. With the $2 charge, GGT is also trying to encourage people to use the shuttle or bike. In short, rather than try to boost parking supply by building garages, GGT is trying to reduce parking demand.

It’s a smart plan. Travel from LFT is highly “peaked,” with a lot of people taking the ferry for commutes to and from San Francisco but hardly anyone taking it in the middle of the day. Boosting the parking supply would further overwhelm those morning ferries.

It’s cheaper to encourage people to take the bus to and from the ferry or to and from the city with a parking charge. The result is a parking lot with space for afternoon riders and essentially the same number of commute riders.

GGT staff should monitor the situation carefully and establish a goal of a certain percentage of spaces available after the morning rush. With such a goal in mind, the Board could raise or lower the parking charge as needed to attain that goal.

The next big thing for Marin-San Francisco LFT riders are new bus pads under the 101 overpass at Sir Francis Drake. Approved as part of the Greenbrae Interchange Project, the pads will mean travelers on the 101 trunk line routes (17, 36, 70, 71, 80, and possibly 101) will be able to easily transfer to the ferry, unlike the current trek from Paradise Drive. SMART will likely come soon after that.

Combined with the parking charge, LFT will be able to accommodate more years of booming ridership growth and allow it to become the all-day service the Sausalito ferry is. Though it will bump up against the limits of its ferry infrastructure eventually, that is a far better problem than being limited by a parking lot.

More frequency or bigger buses for long-haul commuters?

Route 72X and other commuter buses are packed, and their ridership is rising. With tolls set to rise on the Golden Gate Bridge, the problem could get even worse. While a good thing, Golden Gate Transit (GGT) needs to figure out how to deal with the rising tide.

GGT has two ways to accommodate excess ridership: increase the bus frequency or increase the bus size.

Increase frequency

A new Golden Gate Transit MCI D4500CT commuter...

A new GGT MCI D4500CT commuter bus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frequency is freedom. Rather than spacing buses to come every 30 minutes, GGT might space them every 15, or 7, or 3. This reduces the penalty for missing your bus, as there will be another one coming soon.

The upside is that this can induce demand, especially if development and transportation policies at either end of the line encourage transit use. More trips are viable by this bus, as riders have more flexibility to schedule their trips. Casual riders, if the bus comes frequently enough, won’t need to check a schedule at all. For a commuter line, the rider just needs to know that buses leave between, say, 5am and 9:30am. Any more detail is unnecessary.

The downside is that frequency, especially on commuter lines, is expensive. GGT pays its drivers full-time, and a number of the buses deadhead (run Not In Service) up to Santa Rosa or San Rafael after their commute runs. Improved frequency will mean more drivers and likely more deadheading.

This added burden may be beyond GGT’s capability to deliver. Increasing frequency on round-trip Basic services, such as the 101, or turning deadhead runs into northbound commuter service would allow fares to recoup the costs.

Bigger buses

Interior of the Astromega. Image from Van Hool.

Interior of the Astromega. Image from Van Hool.

While it doesn’t induce demand in the same way a more-frequent route may, a larger bus will accommodate the extra ridership without adding significantly to operating costs. Other bus systems use extra-long buses to meet demand, but these would be difficult to navigate around downtown San Francisco and tend to be too utilitarian for commuters’ taste.

A better method would be to use double-decker buses similar to those used by Megabus and Google (like the Van Hool TDX27 Astromega). They have rear storage capacity for 8 bicycles (Google runs with rack space for another 4 on the rear), enough seating for 91 passengers, and aren’t significantly taller or longer than the MCI buses currently in use by GGT. And, unlike the MCI buses, these have rear doors.

Currently, all GGT buses offload and load at the front door, reducing the rear doors to vestigial afterthoughts. The delay of boarding passengers waiting others getting off adds to operating expenses and trip time. With larger buses, this effect is exaggerated. If GGT got its act together and allowed passengers to get off the bus at the rear doors, a rear door on large-capacity GGT commuter buses would save the agency quite a bit on already expensive routes. Allowing commuters to board at the rear would save even more time and money.

Double-deckers wouldn’t be unprecedented in the Bay Area. The Google Shuttle is a great success. They navigate San Francisco’s streets with relative ease and provide a comfortable way for their workers to get to Silicon Valley.

Whether with bigger buses, or with greater frequency, GGT will need to address its crowding. At least internally, it start to consider the costs and trade-offs to each approach.

A new 101 bus map for a revised bus system

In case you missed it, Marin Transit, in partnership with Golden Gate Transit, has made some changes to Marin’s bus system. The changes to existing routes saved enough money that they were able to add about 15,000 more service-hours to the system, meaning people around the county have better transit.

The changes inspired a second look at my 101 corridor bus guide, and the result is here.

101 Buses-Weekday 2013.08-x

Click for PDF

While the guide, technically called a “strip map,” reflects the changes to bus routes, I’ve also added non-GGT and Marin Transit routes to the map. Greyhound’s once-per-day north-south Arcata-SF service, Sonoma County Transit’s express services, and Mendocino Transit Authority’s service from Fort Bragg to Santa Rosa all made it onto the map.

It’s much less Marin-centric as a result, but no detail has been lost. Instead, Sonomans can know their options, Marinites can know their options, and all users get an expansive view of where they can go by transit in the North Bay’s 101 corridor.

This is the sort of map GGT needs to have at every bus pad and every transit center along its route. I created the original 101 bus map because I couldn’t visualize how all the lines interact and work together, nor could I tell what buses served which bus pad.

My home church, for example, is located off Smith Ranch Road, so it’s off the Lucas Valley bus pad. Since the 49 is the only bus whose schedule said it stopped at Lucas Valley, I’ll probably take it, turning what should have been a 15 minute ride into a 35 minute tour of Terra Linda.

With this map, I know I can have take the 70, 71, or 80. On a weekday evening, I might take the 44. But the 49? While it does serve the bus pad, it’s a local bus serving Terra Linda and the Civic Center, so it’s not the best idea.

A pocket version will be available in the next few weeks.

Golden Gate Ferry promotes reverse travel to Larkspur

In an attempt to get more reverse travel from San Francisco to Larkspur Landing’s Marin Country Mart, Golden Gate Ferry is giving away tickets for some of its trips* for the month of August. Here’s hoping this will lead to more reverse-ferry trip promotions.

It’s no secret that counter-commute ferry travel is, well, sparse. Survey show that some trips in the middle of the day have as few as 10 passengers for ferries equipped to carry 350. While this monumental waste of capacity won’t be solved entirely until Larkspur develops the Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) parking lot, that doesn’t mean Larkspur Landing is only a desolate parking lot.

Marin Country Mart is the principal destination for the neighborhood. For a long time it was just another outdoor mall, but now the shopping center is trying to transform itself into a hipper destination, with jazz on Fridays and the Folkish Festival and food trucks on Sundays. The beer snobs among us have the always-wonderful Marin Brewing Company to visit, too.

People who want to participate print off an SF-Larkspur ticket (PDF click on the big image of a ticket on that page) at home, take one of the off-peak trips to Larkspur,* and get a return ticket from a Marin Country Mart retailer for an off-peak trip home.

All in all, it’s an ingenious way to get more reverse travel. It’s easy to think of Marin as Over There, out of reach for most people. By lowering the cost barrier, GGF could attract more regular riders and bring Larkspur Landing into the imagination of San Franciscans as a place they can actually go. There’s no guarantee these new passengers will stay with the ferry after the promotion is over, but some may start to think of Larkspur Landing as someplace as close as another San Francisco neighborhood.

Other promotions should draw in employees of Larkspur Landing businesses, who may drive today but could take the ferry instead. This promotion would help workers that commute north in the morning, provided they get something at Marin Country Mart before heading south.

GGF’s promotion, combined with the ferry shuttle, paid parking, and the new 7:30am departure, shows that GGF understands the challenges faced by its Larkspur ferry service and isn’t afraid to be creative in its solutions. I only wish its bus service was so bold.

*On weekdays, its any northbound departure between 8:30am and 3pm, and any southbound departure between 10:10am and 8:50pm. On weekends, it’s the northbound 12:40pm and southbound 4:45pm.

When transit affordability and convenience are at odds

Last week, an IJ editorial on pricing ferry parking took a cautious note. “The bridge board needs to maintain a focus on keeping the ferry affordable to all and a convenient and dependable way to get to and from work.” The IJ is concerned that charging for parking will make the ferry unaffordable. But the aim shouldn’t be more affordability; it should be for efficiency. And, the best way to manage a scarce resource efficiently, including ferry parking, is to put a price on it.

It’s a basic principal of economics. Supply can meet demand only when the resource has the right price. Higher prices discourage consumers from using the resource and encourage producers from making more of it. When it comes to a relatively fixed resource (inelastic supply), like parking, the price just regulates demand.

In the real world, a price forces someone to consider whether that resource is actually worth paying for. Is a parking space worth $2? Those who answer no will either get to the ferry another way or take another mode of transportation to the City. This leaves room for others who are willing to pay but who couldn’t find a space before.

Here’s the neat thing. By putting a price on parking, suddenly accessing the resource, while more expensive, is actually more convenient and dependable. Today we have a shortage of spaces, and someone who doesn’t show up by 7:30am is probably not going to get a parking space. If the price is such that, say, 5 percent of parking spaces are free each day, that means there will always be parking available, even in the middle of the day.

The IJ should concern itself not with how cheap we can make a ferry trip but how efficiently we can manage the ferry’s infrastructure. Thankfully, GGT is concerned about this. So rather than spend tens of millions to boost the parking supply, GGT wants to regulate it with a fee. People can still get to the ferry for free if they want to, with a shuttle, foot, or bike, but there is room to spare there. If GGT wants to operate with efficiency, this is where people need to go.

A fare hike, a toll freeze

Five years ago, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) considered varying bridge tolls based on demand, with higher prices during peak demand times. The concept, called congestion management or congestion pricing, didn’t go anywhere. Then-San Rafael mayor Al Boro torpedoed it, labeling the proposal an unfair “Marin commuter tax.” San Francisco was outraged, but at least they got a pioneering new parking system that varies the price of on-street parking by demand instead.

Meanwhile, GGT’s often-high fares have gone up by 5% every year on July 1. If congestion management is a “Marin commuter tax”, surely annual fare hikes well above inflation are the same thing. While the purpose is to try to keep fares in line with costs, the hikes aren’t targeted well enough to either manage congestion or improve the agency’s financial standing.

Better than blanket hikes would be targeted hikes to ferry fares and bridge tolls paired with bus service improvements. GGBHTD should use its monopoly power to maximize the infrastructure it has at its disposal.

Ferry ridership has proven to be extremely robust and can likely absorb the hikes, increasing its farebox recovery. For bridge tolls, the stretch of Highway 101 between Sir Francis Drake and Tiburon boulevards is about 800 cars over-capacity in the evenings, or roughly 2/5ths of a freeway lane. Adjusting tolls and bus service to shift some of demand to buses would open up the northbound direction. Trunk line bus service would be more reliable and less expensive to operate, and drivers would save 20 minutes of time every night.

Yet with a blanket 5% hike on regional and commute buses, GGBHTD is actually exacerbating its bus ridership problems. It shifts demand from a mode with excess capacity to one that is already over-capacity. This is not smart management but political management, and the outcome is worse service and worse traffic.

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