The freedom of a 31 day bus pass

11 Jun

A year ago, I decided to switch from purchasing single ride fares to buying an AC Transit 31 day bus pass every month. I have to admit that I went back and forth for months before doing so, trying to figure out what made the most sense financially. I figured out how many rides I’d have to take for the value of the 31 day pass to kick in (40) and tried to figure out how often I rode the bus every month, which varies greatly. Ultimately, I decided to go for it, even though I didn’t imagine it would save me more than $5 or maybe $10 per month.

Now, I’m sure it usually saves me more than that, but the savings have turned out to be not the only (or primary) benefit of having a 31 day bus pass. Having the pass has instilled me with a sort of transit freedom that I hadn’t felt since giving up my car because I no longer have to calculate the cost of individual bus trips.

In the past, for example, I might try to do my grocery shopping by walking. This would often create more trouble then it was worth because I could only buy a limited amount of groceries, and it was mostly because I didn’t want to pay $1.75 for the return bus trip, just to ride 10 blocks. Now, I wouldn’t think twice and hop on the bus with my groceries.

This freedom goes far beyond regular errands though. Sometimes I’m out with friends and someone offers me a ride home, but I want to stay out a bit later. In the past, I might have taken the ride, but now I know I can stay out as long as I wish and take the bus home. Or a few weeks ago, I was looking for a couple particular clothing items so I walked down to check out a few stores near Rockridge BART, but found nothing. Before having the 31 day pass, I probably would have just walked home, but instead, I hopped on the 51 down to Berkeley and was able to find one of the items I was looking for. Then I hopped on the 51 back home. And transferring buses is now something I don’t think twice about – I don’t have to worry how much time lapses in between and there’s no additional cost to me.

Having a monthly bus pass has been a huge help in taking the Car-Free Challenge! I honestly don’t think I could make it through this month without it.

A 31 day pass is probably not for everyone, especially for those who walk, bike, or BART to work, but if you’re a frequent bus rider, it’s worth looking into. And now is the perfect time to do it, since it currently costs $70 but will go up to $80 on July 1 (when all fares will increase). So consider taking the plunge, and join me in enjoying the freedom of a 31 day bus pass.

21 Responses to “The freedom of a 31 day bus pass”

  1. Lexica June 11, 2009 at 9:26 am #

    Having a monthly pass is great. It means that instead of thinking “okay, how do I fit this errand into an hour and a half in no more than two segments?” you can take as much time as you want to do what you need to do. If you see something interesting as you roll by, it’s not a problem to hop off the bus to check it out.

    Every so often I’ll catch my brain trying to do a cost analysis of whether I should switch back from a monthly pass to getting 10-ride tickets (or even paying cash). I squelch that thought firmly. Whatever money I might save would be more than offset by the loss of freedom.

    We’ve been car-free for a little over two years now, and having the monthly pass makes it so much easier than it would be otherwise.

  2. david vartanoff June 11, 2009 at 10:06 am #

    Yes, ‘all you can eat’ passes are great! It was a black day when AC dropped out of the BartPlus Pass. When riders pay a flat fee, they inevitably use the system more often. The advantages for the agency are both single transaction income and increased ridership in the off rush hour discretionary times. This latter uses excess capacity at no or marginal cost. FLASH passes are the fastest fare paying method according to AC.

    • Becks June 11, 2009 at 10:46 am #

      What was the BartPlus Pass?

      • Eric June 11, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

        Basically, a combination of ticket and pass. It has a certain BART dollar value stored on it, so you can use it like a BART ticket. But you can also use it as a flash pass on the bus.

        • Becks June 11, 2009 at 1:26 pm #

          You write as if it still exists. Does it?

        • Eric June 11, 2009 at 1:29 pm #

          Yes, it does, some operators still accept it, although not AC Transit anymore.

  3. david vartanoff June 12, 2009 at 10:04 am #

    originally it was “AC BART PLUS” immediately after Loma Prieta Muni was added. Currently “The BART Plus ticket is good on BART, County Connection, Dumbarton Express, Rio Vista Delta Breeze, SamTrans, Santa Clara County VTA, SF Muni, Tri Delta Transit, Union City Transit, West CAT and WHEELS.” (from BART site) Note the two glaring no shows–GG and ASo, our “friends” at MTC. with all of their claimed interest in enhancing transit coordination have done NOTHING to force AC and GG to participate, but how many millions have been spent on Translink?

  4. dto510 June 12, 2009 at 11:50 am #

    I was told by a former high-level transit official that ACT dropped out of BART Plus because BART wouldn’t coordinate fares or discounts. I don’t think the MTC should be forcing anyone to do things that don’t make sense (like the Airport Connector). Once again, BART is the problem, not the solution – like with TransLink, which they appear to be abandoning for no reason.

    Does BART contribute to the AC Transit transfers available at some stations, or is ACT expected to subsidize BART riders’ connections?

  5. david vartanoff June 12, 2009 at 4:30 pm #

    AC people claim BART hogged too much of the receipts from the passes, BART tells an opposite tale. I expect each is shading whatever the truth is. As to the paper coupons, I believe AC pays BART, BUT I have also been told that AC makes no effort to actually audit the coupons tendered but makes up a number. Yes, I agree BART IS the problem, however AC has consistently made poor decisions resulting in ever degraded service and thus falling ridership. As to MTC, two disparate attitudes. In theory they are the distributor of some funding such that they COULD if they cared encourage better interagency cooperation. That said, mostly they behave as if they are interested in highways and BART to the exclusion of “lowly” buses which actually move people. And yes we are on the same side about the OAC–a completely evil waste of money.

  6. Robert June 13, 2009 at 8:22 am #

    Interesting post. It is clear that the monthly pass is a benefit for the user, but your experience suggests that it is a detriment to ACTransit’s finances. Since ACT operates at a loss, every nonpaying passenger trip increases that loss. If you are truely using excess capacity, that extra loss is pretty small, but 10 or 20 more trips than you would take otherwise still adds up. Just a importantly, the free trips you are taking skew ridership numbers, and in this time of service cuts makes it more difficult for ACT to properly allocte service. It is nice that you can skip the ride home and take a free bus instead, but is that really something for which taxpayers should be paying? The monthly pass shuld be revenue neutral such as FasTrak on the bridge, and should not serve to increase ridership without a corresponding increase in revenue.

    • Becks June 13, 2009 at 8:44 am #

      Are you serious? I’m not getting anything for free – I pay for my monthly pass at the full price, which is pretty damn expensive. Are you aware of how much taxpayers subsidize driving? There’s almost no comparison with the subsidy of transit since we subsidize driving so much more. We should not be aiming for transit to be revenue neutral if we’re not going to aim for driving to be revenue neutral.

      • Robert June 13, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

        After the 40 rides you pay for with your pass, the rest of your rides are free. The taxpayer is subsidizing the $1.75 in addition to the normal subsidy transit gets. Any subsidy to cars is totally irrelevant. Also, for your examples, you were not decreasing cars on the road, you were taking trips you otherwise wouldn’t have. Why should the taxpayer pay so that you can do something extra? I never said or implied that transit should be revenue neutral. I said that the extra trips should be revenue neutral. If you ride 60 times a month you should pay 1.5 times as much as if you ride 40 times a month.

    • david vartanoff June 13, 2009 at 9:26 am #

      @ Robert, public transit is not a profit making exercise ANYWHERE unless one does Enron accounting. As to free rides as you describe them, here’s the real picture. Most transit drivers work a full shift so although rush hour may only be four hours of an early AM or a PM shift the driver is still out there w/ the same size bus after the crush load is over. ANY ridership filling up a half empty bus @ say 8:30PM makes the run more “efficient.” Yesterday evening for instance, I used AC to meet up for a pleasant leisurely dinner. @ 6:30 when I set out, the 18 bus was a ‘seated load’ maybe a few standees. A 10:00 when we left the restaurant the 52L was nearly empty, but the 18 which I transferred to in dntn Berkeley was half full. Now, you ask if taxpayers such as you AND I should pay for this service. I ASK why I should pay for all of the freebies autos get along w/ the destruction the wreak.

      • Robert June 13, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

        Never suggested that transit should be making a profit, although in certain circumstances it can. Society has made a decision that some level of subsidy is appropriate for benefits that transit provides, such as ecological and service to the poor or seniors. It is the extra subsidy provided by the monthly pass that I have concerns about.

        Efficiency does not increase if buses are filled with non-paying passengers. It serves only to create the false appearance of demand that would not be there if there was a charge. Giving something away for free distorts consumption. And society has not made the decision that free public transit provides sufficient benefits to outweigh the costs. You are free to argue that it should, but it is not there yet.

        As I mentioned, the use of excess capacity does not add a lot in costs, but there is no way for the monthly system to ensure that you are only using the excess capacity, and not contributing to peak capacity with you free ride. Also, the fact that ACT is unable to properly adjust capacity to demand is really not a good argument for a free ride for some. A half full bus, or an articulated bus with 5 passengers on it, it just poor capacity management by the district.

  7. david vartanoff June 13, 2009 at 6:01 pm #

    Robert & all, Flash passes purchased on a regular basis are the single most efficient method of fare collection. The agency gets the entire month’s fee as a single transaction (and can put the funds in a money market account), there is ZERO chance of skimming, a broken farebox doesn’t matter, the riders enter faster than even tagging w/ an RFID,etc. BTW the history of the term commuter goes back to the eatrliest rail trains operated for the purpose where the fare was “commuted” to a lower rate than for regular mainline services. Flash passes in turn became common after the C&NW replace monthly ‘punch’ pass in the late 50’s. The system made fare checking vastly more efficient–cut extra crewmembers on long rush hour trains.
    So from an operating standpoint, flash passes save money. Giving the most loyal riders a benefit is no different from frequent flyer miles, or 1 free for x deals at coffeeshops or gardening stores. As to running nearly empty articulated buses, yes, poor asset deployment, BUT somewhere greater than 70 % of the cost of a bus operating hour is labor so the fuel differential is marginal.
    ALL transport systems have the inherent problem of trying to have enough capital/operating funds to adequately satisfy rush hour/(XMAS rush for UPS) AND to field enough lightly used off rush service to achieve credibility–will transit strand me?

  8. Ralph June 15, 2009 at 8:07 am #

    OMG, the monthly bus pass dilemma – now this takes me back to my days in DC. I seem to recall going thru the same thought process. On the pure commute standpoint, I knew some months I would win and others I would lose. Overall, I figured I would breakeven as I used to hoof it for my other travel needs. But once I got the monthly – gone were the days of walking with only partial list of groceries, starting to rain catch the bus, running late to meet friends 5 minutes away hop on the bus, want to stay out a little later bus baby. Yes the monthly is da bomb. If only BART had something like that.

  9. david vartanoff June 15, 2009 at 8:44 am #

    the ideal from my POV would be for the AC passes to be valid on BART in AC’s service area. Muni had this arrangement–they have just decided to shaft BART users in SF by charging them an extra $10 premium over a regular pass.Bottom line, we pay the taxes, we don’ give a damn what colors the uniforms or logos are we just need to go somewhere the most efficient way available.

  10. Aaron Priven June 15, 2009 at 4:14 pm #

    While fare structures that are proportional to the riders’ use of the system seem plausible, they do not achieve the basic objectives of a fare structure for a public agency.

    The primary objectives of a pricing structure for a public agency should be firstly, to raise revenue in a way that is proportionate to the costs of providing the service, and secondly, to provide behavioral incentives (for both the agency and riders) to achieve the political purpose of the agency – in AC Transit’s case, maximizing ridership. (Another kind of public agency, such as a water utility, might have political purposes that would not at all involve maximization of the use of the service provided.) It is also important that the payers (riders) find the structure easy to use and understand, and that it can be implemented by the agency at a reasonable cost, but both of these issues should be secondary – they should not be put first and allowed to guide the decision.

    Note that the objectives of a public agency like AC Transit should not include maximizing revenue. If that were the objective, it should be adjusting fares in proportion only to the ability and willingness to pay, regardless of the actual cost of the service, and reducing service wherever it is unprofitable. But 80% of the district’s revenue is in exchange for moving as many people as possible, and since trying to get as much money as possible out of riders is only going to discourage them from riding, doing so is contrary to AC Transit’s own best interests.

    Raising revenue in proportion to the costs of providing service means the district has to relate the fare structure to those costs. While some extremely minor costs are associated with passenger-miles (cleaning, seat and window maintenance), and somewhat greater costs are associated with each passenger trip (farebox and door maintenance, additional operator time for heavy boarding, additional engine maintenance due to more frequent acceleration/stopping), the great bulk of the cost of providing bus service does not vary with these two factors. The cost of providing a bus is pretty much the same whether anybody is riding it or not.

    Moreover, as odd as it might seem, the benefit of the bus system doesn’t really vary by the number of trips either. Even occasional riders need the buses to run all the time, to provide them the freedom to travel when and where they wish.

    Undoubtedly some costs do vary in ways for which it would be possible to vary the fare accordingly. But I doubt that it’s practical to isolate these costs and relate these to the fare.

    An example is the number of passengers per bus-hour – if the agency has to split the costs of operating a bus over twenty people instead of forty, it’s reasonable to expect those twenty people to pay an additional fare to pay for that service. This is, in fact, a better justification for the higher Transbay fare than the distance involved. Although this makes theoretical sense, as a practical matter I doubt this kind of variance would be acceptable to the public, and given the 20% farebox ratio I doubt any additional fare would pay for sufficient service to attract more riders than the higher fare would discourage.

    The upshot is that it is the aggregate cost of operating the entire bus system that should be apportioned to riders – and that means charging a fixed cost to the rider for unlimited use during a reasonably long period: a 15-day or 31-day pass. It is not that these sorts of passes are necessarily preferable for riders. For some it will be, of course. But the key is that it is the way we can most closely have the fare be proportional to the costs – as well as encouraging ridership by removing the disincentive to ride that the cash fare represents.

    Of course, it is not a good idea to eliminate one-ride cash or e-cash fares completely. But their use should be discouraged and use of 15- or 31-day passes encouraged. The relative price of passes should be reduced (from 40 to 30 or even 20 one-ride fares) and the passes should be actively marketed to those who currently use cash for more than a few trips per month. If people with low incomes, or children, or some other needy group tend to use cash rather than passes, that situation shoul dbe addressed directly and passes should be created that meet their needs, rather than simply accepting higher amounts of money from those who can least afford it.

  11. david vartanoff June 15, 2009 at 4:27 pm #

    well reasoned explanation, Aaron. Using data from the UC study excerpted in the 51 Route improvement doc, FLASH passes are also valuable as they are the fastest fare check other than POP or barrier systems. As such they DO reduce dwell thus service costs especially on rush hour schedules.

  12. Robert June 15, 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    Wow, so the purpose of ACTransit is to maximize ridership? Which is just another way of saying that the reason that ACTransit exists is to maximize the consumption of resources. And here I thought that the reason for it to exist might be to provide a means to get from one place to another.

  13. Aaron Priven June 15, 2009 at 9:16 pm #

    The purpose of AC Transit is to maximize its usefulness to members of the public, which generally means carrying more people. Ridership justifies the agency’s existence.

    Yes, to some extent, if AC Transit ends up luring people from modes that have less environmental impact (such as walking or bicycling), it causes environmental harm. But it doesn’t take many trips lured from automobiles to make up for all the ex-walkers and ex-bicyclists. Again, the marginal cost of the individual ride is minuscule.

    80% of the agency’s costs are paid for by taxpayers. Everybody who rides is helping the agency earn that 80%. The taxpayers expect everyone who rides to contribute, too, which is why there is a fare. But if someone pays their fair share by buying a 31-day pass, it’s petty to begrudge them the minor cost of their 41st, 42nd, etc. rides. And for the district, it’s penny-wise, pound-foolish.

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