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Transit task force seeks simplifying fares, transfers across Bay Area agencies

PIX Now - Morning Edition 6/18/24
PIX Now - Morning Edition 6/18/24 10:29

A group of advocates, riders and staffers of Bay Area transit agencies gathered in downtown Oakland Monday morning with a mission.

Together, they planned to travel via public transit to San Francisco, where the Transit Transformation Task Force for the California State Transportation Agency was convening a discussion of how to get more riders on buses and trains around the state. The traveling group planned to take a bus before boarding a ferry to San Francisco and walking to the meeting.

But it didn't quite go like that.

Their bus didn't come when they expected, forcing them to scrap the plan for the ferry. Only after a trip on BART, then Muni, and three taps of their Clipper cards, did the group make it to their destination.

"We did have to pivot a bit," said transit user Aleta Dupree, who rode with the group. "It shows that we have options."

However, according to task force member and Bay Area transit activist Ian Griffiths, it can be difficult to navigate those options, which are spread across the more than 20 transit agencies in the region. It can leave riders paying multiple fares or navigating infrastructure that isn't connected if their ride includes different forms of transit, just as the group did during its Monday trip across the Bay.

"Complexity creates a big barrier to use," said Griffiths about sojourns across multiple agencies to reach one destination. "The trip takes a long time. If something goes wrong, you are stranded. And I think it dissuades people from making trips that involve a transfer."

One major complexity for many riders is dealing with multiple fare options at multiple transit agencies. A rider might need to pay different rates or pay differently at each stage of their journey. But streamlining these fares can often prove difficult on a local or regional level.

At their meeting Monday, members of the task force -- charged with recommending ways to get riders back onto public transit -- floated the ideas for coordinating fare integration statewide instead.

The goal is to promote "fare integration," or allow riders to pay a single fare for each trip, no matter how many different forms of transit they use. For example, the group's odyssey across the Bay might be possible with just a single tap of a Clipper card under a fully integrated system.

In the past two years, Bay Area agencies have experimented with this philosophy through Clipper BayPass, a pilot program giving select riders unlimited trips across all of Bay Area's transit agencies. In the year after the program began in 2022, BayPass participants rode transit 40% more than riders who held normal cards, according to data from BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

But while riders typically embrace fare integration, it's the local transit agencies that are often hesitant to get on board. Agencies can balk at the possibility of losing revenue from transfer fares, which can happen when riders are allowed to pay a single fare, said MTC assistant director Bill Bacon, who gave a presentation to the task force.

Especially for systems like BART that charge higher rates, an agency can make more money off each rider by just collecting its own fare. If a single fare grants riders access to multiple forms of transit, agencies instead must split that payment with one another -- effectively causing each to pass up on extra revenue from simply charging their own fare.

Yet integrated systems are often cheaper and quicker for riders, according to task force staffers, and ridership increases usually follow their implementation. But it can be tough to convince agencies facing budget shortfalls to trust those ridership increases to make up for the money they've left on the table by splitting fares.

MTC subsidizes some of the losses for agencies that split fares through BayPass, MTC chief deputy executive director and task force member Alix Bockelman said. But MTC has limited cash on hand to maintain this role, Bockelman said.

Also, the BayPass program was created because agencies voluntarily participated, not because a larger entity told them to, said Griffiths. This makes the program frangible since agencies can also back out whenever they lose interest in the long term.

"Basically, one voice among 27 (agencies) can hold the whole process up," he said.

Instead of relying on local partnerships, task force members suggested a variety of ways to coordinate fares at the state level during Monday's meeting.

 Multiple members suggested creating state incentives for regional agencies to collaborate on fare integration. Bockelman said that the role MTC is playing for BayPass would be better assumed by a statewide entity and that subsidies to offset fare losses could come from the state level, too.

But some members advocated for a more forceful approach.

Juan Matute, task force member and deputy director of the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of Transportation Studies, suggested conditioning state transit funding on local agencies adopting fare integration programs.

The task force will not formally submit recommendations until October 2025. Until those statewide initiatives can take shape, the task force's technical working group recommended regional programs like BayPass, despite how difficult they can be to maintain long term.

Still, multiple members of the 25-person task force expressed a feeling that the discussion had built momentum.

"I appreciate that the presentation (and) discussion is really about making fares simpler and fairer," Matute said. 

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