Fare integration is hard, concludes Bay Area Means-based Fare Study

In December, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Technical Advisory Committee received the first presentation on recommendations of the Means-Based Fare study.  The goal of the study is to make transit more affordable for low-income residents.

The study studied several options:

  • Discounted Fares and Passes
  • Pay-as-you-go regional monthly pass (also called an “accumulator pass”)
  • Cash-on-Clipper which could be used on any service

In the study’s analysis, “Cash-on-Clipper” ranked the highest, “Discounted Fares” ranked lower, and a “Pay-as-you-go” regional monthly pass ranked the lowest.   But the conclusions of the analysis were based on several self-fulfilling prophesies which entrench the region’s transit inequities.

means based fare recommendations

The report gives up on solutions involving regional fare integration based on the assumptions it makes going in.  The weighting of options gives high ranking to “administration and feasibility.” This includes technical feasibility and organizational feasibility.

The analysis rightly observes that a “pay-as-you-go” pass couldn’t be implemented using today’s Clipper technology.   The region is currently undertaking a process to upgrade the region’s payment system, and changes to fare structures are difficult and expensive using the current Clipper’s technology and contract.  The next-generation Clipper system is intended to allow the region to make fare changes more easily, but is not expected to be in place for another 3-4 years. So, instead of setting integration as a longer term goal, the study recommends against it.

Another knock against fare integration is that it is organizationally difficult.  To date, the Bay Area has made little progress on regional fare integration, because individual agencies are understandably reluctant to take the financial risk, even though integration would make the system more convenient for users and is likely to increase transit ridership overall.  This reluctance is factored into weightings that discount options with integrated fares off the bat.

Meanwhile, the region is considering an “RM3” next-generation bridge toll funding measure to raise money to improve transportation, especially across the bay.  Many transbay transit trips cross multiple agencies, so this could be a reasonable funding source for funding to backstop the fear of financial risk.

Lastly, the analysis presumes that observed behavior of low-income riders – making short trips on local bus systems – are based on the travel preferences of low-income residents, rather than shaped by the fare structure of the region’s transit system.

The report observes that “Among Bay Area transit riders, the lowest income riders make shorter trips than higher income riders, traveling less than one-third the distance of the highest income riders. Low income riders generally use local bus systems at higher rates while upper-income riders use the region’s long-distance transit modes at higher rates.”

However, this observation does not take into account that longer-distance, faster train rides are much more expensive than bus rides, and long trips on local-serving buses are extremely slow. The observation does not take into account the fact that low-income residents are likely excluded from opportunities for jobs, education, and health care that are farther away. This observation also does not take into account the fact that at least in some parts of the Bay Area, the working poor commute by car at a higher rate than higher-income commuters, because they are priced out of faster rail.

The representative, random-sample survey conducted by Palo Alto’s Transportation Management Association showed that service-sector workers commute by car at a rate that is double that of higher-income tech workers. Working poor households carry a disproportionate burden of the costs of owning, maintaining, and insuring automobiles. Pilot studies show that discount fares can help a notable share of service workers to take fast rail instead of driving.  

Excluding low-income workers from fast rail is likely to have worsening consequences as displacement continues due to the housing affordability crisis.    A recent study by Urban Habitat shows that low-income residents, disproportionately Black and Latino, have been shifting from inner to outer parts of the region, and distances from work have been increased for people living in places with the highest growth rates of poverty.   Entrenching a fare structure where low-income workers are priced out of long-distance rail contributes to the burden of displacement.

A flaw in the study’s methodology is that it looks at the behavior of people who currently use transit, and does not look at the behavior of low-income people who drive or who forego opportunities. The assumption is that low-income people are already taking transit, but that is not the case, as can clearly be seen by the region’s 12% transit mode share.

As next steps, the Means-Based Fare Study will be reviewed by a variety of MTC committees and transit agencies.  If you would like the Clipper board and MTC to give more consideration to fare integration options with a more ambitious, longer-term, roadmap of that address the exclusion of the working poor, including funding to backstop financial risk, send a note to transit leaders on the Clipper board, and key staff:


Clipper Executive Board
Muni – Ed Reiskin – ed.reiskin@sfmta.com
BART – Grace Crunican -GCrunic@bart.gov
Caltrain – hartnettj@samtrans.com
VTA – nuria.fernandez@vta.org
AC Transit – contact@alamedactc.org

Transit Agency Boards
Muni – MTABoard@sfmta.com
BART - BoardofDirectors@bart.gov
Caltrain board@caltrain.com
VTA - board.secretary@vta.org
AC Transit - boardcomments@actransit.org
Golden Gate - DistrictSecretary@goldengate.org

MTC staff
Melanie Choy – mchoy@mtc.ca.gov
Andrew Fremier – afremier@mtc.ca.gov
Bill Bacon – wbacon@mtc.ca.gov
Carol Kuester -ckuester@mtc.ca.gov

Please send us a copy at friends@friendsofcaltrain.com, and share more thoughts in comments.

Newer update.  The March Clipper Executive Board meeting is Monday, March 20, at 3:30 at Caltrain/SamTrans HQ, 1250 San Carlos Ave, San Carlos.

Update: the Clipper Executive Board is meeting on Monday, Feb 27 at 3:30pm at BART HQ,  344 20th Street, 3rd Floor Oakland CA, 94612 BART Board Room.   There isn’t a specific agenda item on fare integration, but you can come and give public comment toward the end of the meeting.  If you can make the meeting, let us know at friends@friendsofcaltrain.com