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The inequity of pay-by-distance transit in the Bay Area

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“BART is more or less unaffordable for anyone making minimum wage, or on fixed income”

Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

Gina, an artist living in Oakland, estimates that about 20 percent of her income goes to transit. Her commute—from 19th Street Station in Oakland to the Embarcadero in San Francisco, five days a week—crosses the bay, which ups her fare from the $2 base to $3.50 for a one-way ride. This adds up to roughly $1,700 annually, just for her rides to and from work.

According to Gina, BART’s pay-by-distance fare policy disproportionately affects low-income commuters:

“Most people who are from [low-income] neighborhoods have to travel for work,” says Gina (who asked that we use her first name only). “Most well-off people can afford to live near their place of work.”

She adds that this fare structure could “deter people living in low-income neighborhoods to go outside of their neighborhoods.”

Like Gina, Mark Rogers Nelson, who currently works as a handyman, used to commute regularly across the bay—until he wound up temporarily homeless about a year and a half ago.

“Before I was homeless, I had been injured, and my access to money and resources was limited,” says Nelson. “There were plenty of times I used all the extra money I had so I could cross the bay.”

Nelson was homeless up until recently, and he remarks that he often got “stuck on one side” of the bay during this period because of BART’s high fares.

“At one point I was caught hopping the gate by a BART cop, and I ended up in Santa Rita Jail for four days,” says Nelson. “It was traumatizing and completely unnecessary.”

As a person with disabilities, Nelson eventually found out he was eligible for a reduced-fare BART card; now he pays about $1.25 to cross the bay. However, given his experiences, Nelson thinks it’s “obvious” that BART’s fare structure is not equitable.

“BART is more or less unaffordable for anyone making minimum wage, or on fixed income,” he says.

Public transportation systems are a cause of frustration in many major American cities. Lack of public funds makes public transportation often limited, unreliable, and too expensive.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (aka BART) works differently from transit systems in other major metropolitan areas in the United States. While the New York MTA, the Chicago “L,” and the Los Angeles Metro charge a flat fare to ride anywhere in their network, BART is one of three rapid-transit systems that charge passengers by distance. (Washington, D.C.’s WMATA and Philadelphia’s PATCO are the other two.) As the Bay Area gentrifies rapidly, those pushed farther away from the city center have found themselves paying double to get to work.

Is BART really a commuter rail?

BART has always used a distance-based fare structure. The system began service in 1972 with the same type of fare gates and “magnetic stripe tickets” that D.C. later implemented, allowing the system to record passengers’ entry and exit points and charge them based on distance traveled.

In the midst of a housing affordability crisis, Bay Area residents continue to face displacement from rising rents and gentrification, with no shortage of stories about supercommuters who travel hours each day to reach their jobs in the city.

To get a better idea of the burden BART’s pay-by-distance fare structure puts on residents increasingly pushed further away from the city center, this interactive map details transit costs between each BART station and the Embarcadero, the most popular station in 2017. The map also shows median income in each area.

Visualization by Sam Raby via Leaflet | Map tiles by Stamen Design (under CC BY 3.0) | Data from BART, IPUMS NHGIS, University of Minnesota, OpenStreetMap (under ODbL) | Powered by Esri.

Unsurprisingly, the highest cost burden falls on the lowest-income earners. A median-income earner living near Balboa Park would pay $80 a month to commute downtown on BART five days per week—less than 1 percent of their annual income. Someone from the city of Richmond would pay $192 a month to commute to the same place, costing a median earner 6 percent of their annual income.

And while the median income of the Bay Area Metro is around $97,000, more than 50 percent of workers in the Bay make less than $50,000 a year, according to the most recent census data. Given these disparities and the current affordability crisis, why does BART continue to use the pay-by-distance structure?

BART claims that “Shorter-distance riders would unfairly bear the burden of the trips taken by daily, long-distance riders.” Both transit authorities argue that the most fair way to charge riders is by frequency and duration use.

Jim Allison, media relations manager for BART, told Curbed that “BART is a combination heavy rail/regional rail commuter system,” making it more comparable to commuter rails like New York’s Long Island Railroad or LA’s Metrolink, both of which charge zone-based fares.

Allison has a point: BART is the regional cousin to San Francisco’s own transit agency, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni. Muni is a network of light-rail trains, streetcars, and buses that serve commuters within San Francisco city boundaries. Muni uses a flat-fare structure and offers a half-price monthly pass called Lifeline to “qualified customers on a limited income.”

Muni also has greater ridership than BART: In 2016, BART served roughly 430,000 riders on an average weekday, while Muni clocked in around 700,000.

Incremental change and a need for consistency

Spanning nine counties and 101 cities, the Bay Area’s unusual geography has led to the formation of 24 transit agencies operating separately in the area.

In an effort to ease the burden on low-income riders, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the transportation planning and financing agency for the entire Bay Area, is pushing for region-wide system reforms. In its 2015 Means-Based Fare Study, the commission proposed a fare discount program for low-income riders that could be implemented across multiple transit agencies—including BART—along with revenue-generating strategies to subsidize it. In May, MTC approved a pilot program for BART (along with Muni, Caltrain, and Golden Gate) to start offering a 20 percent fare discount for low-income riders—subsidized by MTC along with some state funding.

However, as director of programming and allocations Anne Richman says, “Transit boards have the authority to set their own fares.”

Variation among the 24 transit operators in the bay makes fare reform difficult, says MTC. “We’d love to have some geographic, regional consistency, so that whether you board a bus in Santa Rosa or a train in Gilroy, it would all make sense,” says senior public information officer John Goodwin. In the context of the Means-Based proposal, a flat-fare structure simply would not work for some networks, while a low-income discount would theoretically be possible across all agencies in the region.

Two decades ago, MTC introduced the system that would become the modern Clipper Card nearly 20 years ago, the “all-in-one transit card” you can use to pay fares on 22 systems in the bay. Goodwin admits that the implementation of that program was a “missed opportunity for bringing regional fare consistency.” However, transit agencies fear that fare reform through the Clipper system could potentially cut revenue.

And while fare reform for low-income Bay Area riders may be in the works, Richman reminds us that “any kind of discount will require either a subsidy or some other revenue source to sort of make it up to the agency.”

What’s the answer?

Defenders of the pay-by-distance structure tend to consider it more equitable than a flat-fare system, as riders pay based on how long they use public transportation.

Yonah Freemark, MIT doctoral candidate and writer for the Transport Politic, considers this argument a “very simplistic understanding” of economics.

“Transportation is not a good people necessarily want to be spending their money on,” says Freemark, “Nobody willingly wants to travel 50 miles on BART every day … and the people who are doing it are doing it because they have to for some obligation.”

It may actually be the very idea of the “commuter rail” that put in place this understanding of transit as a commodity.

“This idea that there is something called a commuter rail where you’re charging people by distance ... is in and of itself part of the problem,” he says. “The very clear assumption there is that if you’re traveling more, that means that you’re living in some far-off suburb and you’re rich.”

According to U.S. Census data, that assumption is not always true for San Francisco. While a median-income household in Marin or San Mateo county earns more than one in San Francisco, the median incomes of the other surrounding counties—Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Napa, Sonoma— are all less. Outside of San Francisco, 32 BART stations serve Alameda and Contra Costa, while only six serve San Mateo.

It’s also important to note that systems we’d consider “commuter rails” can and do exist with affordable flat fares. If you live in Île-de-France, the Connecticut-sized region around Paris, a 76 euro-per-month pass grants you unlimited access to nearly all modes of transportation across the region. Of course, such a pass requires extensive subsidies from local governments.

Which brings us to our next question: Who should pay for the transit system to be affordable?

For Harold Stolper, senior labor economist at the Community Service Society and co-author of The Transit Affordability Crisis, the problem lies not with the fare structure itself but with the amount of outside support for low-income riders. He argues that there should be discount programs, “not something that the transit authority should fit the cost of [but] anti-poverty policy that the city should pay for.”

A good example of this is Seattle’s Transportation Equity Program, which funds reduced-fare cards for eligible low-income commuters “through a 0.1 percent sales tax increase and a $60 Vehicle License Fee increase.”

Yet, as Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, points out, there are still things transit agencies can do to cut costs and make commuting more affordable. Instituting an “open payment system,” where riders can use alternative methods to pay fares, “saves transit agencies millions of dollars by not having to produce all of these fare cards, and it gives people an opportunity to take transit more easily,” says Kaufman.

As these experts point out, there’s not one fare structure that’s absolutely more equitable than another. Systemic changes need to be made both within transit agencies and outside of them to ensure folks who rely on public transportation can actually afford it.

“The fact that the land use of our cities is discriminatory is not the fault of BART or the MTA,” says Freemark. “Yes, we should be rethinking our fare system, but does that mean that BART should be the one that pays for that change? Maybe not. Maybe it should be, you know, the city of San Francisco and the state of California.”