» San Francisco fights to speed up buses and trains by encouraging customers not to buy their tickets up front.
Unlike underground metros or elevated trains, road-running streetcars and buses suffer from a significant slow-down: The time wasted waiting for people to board. The process is dreadfully sluggish in cities with well-used transit systems as large numbers of customers at popular stops are forced to line up at the front door and swipe their tickets or pay their fares in cash. In most cases, customers are forbidden from entering the bus at the rear door, even if they have unlimited ride cards.
In dense cities, the result of these boarding difficulties are buses and trains that practically crawl down the street, even on corridors without much competing automobile traffic. In San Francisco at least, a solution is being studied: Allowing passengers to board at all doors, starting with a pilot program on the Muni Metro J-Church light rail line, which runs from downtown south into the Noe Valley and Balboa Park neighborhoods.
There’s nothing particularly controversial or revolutionary about San Francisco’s proposal. Indeed, the concept of allowing people to get on a transit vehicle at any entryway is is not only standard on most rail networks and a basic component of most bus rapid transit investments, but it is also already in place for some customers on San Francisco’s Muni Metro lines, which operate in a tunnel under Market Street downtown but for much of the remainder of their routes operate in shared lanes like streetcars. What’s different here is the goal to extend the process to all customers on all services.
San Francisco has some of the slowest transit speeds in the U.S., with the average Muni train or bus moving from place to place at a measly eight mph. Those slow speeds are an impediment to easy mobility throughout the city and discourage people from taking advantage of transit.* The causes of the slow speeds are multifarious: The fact that most rail and bus corridors are shared with automobiles, the high density of stops, and, of course, the requirement to board up front. The result have been disappointing reliability statistics: Most services arrive at their destinations on time less than 80% of the time.
Municipal officials have for years been arguing that Muni’s services require an upgrade, and the recent Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) recommended a number of measures to speed vehicles. Though corridors were analysed differently, the recommendations for the J-Church line (which carries about 17,000 riders a day) were broadly indicative of citywide principles: Increasing the distance between stops — there are currently five stops along the 3,500-foot section of track between 24th and 30th Street, for instance — and allowing all-door boarding. In order to do the latter, Muni will install ticket machines on the sidewalk at stops and require customers to have a proof-of-payment once they get on board at any door. People holding the Bay Area’s universal fare card Clipper can already do as much by tapping their cards at fare readers near the back doors on all rail, though not bus, lines.
Muni has installed card readers at the back of its buses in preparation for a greater roll-out.
Though the agency has not articulated just how much time it expects these trains to save along their route, it does expect to increase reliability as vehicle bunching caused by passengers lining up to get on board and pay will be reduced.
Advocates in San Francisco have been arguing for years that similar measures be extended to all routes, including buses, but the extent to which the city can rely on installing ticket vending machines at every bus stop is questionable. Not only are these machines expensive, but they require constant upkeep and supervision. The question is whether all-door boarding must rely on such on-street machines or whether there is an alternative.
Indeed, one of the great advantages of the Clipper Card — intended to be the fare media for the Bay Area and already useable on BART and AC Transit, among other agencies — is its convenience. It can be purchased in drug stores or by mail. It can be reloaded in train stations or online. Why is it necessary to have ticket purchasing machines at every corner? From a cost-benefit perspective, is installing hundreds of outdoor ticket machines any better than the existing system, where you must buy a ticket in line at the front of the vehicle?
There are other options: Some cities have allowed local merchants to sell tickets one at a time to customers without fare cards, sometimes with a slight markup. Others have coordinated sales with ATM providers, a particularly in-touch approach considering those machines’ ubiquity today. Agencies have encouraged the sale of ten-packs of tickets sold at slightly reduced prices so that customers don’t have to buy a new one every time they get on. In any case, in a city with as many stores and as much pedestrian activity as San Francisco, it is possible to envision a situation in which customers are not provided ticket machines on the street and are not allowed to buy them on board and go about their business just fine.
There are definitely some negatives related to the use of fully off-board ticketing. Fare evasion is already apparently a major issue in San Francisco, with many people either not paying to get on the bus or simply getting on through the back doors, no matter the law. These problems are likely to get worse as it becomes acceptable to board without paying. Either the city steps up vigorous on-board enforcement by police of Clipper Card validation and proof-of-payment from external ticket machines, or it will experience increasing criminality when it comes to fare payments. Considering the speed benefits the other riders are likely to experience, that may not be the worst thing in the world.
These are important issues for San Francisco because as the city works to improve its transit system, it will need to find ways to discourage ticket-buying on buses and trains. A roll-out to the entire network of buses is planned for later this year, if the trial on the J-Church goes as planned. If Muni develops a reasonable and cheap way to do so, it would be the model of every other city working to speed up its own transit network.
* It is interesting to note that while transit speeds are quite low on Muni, regional rail provider BART features some of the fastest speeds in the country thanks to the long average distances between its stops and an entirely dedicated right-of-way.
Image above: Route of Muni Metro J-Church Line, from Flickr user jdeeringdavis (cc)