Despite the most recent furor about eliminating all fares on San Francisco Muni, the Chronicle recently reported the completely unsurprising result that fare-free Muni would be, to say the least, a poor idea. The faulty underlying supposition was that in light of the fare evasion problem, Muni might not be collecting much more money in fare revenue than they spend collecting fares in the first place, and that perhaps it might make sense just to dispense with fare collection altogether. Of course, it does not make sense: Muni’s $112 million annual fare revenue is offset by spending just $8.4 million each year on collecting fares. What is more, the system could not successfully handle the increased ridership that would result from eliminating fares. Sharon Greene & Associates, the consultants who prepared a report for the city about fare-free Muni, estimated that the MTA would need to spend over half a billion dollars to add roughly 267 buses and streetcars to the fleet — but simply adding capacity will not solve the underlying problems. Indeed, additional trains would overburden the already suboptimally-operated Metro subway tunnel, and simply adding more buses to crowded streets will not increase service efficiency. And so, the idea of fare-free Muni is already fading into the distance — a vision that befits San Francisco’s transit-first aspirations, but will nonetheless remain a noble fantasy without a substantial plan underlying it that might bring it closer to reality.
But Mayor Gavin Newsom is not the only one with free transit on the brain. New York attorney, labor arbitrator, and environmental and transit advocate Theodore Kheel has also been thinking about it recently. And rather unlike the SFMTA, Kheel actually has a thorough, detailed plan that analyzes what would need to happen to make free transit a reality in New York City. His report (alert, hefty PDF there), which was released this past week, is well-timed, in light of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s recent approval of a fare hike for New York City subways and buses. The plan is centered on the creation of a congestion pricing zone in the Manhattan CBD, which has been the subject of debate in New York for awhile, and which is starting to be more seriously studied here in the Bay Area. Under Kheel’s plan, a 24-hour toll would apply to enter the island south of 60th Street — $32 for commercial vehicles and $16 for private autos. The plan includes a 25% increase on medallion taxi fares (amounting to about $340 million annually), although taxis would not pay the congestion fee. It would also triple the number of metered parking spots and increase curbside parking fees south of 96th Street (summing to about $700 million annually), to help minimize the number of people who drive into Manhattan and then scout lower parking rates uptown. The final result? Free subway, bus, and commuter rail service within New York City. All the funds drawn from these sources would be applied towards offsetting the loss of fares, and there would also be about $170 million in annual savings associated with halting fare collection.
But the benefits do not stop with free transit. Kheel estimates that implementing this plan would, throughout the whole day, increase subway trips by 18%, bus trips by 9.5%, and commuter rail trips by 17%. Trips made by private auto into the CBD would decrease by 27%, which would reduce traffic congestion by 25% in the CBD and 9% across the whole city. This change is equivalent to adding 230 miles of new lanes to city streets. In addition, even after offsetting the lost fares, there would still remain about $460 million available every year that would also be applied to transit — presumably towards maintaining a larger fleet, but hopefully also towards building bus rapid transit routes that would feed into the subway, thereby making the subway more accessible to Outer Borough residents who do not live near it.
A natural question to ask is how New York City’s notoriously overcrowded subways will handle an 18% increase in ridership, and the Kheel report does not neglect this point. The report mentions that 20% of typical weekday subway ridership into the CBD occurs in the crush hour from 8:00-9:00 am, but Kheel’s plan would not put excessive stress on the system even at morning peak. Implementing the plan would generate 28,000 additional riders in this hour time frame, but the estimates suggest that these new riders are more than offset by riders who will shift onto other modes. The assumption is that about 27,000 morning peak trips within the city will shift onto the free commuter rail lines, and also onto the buses that would attract new riders by traveling faster, thanks to decreased congestion and shorter dwell times. In addition, the number of bikers would almost double, both at morning peak and throughout the day. The increase in riders on the subway would be more prevalent during off-peak hours, when the system is better able to accommodate them.
Between the free transit, the substantial reductions in congestion, and the leftover money for transit expansion, Kheel’s plan almost sounds too good to be true, but the analysis is wholly transparent. Indeed, a spreadsheet is made publicly available, detailing the assumptions underlying the calculations. Or, if you would rather just cut to the chase, the Balanced Transportation Analyzer allows users to experiment with changing certain variables — such as the congestion fee, the northern border street of the congestion zone, the taxi surcharge, and others — to see how effective those changes would be in reducing congestion and collecting money to fund transit.
Readers may wonder why I have bothered to go into this level of detail concerning a plan that does not apply to the Bay Area, or even California. The answer is simple: I would like to challenge someone in charge here to do the same sort of bold analysis! Or, Mr. Kheel, now that you have gotten the New York plan just about wrapped up, how about taking a trip to the City by the Bay? Still, as much as I might admire the Kheel report for its sheer audacity — charging private autos a $16 fee at 3:00 am! — and for its unequivocally wholehearted boost of mass transit, my hunch is that his plan is too visionary and politically charged to emerge unscathed and be adopted either in New York or the more auto-centric Bay Area. In addition, New York City is lucky to have a far more extensive network of subway metro and commuter rail lines than the Bay Area. As a result, a congestion pricing scheme in San Francisco should emphasize transit expansion and improvement, rather than the provision of free transit, which was a primary focus of the Kheel plan. Our own congestion pricing plan must be crafted to match local geography and traffic patterns, but what I am really after here is this style of bold vision and seeing where it takes us.
In the final analysis, the Kheel plan reminds us of a crucial but too often overlooked fact: the fate of autos and mass transit are wrapped together; changing policy for one will necessarily have an effect on the other. Widening freeways and building parking garages while simultaneously advocating for improved transit service is counterproductive, and in some sense, hypocritical. Expanding our transit network and capacity is a worthy goal on its own, but making driving more expensive and less appealing than transit is yet another component of a broader policy plan to improve mobility. Our city streets are valuable resources that have limited capacity and are grossly underpriced; as a result, they are also overused. Rather than seeing the fees as punishment, congestion pricing should be viewed as a way to achieve a more reasonable balance of uses on our most congested streets, with the goal of making them more pleasant, accessible, and livable for transit rider, driver, and pedestrian alike.