Current mood: imaginative
This rather long essay is my own personal set of thoughts on how Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC, PAT) fare policy should be handled. Please wrap your minds around this, understand the depth of what I am getting at. I hate getting TL;DR'd. It's a complex idea. It has to be. But nothing could be more complex than what we have now.
Transit's biggest competition is the private automobile, and it is because of this that fare pricing models and relevant marketing should be directed squarely at getting people out of their cars. Equally important here is what the pricing models and marketing are not targeting: (a) the captive rider, and (b) the rider by choice. They're going to ride anyway, so don't waste any effort making it attractive for them. With what I will describe below, anything designed to make the fare payment system attractive for the non-rider will certainly be acceptable to them as well, if not outright desirable.
The key is simple: Make it intuitive, and avoid penalizing anyone.
Part 1. Eliminate zones and transfers. Pay to use the system, not each ride. Assuming a base fare of $2 (all these numbers are assumptions), that $2 applies to whether the rider uses one bus to get from Point A to Point B or four buses. Put a time limit on that $2, say two hours. If you have to get into a third hour, pay a third dollar. This simple formula will cover just about everyone's trip to work. Repeat for the trip home.
Part 2. Set a per-day limit. For sake of illustration, let's institute a $5/day per-person maximum fare. This will make the system very attractive to people, and for the majority of riders, will be a no-delta in terms of fares. For low-income people who have to make at least one transfer each direction, this works out to be a slight benefit, but part of this is built into Part 1 already. Who this really helps is the people with insanely long commutes with three or more transfers, who would be hitting that three-hour threshold each way. Remember, we are trying to avoid penalizing people who use the system. The primary reason I can see not wanting to do this is homeless people who do nothing all day but ride buses. If it costs them $5/day to do this, that will keep a good many of them out of the system. For those who can afford to, Port Authority is at least getting $5/day out of each of them.
Recall that under the TDP arrangement, transfers will be required more often. Doing the above reduces that hit. Making the maximum daily cost a fixed fare allows the motorist not currently using the system to compare directly the per-day cost of transit vs. driving, be it from parking, fuel or whatever.
Part 3. Set per-week limits. Since there are five working days in most people's working weeks, the per-week cost should not exceed 5x the daily cost, so $25/week in this illustration. Customers who have six- or seven-day needs will thus not be penalized. This too encourages people to avoid getting or using the (additional) car, since their travel costs are already built into their five-day costs. Note that this is similar to the current cost of a weekly pass.
Part 4. Similarly, set per-month limits. Since there are 22 working days in most months (February only has 20), set the per-month max to be 21x or 22x the daily cost, or $105 or $110/month. Note that this is similar to the current cost of a monthly Zone 2 pass.
Part 5. Irregular usage. All of the above amounts to a course correction based on the current system, but the current system does not handle well the part-week rider, the part-month rider, or the person with irregular usage habits. The visiting relative in town from Friday to Tuesday would need two weekly passes, deterring buying any. Riders who pay for a Sunday-to-Saturday pass, only to find out they're being sent out of town Wednesday through Friday, and the rider who goes on a two-week vacation from the 15th to the 30th, and who thus lose half the benefit of buying a weekly or monthly pass, are penalized for their non-use of the system. This deters people from buying fare.
Therefore, the fare system needs to be able to detect non-usage of the system. The weekday rider who paid for a week's usage, Sunday to Saturday, and then doesn't ride from Wednesday on, ought to have those Monday and Tuesday uses treated as per-day usage, and carry forward the unused remainder of that weekly subscription to some future time. The current setup, which has a built-in "expiration penalty", keeps a lot of people from buying transit fare, and so in turn causes the system to seem hostile and uninviting. This in turn fosters the loss-of-ridership spiral.
Again, what you're trying to accomplish is to make the system simple, intuitive, inviting -- not complex, penalizing, hostile. The transit system needs to appear to be a clear, preferable alternative to the private automobile. In all cases, the fare system should appear to "do the right thing" -- be fair, not eat your money, not charge you for services not provided, and yet on the other hand to charge a fair price for services you do use. The system needs to be able to sell itself, needs to be attractive enough to sell itself. It's already far less costly to use transit than drive, but both scheduling and fare complexities promote that hostility. With a new fare system, we have the opportunity to remove a large piece of this hostility.
Part 6: Avoiding The Transit Paradox. To be avoided as best as can be accomplished is The Transit Paradox, to wit, that the more that people ride, the more it costs Port Authority to provide each ride, because even with the buses crammed full at rush hour, the fares do not and cannot pay the full cost of operating the system; service is added to handle the load, thus increasing the operating cost even more.
The point is to get people to buy fare, not get people to ride. Now we get more into marketing, which I consider more an art than a science. To avoid the Transit Paradox, get people to buy fare whether they ride or not -- while simultaneously appear to be not charging them for rides they are not taking. *That's what marketing is.* Marketing is creating a state of mind where people will pay $1 for a bottle of water identical to what they can get at a water fountain for nothing, and then throw half of it away anyway.
Owning and maintaining a car costs easily $5,000 a year, probably more like $10,000. An annual bus pass is currently $1,155 for Zone 2. Yet the perception is that transit is expensive, and for many other reasons is considered undesirable. Marketing can fix some of that, but the fare policy needs to be a piece of that, needs to do its own part of selling the idea of using transit.
The fare policy must encourage people -- non-riders especially -- to pay into potential use of the system, not actual use. Encourage long-term subscriptions: one-month, three-month, six-month, 12-month plans. People will (somewhat) happily shell out over $300 for one trip to the mechanic. You want to take that $300+ and give it to PAAC for use of the system for three months, and longer if not used in three months. Unanswered here are other objectives such as scheduling, timeliness, etc., so stay on topic, just deal with fares. Those other things matter but not in the current discussion. You want to get fares to be a non-issue. $300 is one car payment, or three months insurance, or a month-maybe-two parking Downtown, or one brake job, or two months gasoline -- OR -- forget all those things and use the bus for three months. Three months riding is equal to one of each of those other things ALL of which you have to pay for if you're NOT on the bus. So don't get that 2nd car, get a bus pass. Start off simple, $5/day, $25/week, until you get used to it. Stave off that car purchase or replacement as long as you can. That's the philosophy PAAC needs to get across, and to get it out to *non-riders* especially. Get them to buy into the idea of transit, 2 or 5 or 25 or 300 dollars at a time.