Saturday, July 20, 2013

The prospect of a student pass program

The MBTA Rider Oversight Committee released an interesting new report on the prospect of an unlimited ride student pass that could be issued through universities to their population. If the university commits to bringing 100% of their student body into the system, then the MBTA can offer a steep discount for the passes. The author went through the trouble of interviewing and collecting data from three other cities: Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco regarding their student pass programs. The second part of the report considers using the revenue generated by the student pass program for funding late night bus service (a.k.a. Night Owl) and some other improvements.

My personal experience with student passes comes from Pittsburgh where I attended my undergraduate program. My freshman year, the university offered a $35/semester unlimited bus pass "sticker" to be applied to our ID card. I didn't know much about the bus system but it seemed to be a no-brainer: I took it. Apparently, many other people felt the same way, because the following year the sticker was automatically bundled with the ID, and that remains the case to this day. I never had to pay cash for an individual ride while I lived there and I began using the bus system quite regularly. Looking back, I realize that this was a pretty significant benefit. The monthly pass cost appears to be $97.50 now, although that is after several rounds of fare hikes and a complete system reconfiguration that happened long after I left.

I don't want to dwell too long on Pittsburgh because they have some other, more fundamental problems to deal with. The question is, should we bring this kind of program here? I believe the answer is: most definitely yes. Plenty of students are already using the T, as anyone who rides it can attest. The value proposition is tremendous, with the discount that can be offered. And the convenience is key. I remember it was always nice to know that a group of us could always easily hop on the bus because we all had passes linked to our IDs. We didn't have to think about it at all. It doesn't seem like much, but it makes a big difference.

I would also like to point out a quote from this article (see also: older article) which popped up last week, about Mark Aesch who found ways to turn a sputtering Rochester bus agency into a lean and self-sustaining success:
His biggest achievement came through securing partnerships with the community. Once bus service improved, Aesch sent out a sales force to college campuses, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and the like, and asked them to pay for the better service that now carried so many students and customers and residents through their corridors. Sometimes he drew a comparison to a utility: just as a housing development might pay the water bill for tenants, so too should it pitch in for transit.
Working out student pass agreements with local universities would fit right into this kind of mold.

Now regarding the proposal to fund Night Owl service this way: it's good that we're talking about bringing this kind of service back, but I'm not sure it should be tightly linked to "student passes" because that gives the impression that the service is primarily for students. It's not. It's for everyone, and it'll be a big boon to late-night workers who need a way to get home, as well as a tool to reduce incidences of drunken driving. That's not to say that we shouldn't use the revenue from student passes to help fund Night Owl, but it shouldn't be linked. Night Owl is a justifiable service that stands on its own. I already wrote about how Night Owl ought to be designed, so I won't go further into that right now.

The MBTA ROC report includes an Appendix D about fare evasion statistics collected by CTPS. The presumption seems to be that students are a prime suspect in fare evasion. Leaving aside whether that is a fair characterization, this marks the first time I've seen anyone attempt to provide hard data about fare evasion on the MBTA. However, I will push this topic to the next blog post because this post is already too long.

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