The Portola Pass: Free Transit for All San Diegans

Although San Diego MTS, the public transit system, caters to everyone, I think it's a fair assumption to classify the average transit commuter as someone with a lower income.  This is a fact not unique to San Diego, but fairly common in many cities in the United States.  While the rich white lawyer drives to work downtown in his Mercedes, the poor brown custodian is stuck on the bus.  Although income inequality is on the rise, perhaps something can be done to help shift the inequality in transit.

Andy Warhol has a great quote about equality in American consumption and how it is one of our defining characteristics:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

That's the great thing about taking public transit and walking:  if the richest man in San Diego takes the Trolley, he gets the same ride as the poorest.  A trolley is a trolley and no amount of money can get you a better trolley than the one the bum on the corner is riding.  And that poorest man can walk down the same sidewalk as the richest man. This isn't true with cars.  The poorest in our city can't even afford a car and are stuck waiting for the light to turn red so they can hope to avoid getting hit by that lawyer in his Mercedes speeding to work.  If we could create transit equality, we would have a happier city.

But setting aside happiness, we really have no choice but to increase public transit ridership.  Under the proposed Climate Action Plan, transit use is targeted to increase from 10% to 25% of the urban population by 2030.  According to one analysis, that means the City needs to get 116,000 more people on public transit every day.

So how can we do this, while also increasing equality?  What if we made all public transit free for all City residents?  Here is my proposal for the Portola Pass, and it's not as crazy as it sounds. 

Right now, San Diego MTS gets its funding from many different sources, but the system costs about $250 million to run annually, and about $95 million of that comes from passenger fares.  (MTS budget, page 17.)  I couldn't find a breakdown of how much of that comes from monthly passes (i.e., commuters) versus daily/weekly passes used by tourists, so let's just assume for now that it all comes from city residents.  A regional adult pass costs $72 a month for most people.

What if we replaced that fare revenue with a tax?  Now, just for purposes of discussion, let's side aside the fact that cities don't really charge an annual tax per head.  But let's assume the City could (in reality, the tax could some other form).  As of the last census, there were 1.3 million residents in San Diego.  But adding in other cities in the county covered by MTS, there are slightly over 2 million residents in the MTS region (San Diego, Chula Vista, Coronado, El Cajon, Imperial Beach, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, National City, Poway, and Santee.)

With these numbers, to recoup the $95 million in fare revenue, it would require a per capita tax of 48 dollars a year.  This is far less than the $72/month pass, which adds up to $864/year. But obviously more people will be riding transit, so let's double that to $100/year to give MTS another $100 million to run more trains. So for $100/year per person, we could have free transit for all. If we wanted to throw NCTD into the mix and all San Diego County residents, it only adds $18 million in fare revenue across a total of 3.2 million residents, resulting in an annual tax of $70/year to double the revenue.  Maybe this needs to be income-based, with a higher tax for higher tax brackets and subsidies for the poor but any way you look at it, $100/year for free public transit is a deal.

  Why do this?  First, to make it easier for low income residents to travel around San Diego to get to work and shop.  This new plan would reduce the cost of using transit every day by 90 percent.  Second, by giving everyone free transit, it will provide an incentive for everyone to actually ride transit.  If combined with an ordinance prohibiting employers from providing free parking for their employees, the cost of transit all of a sudden becomes much more appealing when compared to cars. Also, if any resident can simply hop on the trolley or bus when they want and don't have to worry about buying a ticket and figuring out fares, it is more likely that non-transit riders will take that first trip.  Once the comfort level increases, it is far more likely that residents will start riding the trolley more, resulting in a positive feedback loop that results in greater transit use in San Diego and also a more representative cross-section of the population riding transit.  Additionally, if everyone is forced to pay for it, there are going to be greater demands for better service.  All in all, it seems like free transit has a huge upside for a city like San Diego looking to cut down on cars and switch to public transit.

Other cities have tried this.  In Tallinn, Estonia, a city of a little over 400,000, a switch to free public transit increased ridership 10%.  An experiment in Paris providing for free transit caused traffic to drop 20-30 percent across the city.  How many drivers in San Diego would pay $100/year for 30% less traffic on the roads?

Faced with the need under the Climate Action Plan to increase public transit ridership and decrease the level of driving, the City is going to have to take radical steps.  Maybe this is one of them.