Depending on who does the talking, the six days of free Spare the Air rides on Bay Area Rapid Transit were either a triumph for public transit and smog reduction or a horror show on wheels. Most likely an accurate evaluation would include some of both arguments. However, the program should continue, although fine-tuning is required.
As far as the primary goal of reducing pollution-causing automobile traffic on bad smog days, the free rides were somewhat successful. BART says that 151,000 more riders than normal took the train during those six days, an average 8 percent increase. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District estimates that more than 700 tons of pollution were kept out of the atmosphere each day.
But this comes at a high price — namely, $13.6 million of our taxes spent by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to reimburse 26 participating transit agencies for lost fares.
Another underlying problem is that presently it is impossible to determine how many of those extra riders would have actually been driving if not for free fares, or even how much the lessened vehicle emissions actually contributed to reducing air pollution as compared to temperature and wind shifts.
For many riders, Spare the Air made the commute noticeably more unpleasant and unsafe than usual. With record-hot days and school out for the summer, BART police say they responded to 400 calls on July 21 — more than twice as many as the same day last year.
Looking for air-conditioning to beat the heat and a cheap way to pass time, many teens and even homeless persons went riding, overcrowding the train cars and central stations, littering and generally acting as rowdy and unruly as on bus routes carrying the after-school crowds.
A girl got stabbed in the face during a group altercation at a Berkeley station and there were reports of youths deliberately delaying trains at stations by jamming the doors open.
BART Police Chief Gary Gee is calling for Spare the Air free rides to be restricted to morning commute hours only, which was problem-free when tried previously. This definitely seems worth trying again next summer if the MTC funds more no-fare days. It would be enough of a discount to get people out of their cars while helping cut back on the number of freeloaders who would not be driving anyway. It would also make the annual funding go further.
On the other hand, the trial balloon sent up by a few politicians who suggested that public transit should be free all the time because of its public benefits is simply laughable, considering the unanswered questions and unresolved problems, not to mention the high cost.