BART may give away 1 million free weekend tickets to boost ridership

BART is debating promotional fare-breaks on weekends and evenings in a bid to lure back millions of lapsed riders.

BART is debating promotional fare-breaks on weekends and evenings in a bid to lure back millions of lapsed riders.

That includes distributing roughly 1 million annual free weekend tickets, the favored idea among a suite of proposals presented by BART staff to the BART Board of Directors Thursday at their annual workshop.

Those proposals have not been finalized, and will likely come back to the board for further discussion, staff said.

The agency’s ridership has dropped by roughly 10 million in the last four years on nights and weekends, transit officials said at a BART Board of Directors workshop Thursday, hurting BART’s bottom line.

In the long-term BART is adding new Fleet of the Future trains and addressing “quality of life” concerns like cleanliness to lure riders back to the system in off-peak hours, like evenings and weekends. But in the short term, the agency is considering some rider promotions, BART Director of Marketing and Research Aaron Weinstein told the board Thursday.

These ideas all broadly involved discounts. Proposals include discounted weekend Clipper fares, weekend flat fares on round trips, doubling the number of free weekend tickets BART gives away, and even simply opening the faregates — and not charging a dime — on selected Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to noon.

Weinstein favored doubling the distribution of weekend promotional tickets. BART already distributes 500,000 free weekend tickets annually.

It’s also the easiest option to implement because it doesn’t involve any technological hurdles, he said.

“It’s the most viable in the short term,” Weinstein told the board. “It’s not as attractive as the other ideas but it’s the one I’m recommending.”

While BART may shell out $680,000 to double its number of free weekend tickets, this only costs BART 15 cents per dollar because it generates more rides, which puts more money back in BART’s pocket.

BART staff also want to try a number of promotions like discounted BART rides to special events, but staff said they require new technological options in the long-delayed Clipper 2.0 update.

That last bit of info drew the ire of BART Board of Directors member Janice Li.

The “huge amounts of delays” to improving the Clipper system has “direct impacts on our ridership, and direct impacts on increasing congestion when folks use other options,” Li said. “It’s extremely important Clipper and (the Metropolitan Transportation Commission) understand they’re hurting the region when we can’t be as dynamic with our pricing structure.”

BART surveyed Bay Area commuters — who use many methods of travel — and asked them why they did not commute on BART. About 35 percent of people said BART wasn’t close to where they live, 29 percent said BART trains are too crowded, and 38 percent of people listed a combination of “quality of life” concerns including cleanliness, crime, and homelessness.

But weekend riders in particular prioritized those quality of life concerns, while also complaining that service is not frequent enough.

The drop in ridership on weekends and off-peak hours has dented BART’s revenue. BART’s midday ridership dropped one percent between 2018 and 2019. Staff noted 2019 midday ridership generated about $71 million in gross revenue.

Evening trips dropped 4.9 percent, Saturday ridership dropped 6.1 percent, and Sunday ridership dropped about 7.5 percent between 2018 and 2019.

BART also announced Thursday that its fare discount program for low-income riders starts May 1.

Riders earning 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level will be eligible for the discount program, which is a 20 percent reduction in full fare prices. The price of traveling from Downtown Berkeley to San Francisco would drop from $4.85 one-way to $3.85, for instance.

The discount is part of a year-long regional pilot program from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, with participation by Caltrain, Muni, and Golden Gate Transit. MTC and BART will split the program’s cost at roughly $4 million each.

But that won’t be the last discount to come at BART.

Fare discounts are a risky strategy for BART because they can take a bigger chunk out of the operating budget than at agencies, like San Francisco’s Muni, that are heavily subsidized by the cities they served. BART does not draw significant operating funds from city subsidies, with roughly 48 percent of its $947 million 2020 budget coming from fare revenue.

By contrast, Muni is funded roughly 17 percent by farebox revenues. That agency has long-offered a monthly pass featuring fare discounts, and discounts to youth, seniors, and people with disabilities.

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