Despite long run of ‘Spare the Air’ days, free transit remains a rarity

In response to weeks of unhealthy air quality caused by smoke from severe regional wildfires, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation...

In response to weeks of unhealthy air quality caused by smoke from severe regional wildfires, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency made Muni free for all passengers last Friday.

The poor air quality has continued, with Spare the Air alerts extended through Wednesday for a record-setting 30th day. But it’s unlikely the free rides will be repeated with any frequency.

Friday was not the first time local transit agencies had offered free fares due to air quality issues; for five years in the early 2000s, Muni, along with 33 other regional transit providers, waived payment on the first four “Spare the Air” days of the year, as determined by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commitment partnered with the District to reimburse the agencies for the foregone ticket revenues, with a goal of encouraging residents to fight climate change by taking public transportation without gutting earnings.

But funding ran out in 2009, and the pilot was discontinued.

The recent decision to provide free Muni for a day sparked conversation on Twitter, where some people questioned this pilot program’s discontinuation.

“What does it say about the seriousness of our climate change commitment when, 12 years later, we haven’t managed to fund the program again,” Danny Sauter, a Board of Supervisors candidate for District 3 and a community organizer, told the Examiner after posing similar questions on the social media platform.

These days, the response to poor air quality days has instead been geared towards ensuring access to Weather Relief Centers, shelters for those who can’t otherwise stay indoors, as opposed to reducing the number of cars on the road.

And it happens only rarely.

Last Friday’s call was made not by SFMTA, but at the direction of The City’s COVID-19 response center, officials said.

Before that, Muni fares were waived due to air quality concerns most recently for one day in November 2018 when similarly grave wildfires surrounded the region, causing smog to sit above San Francisco for days.

SFMTA officials say the cost of foregoing farebox revenues without reimbursement like the grant provided in the early 2000s would be too high, especially in the current moment of budget austerity .

SFMTA alone collected approximately $225,000 daily in single fare ride revenue before the pandemic, which excludes monthly pass customers. Fare revenues will be crucial to expanding Muni service as San Francisco recovers from the pandemic, agency officials say.

Still, many advocates say officials should use free fares to incentivize less-polluting transportation.

Spare the Air alerts are intended to curtail high-risk behaviors such as wood burning and driving, encourage most people to stay inside and prod travelers to consider taking alternative modes of transportation instead of cars.

The synergy between public transportation and the environment is straightforward: When people opt for buses or trains over cars, cumulative carbon emissions decrease.

Over-reliance on cars has contributed to both the dry, hot weather conditions that lead to fire seasons filled with devastating blazes, such as those now burning along the West Coast, and the increasingly hazardous air pollution.

“If we’re as serious as we are about reducing air pollution and carbon emissions here in the Bay Area, we should provide incentives for people to use low pollution public transit options instead of driving automobiles,” San Francisco resident Patrick Traughber, who also participated in the social media buzz, told the Examiner afterwards.

Though a growing share of commuters in the Bay Area do take public transportation, about 64% still drive alone, according to data from 2018, the most recent year it’s available.

That lopsidedness could worsen if public transportation ridership continues to stay well below pre-coronavirus levels and fails to return.

Last Friday’s decision to waive Muni fares didn’t result in a ridership bump, even by pandemic standards.

On September 4, Muni’s ridership was 147,600. On September 11, the day it was offered for free, that number was 137,00.

Both are down from an average of 500,000 weekday bus boardings on a comparable weekday before shelter-in-place started.

SFMTA officials said they’ll continue to partner with other agencies to further ensure Muni;s fare structure doesn’t prohibit anyone from taking the bus to reach one of the city-run weather shelters.

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