A letter to the Mayor

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by Suzanne Shafer

This is an excerpt from a letter sent last week by Suzanne Shafer form the Bus Riders Union to Mayor Rothschild regarding this lame concept the bureaucrats refer to as “elasticity.”

From letter to Jonathan Rothschild 02-18-2014,

. . . how is the projected increase in revenue from fare increases being calculated? How much of this “hole” is it expected to fill?

. . . When I asked for the origin of the elasticity model used to estimate the effects of fare changes, Sun Tran staff didn’t know the answer. But several weeks later I got the reply from Mary McLain: “The industry model used is based upon a paper, entitled ‘Fare Elasticity
and Its Application to Forecasting Transit Demand,’ published in August 1991 by the American Public Transit Administration.”

Numerous literature reviews since 2004 have pointed out the shortcomings of this model, which is based on short-range studies of limited size conducted mostly in the 1970s and 80s. It’s a poor fit in today’s world where more people own cars, more are concerned about their carbon footprint, and bus fares take a higher portion of one’s income; where young people are less inclined to drive and older people are more numerous.

The old model tends to understate the long-term effects of fare increases on ridership, and to under-predict the pollution/congestion benefits of transit use. Price sensitivity is higher over the long term (over a period of five years, elasticity approaches 1.0, i.e., you can lose as much as you gain). It’s also higher at higher fares. So the next fare increase will likely have a greater negative impact on ridership than the last one. And it’s higher among riders who are not dependent on transit alone–the ones we all say we want to attract.

At the same time, we’re trying to shift riders to a new payment system (when riders were surveyed in September for the COA, the preferred payment mode was still cash) that, if widely used, will save operating costs and yield a great deal of useful data; introduce and integrate the modern streetcar; and adjust routing and schedules—meanwhile continuing to do a lousy job of communicating our service to new or occasional users. Raising the price of the service–and cutting frequency when increased frequency is the top rider-requested improvement–will only exacerbate the ridership losses.

Therefore we have no idea what will be the actual impact (+ or -) of fare increases on Sun Tran’s bottom line. But we can predict other impacts, if not their magnitude. Less spending money for riders. Less mobility for non-drivers; more cars on the road. More of a family’s
budget spent on transportation, whether it’s gas or bus fares. Work shifts missed. Young folks staying home. Parents skipping errands. These are things that shrink the economy.

. . . . TDOT marginalizes the bus system in every way. Why is parking
sold and managed by one agency that uses all the city communication channels available (slick ads by DTP, plenty of slots for brochures in the kiosk at City Hall where I can’t find a Ride Guide, a spiffy office open longer hours than the transit services office, notices about where to park on every jury summons and event flyer and ad infinitum) while the transit agency has a largely useless website, a tiny marketing budget, and no imagination?

The good ideas are out there; please stop threatening the bus system we have so we can focus our energies on helping you sell it to more Tucsonans, increase the proportion of riders paying the regular fare, thereby increasing revenue and improving the system along with everyone’s quality of life!

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