Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why Don't We Have This?

My readers are most certainly aware of the concept of the universal transit pass- everyone at a given organization or institution gets an all-access transit pass at no cost to them, and the institution pays a deeply discounted rate for said passes. Here in Riverside, college students at UCR, La Sierra, Cal Baptist, and the Riverside and MoVal campuses of RCC get these sorts of passes, as do City of Riverside employees. However, in Riverside, each of these agreements was negotiated separately, the terms of each of them are different, and the contracts have to be renewed individually on a yearly basis. In fact, the names of the various college passes are different: UCR's program is called U-PASS, RCC's GO-PASS, and I'm unsure about which name the other campuses fall under. If you're a large employer in the region who wanted to offer transit benefits to your employees right now, you would have to devote substantial staff time and resources to approaching RTA and developing your own unique agreement with them- something you're probably not likely to do. However, it benefits employers, employees, RTA and the region to develop these sorts of programs- employers and employees both get tax breaks, employers often see lower absenteeism, employees don't have to pay for their transportation, RTA gets a steady source of revenue, and the whole region benefits from better transit services, cleaner air, and fewer cars on the road.

Fortunately, there is a better model. Those who have read Donald Shoup's epic "The High Cost of Free Parking" will know that I'm talking about the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's Eco Pass program in the San Jose area. Organizations purchase passes for all of their employees on an annual basis. The passes are heavily discounted- the most expensive Eco-Pass agreement is $144/employee/year- and they entitle holders to use of every VTA transit service, be it local or express bus or light rail. The agency then provides support to the organization in the form of occasional on-site visits for promotions, personalized trip planning, and guaranteed ride home programs in case of employee or family emergencies. (A guaranteed ride home program already exists in Southern California, as a stand-alone program.)

But wait, there's more! VTA also offers Eco Passes to residential communities of 25 units or more. The most expensive pass plan would amount to a $20/month rent hike. Apartment communities, condos and homeowners' associations are allowed to buy passes for every resident over 5 years of age in their community, and those residents are then given a photo ID pass that entitles them to access to every VTA transit vehicle.

Even better than the benefits that occur directly because of the Eco Pass program are the ways that some cities in Silicon Valley are using these programs. Shoup cites Redwood City and Palo Alto as using the Eco Pass as a way to change the urban form of their communities. Properties that agree to provide Eco Passes to employees or residents gain substantial reductions to their minimum parking requirements, allowing them to build more housing/office space in less space. Compared to the cost of maintaining the parking spaces, the Eco Pass is often significantly cheaper, and it saves the cities from being blighted with yet more surface parking.

The three-tier pricing structure that Eco Pass uses appears to be tied in with how likely employees are to switch to transit: the heavily-served downtown area of San Jose is the most expensive, followed by areas within 1/4 mile of a light rail station (people are more likely to ride the train), and then everywhere else. If we were to set up a similar system in Riverside County, I suggest the following three categories: Downtown Riverside, Riverside/Moreno Valley, and elsewhere in the county. Also, our prices ought to be quite a bit lower than VTA's, considering the difference in service offered. For reference, a general VTA Express monthly pass runs $140, while our equivalent Commuterlink 30-day pass costs $75. If we accept the ratio of these two passes as the appropriate difference in cost for Eco Passes, we come up with the following pricing structure for businesses in the RTA service area. Keep in mind that these are ANNUAL prices, and none of them exceeds the cost of the equivalent 30-day pass:

RTA Business1-99100-2,9993,000+*
Downtown Riv.74.8856.1637.44

RTA Residential1-99100-2,9993,000+*
Downtown Riv.62.4046.8031.20

* I don't think that there are any employers or apartment complexes in the I.E. with over 15,000 employees/residents. I could be wrong, of course.

So RTA, your part is to establish this program, connect it to the existing Guaranteed Ride Home infrastructure, and offer it to employers and residential communities.

City of Riverside, you should provide incentives for developers and companies to sign their properties up with this program when they apply for permits, by reducing the number of parking spaces required, allowing density bonuses, and other no-cost zoning law changes that could really improve the urban form of our city.

How about it?


Chewie said...

Hey, you got featured on The Source!

Carter Rubin said...

Great story. Thanks for bringing this to my attention in LA. We could use the same program here too.