Club Transit

In a recent Streets.MN post David King and I argued that transit is usually best thought of as a club good, and the relevant club-members should be its users and potential users. We wrote:

Users should be financially incentivized to get season or annual passes (paid monthly with bank debits) and become “members” of the transit system rather than pay-as-you-go “riders”, which will encourage more usage, and many users to get subscriptions so they have the easy option of taking transit. As with many museums and zoos and other clubs, membership should be reciprocal, so joining the Twin Cities Transit System gets me “free rides” in Chicago or New York. This will increase the perceived ownership that passengers have for the service.

Many people pay for transit on a per use basis, either by cash or with a stored-value card. Others (in the Twin Cities 9.5 million rides of a total of ~71 million (which depends on what numbers you use) on Metro Transit) use a season pass for “unlimited” use (“unlimited” use still has limits, for instance in the Twin Cities you still need to pay for services > $3 per ride, i.e. Northstar). For instance, a Metropass is $76 per month (if you belong to an organization with 10 or more subscribers), and allows unlimited service. A U-Pass (for University of Minnesota students) is only $97 per (4 month) semester, with subsidy from the University. There are many options.

For the individual traveler, $76 per month is worthwhile at current fares if you make at least 34 peak trips (17 days per month) or 43 off-peak trips (22 days per month), i.e. if you are essentially a daily user for commute trips, or use it for a lot of non-commute trips as well.

Several (perhaps obvious) points:

  1. There are probably a lot of existing riders who would benefit from a Metropass who don’t get one (this would cost Metro Transit money);
  2. Possessing a Metropass would induce me to make more trips by transit (since the marginal cost of use would now be zero);
  3. At a relatively lower price, more people would get a Metropass. This may or may not increase Metro Transit’s revenue. This can be achieved either by lowering the price of the Metropass or increasing the price of non-Metropass use;
  4. We would expect more people to have passes than use the passes on the system every day (not every pass-holder need be a daily rider). People pay for the option of not having to think about price.

What benefits do clubs offer? Let’s look at the examples of other public institutions that use the club model: museums, zoos, public radio for some ideas:

  • Unlimited transit rides in your home city
  • Reciprocal unlimited transit rides in other cities
  • Free entry to the Minnesota Transportation Museum
  • Discounts from participating merchants and at events (sports games, shows, concerts e.g.)
  • A tote bag or mug
  • A newsletter or magazine
  • Two free taxi rides per quarter
  • Free parking! (At park and ride lots? In downtown?)
  • Eligibility to vote on governance (e.g. a Member’s Board which has input into real decision making)

I am sure the tote bag will be popular, but there are limits to the ancillary benefits of membership in an organization, the main thing has to be admission to the service that organization provides.
The more important aspect of membership is that it changes the perspective from being a customer to being a member if not owner of the system. As a member of a club, I want there to be more members, as it helps spread the costs and raises money for the services provided. I become an advocate for the organizations I join. I feel part of a “larger social whole.” I help maintain it, since it is my “property”. A lot of this is “reframing” but the psychology is important here, people act differently based on whether they feel they have real input into decisions and real effect on outcomes.
Some cities have Bus Riders Unions, but they are often at odds with the transit agency. Almost everywhere has an Automobile Association (Minneapolis and St. Paul each have one), about which I have warm feelings since they help start my car when the battery is dead, or change a tire, or tow it when something else breaks. Transit workers are members of their union. Even transit agencies are members of APTA trade association. I cannot find an example of a transit system that organizes and treats its riders as members.

Why shouldn’t riders be members of the non-profit organization that provides them transportation services on a regular basis? And why shouldn’t they help govern that organization?