$5 for an F-line Ride? Open Letter to Nat Ford

On behalf of Market Street Railway, I have sent the email excerpted below to SFMTA Executive Director/CEO Nathaniel P. Ford, Sr. All are welcome to borrow and elaborate on any of these arguments in your own communications with decision-makers on this matter.
Remember, the SFMTA Board gives initial considerations to its staff’s 2010 budget recommendations, including the proposal to raise F-line fares from $2 to $5, Tuesday, January 19 at 2 p.m., Room 400, City Hall.
You can reach Mr. Ford at (415) 701-4720 or by email nathaniel.ford@sfmta.com. You can register your opinion with the SFMTA Board members by emailing mtaboard@sfmta.com. You can also reach Mayor Newsom at (415) 554-6141 or by email gavin.newsom@sfgov.or. Your opinion counts.

To: Nat Ford, SFMTA
From: Rick Laubscher, Market Street Railway

There are many constituencies in San Francisco for the F-line, of which Market Street Railway is hardly the most important. But in a constructive spirit, we want to clearly convey the reasons we respectfully but firmly oppose this proposal.

The F-line is a core Muni service and should be treated as such.

Your staff’s presentation recommends raising the F-line cash fare two-and-a-half times to $5, “similar to the cable cars.” The clear implication of this is that your staff considers the F-line a tourist attraction more than a transit line. 

Yet your staff included the F-line in the Transit Effectiveness Program’s “Rapid Network,” described as “Popular lines [that]…make up the backbone of the system.” And your staff’s assumption that only 20% of fares paid on F-line streetcars are cash fares further reinforces the case that this is a line primarily ridden by residents.

The F-line is not a new line. It is the merging of two other Muni lines that go back more than 70 years each: the 8-Market and the 32-Embarcadero. As a prime advocate of that switch from two bus lines to one streetcar line, I know the goal of Muni staff at the time was to create a more attractive service than the buses provided, without driving up per-passenger costs. The F-line is far more popular with riders than those two bus lines were, and has clearly contributed to the economic vitality of Upper Market and the renaissance of The Embarcadero. Is this popularity a reason to multiply the fare 2.5 times?

The F-line is now the only Muni line now serving riders along most of the northern Embarcadero, home to thousands of San Franciscans. It is the neighborhood line of the Upper Market and mid-Market neighborhoods, providing accessible stops every block, which is important to both disabled and ambulatory residents along the route. Are wheelchair users and seniors who cannot afford the rapidly increasing prices of their Fast Passes now expected to pay $5 for each F-line ride, when, along much of the route, there is no alternative Muni service?

Would you currently be advocating raising the fares on the 8-Market and 32-Embarcadero buses if this more attractive service hadn’t replaced those lines? If not, what is the rationale for raising the F-line fare?

Collect the fares you’re already charging.

Because of current Muni practices, the F-line does not come close to collecting all the fares it currently should. The cars are so crowded that operators routinely tell people to board by the back door, forfeiting the fares from those who were prepared to pay cash. At other times, particularly weekends, fareboxes on some F-line streetcars simply get full and cannot accept more fares. Rather than take the streetcar off the street and leave a gap in service, passengers are simply allowed to ride free.

Many Muni operators (on all lines, not just the F) effectively give riders a free return trip by tearing transfers to allow several additional hours of riding time. These are all revenue-reducing situations that we have pointed out to your staff more than once over the years. We believe that if these situations were remedied, it would significantly increase F-line (and, if more broadly applied, Muni) revenues.

The F-line is cost-effective at its current fares.

SFMTA’s own data on per-passenger costs of each Muni line do not suggest that the F-line operates at a higher subsidy than many Muni lines. The F-line’s operating and maintenance costs are in line with other Muni modes, and certainly in line with the vehicles used on other Rapid Network lines.

If the proposal for higher F-line cash fares is based on relative subsidy costs, why are no other lines, including those with far higher subsidies, being considered for such differentiation?

Staff’s revenue assumptions from the fare increase are dubious.

Your staff report assumes that everyone currently paying the $2 cash fare on the F-line would also be willing to pay the $5 cash fare. This is palpably untrue.

Many residents in Upper Market dislike the Metro because of its unreliability and crowding and currently take the F-line instead. But to assume that all of them will accept a 2.5x fare increase on the F-line rather than gritting their teeth and walking down into the Metro is wrong.

Similarly, visitors will find other options. The F-line clearly gained riders when cable car cash fares went to $5 per person, with no discounts for kids. For a family of four, that means a cable car ride between downtown and the Wharf costs $20, while an F-line ride currently costs $5.50. But if you put the F-line up to cable car prices, many families will say no to Muni altogether and take cabs instead. Or simply not go. 

Demand elasticity has always been a major consideration in considering transit fare increases all over the world. Especially given Muni’s own very recent experience with the utter failure of the premium fare 74X “Culture Bus,” it is mind-boggling to me that your staff could assume no demand elasticity at all here, at least as far as the public presentation shows.

Different fares at the same Muni stops will slow down operations.

The cable cars do not share stops with other Muni lines. The F-line does, along much of Market Street. Numerous bus lines, whose fares are not being proposed for increases, share the same boarding islands. No matter how well you try to inform riders through signage, there will be significant confusion among both residents and visitors concerning two different fare structures at the same stop. This cannot help but delay service as riders get on, then off F-line streetcars once they learn of the fare differential, causing the streetcar (and buses behind it) to miss traffic signal cycles. We are just a few months into a major experiment to speed Muni service along Market Street by restricting automobile traffic that holds up buses and streetcars.  This change would undo the gains we’ve already made, and perhaps make Market Street surface transit service even slower.

This is not a theory. The reports we get back from our many members who regularly ride the F are quite clear about how easy it is to delay a bus or streetcar through confusion over fares.

“Let ’em buy a Fast Pass” is not an acceptable response.

The Muni staff response to the cable car fare increase several years ago was, “residents can keep their cable car fare where it was by buying a Fast Pass.” Unless you are a regular commuter, the Fast Pass does not pencil out. Many San Franciscans need transit mobility on a less regular basis. Many others might ride Muni regularly, but not enjoy the cash flow to make an upfront payment of the size of a Fast Pass on the first of every month. The F-line fare increase is especially discriminatory towards them.

Exceptionally high fares on the F-line hurt the city’s economic vitality.

The F-line carries perhaps the most diverse mix of passengers of any Muni line. The line is busy day and night, weekends as well as weekdays. There are few Muni lines carrying as many passengers after 8 pm as the F-line, or at Sunday noon. Many of these folks are on shopping, dining, and entertainment trips, residents and visitors alike. A five dollar cash fare discourages these trips, and is likely to cause many people to make different plans. This cannot help but impact sales tax revenues, from purchases of meals, products, and entertainment that no longer occur because of the cost of the ride.

Years ago, Muni ran what were called “Shopper’s Shuttles” on Market and Mission Streets to help stimulate local business. The fare was a nickel, back when the regular Muni fare was 15 cents. While such a discount to the regular fare may not be affordable today, how can there be any doubt that an F-line fare 2.5 times higher than any other bus or streetcar line will have the opposite effect — discouraging people from using the F-line and diminishing economic activity along the route. This isn’t just about tourist destinations or retail malls. Many small businesses on Upper Market benefit from F-line riders rolling past their doors instead of passing beneath on Muni Metro. A five dollar cash fare will drive many of those neighborhood riders into the subway, putting many neighborhood businesses out of sight and out of mind to them.

Penalizing a line that “people want.”

Since the proposal came out on Friday, I have received numerous emails from our members and friends who cannot comprehend the logic behind your staff’s proposal. Some believe your staff is just so jealous of the F-line’s success that they’re trying to kill it with ridiculously high fares. I do not share that view, given the prominence that SFMTA has given the F-line since its inception, featuring the streetcars in advertising, presentations, and other public outreach well above what their percentage of overall operation would suggest. Your staff clearly knows the F-line is Muni’s most positive “face” to its public. Yet, I understand the suspicions, because it is hard to find a more rational explanation for the staff proposal.

It is ironic that exactly at the time the Obama Administration reversed the Bush policy of discriminating against neighborhood-scale streetcar projects, this prohibitive fare increase should be proposed for the most popular existing community streetcar line in the nation. In fact, the New York Times chose to illustrate its story on this announcement with a photo of an F-line car at Market and Church. That story also gave prominent placement to a quote by Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood: “We’ll finally be able to make the case for investing in popular streetcar projects and other transit systems that people want” (emphasis added).

There’s no question, based on the fact that it has increased the ridership of its predecessor bus lines 2.5 times, that the F-line is a popular service that people want. The question I have is this: should the riders who made it 2.5 more popular than the buses it replaced be punished with a 2.5x fare increase?

In short, why is your staff proposing to punish success?

We certainly understand the current budget pressures on SFMTA. We do not expect, nor have we ever asked for, special treatment for the F-line. We only expected — and still expect —  that it be treated the same as the other Muni lines that SFTMA itself has defined as core to its operation. That starts with retaining the same fare structure as those other lines.

After reviewing this information, Nat, I hope you will consider removing this recommendation in favor of trying to increase F-line revenue through more effective enforcement of the current fare. As we have done for many years, Market Street Railway also stands ready to work with you and your staff to help increase operating efficiencies on the F-line and identifying other ways to help Muni and the City and County of San Francisco reap even more value from what is, as you know, the most popular transit line of its kind in North America.

Thanks in advance for your consideration.

Regards,

Rick Laubscher
Board Chair and President
Market Street Railway

Comments: 7

  1. Great letter, you make a lot of great points. Especially regarding how those of us who live in the Castro/Upper Market often use the F line when the subway has a meltdown.
    I hope they get rid of this idiotic idea of special pricing for certain lines and express buses. Raise the cost of parking permits, crackdown on fare scofflaws, raise the cost of tickets. Raising the cost of Muni rides and passes is terrible, especially in this economy.
    Hope they listen, but I am not optimistic.

  2. It’s a shame nobody at Muni gets basic economics like price elasticity like you do. How can they even think that cutting service and more-than-doubling the ticket price won’t change ridership, but parking is some kind of holy grail that has to stay as cheep as possible.
    Sooner of later cutting service and raising prices is going to make buying a car not just cheeper, but my only option. How exactly does this fit the “Transit First” policy?

  3. Wasn’t aware that Muni was planning this dumb move. I can see special pricing for express services (that’s done in many systems, including VTA which is what I use and where my husband works) and special service such as to Candlestick for 49er games, but the F-line is not a special service, but a standard route. What’s next, charging extra for Muni Metro as a “special service”?

  4. Good letter, and it appears the board came to its senses on this issue.
    If you are going to a business between Church and Van Ness, the F Market is really your only good option.
    I usually opt for the Metro because it is faster (if it doesn’t come to a halt), but I really appreciate having the F Market as an alternative.

  5. I meant to respond to a pointer in the first comment by “Upper Castro Resident.” There was some chatter after Caltrain started baby bullet service that they should charge a premium for those riders. I went to one community meeting and one of the people from Caltrain or the Peninsula Joint Power Board said they had run the numbers and determined that the baby bullet trains generated more revenue per passenger because people traveled across more zones on the baby bullet than on the local trains. Therefore, since they were generating more revenue in a shorter amount of travel time, there was no good reason to charge a premium fare.
    I think similar logic should apply to express buses. If I can ride all the way across town in 45 minutes for $2, how is that not better for the MTA than when I ride two locals, taking 90 minutes, for that same $2?

  6. Thank you for that letter, Rick.
    On my last visit to San Francisco, when boarding the F Line on
    lower Market in the rush hour, I was amazed at the crowds who
    just push into the cars via the rear doors. I saw this on buses as well. I always buy a pass, as I ride MUNI frequently, but still
    follow procedures and board at the front, showing my pass.
    If the operators can’t enforce the enter by front door rule, perhaps the F Line should become a proof of payment line.
    A dozen inspectors could easily earn their wages on Market Street.
    Lee Carlson

  7. I agree with Mr. Carlson’s comment above. I have also seen this happen on the F line, namely at the Pier 39 stop headed back to Market Street. But, a few years ago, I was on a J line LRV on Church Street, durning rush hour, and saw the same thing. People getting on thru the rear doors. Did they have a pass or a transfer? I don’t know. More inspectors are needed to stop this.
    I also agree with what Rick has to say in this letter. The F line is a neighborhood line taking people to, and from, their jobs downtown. If the fare is raised to $5, I’m sure they would take another means of transport. A $5 fare would make the F line a “Tourist” line as the Cable Cars currently are.
    PLEASE DON’T RAISE THE F LINE FARE!!!!

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