Transit agencies -- allow a discount for people who travel together for ordinary trips.

Transit is of course more efficient than private cars, many people on one vechicle. But because a round-trip for a couple or family involves buying 4 to 8 single tickets, couples and families who have cars will often take their cars unless parking is going to be a problem. For example, for us to go downtown it’s $6 within SF. For people taking BART from Berkeley or Oakland it’s $13.40 for 2 people. Makes it very tempting to take a car, even if it costs a similar amount (at 35 cents/mile, 15 of those for gasoline in a city) for the convenience and, outside of rush-hour, speed.

So even if transit is the winning choice for one, it often isn’t for 2. And while 2 in a car is better than 1, an extra 2 on transit during non-peak hours is even better for traffic and the environment.

Many transit agencies offer a one-day family pass, mostly aimed at tourists. There may be some that also offer what I am going to propose, which is a more ordinary one-way or return ticket for groups of people living at the same address, that is sufficiently discounted to make them do the transition from car to transit.

This isn’t trivial, we don’t want drivers to have to check addresses on IDs as people get on the bus. They can check a simple card, though. For example, people could get a simple, non-logged card with their photo and some simple word, symbol or colour combination, so that the driver can tell right away that all the cards were picked up together. (For example they could all have the same randomly chosen word on them in large print, or 3 colour stripes.)

The household/family fare would be only available outside of hours where the transit cars get loaded to standing room. Past that point each rider should pay, and driving is usually rough anyway. Passengers could board, show their matching cards, and get reduced, or even free fares for the additional people. The driver could look at the photos but probably only needs to do that from time to time. (Mainly, we would be trying to stop somebody from getting a set of household cards, and selling cheap rides to random people at the stop with them. Not that likely an event anyways, but random photo checks could stop it.)

It’s harder to manage at automatic fare stations as found on subways. There you could get more abuse, but it might not be so much as to present a problem. The main issue would be homeless people “renting” card sets to groups of people who arrive at a turnstile. (At fancy pay-to-pee public toilets in SF, the homeless were given unlimited use tokens. Better that than have them urinate on the streets for lack of a quarter. They promptly got to renting these tokens to tourists wanting to use the toilets.)

If you’re not too worried about abuse, family tickets could simply be purchased in advance from a desk where they can check that everybody is in the same household. The adults would have to show (easiest for couples) but they need not bring the kids, who already get reduced fares as it is, though in the household ticket they would probably be free.

I presume some transit agencies already do this since the one-day passes are common enough. How do they work it out? Is it aimed at locals rather than tourists? Do they assume locals close to the transit line get monthly passes?

Proof-of-payment

Your scheme would work great on 100% proof-of-payment without controlled access systems like Caltrain. Group tickets would almost be no harder to spot-check than normal tickets.

I see little reason to limit group purchases to address sharers. Just allow multiple ticket purchases at a discount on the spot. Who cares if strangers get together to purchase at the last minute? We're talking times with excess capacity.

No strangers

Because transit agencies all run in the red and need revenue. You want a system that brings people onto the bus who would not have come on at full price — ideally enough of them to make up for the household pairs who already were riding together. (Though not quite since you have goals of reducing cars on the road here too.)

They use proof of payment here on the streetcars, but some evidence suggests there is massive cheating. Sometimes I’m the only one who pays it seems. Does everybody have a monthly pass?

Of course you'd want any

Of course you'd want any tweak to increase revenue. Allowing strangers to do on the spot group purchases would effectively lower prices during non-peak times, conceivably increasing revenue through more sales. And I suspect due to coordination problems most group purchases would not be made with true strangers. However it seems that even free transit does not increase ridership much (one data point -- "spare the air" free days only bring in 8-10% more riders) so I suppose one has to be extremely careful with discounts.

Caltrain would be a little easier than Muni Metro because the former already has the concept of multi-ticket purchases in their vending machines. Muni is so slow and uncouth I'd rather walk, but that's neither here nor there.

Cheating Stats?

Do you have evidence or references for the cheating claim? My experiences with proof systems (San Diego, Munich, Rennes, Antwerpen) is that there is moderately frequent checking and I've only seen one cheater (in Munich) once. Everyone else has had their proof when the inspectors came through. N.B. Don't cheat in Munich. It's an on the spot 50 or 100 Euro fine. The cheater was quite unhappy because he was a Frenchman who had merely misunderstood the instructions.

I do recall but can't find the reference to the cost analysis for San Diego that the cost of automated enforcement (gates, barriers, etc.) was much more than the loss due to cheating.

There is a strong cultural and local environmental component to cheating. I doubt proof systems would work somewhere like NYC or Paris now that the gate/barrier systems are so entrenched and with the let's see how we can beat the system attitude of many users.

Long-Distance Travel, Too

I've had this idea occur to me, too (although not in quite as much detail as you've outlined). As Mike Linksvayer mentioned, free days on public transportation don't attract many extra people. (This may be due to it being viewed as a one-time, special event--perhaps if transit were free for a long period of time--say, several months--permanent ridership might grow as people would eventually get used to going without their cars.)

In any case, I think the real gains might be seen on long-distance trains. A group of people can put up with a few extra dollars to avoid the hassle of parking or driving in downtown Boston/New York/Washington, but no family of four would seriously consider spending $1200 on Amtrak tickets when the cost of gas is far less. Even for out-of-towners, a $50-per-day rental car plus a one-way drop fee is probably a better deal than a one-way Amtrak ticket. But if Amtrak offered a family or group fare, I think many more people would consider it as a viable replacement for their cars (and if the group price were substantially lower than airfares, some families might choose it over air travel).

I doubt that anything would ever cause Amtrak to turn a profit (as far as I know, even European railways, which have consistently high load levels due to the high cost of gas and the city layout centered around public transportation), still need subsidies. But most of Amtrak's routes have abysmally low load levels and anything they can do to increase ridership--even reducing fares--would probably increase revenue. (Amtrak could still charge a premium on high-density routes like the Acela Express.)

Subsidies

Note that almost all transportion is heavily subsidized. Cars are given a giant road and highway system, and free or cheap parking almost everywhere, plus laws requiring all builders to include such parking in all buildings. If gas taxes went to pay the true cost of this (and the cost to the atmosphere and planet) then we could say cars don’t get giant subsidies. (Some cars like the Prius get an extra subsidy, though it may simply compensate for burning less gas.)

Right now in most American cities, and even outside, transit is too often slower or less flexible or even more expensive than the perceived cost of driving (namely parking and gas) even for one person, and often for 2 or more. The main goal is to fix that where we can. I took the free streetcar on one of the spare the air days, but of course many still drove.

Current Amtrak Load Management practices

Amtrak already has a variety of load management pricing schemes in place. A trip between Boston and NYC has base prices ranging between $54 and $95 (before adding in special discounts, group discounts, first class supplement, etc.)depending on time and day of week. This practice is hated (for no obvious reason beyond their general hatred of rail travel) by the Republicans and every year of the Bush administration the Amtrak funding bill has included a section to eliminate this practice. Every year it gets amended out and the load management continues.

As for "abysmally low" you should check the ridership statistics and not the press releases. Ridership varies widely by route, and for several years has been increasing steadily on the popular routes. The Acela routinely runs sold out at peak travel hours despite the price differences. (I use it. It's a business expense, still cheaper than flying, so I don't care that I pay top price. It's the tourists that time shift.)

Amtrak does have a small group discount policy for groups of 4-6. The availability is limited and percentage discount varies. They do try to sell those empty seats. It is not available on Acela, which is no surprise given the frequency that Acela sells out.

The Genie Grants Your Wish

BART will allow two children (12 and under) to ride for free with a paying adult every Saturday this month.

(details)

You are right on the mark!

Some transit agencies do offer family passes. It’s done in different ways. Moose Jaw transit offers a discount if more than one pass is purchased per household (http://www.citymoosejaw.com/departments/transit/index.shtml)
Other cities offer family passes, but only for special events or evenings and weekends. See also http://www.catabus.com/ssfares.htm and Toronto transit.

Sadly, we don't seem to be a very family friendly country.

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