Caltrain is packed, and its ridership growth shows no sign of abating. Meanwhile, the Caltrain system is struggling to make ends meet, often threatening service cuts.
This is madness. A service so popular that it cannot bear all the passengers also cannot pay its own bills.
The solution is three step: match demand to supply, then match supply to meet demand. In other words, Caltrain has a shortage of supply, so the price of a ticket needs to go up. With the extra money, Caltrain can make more supply and serve more people. Everyone wins. It’s possible Caltrain could even approach the break-even point, if it structured its fares and service right.
But wait a second, replied some after I tweeted this. Caltrain has a huge, growing ridership, and that’s a good thing. Shouldn’t we lower fares to make more people get on the train, not discourage people by raising fares?
While more ridership is definitely good, Caltrain could serve even more if it had better service. People aren’t just driven away (or attracted by) price. Service frequency, crowding, travel time – people weigh these factors when deciding whether to drive or take transit.
By keeping service where it is, we leave behind those potential riders who are sensitive to issues other than price. And, by relying on unreliable government funding, Caltrain may never have to funds to increase service to the point where it can meet all the potential demand.
The one area where we need to be sensitive to price is when transit functions as a social service to the poor. Yet even here there are better ways to support their needs than subsidizing fares for everyone. Direct fare subsidies, a “food stamp” for transportation, or some other program would allow Caltrain to raise fares for most people without screwing over those with lower incomes. On top of that, it would give everyone, from the tech millionaire to her kids’ teacher, a better, more reliable Caltrain.