REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The agency’s new “perks” program hopes to reduce crowded trains by getting riders to leave for work earlier or later than usual.

There’s no worse way to start off a day than by jamming into a crowded rush-hour subway train. With many transit lines packed to capacity, or little money to increase service, there’s often little an agency can do to ease the pain. Some systems, like the Washington D.C. Metro, charge higher fares during peak hours as a way to discourage trips that might be taken at another time.

If that’s a stick approach to subway crowding, then San Francisco’s BART is using a carrot. The agency announced a new “BART Perks” program that will offer cash or other rewards to nudge commuters into traveling before or after rush hour. BART Perks will begin as a six-month trial program this spring, with an eye at up to 25,000 participants. The Chronicle has the basics:

Details are not yet available, but participants would earn points for changing their commutes from the busiest period — most likely to be designated as 7 to 8:30 a.m. — to an hour earlier or an hour later.

Riders could collect points in other ways, including by referring friends to the program, and then redeem the points for small and as yet undisclosed rebates. Or they could choose to play games with their points, gambling that their luck or skills at spinning a virtual wheel or playing a modified version of the popular Snakes and Ladders game will win them a $100 prize.

Incentive-based transit programs have worked fairly well in the recent past. The best example is the Singapore MRT’s free early bird rider program, initiated in June 2013, which eliminated fares for commuters who traveled through high-traffic stations before 7:45 a.m. on weekdays. Officials reported that roughly 7 percent of riders left the peak in response to the program, and more indicated they would have taken advantage of it if their employer had allowed.

Bangalore, India, conducted a trial back in 2008-2009 that might be more similar in spirit to BART Perks. Whenever participants commuters traveled outside rush hour, their odds of winnings a weekly raffle that paid up to $240 improved—with pre-peak travel doubling and morning travel times declining as a result. The sharp folks at mobility start-up Urban Engines who were involved in that effort are reportedly developing the BART program, too.

The success of BART Perks will depend on whether or not major employers agree to offer their workers flexible hours, as well as the specifics of the agency’s reward system. Games are great; straight cash is better. And if rush-hour commuters do start to see less crowded trains, the city might even rally some support for a higher peak fare (which was the original goal of congestion pricing).

Everyone loves a carrot, but there’s nothing like standing eyeball-to-armpit with a stranger every morning to make you also appreciate a stick.

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