John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Paying people to avoid the morning rush sort of worked in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Last year the San Francisco Bay Area became the first laboratory in North America for a mass-transit incentives program, with BART offering rewards to commuters who shifted their morning commutes away from the peak rush.
The incentive model is based on the economic concept of nudging, explains BART, “wherein even a small reward can lead to adjustments in behavior.”
The six-month trial program concluded in February, and the results are either great or mixed, depending on your definition of “success.” On the plus side, about 18,000 people jumped at the opportunity to participate in the BART Perks initiative, earning points whenever they rode the train that could be exchanged for cash. (Participants took home an average of $3 a month, though 10 netted $100 or more.)
On the negative, an average of 250 people a day actually switched their commute to avoid the packed 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. rush hour—only 10 percent of the total number of Perks participants who rode to work in the morning. The behavioral change cleared up the equivalent of two train cars’ worth of bodies daily, but did not “result in noticeable crowding reduction,” writes BART.
“To achieve even greater levels of rider shifting,” the agency adds, “future travel incentives programs for BART would need to be designed to better target individuals who are frequent riders during the busiest periods on the transit system.”
Transit incentives have shown decent results outside of the U.S., reducing system crowding in Singapore and Bangalore. Whether the Bay Area will revive its Perks program, which was mostly funded by a Federal Highway Administration grant, is unknown. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority and BART are still evaluating the initiative’s results, and will determine how to proceed when their investigation is completed this fall.