Thursday, December 13, 2012

Free transit won't keep commuters coming back

Just a quick note. Eric Jaffe has a review of an MIT study of transit mode shift. This study has a lot of interesting implications, but claims of the value of free transit are overstated.

The study piggybacked on a MIT initiative in September 2008, where all employees with full-time parking permits were offered a free one-week transit pass. A number of these employees agreed to participate in the study, where they committed to commuting by transit for at least three days that week, and fill out a survey. Thirty percent of the survey participants gave up their parking permits immediately, and 25% were still on transit six months later.

Jaffe touts the free aspect of the trial as significant, but I think he - and the study authors - are overstating it. The key is that the transit was only free for one week; after that, the participants who shifted to transit had to pay full price.

Remember, these are full-time MIT employees; I don't think they're exactly poor. In the surveys they indicated that relative cost was a factor in their mode choice, but transit doesn't have to be free to compete on cost grounds. Most of the transit passes mentioned by the authors cost more than $65 per month, but probably less than $65 plus gas, car maintenance and insurance.

There are important take-aways to this study. I'm sure the free trial helped convince drivers to try transit; it's hard to justify even a week of transit if you're already paying $65 per month for a parking permit. And once they tried it, many of them realized that it wasn't all creeps and weirdos. Equally important, there was a value proposition there. For some participants, transit provided a better overall value for the price than driving. For other participants it didn't provide better value, and they went back to driving.

Transit managers that believe they do offer a better value than drivers should try free trials. Rather than offering them to everyone and overloading the system for a week, though, it would probably be better to simply mail a random chunk of the population free one-week transit passes. Whatever happens, it's important to make a clear distinction between free trials and free transit.


Peter said...

The title seems misleading to me.

James Sinclair said...

MBTA used to offer "bring a friend free" on sundays for pass holders. Great way to utilize off peak trains and introduce people to mass transit, AND counter free parking.

But they stopped the program, because theres a disconnect between the people running the show, and a basic understanding of business.