A VTA light rail train travels through downtown San Jose
A VTA light rail train on Second Street in downtown San Jose. File photo.

Commuters hustling to get to work, students trekking across the city to get to school and visitors touring colleges all must fumble through their wallets and purses for exact change, multiple transit cards for different systems and paper tickets just to get to their destination.

Multi-use transit cards like the Clipper card work well, but what about the — thankfully rare instances — when they don’t? If we want to increase ridership and reap the many benefits of transit, we need to streamline fare systems to make it easier and more convenient for people to pay for, and use, transit.

The Bay Area is home to almost 8 million people who are served by VTA, Caltrain, BART, ACE, AC Transit, SamTrans and several other agencies. There are more than two dozen transit agencies that run the many buses, trains, light rail and microtransit services that keep our busy region running every day. Although the Clipper card has been a major stride in integrating fare systems across the multiple Bay Area agencies, it still leaves more for improvement. For one, even temporary outages can create commuter chaos, and what about the millions of out-of-state visitors and tourists who might not have easy access, or even understand how to use the card?

Visitors might have better luck with the contactless pay system implemented in New York City. But what if transit riders didn’t have to pay at all?

Research has shown that eliminating transit fares typically increases ridership by 20% to 60%, depending on several factors such as the size of the transit agency. Many agencies, including those in the Bay Area and elsewhere, have made transit free for youth and other groups like seniors, students, people with disabilities and low-income households. Some experts have taken it one step further and proposed implementing free transit for everyone.

Those who oppose free transit frequently argue it isn’t really free. Although this is true to some extent, the goal is to make transit free for riders. Transit is a public service with myriad benefits including increasing safety and sustainability. Proponents argue it has a place among other “free” services that benefit the public good.

The testing of the Clipper BayPass pilot program is now operational. This program, which provides users with free access to all bus, rail and ferry services in the nine-county region, is assessing how an all-system pass could impact travel in the Bay Area. Fifty-thousand Bay Area students and residents, including 7,000 students at San Jose State University, are the focus of the pilot, based on the recommendations of the Transit Fare Coordination and Integration Study, which aimed to create a more “customer-friendly transit fare system” in the Bay.

Transit is becoming increasingly important as we make critical changes to mitigate the damage of climate change.

Transit is safer: one study found that, per passenger mile, public transportation travel has less than half the total death rate as motor vehicle travel. It’s better for the environment and the future of our planet: it uses “less fuel and produces lower levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and carbon dioxide per passenger mile” compared to cars. It’s better for our health because public transportation provides opportunities for increased physical activity like biking and walking, which have substantial health benefits. It’s more equitable because it provides transportation for people unable to drive or without access to private vehicles, including people with disabilities.

California is a global hub for technological innovation and sustainability. The last few years have disrupted and evolved transportation trends, and this is the right time for transit fare to evolve too.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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