Saturday, October 30, 2010

Caltrain Eight-ride Addiction

I started a new job and any semblance of "training" has gone by the wayside, as I was first focused on learning my way around, and now on solving some of the problems I'm hired to deal with. I'll need to find more balance in coming weeks. But I digress.

A consequence of the new job is I can finally get Commuter Checks, which allow me to buy transit tickets with "pre-tax" income. Considering as well I'll be working from home a lot less (I was around 1-2 times per week) and at least initially riding SF2G in less, surely it's time for a Caltrain monthly pass rather than my usual practice of getting 8-ride tickets. It's time to become one of the big-boy train commuters, right?

The fare chart shows that a monthly pass for 3-zones is $159, while an 8-ride is $40.75. So the monthly costs as much as 31.25 rides. in other words, if you ride 16 round trips or more, the monthly is the deal.

Sure, there's other factors. For example the monthly ticket is more convenient: just carry it with you and forget about it until asked to show it to a conductor. But there's a downside as well. The 8-ride needs to be validated every day, so it's part of my routine. On the other hand, the monthly needs to be renewed on the first of the month. Since that comes infrequently, it's far more likely to forget to renew the monthly pass than it is to forget to punch an 8-ride. There's a grace period through noon of the first workday of the month, but still, the cost of error is potentially high: a citation in excess of $200. I've never forgotten to punch an 8-ride ticket.

Then there's loss. If I lose my ticket permanently, assuming loss is rate, it will on average tend to have around half its value at the time of loss. Half of a monthly is four times half of an 8-ride. The new Clipper cards change things here as well, however: Clipper cards may be replaced with a fee.

For temporary loss, if I arrive at a station without my ticket or Clipper card costs me essentially nothing. With a monthly, I've got to buy one-ways for the day, and that's a total loss. I don't lose tickets much but I have forgotten to take them with me to the station. Again this calculus may change with Clipper cards: I don't know how one-way and day passes for the single-time train rider (like a tourist, for example) will be handled. But even if I can't buy an 8-ride without my card and need to get one-ways instead, the cost is only the difference between the 8-ride and day-pass fare (two one-ways), while for a monthly, I eat the full day pass fare.

Okay, so I can deal with these. Maybe I expect to misplace my ticket one day per month. Then the break-even point becomes more like 17 days instead of 16. I'll not worry about the ticket loss factor, since I assume that becomes obsolete with Clipper.

Then there's sick days. Maybe I average one sick day every other month. So that's an extra half-day on the threshold: 17.5.

Then there's bike commuting. If I bike in one day per week, which I hope to do, that takes the threshold up to 18 rides.

November has 22 weekdays. Two, Thanksgiving and the day after, are company holidays. That leaves 20 weekdays. Twenty is more than 18, so I should get that monthly (barely).

But I haven't gotten any commuter checks yet. Unless I get it before the first of the month, I'll need to buy that pass on post-tax income. If I then get it during the month, I'll have lost the opportunity to buy tickets during the month pre-tax. On the other hand, if i get 8-rides, I'll be able to take advantage of the pre-tax fare within a week of receiving my commuter check.

So for November, unless I get that first commuter check within a few days (and I think I need to wait an extra biweekly pay period), I'm better off with 8-rides.

Then December. The company shuts down for two weeks in December (forcing employees to take vacation time if they have it, so I'll take time-without-pay, since I won't). So December is obviously a monthly pass loser.

January: January has a holiday, leaving 20 work days. So this is more than my 18 day threshold. Then February has 20 work days as well. So maybe I want monthlies for each of these months. March has 23 work days so that's really the first month which seems like a clear-cut win.

But suppose I'm on an 8-ride ticket for December, then January rolls along. I want to stop using 8-rides and start using monthlies. But it's unlikely that my last 8-ride will run empty just at the last commute of December. I'll likely have some rides left, and with Clipper, these rides aren't easily transferred (paper tickets with residual value I could perhaps sell, at least in theory). 8-rides expire after six weeks, so I can't save the unused rides for future use if I'm doing at least two consecutive monthlies. So at the end of December I need to decide that I'll go to monthlies in January and go to day passes or one-ways instead after my last 8-ride expires. This is additional cost.

It's all a complicated game. And the game becomes more complicated if you consider I'll need to take some business trips on this job. The monthly pass just doesn't seem like a financial win unless weekend service becomes useful (I've ridden the weekend train only a few times since they last reduced weekend service) that I can offset some of my monthly cost with weekend trips.

Really with Clipper this could all be solved with a simplified fare schedule: you first rides of the month are at full fare, then after you've done a certain number (for example four) you go to a discounted fare, then after you've completed a second threshold (for example 32) the rest of the rides in that month are free. Then there's be no need to play these probability games.

So how to set these fares? It would be fun to suggest some sort of exponential decay function for fares, but I defer to an attraction to mathematical simplicity. So I propose a 2-tier price system. First, riders pay a higher rate for tickets until they get up to the level of a typical day-pass rider. Then they get a discounted fare which results in a typical 8-rider passenger paying the same as they do now. Nobody commuting 20 days per month should pay more than the present monthly.

So let's say the average day-passer rides 4 round trips per month. Then 3-zone tickets should be $6 each for the first 8 tickets you buy: $48 total (two tickets/round-trip). Then let's say a typical 8-ride passenger rides 12 times per month, paying close to $120 for those 12 rides, or $72 for round trips 5-12, yielding $3/ticket. Then if you ride 20 times in a month, that's 40 tickets, eight at $6 each, and 32 at $3 each, totaling $144. If you ride 22 times per month that's $156. A monthly pass (3-zone) is presently $159. So it works out fairly closely.

So there it is: 3-zone tickets @ $6 each ($12/round trip) for the first eight tickets (four round-trips), then $3 each ($6 per round trip) after that. Much simpler. For other zones, adjust accordingly ($1.75/zone for first eight tickets, $0.875/zone, rounded, thereafter).

Surely they'll do something like this once liberated from the capabilities of paper tickets.


John Romeo Alpha said...

Why not an EZ Pass system with a set fare which is deducted from your account only each time you actually ride? That would address several of the more challenging aspects of the game as you describe it.

Jim said...

I think you're rather hopeful that such a sensible systems (monthly caps etc) will happen, London's had oyster cards for 7 years now and they still have the same gaming problem with what tickets/passes to buy although at least there's a daily cap when it works.

ammon said...

Smart ticketless systems could also encourage more local trips by making the zone system more equitable to people who live near zone boundaries. Zones could be dynamic based on distance traveled. Or the current zone system could be kept with a discount added for a short trips that happen to cross a zone boundary. As it is now, both in terms of fare structure and frequency of trains, caltrain favors long distance commutting.

My wife commutes from San Bruno (zone 1) to a business close to the Millbrae caltrain (zone 2). Although caltrain is faster, taking the bus is much cheaper and busses run more frequently. It's ironic that we have tracks and train stops practically from our house to her work yet surface streets are more desirable. In the early part of last century there was a 3rd option: light rail tracks used to parallel the caltrain tracks down to Burlingame.

Caltrain from San Bruno to Millbrae (2 miles of track): $4.25
Caltrain from San Francisco to Redwood City (25 miles of track per $4.25
On the flip side, Caltrain from San Bruno to SF is a great deal at $2.50, and this is visibly evident in the mornings: the NB tracks always have a lot more commuters than SB.

As for myself, I bike the 2.2 miles to Millbrae to have more train selection and make my rides cheaper:

Which could be seen as a downside to Caltrain expending more effort to cater to cyclists: freeloaders like me who use the bike to game the zone system...

djconnel said...

I completely agree with you, Ammon. BART doesn't use zones, for example: they're an artifact of paper tickets. Although BART doesn't really offer volume discounts, either, so I hope Caltrain doesn't emulate BART too strongly.