Higher peak-time tolls mean fewer delays
One thing many Oaklanders would have something to say about is crossing the Bay Bridge. You probably remember back last month when a little financial matter flared a media firestorm.
As of July 1, the toll during commute hours rose from $4.00 to $6.00. For carpoolers, it rose to $2.50 from, well, nothing. The idea is called congestion pricing: local transit officials are betting they can reduce traffic by making it more expensive to drive during the most crowded times of day.
The data is still coming in, but so far the plan seems to be working. On the Bay Bridge, rush hour delays have been nearly cut in half, and there have been some other interesting results as well. For example, 12,000 fewer cars drove through the carpool lanes last month.
So where did all those commuters go? KALW’s Casey Miner took to the freeway to try and find out.
* * *
CASEY MINER: It started with the lights. When the clock struck 5:00 AM on Thursday, July 1, the big bright LED signs over the Bay Bridge Toll plaza changed from saying “Autos: $4.00” to “Autos: $6.00.” The toll went up in the carpool lanes, too: from zero dollars to $2.50, and you had to have a FasTrak to go through.
Inside the administration building on the side of I-80, toll workers watched the cars go by on an array of screens. It didn’t take long for them to spot the first confused driver.
JOHN GOODWIN: It's 5:22 AM, so we've been in the new era of congestion pricing for 22 minutes.
John Goodwin is a spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority.
GOODWIN: It only took two minutes. At 5:02, we had one driver in the carpool lane stop, back up, and dive into one of the adjacent lanes to pay cash. Only one we’ve seen so far.
In the weeks since that first driver backed up, the agency has been collecting information on what effects the toll changes have had on commuter behavior.
GOODWIN: At the Bay Bridge in particular, we're really hoping to see a reduction in delay during peak morning and afternoon commute periods. The initial model suggested that delay during peak hour, which is really between 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM, might fall 20-30 percent. After four weeks in action, we’re seeing delays falling by 50 percent.
Since the rates changed, an average of 5,000 fewer cars have traveled across the Bay Bridge each day. So you have to ask: what happened to all those drivers?
To try and figure this out, I started with the group of people who many argued would be most affected by the toll change: casual carpoolers. I met Mark Jeffrey at his house in North Berkeley on a weekday morning to see how his ride would go that day.
MARK JEFFREY: All right. Off we go on our casual carpool adventure. The first couple of weeks – right here, it’s 8:50 in the morning, we’ll see what today has in store – I’ve noticed really long lines of riders.
Jeffrey works in Daly City, and he’s been driving casual carpoolers from the East Bay to downtown San Francisco for a few years now. It’s not scientific, but he says he’s noticed a trend in recent weeks: more riders, fewer drivers. He’s also noticed that the BART station parking lot is always full.
JEFFREY: There’s a whole sort of economics decision surrounding, "Why drive, why not take BART?" Given that I have a car, it is actually economically more effective for me, and way more time effective to drive rather than take BART.
MINER: Is that true even if you factor in the toll?
JEFFREY: Ah. So with the toll, then it becomes not true.
Jeffrey says even though the toll makes it more expensive for him to drive than to ride BART, he’s driving anyway. It’s a habit, and he likes casual carpool. But the toll has nudged other people in the opposite direction.
JOAN WALKER: To influence behavior there are all these things you can do, the carrots and the sticks.These are the sticks, and they’re pricing, and it’s hard on people.
That’s behaviorist Joan Walker.
WALKER: And so I think we certainly have to be sensitive to that. I also think that without these sticks, it’s hard to get the behavior we want.
Walker studies human behavior, focused on transportation, as a professor at UC Berkeley. One thing she told me is that people aren’t always rational, and the carpool lane is a great example. It’s still way cheaper to carpool than it is to drive alone and pay the full fare. But Walker told me it might not matter that the carpool lane is cheap – because it’s not free.
WALKER: They feel this loss, and people are loss-averse, and so they're more sensitive to the loss of the free trip than they are to the gain in travel time that they would get.
BART reps learned that lesson early. In the weeks before the toll change, they were out at casual carpool pickup points around the East Bay, handing out free tickets worth 10 bucks apiece. They called it, “A special gift to you from BART.” Well, those free tickets weren’t just any tickets: they were specially coded so BART could keep track of when people used them. So far, about a third have been redeemed.
WALKER: I heard that and I thought that was so clever.
Professor Joan Walker.
WALKER: There is a lot of evidence that if you can incentivize people to just change for a week, quite a few people will actually make that change permanent. We’re creatures of habit, and so we do what we did today because we did it yesterday. And so one of the things you want to do is incentivize people to change and just try the alternatives. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re getting people to just try BART for a week, and they're making it free. People love free things, you know, they stampede towards free, and then some of them will make a switch. And a lot of them won't, you know.
Based on the early data, BART’s strategy seems to be working: 4,500 more people have taken BART each day for the last month, 1,500 during commute hours. Several of Walker’s colleagues at UC Berkeley are working with the Toll Authority to analyze and process all of this data. They’ll have a full report out next summer. In the meantime, enjoy that easy ride over the bridge – unless, of course, you’re on the train.
On the Bay Bridge, I’m Casey Miner for Crosscurrents.
Casey Miner is KALW’s transportation reporter. Want your transportation questions answered? Ask her!