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Leverage the Golden Gate Transportation Monopoly

Golden Gate toll plaza // San Francisco // California // USA

photo by d4yw41k3r

You may not realize it, but the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transit District has an effective monopoly* on travel to San Francisco from Marin.  If you take transit, of course, you're using GGT, but if even if you drive you have a toll to pay.  This gives the district enormous market power to influence the travel decisions made by Marinites, power that it should use for good.

The Marin-San Francisco transportation market has three principal products – driving, bus travel, and ferry travel.  Directly, the car has a $5 round trip toll, the bus has a $6.80 to $16.40 round trip fare, and the ferry has a $9.70 to $11.40 round trip fare.  The car also has fuel, insurance, parking, and depreciation costs as well, but none of these are controlled (save parking costs at park-and-ride lots) by the district.

What strikes me about this situation is that the district charges the least for the most high-impact transportation mode, the car.  The negative externalities of car ownership go far, far beyond simply tailpipe pollution: the cost of car storage that get dumped into housing costs through mandatory minimums; the cost of parking lots on the pedestrian environment; the cost to our mental and physical health driving everywhere; the ongoing slaughter of drivers and pedestrians on the roads; and the sheer cost of maintaining the physical infrastructure needed to carry all these cars around.  By charging significantly less for driving than other modes, the district promotes this kind of unsustainable mode choice.

If the toll were increased to $7, making the cheapest bus fare competitive against driving, one would see a significant boost in bus trips from southern Marin.  If the toll money were plowed back into service improvements, the district would create a positive feedback loop, allowing the district to simultaneously discourage driving and provide a better transit product.  Even better, it would allow the district to move towards its goal of 50% farebox recovery, as the increased ridership would bring in more money and the right transit improvements would decrease costs.

The district did explore a congestion pricing scheme a few years ago that would have bumped the toll to $8 during peak hours.  Though I'm sure San Franciscans would have been happy to have fewer suburban drivers on their roads, the plan was dropped because it was seen as an unnecessary tax on drivers.  Hopefully the plan will be revived to help pay for the district's $87 million Doyle Drive deficit, though given the district's belief that ferry riders should pay it through a fare increase I don't hold out hope.

Though this does sound like a plan to sop the driver for the rider, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, the driver can always become a rider, and doing so would likely be better for everyone involved, especially if the bus can become competitive with the car in speed as well as cost.  Second, the drivers that don't switch will see benefits in traffic and, if enough drivers switch to buses, see a significant decrease in travel time.  Though it would cost more for them to drive, they would get a better product than they had before.

In short, the district needs to examine its pricing schemes as a singular system, not as a set of disconnected fares and tolls, and establish a better balance between driving and riding costs.  Doing so would reap benefits for drivers in the form of less congestion, riders in the form of better transit, Marin in the form of more livable and walkable communities, and San Francisco in the form of less suburbanite traffic.

*Yes, I realize Blue & Gold Fleet operates a ferry, but its round-trip fare is double that of Golden Gate's and so isn't terribly important to this discussion.  If we were talking about the transit market in Tiburon, of course, they'd play on center stage.