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Posted on May 23, 2016 in SMART | 7 comments

SMART Fares – Ouch?

SMART Fares – Ouch?

SMART is conducting a survey to get public reaction to a few fares. The reaction on NextDoor was pretty uniform: the fare choices seemed high and the public wasn’t given the chance to comment, suggest a fare or even select “none of the above.” We thought we would look into whether the suggested fares were in fact high compared to taking the bus or driving a car.

Here were the three choices on the survey:

SMART survey

We used the Golden Gate Transit site to plan weekday morning rush hour trips from Downtown Santa Rosa, Downtown Petaluma and Novato San Marin to the Transit Center in San Rafael. We did not look into round trip fares. We looked at the car cost using the 2016 IRS rate of $.54/mile, which factors in fuel and wear and tear. The approximate mileage for each trip is: Santa Rosa – 37, Petaluma – 22, and Novato San Marin – 12.

Many of us think about the car cost as mostly gas – unless you are commuting regularly when you factor in wear and tear, insurance, etc. We calculated the gas cost at $.15/mile ($3/gallon and a gas-guzzling 20 mpg). Prius and electric vehicle drivers are chuckling at this point.

Note that we did not address discounted fares for commuters, seniors, kids, or passengers with disabilities, which SMART will have like the other public transit choices.  SMART is going to use a Base Fare + Zone approach, where more zones means more expense.  San Rafael and Novato are in different zones. The three Survey trips cover more than one zone.  Finally, we have not addressed the important issue of affordability for low-income residents.

So, here is how the choices stack up.

To Downtown SR SMART Golden Gate Bus Car ($.54/mi) Car (Fuel at $.15/mi)
Santa Rosa $10-11 $7.75 $19.98 $5.55
Petaluma  $8-9  $6.50  $11.88  $3.33
 Novato/San Marin  $6-7  $2.00  $6.48  $1.80

As reference points, it costs $12.50 to take the bus from Santa Rosa to downtown San Francisco, and it costs $10.50 to take the Larkspur Ferry to SF . . . but you still have to get to Larkspur from the SR SMART station.

Why take SMART?

SMART is supposed to get people out of their cars. What will make that happen? For some, the environmental impact will tip them to SMART and SMART emphasizes that they are the green choice. But for many of us, SMART has to also be more convenient, cheaper or both in order to be a realistic alternative to driving.

Is SMART cheap enough to get you out of your car?

Depending on how you evaluate the cost of your particular vehicle (and whether you have to pay to park), SMART can be expensive especially for the short trip to Novato.  SMART faces a conundrum. Cars are getting cheaper to run as we shift to more hybrids and battery powered vehicles. That means SMART has to be more convenient – easy access, good schedules and faster than being in traffic have to be their selling points.

Is SMART more convenient than driving?

Who knows? On the one hand frequent trains and comfortable, breezy rides past the stalled commute traffic should make SMART a winner when it comes to convenience. But it won’t matter if access is a problem.

Let’s assume that the trains run when you need them. (This could be wrong because they are less frequent mid-day.) Convenience will depend on your experience before and after your train ride. How do you get to the station? If you need to drive and you can’t park at the station, you are going to stay in your car. If you have to get off the train and take another transport to your destination, you are more likely to stay in your car. These so-called ‘last mile’ issues are really important. SMART’s success may well depend not on pricing but on local connecting shuttle and bus services.

Back to NextDoor

So, why the sticker shock reaction on NextDoor? Maybe it is because most San Rafael residents don’t take the bus heading north (and aren’t sitting in morning commute traffic coming from the north) and so they have no comparison point? It does look like a lot when compared to what it would take to fill your tank and go. After all, we are Californians! Maybe we are surprised because we thought that we could get up to Petaluma for about $5, have lunch, shop or whatever and pay another $5 to pop back down to San Rafael. Magical thinking. We won’t even be able to get to Novato for that.

SMART has started their PR campaign with this survey. And while my reaction was “Wow! That is expensive”, now that I have looked at the numbers, I can see how they justify the fares. But I don’t think I will be taking SMART to Novato or Petaluma – I’m jumping into my car.


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  1. Thank you for doing the calculations.

  2. Would take the train once for entertainment. Otherwise, drive. I thought this train thing was a boondoggle from the start. Would have preferred they pave over the rails and make a rail trail for bikes and pedestrians, like so many other towns are doing across the country.

  3. My first reaction to the SMART fares was that they looked high. This is an interesting evaluation of the costs. Driving is always deceptively more expensive than people realize. I think this comparison should also be presented from the commuter perspective cost (Clipper fare) as that is really who SMART is trying to lure in, based on its schedule.

    I think that presenting a version of the costs that is “gas only” is misleading to readers, as it doesn’t account for real costs from the overall trip. Using $0.54/mile provides a more realistic evaluation of the vehicle cost since it would account for some devaluation of your car through both miles as well as the increased frequency of maintenance (tires, oil changes, etc). Every mile does cost you money, you’ve essentially just pre-paid for them. The more miles you use the sooner you are to that next pre-payment on the next car. For example. if you pay $30k for a car and it lasts you 120K miles, you’ve essentially pre-paid for that car at 0.25/mile. I guess where I am going is that wear and tear is not a discountable cost to ignore.

    So ignoring the “gas only” column, this actually makes the SMART fares competitive with vehicles in some ways. The big variable that isn’t considered here is time. It would be interesting to also compare the proposed SMART schedule against a peak commute and non-commute drive along these three segments. GG Bus clearly is the most economical of the three options, but I am sure if the least convenient with regards to time. I would imagine that non-commute travel times make driving best. Commute time travel might make SMART the best option, assuming you have relatively short first and last mile trips on either end (as you mentioned above). Assuming that many people will board/deboard SMART in the same general areas as the bus, this might be attractive to bus riders by cutting their travel times?

    I’ll note that the ferry from Larkspur to SF is $7 with a clipper card, which is how all commuters do it. Imagining a rider from Santa Rosa to SF, this person could take SMART to San Rafael and then the shuttle to the Ferry, and ferry to SF for $17-18 each way ($34-$36 round trip). The drive (55 miles) would be $36 there (including the toll) and $30 home (i.e. $66). The driver also deals with the worst traffic in Marin and Sonoma. Maybe the take home is that the longer you’re traveling, the more economical SMART is? GG Bus would be $25 round trip, but again, the traffic…..

    Thanks for these posts. Always interesting.

  4. To be totally accurate the chart should include the cost of getting to the SMART train and parking if a person drove to get there. Also the cost on the other end. That really changes the calculations.

    Also, I think most of us are experiencing better mileage and lower fuel costs than what is quoted. My SUV gets 28 mpg and the fuel is $2.38 gal. and most of my friends are getting much better mileage than that in their sedans and hybrids.

    • Thanks to all for their comments, and especially this one (that begs for a total cost from door to door). Just as one example, do we yet know what parking fees will be…free? Overflow-only? Other?

      It does appear that costs will differ from one group of folks to the next, and while time will tell, I hope the SMART administrators can adapt new plans after the first round of real data emerge.

      (PS Although I was an early Smart train “doubter,” it HAS rekindled my boyhood love of trains, and I’m hoping that will be true of a lot of my confreres as well; SMART TRAIN Meet-up, anyone?
      Woo – Hoo.

  5. Can’t wait to see the smart train running. Me and my friend will use it for plessure sinds one of us gave up driving already. Will be super , look forward to it.,

  6. Just thinking, maybe semi-smart for 1 person, but highlights the financial sense in carpooling…exponentially.

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