Extension of Spare the Air Days
March 3, 2005 1:07 PM
Free rides on public transportation may be in the future for residents and visitors alike in the Bay Area.
Last summer Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) implemented two days of free rides after smog built up in the air. According to BART officials, those days saw an eight-percent increase in ridership.
Now, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Regional Transportation Planning Agency and air quality officials want to expand the program. Some SF State students and employees participated in last summer’s "Spare the Air" service and they would like to see more of it.
The commission is negotiating with the six largest Bay Area transit agencies - BART, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, SamTrans, Caltrain, and San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (Muni), to adopt the "Spare the Air" complimentary commute.
The additional transit systems are still evaluating the standby operations and will make a decision by mid-March. The federal Department of Transportation has budgeted $4 million to fund the project beginning June 1.
“The kiosks were just open and no one looked at your ticket,” said SF State marketing junior Rachael Gero, recalling last summer’s BART "Spare the Air" program. “It was very convenient.”
Gero, who commutes from Lafayette, explained that it was cheaper than filling up with unleaded and enabled less wear and tear on her car. But she complained that just twice a year is not very constructive.
“Maybe they could run the ‘Spare the Air’ service one or two days a month," said Gero. "What’s the point? BART is just trying to please the eco-friendly people. If we could cut local usage of bridges, we would free up the roads for tourists.”
“I liked it,” said SF State building engineer Tommie Robinson. “It saved me more than $7 a day. Anytime you spend that kind of money, ‘Spare the Air’ days are beneficial.”
Both Gero and Robinson previously drove to school but said they now find that the convenience of driving is not worth the search for parking and fighting rush-hour traffic. Robinson, who commutes from San Leandro, gets a free transfer at the Daily City BART to connect with the #28 Muni bus, which drops passengers off right in front of SF State.
Although the MTC enjoys overwhelming support for the free transit proposal, it is not without its critics.
“’Spare the Air’ is basically a joke,” said David Schonbrunn, a SF State graduate and president of Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF), a non-profit organization.
He said TRANSDEF pushes for environmental sustainability and making the Bay Area a better place to live. Schonbrunn explained the MTC refuses to take action to reduce private-passenger vehicle travel that would substantially lessen smog. He criticized the Ozone Plan, MTC's smog reduction initiative, for falling short of acceptable federal ozone emissions levels. He also accused the MTC of not doing enough to reduce smog and that it would be much worse except for the fact that fewer people are driving because the economy is so bad.
“Cars are the number one source of air pollution,” said Luna Salaver, public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “They create hundreds of tons of ozone precursors (volatile organics and oxides of nitrogen). So we want people to use public transit because it would help keep the environment healthy.”
There can be two kinds of ozone, according to the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County’s (Florida) Web site. The harmless variety protects plants and animals from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. The dangerous ozone, made mostly by cars, happens when organic compounds and nitrogen compounds mix in the presence of sunlight. They are known as ozone precursors. It may worsen lung ailments such as emphysema or bronchitis and weaken the immune system.
Salaver explained that ground-level ozone concentration builds up on windless days when temperatures rise above 90 degrees, and therefore trigger "Spare the Air" designations. She said people could register for smog alerts at http://www.sparetheair.org.
SF State geography professor Dr. Glenn Fieldman called the free rides a good idea. But she questioned if the money might be spent more suitably.
"I wonder whether we might be better off to try to keep fares from going up rather than putting money into free fares on certain days,” Fieldman said. “Part of whether this could work depends on whether the $4 million could be (legally) used this way."
Added Gero: “I know a ton of people who go to Saint Mary’s, Berkeley, UCSF, and Hayward, They’d all use BART on ‘Spare the Air’ days. They should do it on MUNI too. That’d be awesome.”
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