Bay Area Starts Trial for Easing Rush Hour Train Commute

Pilot program offers carrot, not stick, but it's not straightforward.

(Photo by Armand via Flickr)

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Back in March, the San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit received a flurry of press coverage about a new program, “BART Perks,” which would offer cash and other rewards to entice commuters to travel at times other than rush hour. The six-month trial launched at the end of August, and details about how it all works are a little, well, complicated.

Melia Robinson reports for Business Insider that BART Perks requires four pages of Frequently Asked Questions. She’s one of the commuters the program is designed to attract — those headed to busy San Francisco stations from the East Bay. Riders in the pilot earn a point for every mile traveled on BART, and additional points for every mile traveled during a designated “bonus hour.” There are two bonus hours each morning, one on either side of the peak morning rush hour of 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.

Here’s where it gets tricky. There’s not a set multiplier for the number of points received during a bonus hour. Commuters start off at bronze level and can graduate to silver, gold and platinum as they consistently travel during bonus hours. So a commuter who makes two bonus hour trips a week for a period of at least two weeks would graduate to silver and start earning 4 points per mile traveled.

But get this: 1,000 points only equals $1. Robinson notes that with her 9-mile-a-day, five-days-a-week commute, she would start off earning 3 points per mile. If she commuted during bonus hours at least twice a week for two weeks, she’d graduate to silver and earn four points per mile. By the end of the month, she’d still be just shy of 1,500 points.

At that time, she could either cash out her points, or play a game called Spin to Win, which gives users the chance to win random cash rewards between $1 and $100. The higher your status, the higher the potential rewards. A user can also earn points by referring friends. And there are even bonus boxes, special opportunities to earn points based on commuting patterns BART is hoping to shift.

If it can discourage enough commuters to ditch the train during peak rush, overcrowded riders will surely be happy with the $1.6 million experiment. According to a video about the program, if 1,200 BART riders left for work in the hour before or after rush hour, it would be the equivalent of eliminating a 10-car train. If BART Perks is successful despite its somewhat elaborate design, some have suggested the city might implement congestion pricing as well. But a spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle in March that Perks was not intended to be a step in that direction.

“This program gives money back to users,” she said. “It’s a reward — it’s the carrot approach. It’s not the stick approach, which is what most congestion pricing programs use. They charge you more money if you don’t change.”

The program will run until February, at which point it will be reevaluated by BART.

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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Tags: transit agenciescommutingbay area

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