Diverging Approach: Kill the Weekend Pass

I hate getting gifts.

My wife knows this, and I think she knows that when I say “you don’t have to get me anything” when my birthday or Christmas rolls around that I actually mean it, but she still does her best, since I think she would feel awkward not giving me something (even if I explicitly tell her not to get me anything), and she likes me to have something to open for those special occasions. She’s too good for me, and I’m incredibly lucky to be married to her.

But still, I hate getting gifts.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a thoughtful gesture, of course. If someone goes out of their way to do something kind and special for me, of course I’m grateful for the effort. But, simply stated, I generally have most things I’d like to have, within reason, of course — if someone wants to buy me a boat for my birthday, it’s coming up in the summer, let’s talk about delivery options. For smaller, more “normal” gifts though, I have just enough social anxiety that I have an irrational fear of disappointing someone who gave me a gift that they put a lot of thought and effort into because I won’t be able to hide my disappointment, to the point where I’d rather get nothing at all.

I don’t want to sound snobbish or high-maintenance or anything — I’ve received plenty of gifts in my life. Checking my privilege as a straight white male who is an only child in a family somewhere between middle class and upper-middle class, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of free things throughout my life, and I’m grateful for everyone who has shown me so much generousity over the years. But that upbringing combined with my personal history cuts the other way too: I’m an only child of divorce, who took the first job I could following a summer on medical bedrest and in the face of the Great Recession (that happened to be in Peoria), followed by moving into my grandmother’s in-law apartment in her Northwest Side bungalow to help defray some costs as I put myself through grad school. While I’m lucky to have a supportive family and network of friends through it all, day-to-day it was still filled with a lot of alone time and self-reliance. Eventually you just kind of get used to being on your own, and that becomes the new normal: if you want something, you save up (or splurge) and just buy it yourself, easy as that. So when it comes time to receive a gift — especially a relatively unexpected one — there’s a certain sense of dread I get, worrying that, bluntly stated, the gift will suck.

This weekend, Metra gave a gift to the region, and for their most loyal riders, the gift sucked. As most of the people reading a blog like this already know, Metra offered free rides systemwide this weekend. Following the railroad’s abysmal record through the polar vortex days (I still haven’t forgotten that in the polar vortex post-mortem, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said he regretted running too many trains), Metra decided to offer free trips all weekend long as a “pat on the back” for coping with Metra through the bad weather.

Now, for infrequent or new riders, that’s not a bad gift at all. Two free days of riding the train — during the Chicago Auto Show, no less — is a pretty sweet gig. As someone who has purchased 10 of the last 11 Metra Weekend Passes offered due to my usual weekend travels, it was a pleasant surprise to keep an extra ten bucks in my wallet. But I also didn’t have to deal with Metra during the polar vortex. Instead, the people who did deal with the polar vortex — a significant number of whom ride with monthly passes anyway — didn’t really get anything from the free weekend since weekend trips (between downtown and their home station, at least) are included in their monthly passes. And, of course, drawing more attention to weekend schedules can quickly turn negative as well: free weekend rides to someone who lives along the North Central Service or the Heritage Corridor won’t do much to sway opinion.

The timing of the promotion also seemed a little, well, off to me. If it was supposed to be a “thank you” to the riders who dealt with the brunt of the polar vortex, the gift was misguided since it doesn’t do much for the core commuting market with monthly passes. A more effective “thank you” would be discounts on March monthly passes; interestingly, Electric Line riders are getting discounts on April monthly passes, but I feel like that message got trampled by the regional free weekend and Metra’s missing an opportunity for more positive messaging. If it was just a weekend ridership grab, why not wait for the weather to turn a little warmer in the spring?

Of course, there was another stated purpose for the free weekend:

“We survived the polar vortex – now let’s have some fun,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski. “There is a lot to do in Chicago and the suburbs and Metra can take you there. We’re hoping this weekend will convince people who have never ridden Metra or who haven’t ridden Metra in a while to become paid customers in the future.”

https://www.metrarail.com/about-metra/newsroom/metra-offer-free-rides-weekend

Giving people resources to use transit throughout the region for leisure trips on the weekends in the hopes that they’ll become more comfortable with transit and be more inclined to choose transit on their own in the future is, of course, a great idea that sounds really, really familiar.

I spent some time at Chicago Union Station on Saturday to scope out the crowds, and there did seem to be a bit of an uptick in ridership, at least on the Milwaukee lines. (Weekends on the BNSF are always busy, so it was a little harder to get a read on any ridership gains on those trains.) If the goal was a quick ridership boost, it probably isn’t too soon to declare mission accomplished; with a projected financial cost of $300,000 for the weekend, Metra could make a decent dent in that simply on the value of free marketing from local media and word-of-mouth. Whether it leads to any long-term gains in ridership — even just weekend ridership — obviously remains to be seen, but I’m sure Metra will be keeping a closer eye on their weekend ridership numbers for the next few weeks.

But that brings up another consideration: how will Metra define this weekend being a “success”, and what are the potential ramifications either way? While free transit is gaining ground in some European countries, it’s hard to believe Metra — which always seems to be about two board meetings away from doomsday — would take a $16 million hit in their operations budget to make weekends free all year long. There’s also the elephant in the room regarding onboard fare collection, where conductors missing out on collecting fares already provides a non-zero number of “free” rides daily. To put it another way: if more people ride when the trains are free but not when fares are normally priced, does that really mean anything useful to Metra?

Meanwhile, our transit neighbors in Indiana have quietly been going in a different direction post-polar vortex. To coincide with the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place — which the South Shore Line serves, alongside the Metra Electric — NICTD (the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the South Shore Line’s operator) has also been giving out free fares — but only off-peak, and only one way. (Also worth noting: this promotion was planned pre-polar vortex, and the South Shore Line doesn’t usually doesn’t offer any special weekend fares.) It’s a great hook: come to Chicago for the Auto Show and your ride there is free!

It’s also brilliant because people are irrational, and we think differently when we hear the word “free”. If NICTD ran half-price fares both ways, the cost to the rider would be the same, but “free” just sounds better. Not only that, but it also changes the mental budgeting process for a trip. For most transit trips, travelers have to plan chronologically, focusing on how to get to your destination first, then figuring out the return trip (sometimes significantly later). On Metra, a $10 Weekend Pass means you pay more upfront and get free rides later on (if you even end up using them); on NICTD for the last two weeks, the free ride comes first.

For instance, let’s say you’re taking Metra to the Brookfield Zoo on a normal Saturday. If you’re coming from Naperville, you’ll look at a BNSF schedule, figure out what train you want to take there, determine what time you need to leave the house to get to the station, and figure out how much cash you’ll need to bring for the train fare. In this case, a family of four (two adults, two kids) will quickly figure out that they’d need $20 for two Weekend Passes. At $20 to take a train that runs once an hour (on Saturday mornings, every two hours the rest of the weekend) and makes 11 stops between Naperville and Hollywood, the obvious next thing you do is look up how much parking costs at Brookfield Zoo ($14) and all of a sudden you’re mentally assigning dollar values to how much your kids have to enjoy riding a train to make it worth your while. (The additional $1.50 in tolls doesn’t even cross your mind.) You’re not even looking at the return trip schedules yet and Metra’s mode choice is already in significant danger, even though the trip home is “free”.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, a similar family of four wants to head to the Chicago Auto Show from Michigan City. They’ll check the South Shore Line schedules, and then see on the website that their ride there is free. “Neat! Why would I pay for parking and tolls when I can ride the train there for free?! And it’s only $20.50 for the four of us to ride the train back home.”

As someone who has built an entire website around train crawls, it pains me to say this, but I’m offering up a pilot study for Metra to consider to try boosting weekend ridership:

Kill the Weekend Pass.

That’s not an easy thing for me to say, especially because the Weekend Pass is by far one of the best values in transit fares, to the point where it’s actually something that other commuter railroads are trying. Messaging the Weekend Pass’s demise would also take some finesse.

But it can be done. Get rid of the Weekend Pass and replace it with two things: First, downgrade the Weekend Pass to a Weekend Day Pass: the same unlimited rides, system-wide, for $10, but only for a single day (Saturday OR Sunday, not Saturday AND Sunday).

Second: make all weekend inbound trains free.

Think about that: Metra will get you downtown for free, you just pay for the return trip. For most riders, that would be the standard full fare ticket, which systemwide is less than $10. However, per person, assuming most riders are in the Zone D-F band, that’s only about $3 cheaper than what they’re paying now. Considering Metra’s core demographic is (and likely always will be) suburbanites heading downtown, focus on getting them downtown and they’re a captive audience. It’s an easier message, too: right now, Metra faces headwinds trying to market the Weekend Pass for groups bigger than about three people: it’s easy to find parking, even in the heart of the theatre district or up in Wrigleyville, for less than $30 a car. But “leave the car at home, we’ll take you downtown for free” can be a much stronger message that could be enough to encourage people to switch over to Metra, even if they’re only saving a buck or two.

This also should (theoretically) reduce the unintentional fare evasion that frequently happens on weekend trains, as conductors can concentrate their efforts on collecting fares for people leaving the downtown terminals, which from my personal observations is where conductors are most effective in terms of collecting the most fares. (In the long run, Metra should eventually switch over to proof-of-payment for all fare collection, full stop. But in the meantime, if Metra’s unwilling to abandon the conductor fare collection model, this will at least reduce uncollected fare issues.)

There are downsides to this approach: namely, it costs money, and without knowing weekend ridership numbers there’s no guarantee Metra wouldn’t end up losing money compared to the current Weekend Pass system. Free inbound trains would also make transfers more costly between lines, which is why I’m proposing maintaining a $10 all-inclusive option. (By cutting it back to a single day instead of both days of the weekend, I think the financials of this kind of proposal would pencil out a little more cleanly than without it. And, you know, gotta keep the crawls going.) I could also see Metra having concerns about Zone B-C “freeloaders” who would use Metra to get downtown fare-free and simply take the CTA back home, but that’s more of an indictment of the RTA’s ongoing lack of integrated fares than a reason not to try something that would stimulate more suburban ridership.

I’d hate to see the Weekend Pass go, but I also doubt that a free weekend inbound proposal would actually go anywhere since this is just me spitballing. However, it’s worth discussing how people use (or don’t use) Metra on the weekends and how Metra can be competitive when its inherent peak-period advantages in travel time and parking costs both disappear off-peak. I think it’s long overdue for Metra to dive deeper into weekend ridership and better understand where people are going, how people are getting there (whether on Metra or not), and what it’d take to get more people onboard trains.

Of course, if Metra actually wants to significantly move the needle on weekend ridership, they just need to change the schedules. At any price point, why would I take Metra to a 7:10pm Sox game at Guaranteed Rate Field when my return options are leaving the game early to get back to Union Station by 10:40pm or figuring out how to kill an hour waiting for the 12:40am? While more service is generally better, I’m confident there are still improvements that could be made with the same number of trains running either on different headways or at different times.

The important thing is, whatever it is that lit a fire under Metra to take weekend ridership losses more seriously, it’s the best gift we as a region could get, provided it evolves into action on boosting weekend ridership. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Metra continues to look at targeted strategies focused on building ridership rather than doomsday service cuts where service is already too infrequent and unreliable.