San Francisco's subway is so packed it paid people to not commute at rush hour

Bay area rapid transit bart san francisco subwayJustin Sullivan/GettyA BART train is seen through a fence in San Francisco, California.

In an effort to turn its subway system into less of a hot and sweaty mess, the city of San Francisco introduced the country’s first transit incentives program in August, giving passengers cash rewards for commuting outside of rush hour.

The six-month trial is over, and the results are mixed, as The Atlantic’s CityLab reports.

First, the good news: About 18,000 people participated in the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Perks program, well above agency’s estimates.

On the downside, an average of 250 passengers actually shifted their commute to miss the 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. rush hour, when BART turns into a sardine can on rails. Of the 2,600 Perks participants who used to ride during peak time, 10% made the switch after the Perks launch.

So while the program had wide reach, relatively few took advantage of it.

The experiment, which lasted from the end of August 2016 through February 2017, is
based on the economic theory of nudging, “wherein even a small reward can lead to adjustments in behaviour,” according to a statement from BART.

Bay area rapid transit bart san francisco subwayMario Tama/GettyCommuters wait in a San Francisco transit station during the morning rush-hour.

The program was surprisingly complicated, which may have turned off enrollees. Upon launch, it required a four-page Frequently Asked Questions document to fully explain how it worked. Plus, the payout was marginal.

The Perks program awarded points per mile travelled on BART during “bonus hours,” which occurred on weekdays during the hours before and after peak time. Participants were assigned a status — bronze, silver, gold, or platinum — based on how they often travelled during bonus hours. A thousand points could be exchanged for $US1.

On average, riders made just $US3 per month.

BART is in the process of completely a full analysis of the program, which will help it determine where it goes from here. In a statement, the agency said it hoped to better target individuals who are frequent riders during rush hour to reduce crowding.

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