Rational choices

by Carolyn Chase


I believe that the precept "confession is good for the soul" is perhaps the best way to deal with our moral failings. This week's column is dedicated to the every man and woman who strives to do the right thing to make the world a better place - or at least makes a good faith effort at it - but fails from time to time. I include myself in this category, along with most others participating in the public sector in a variety of capacities.

With one of my major interests being the continuing evolution of transportation systems, I make an extra effort to practice what I preach. If I think that part of the solution to regional traffic congestion is for some percentage of people to take themselves out of traffic, then I better be willing to do this myself. So, when I'm headed downtown, more often than not I drive my electric vehicle to the closest transit feeder station that makes sense - five miles away at the Old Town Trolley/Coaster/Bus station - and park and ride.

The Trolley now has convenient "Round Tripper" fares which allow me to go downtown and back for only a $3 one-time ticket. The station at 5th and C is a short walk to the SANDAG offices. There is no question that I would have to walk farther and pay more to park downtown for most of my visits, so the trolley is a rational choice. A notable exception to this is the fact that SANDAG subsidizes parking in their building for meeting attendees. So, I really could drive downtown, park for free and eliminate both the $3 and the extra time for parking, walking and waiting to synch with the trolley schedule.

I raised this issue with Ken Sulzer, SANDAG's Executive Director. I said, "Hey Ken, I've noticed how you're subsidizing car travel over the trolley or other forms of travel. How about eliminating the parking subsidy?" His reaction was, "We wouldn't want to do anything to reduce the important participation of the public." He seemed to feel that an acceptable alternative was to subsidize my $3 fare. Whether you believe this is a good response or not, the transit-parity-subsidy has not been forthcoming. When I brought it up again with Mr. Sulzer in a subsequent meeting, to see if he'd brought anything forward, he pulled out his wallet, evidently to reimburse me directly, and handed me a dollar - since he didn't have the full fare on him.

Here's where the confession comes in. Last week, I succumbed to the temptations of the system of rational choices laid out before me. As a busy person, with an expensive car investment, what's smarter? Cruising downtown during off-peak traffic, parking in a close, subsidized space - or going a half hour early to drive to a park-and-ride and pay more to ride the Trolley?

On exiting the SANDAG parking lot, I learned the value of the parking stickers is $15. Maybe SANDAG has a special deal with their building lease so the costs are less. The point of this story is that people respond to the incentives, choices and opportunities laid before them. If SANDAG puts out free donuts - and free parking - should the attendees not partake?

We cannot depend solely on society's moral virtues to change behavior. Our culture is built in part on recognizing that people make rational choices about their time and money. Is there anyone who thinks I'm not stupid to spend the extra time - and even spend more money for the privilege - just to make a moral point about using public transit? A sufficient number of people will never, ever change to use our transit systems on that basis. The more I think about in those terms, the stupider I feel. Though I would point out that once you do educate yourself about how to use the system, and get into the rhythm of it, it is more enjoyable in many aspects than driving and parking. You can read. You get a chance to think - or zone out. Some people nap! I enjoy some of the social aspects of it - and am forced to tolerate others.

Some people believe that Southern Californians are somehow irrationally resistant to alternatives to their cars and that alternatives represent some kind of unacceptable lifestyle choice. But the fact that a majority of the region's residents use transit at least some of the time (SANDAG 1998 Public Opinion and Outreach Survey page iii) suggests that, at least for the majority, the issue isn't so much a total prejudice against transit--it's more a weighing of their realistic options. In the main, people are "rational actors," at least some of the time. People respond to the incentives and choices that occur to them. Many other factors are showing that people will take transit when it's aligned with their rational choices. As for SANDAG's skewed subsidies, they only reflect the existing cultural norms of subsidizing cars more than anything else. I still suggest that SANDAG ought to eliminate the parking subsidy. In the meantime Ken, you still owe me $2.