The Arizona Desert Lamp

No such thing as a free ride

Posted in Campus by Connor Mendenhall on 25 March 2009

For just two dollars a ride...Spend a few minutes perusing the ASUA budget, and you’ll notice two outlays that outshine the rest. First, the $110,000 Special Events budget, dedicated to “concerts, speakers, forums or other forms of entertainment.” This year, “a large portion” of that money was spent on UAVotes, the combination prize-a-palooza and voter registration drive that netted 4400 new voters this year.

If “a large portion” is 25 percent or more, the cost per new voter was at least $6.25. One wonders if it might have been easier to scrap the carnivals, poster campaigns, and mall-based haranguing and simply offer five bucks to the first five-thousand takers instead.

But the utility of the second major outlay is less ambiguous. SafeRide, UA’s student government-run free taxi service, receives $180,000 from ASUA each year–about 13.5 percent of the full $1.32 million budget.

Like any other useful service priced at zero, demand for safe rides puts a serious strain on the program’s fixed resources. Callers requesting a ride are often met with hold music and busy signals. On the supply side, the service was hit hard by last year’s minimum wage increase, and the rising maintenance costs of a well-worn fleet.

Yet despite the inevitable pressures of free rides for everyone, SafeRide seems to be at least as cost-effective as its private equivalent. In addition to the $180,000 appropriation from ASUA, the Parents and Family Association gave SafeRide a $25,000 grant this year to expand service and upgrade vehicles, bringing their total budget to $205,000. The program provides about 65,000 rides per year, so the cost per ride to students is about $3.15.

It would be hard to find a cab that cheap in Tucson. The longest possible ride in SafeRide’s coverage zone, from Grant & Stone to Broadway & Country Club, is 4.6 miles. Assuming the average ride is half that length, equivalent cab fare would be over $7.

Of course, length of ride is a big assumption here (I’d imagine most rides are a mile or less, but I’ll overestimate for the sake of argument). Plus, if UA contracted cab rides to a private firm, the prospect of 65,000 guaranteed fares would certainly give them some leverage to negotiate a lower price. And of course, SafeRide comes with all kinds of restrictions you won’t find in a private cab. No more than 3 passengers, no more than three grocery bags, no transport in private parking lots, and no drunkies–a liability concern that certainly ensures some students take unsafe rides. Still, SafeRide seems at least as efficient as its private competitors, and though I’m all for cutting costs, I do see some value in the idea of a totally student-run service.

But I have to wonder: why should SafeRide be completely free? Of the scads of programs funded by ASUA and through the Student Services Fee, SafeRide is one of a handful with the least direct benefit to all UA students. I’ve never used SafeRide, and I doubt that I ever will. There are many other students like me, who bear the distributed costs of the SafeRide service, while a subset of regular riders reap the concentrated benefits.

I know, I know–that’s how a government service works. But SafeRide is hardly a public good with broad nonrival benefits to everyone that make socializing the costs worthwhile. In fact, SafeRide users could quite easily pay its costs, at a rate still far lower than any comparable service. Were SafeRide to charge each of its approximately 80,000 annual riders a nominal $2 fee, the program would have a sustainable source of funding, and the service’s entire appropriation from the Student Services Fee could be eliminated, returning that money to the students who currently pay for the program without ever using it.

More important, a small fee would reduce the number of frivolous SafeRide calls that clog the phonelines and keep students waiting. The service is ostensibly for students too worried to tread the fearsome streets of Tucson after dark, but when it’s free, there’s surely a sizeable proportion of rides motivated by laziness, not safety. Since safety is the program’s purpose, the fee could even be waived in extraordinary circumstances, for those students too terror-struck to remember two bucks.

Attaching a price to SafeRide so that users of the service bear the costs through a transparent, direct user fee instead of a diffuse campuswide one would both solve the program’s budget woes and save money for the average student. Even if $2 is too much to bear, a $1 fee–or even a tip jar–could significantly offset the cost of the program.

There’s no good reason not to attach a nominal fee to the SafeRide service–and every reason for those students who live outside their coverage area or simply don’t use the program to be annoyed about paying for it year after year. Good thing none of this year’s candidates signed our fee protection pledge–looks like they’ll all be free to introduce a user fee for SafeRide at the next Senate meeting!

3 Responses

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  1. BRS said, on 6 April 2009 at 12:44 am

    As a former administrator of ASUA Safe Ride, I could not agree more with your argument. I was extremely impressed by your article, since when people usually write their opinions regarding Safe Ride they are horribly misinformed and lack any basic understanding of the actual management of the program or the issues involved. You, sir, have a very balanced understanding of the situation. For over a year and a half the program’s inability to meet its growing demand was a constant struggle for me. We expanded exponentially (well, as much as we could with ASUA hovering over us and requiring three levels of approval on every penny spent) and made great progress, but still weren’t keeping up with demand. The more efficient we got, the more demand would increase due to shorter hold times and vehicle response times. And now, with the current budget crisis, Safe Ride is at a near standstill. They cannot meet the current demand, let alone future demand, yet they cannot expand or even continue to operate at the same level without steady funding. All the while, as Safe Ride receives nightly complaints about hold times or vehicle response times, students are crying out to eliminate student fees! Do they realize how Safe Ride is funded??? Yet I completely understand the dilemma a non-Safe Ride user faces – why should I be paying for other students’ rides with my tuition money? It makes absolutely no sense. A small optional fee for any student that wanted the option of using Safe Ride would be the perfect solution. You can opt in or out at the start of each semester, and that determines whether or not you are eligible to use the service. This would of course present an administrative challenge to Safe Ride operators, but I believe it could be easily overcome. If Safe Ride were provided with a database of the Student ID numbers of all students who opted into the program and paid the fee, Safe Ride operators could ensure that callers were eligible. Callers would give their Student ID over the phone, the operator enters it into a simple program to check for the number in the database, and if it’s there, business as usual. If not, call back and press ‘4’ to be directly connected with a cab company! This may slightly increase the time spent speaking to each caller, but with your predicted decrease in calls, this wouldn’t be a problem at all. I think it would be a sensible, logical solution to the problem of an under-supplied free good that would allow the program to be sustained (and expand as demand required) at the same time it increases the appreciation of its users.

    Yet of course something so logical and so economically sound will, alas, never be implemented by the likes of ASUA.

  2. […] program’s annual budget struggle and reduce the fee burden on most UA students, as I argued last month. But don’t take it from me! Listen to “BRS,” the ex-Safe Ride director who […]

  3. ztonyg said, on 6 April 2009 at 10:31 pm

    The solution to the ASUA Safe Ride problem has much to do with the fact that the service currently services two vastly different groups of clientele.

    Group 1:
    – This group includes foreign graduate students as well as undergraduates who are going to or from research labs, libraries, classes, study groups, clubs, on campus jobs, or the student recreation center who do not feel safe walking around campus and the surrounding vicinity at night. This group also includes single (as in groups of one) passengers going from dorm to dorm or from dorm to apartment.

    Group 2:
    – This group includes mostly undergraduate students who are going to or from sororities, fraternities, grocery stores, University Dr, 4th Avenue, etc. For most of these people, Safe Ride is a “free taxi” and they utilize the service because it is frequent, easy to use, and will get them from point A to point B without having to expend much, if any, energy.

    What has happened over the past 5 years is that the service has seen “exponential” growth in “Group 2” whereas the number of “Group 1” riders has grown more or less proportionally.

    Quite honestly, the “exponential growth” that BRS is talking about is precisely what is killing the program. More vehicles translating into shorter hold times and faster response times makes the service much more accessible to “Group 2” riders. Prior to the rapid expansion of Safe Ride, many of these passengers have multiple options at their disposal: they can walk in large groups, they can have friends of theirs pick them up, they can pay for a taxi, they can ride their bicycle. At the present time, however, Safe Ride is the fastest, cheapest, and lowest effort option.

    A user fee is a great idea, however I believe in order for the program to become self sustainable, the fee would likely have to be higher than what a majority of the services users are willing to pay. Especially since the service has so few (maybe 500) “unique, regular riders.” A $25 per semester fee will only net you $12,500 a semester of operating funds. A $50 a semester fee will only $25,000 per semester of operating funds. I am restricting this to “unique, regular riders” because I doubt that many casual riders will even be willing to pay $25 – $50 a semester for the service.

    The only way I see the service becoming self-sufficient is if it were to go to a “zone based” fee schedule. $1 per ride if within campus, $2 per ride if the ride is from campus to the area bounded by 4th Avenue, 9th St, Linden, and Tucson Blvd; and $3 per ride if outside of those areas (which includes the grocery stores).

    However, I know that my fee based system would be a practical and political non-starter.

    Also, any fee-based system has the potential for actually killing off more of the “Group 1” demand versus “Group 2” demand.

    Another option is for ASUA to sell the service to Parking and Transportation Services or the Student Union and have either increased parking fees or increased union fees subsidize the program. This will also probably lead to the program having a part time or full time staff member as its director (which can be good for consistency but bad as it likely will put an end to it being a “student-run” program) However, ASUA will not part with the only thing that it does that is remotely beneficial to students (the Appropriations Board and the Senate are complete and utter jokes).

    I don’t know if this makes much sense or if I am just rambling. What I really would like is a way to eliminate “Group 2” demand on Safe Ride without the service being in some sort of legal / discriminatory trouble. I believe that this would allow the service to operate at about 1/2 to 1/3 of its current cost and still live up to its mission of being a campus SAFETY service versus a campus TAXI service.

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