There’s no such thing as a free ride 

Perhaps Mayor Gavin Newsom calculates that he needs to get out in front of the progressive supervisors with a far-fetched idea of his own. That would be a charitable explanation for his idea that maybe Muni could offer its service for free.

San Francisco’s city government revels in suspending the laws of economics, so why not add another fantasy to the mix? Perhaps, in this election year, there’s political mileage to be gained.

Already, with news of the mayor’s best current thinking, the board shifted from opposition to support for Supervisor Jake McGoldrick’s idea of giving Muni discounts to 18- to 24-year-olds. Was Newsom careful of what he wished for?

It’s true: Some cities offer free transit in discrete portions of their downtowns, the costs of this municipal gift covered by larger, revenue-producing systems. But Muni bears no structural resemblance to those systems, taking from fares $138 million — only 22 percent of its yearly cost.

Beyond the fiscal problems, offering free rides spreads a sense of popular entitlement, best explained by the "tragedy of the commons," the often misunderstood concept that when everybody "owns" something (typically a parcel of land, but it could include a bus system), then nobody feels personally responsible for its upkeep. Unless a system running on such psychological ethers is well-policed, then hooliganism takes hold.

Look, we happen to have acquired a taste for audacious ideas. Some might think our willingness to revisit the idea of naming rights for the Golden Gate Bridge was one of them. The difference: We’re trying to close financial gaps; these guys want to open more of them. Muni loses multiple millions each year. So the solution is to give away its service?

Who but the political class would find such thinking rational? No question: Eliminating fare takers and tracking down scofflaws, the mayor’s principal observation, would make Muni’s operation more efficient. Ridership would increase, as it regularly does on Spare the Air Days. If those are benefits — and it’s a dubious assumption the plan would relieve roadway stress — that still leaves the problem of paying for Muni’s operation.

Perhaps the mayor counts on federal dollars, the same flawed expectation that afflicts proponents of McGoldrick’s youth subsidy. But even if he knows powerful people in Congress, the mayor’s brainstorm is still economically problematic, which he seemed to admit when he remarked Thursday that his plan was "naive."

Since Milton Friedman’s death in November, we’ve urged The City to find a way to memorialize its most influential resident of the last 30 years. The Nobel economist popularized the aphorism, "There’s no such thing as a free lunch." The City’s political class could do no better than to swear solemnly to apply Friedman’s Law to its proposals, starting with free rides.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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