So the wife and I were up in San Francisco over the last weekend, and that meant spending time riding the ever-excellent Muni and BART systems. One thing that struck me about Muni is the freedom that the free transfer system allows riders. Here's an example. My wife and I were walking along Divisadero from Haight to McAllister. It's a longish walk, and one we would have preferred to ride the bus on- but we had no idea how long the wait for the bus would be. We started walking, and I kept looking over my shoulder for a bus coming. About halfway there, a bus appeared, and we boarded it and rode the rest of the way.
In Riverside, without an unlimited pass, there's probably no way we would have done that. Paying $1.50 on the first bus, and then another $1.50 on the next, would have been far too expensive- especially if there were a third vehicle beyond that. On Muni, the same $2 fare gets you 90 minutes of transit, no matter how many transit vehicles that involves. It means the freedom to hop on any bus or streetcar, in any direction, in order to arrive at your destination- or even turn around and come back. It is this freedom which I argued every transit rider should have in a very early post- and San Francisco's system (along with many others, including New York) affords it to every rider, from the occasional to the frequent.
I know that the reason our fare structure is what it is in Southern California is due to a formula that provides subsidies using base fare as a proxy for ridership- but we have much better measures of ridership now. RTA has automated passenger counters on every bus. Smart cards, such as Clipper, Compass and TAP, have the potential to provide even better data for subsidy purposes. Isn't it time to re-evaluate the no-transfer transit model?