Don’t Make Streetcar Rides Free
Change from free to paid rides will alienate users, hurt the system.
Can I call you Hop? “The Milwaukee Streetcar” is nice and formal and all, but “Hop” is only three letters. So much easier to type.
Anyways, Hop, I am excited about the progress you’ve made. Things are on time! On budget! And all kinds of details are falling into place, including the big major sponsorship news from a few months back: Potawatomi Hotel and Casino is paying the fare of every single rider for the first year.
On the surface, that’s amazing news. It continues to show the City of Milwaukee is doing its darnedest to live up to its promises about you, Hop.
But free rides for a year is a terrible, terrible idea.
Now look, Hop, you know I love you, right? I have written in favor of you repeatedly over the last few years. I defend you ardently on social media long past the time my wife thinks I should stop arguing.
But I hate, hate, hate the idea of free rides on you for the first year.
Why? Categorical change. Do you know about the Red Cross and the donuts? I heard about it on NPR once.
Here’s the short version: In World War II, the Red Cross offered free coffee and donuts to American soldiers overseas. They charged soldiers from other Allied nations a quarter a donut, though, so there was some animosity as you might expect. The War Department kindly asked the Red Cross to charge American soldiers, too, and the soldiers flipped out.
See, Hop, a categorical change and a price change are not the same thing. A price change is a change within a category—milk used to cost two bucks a gallon, and now it costs three bucks. It cost bucks before; it costs bucks now. No biggie.
But when something goes from free to not-free, that’s a whole other keg of beer, Hop. All of a sudden the thing that was over here—free donuts!—is now over there—donuts, two bits! And the people offering the free thing now have changed their relationship with the customers, and customers don’t like that kind of change.
Imagine, for example, if Facebook suddenly announced it would cost $10 a month. Well, I tell you what, I bet MySpace would come roaring back!
Or think of the airlines, when they started charging for checked bags, window seats, legroom, or a crossword somebody else hasn’t finished yet. If there were any other way to get from Milwaukee to Miami in two hours, Mitchell airport would be a ghost town.
So what I mean is, don’t do free rides. Charge something, even a nominal amount—a quarter per ride, for example (one donut’s worth!). Or a dollar for a day pass. Or maybe ten bucks for a month.
If you’re free one day and not free the next, Hop, people will start freaking out like the troops did against the Red Cross. And sure, yeah, you were probably always expecting some drop-off in ridership after the free year ends. But what if it’s not some drop-off, but a deep, deep dive? With your riders now super angry that you started charging?
This should be an easy fix, Hop. We’re far enough away yet from the first rides that a change in policy announced now will be long forgotten by the time they cut your ribbon with those giant scissors.
Hop, you can even make it seem like you’re really doing the city a huge favor: Announce that you want to stretch Potawatomi’s generosity over two years, and charge a token amount for the first 24 months.
Anyways, Hop, I look forward to riding you when you’re all finished and open later this year. But I hope I have to pay at least a little something when I do.
For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Is A Couture Deal Finally Coming? - Jeramey Jannene - May 13th, 2020
- Transportation: SUV Driver Runs Into The Hop - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 28th, 2020
- Transportation: Streetcar Kiosks Could Bring In $500,000 Annually - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 20th, 2020
- Thanks A Million, Hop Riders! - The Hop - Feb 19th, 2020
- Transportation: We Energies Will Sponsor Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 10th, 2020
- Transportation: Streetcar Ridership Up in January Versus 2019 - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 7th, 2020
- Transportation: Streetcar Ridership Up in December - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 14th, 2020
- Transportation: Ridership Falls for The Hop - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 16th, 2019
- Transportation: The “Holiday Hop” Streetcar Debuts - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 21st, 2019
- No money for police, lead hazard issues or infrastructure, but let’s pump up the streetcar we can’t afford - Ald. Tony Zielinski - Nov 1st, 2019
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