Free is Not a Price

In a town that loves “free,” I know something about “free.” For ten years, I published a free weekly newspaper called the Comic News. It went out of business in 2004.

Lane Transit District soon will learn whether people love EmX or the fact that it was free. Its inaugural line between Eugene and Springfield began collecting fares for the first time this week.

Free is a permission, not a price. Regal Theater executives confided that I hosted the last sell-out for a movie at the MacDonald Theatre in 1996, except it wasn’t a sell-out, because I didn’t sell tickets. I gave them away.

Likewise, author Chris Anderson wanted his book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” on the New York Times’ Best Sellers List. So he had Amazon.com set the price at zero for its first few weeks. It debuted at No. 12. The New York Times does not have a Best Gifters List.

How many would have braved the weather last weekend, if the Eugene Celebration was still free, as it was until 1997? How many more would cheer for the Ducks, if their main television partner was still accessible by rabbit ears?

Commerce connects us, but we can lose track of that. Money represents the exchange. Free often breeds a boundless sense of entitlement. Ask Eugene Weekly, after their locks were Superglued shut in 1997 because they accepted a McDonald’s ad.

Restaurant owners will tell you stories with less intrigue but more pathos. Former restaurateur Rob Rickhoff told me one, shortly after he shuttered his Southtowne Pizza Pete’s. A woman called on his final Saturday to complain that she hadn’t gotten her free dessert with a coupon that she used the night before. Rob, on his last day in business, brought her the dessert, but also showed her that her coupon had expired months earlier. She shrugged.

“She still wanted the dessert,” he muttered. “I wasn’t going to keep it from her. But I did ask her to please not treat other local businesses this way.” She shrugged again, and left.

LTD is making a mistake when they believe that EmX won’t see a significant dip in ridership, now that the free ride has ended.

The conventional wisdom says 70 percent of riders have subsidized passes, so less than a third of EmX’s riders will be affected. That’s nonsense, statistically speaking. Just because 70 percent of the paid routes have subsidized ridership, that doesn’t mean the same is true on a free ride from Eugene to Springfield, where no reliable measures exist.

Raise the rates on a bus or for parking and you can expect a ten percent dip for almost a year, before usage rises to previous levels and beyond. But not from free. Free is a radical price. Free is more than five cents cheaper than a nickel.

Digging a coin from a pocket costs more than the coin itself. There’s giving up whatever else that coin may have bought. There’s admitting that there’s value for whatever the coin returned. “The Man” got the coin that once was yours. For some, that’s more than some can bear to pay, whether they can afford it or not.

I’m afraid EmX ridership will plummet, just as LTD rolls out its second EmX line to Gateway and RiverBend, and they start the slog through public involvement for a line that reaches west Eugene. I understand the conventional wisdom; I believe it’s wrong.

Any miscalculation will be amplified, because federal subsidies are pegged to ridership. Crunch the numbers and LTD might do well to expand the free routes it offers, especially if it helps the cities “green up” for grants and other funding sources.

The city of Eugene is being careful about its own experiment with free.

Downtown Eugene’s free parking pilot program will end on or about Sept. 27, to be followed by more tests of related hypotheses. Are coins the real issue? A San Diego company can retrofit our meters for credit card payments. Other cities are tinkering with payments via cell phones. The research will continue, but I can tell you from a decade’s experience: free stands alone.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes each week for The Register-Guard. He also posts and archives every column on his blog (here), which anyone can read for free.