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Bay Area Rapid Transit passengers wait for a BART train to depart the Fruitvale station in Oakland, Calif.
Bay Area Rapid Transit passengers wait for a BART train to depart the Fruitvale station in Oakland, Calif.
Ben Margot/AP

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As riders on the Los Angeles Expo Line continue to battle crowds amid a train car shortage on the popular line, Bay Area Rapid Transit in Northern California is trying out a new approach: cut back on peak hour travel by paying passengers to ride earlier or later.

The Perks pilot, funded by a federal grant, kicked off Tuesday and allows BART riders to sign up for a points program linked to PayPal through their Clipper card, the universal transit payment card for the Bay Area.

Riders who sign up will accrue points every time they ride the train, but they collect more if they consistently change their morning commute from the busiest 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. hour to the "shoulder" times: either 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

The points can be redeemed for small amounts of cash via PayPal, or used to enter contests for $100 prizes.

"The idea is to sort of tap into the game-ification of your commute," said BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost. "Are people willing to shift their commutes if you give them a small incentive and sort of make it fun?"

The program, promoted as the first of its kind in U.S., is based off a similar one in Singapore. That program resulted in about 5 percent of participants changing their commuting habits.

If BART is able to achieve similar results, it would mean about a thousand fewer people traveling during the busiest commute hour. "That would free up a 10-car train," said Trost.

BART's program is mostly targeting crowds on its lines traveling from the East Bay to San Francisco's financial district, which have seen a ridership increase of more than 40 percent over the past five years. 

Officials with transit agencies around the country are eagerly watching the results of the six-month pilot, including those at the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, though they said they have no plans to implement anything similar.

Metro has looked into what's known as "congestion pricing," or charging a premium to travel during the busiest times — a stick rather than a carrot. But officials said the variable pricing would make payment too complicated for both users and operators and could have a negative effect on lower-income riders who would have to pay the higher fares during peak hours.

Metro also cited concerns about getting employers to agree to a more flexible start time.

BART has worked with several of the largest employers in downtown San Francisco and has gotten half a dozen companies to allow for an earlier or later start and promote the program among their employees.

Juan Matute, UCLA Urban planning professor, sees the approach as an innovative solution to add rider capacity without the large expense of either adding new train cars or building new infrastructure.

However, he's not sure it would work quite the same in L.A., a city he called more "poly-centric."

He said transit and car traffic here are already scattered, with multiple employment centers and routes. That's unlike more traditional metropolitan areas like the Bay Area, where suburban commuters converge in a small geographic area like downtown San Francisco, causing bottlenecks.

Crowding on train service on Metro's Expo Line has generated complaints, but that line is expected to run trains more frequently as newly manufactured train cars arrive online. By December, Metro promises trains every six minutes during peak commute hours.