The Boston Symphony Orchestra e-mailed out a press release today detailing a curious promotion.
Tanglewood, Gulf Oil, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority are teaming up this summer for a special promotion at Gulf gas stations along the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston and Tanglewood. For every $50 of gas purchased at participating Gulf gas stations, travelers can earn a free lawn pass to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The promotion will run June 30 through August 22.
The participating Gulf stations, it should be noted, are those actually on the Mass Turnpike. So this is targeted primarily at people who use the Pike to get to and from Tanglewood, or who possibly have a regular commute that involves a big enough stretch of the Pike that they would be buying gas. (My own commute into Boston, for example, never passes any of the participating stations.)
It’s interesting to break this down a little. How many people would even spend fifty bucks on gas getting to Tanglewood and back? Let’s say that the Boston-to-Tanglewood commute is 130 miles, and we’ll go with today’s AAA average of $4.07/gal in Boston. At that rate, if it’s costing $50 for a round trip, you’re getting at best just over 21 miles per gallon—for almost totally highway driving. (I think we all know what kind of cars those are.)
Is it worth it, environmental concerns aside? Kind of, actually—a year ago, gas was, on average in Boston, $2.94 a gallon; if you’re driving a 21 mpg vehicle, it’s costing you $13.88 more in gas to get to the Shed and back this summer. A Tanglewood lawn ticket is 19 bucks. So that trip, all told, is $5.12 cheaper than it would have been last year, keeping ticket prices level for sake of argument. (The break-even mileage on that calculation is 15.46 mpg; worse than that, and you’re still paying more compared with 2007.)
But here’s the odd thing: if you have a car with decent mileage, it’s not much of a deal at all. Think of it—if it doesn’t cost you $50 in gas to get to Tanglewood and back, you’re going to need to go twice in order to get the free pass. The break-even for two Boston-Tanglewood round-trips in order to collect one free pass is 30.92 mpg; if your mileage is between 22 and 30 mpg, you lose money compared with last year. Here’s the breakdown for the official vehicle of Soho the Dog, the 1999 Honda Civic (29 mpg):
260 miles round trip x 2=520 miles
520 miles/29 mpg=17.93 gallons
(17.93 gallons x $2.94/gal) + $38 [two tickets] = $90.71 
(17.93 gallons x $4.07/gal) + $19 [one ticket] = $91.97 
(Mileage is from Boston for comparison; in reality, I’d be coming from Framingham, which is only 111 miles one-way, but even then, I’m only saving $1.70 over last year.) Above the 30.92 threshold, you’re saving money, but in order to match the 21 mpg one-trip savings of $5.12, you’ll need to be getting at least 42 mpg.
So this is a promotion tailored to people who own cars that get a) lousy but not abysmal mileage, or b) spectacular mileage. I’d be more inclined to regard this as a good idea if all Massachusetts Gulf stations were participating; even trying to drive less, I’ll almost certainly be buying two or three free passes worth of gas this summer. But by limiting it to stations on the Pike, it’s clearly aimed at those people driving the Pike to get to Tanglewood.
This will probably be a boost for sales at those participating Gulf stations and Pike toll revenues. Is it all that good a deal for Tanglewood? Here’s the thing—parking at Tanglewood is, to its credit, free. In other words, Tanglewood’s take doesn’t depend at all on how people actually get there. The argument is that, by making it less of a financial hassle to cover the distance, more people will show up (and presumably buy at least one more ticket in addition to the free one). But might that subsidy be better spent enlarging the Tanglewood bus service? The BSO actually runs buses out to Tanglewood for $30 round-trip—a deal if your vehicle gets less than 35 mpg these days—but it’s a limited schedule, Fridays and Saturdays only. Make that schedule more flexible, and I’d bet they’d get a lot of takers. (Including those prospective patrons with no car at all, who might be more inclined to buy a lawn ticket than someone who could afford to blow fifty bucks on gas.) And it’s a somewhat greener option to boot.
And if that doesn’t get people in the door?