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Replace paper card fares with a single fare table?

Spend any time in a Metro station and you'll see them: Befuddled tourists, trying to decipher the fare table posted on the ticket vending machine.

Photo by Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie on Flickr.

Often, they know where they want to go, but Metro's complicated format gives them three different choices on how they should pay. They have to refer to another table to figure out which one is correct. It's akin to making tourists fill out a 1040 form just to buy a ticket. They may not even know exactly what time they're going to take a return trip, which complicates purchasing round-trip fares.

This is the most visibly confusing part of our fare structure, which has three time periods, fares that vary based on distance, and surcharges for paying cash.

One way to simplify fares for tourists and people who don't have SmarTrip cards would be to simply make a fixed fare, equal to the peak-of-the-peak fare, that applies all the time to paper farecards. With this, Metro could also eliminate of the paper farecard surcharge.

Such a move would not be without drawbacks. SmarTrip card usage is high for bus (78%) and rail (82%), but there are still barriers for people with disabilities and limited incomes that prevent them from using SmarTrip cards. Any move to reduce the discounts available on paper farecards should be implemented alongside improvements that allow everyone to use SmarTrip.

But a table with just one, instead of three, columns would simplify the system particularly for those visiting DC, who are very likely to buy paper farecards. Since everyone knows (or should know!) what station they're going to, it makes the decision easy. You no longer need to know what time you're going or returning. If you're traveling during the peak of the peak, there's even a small discount compared to today because the fare for paper and Smartrip are the same.

There's still an incentive to get a Smartrip card, since they're convenient and offer discounts for off-peak rides. They protect your balance and offer transfer discounts to buses throughout the region.

There are currently six different fares between any two stations. This change would reduce that to three (Peak of the Peak/Paper farecard, Regular, Reduced). Only one of these fares would actually be listed on the fare machines. That's much simpler.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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Your solution involves screwing people over, by making them pay the highest fares in the system that already has the nations highest fares.

Why not a consumer friendly system?

Put $10 on your paper ticket. Ride. End of day, get a refund on remaining balance (if any).

by JJJJJ on May 31, 2011 3:48 pm • linkreport

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn't really address the core problem - the fare structure is too complicated. Don't simplify it partially just for tourists, simplify it totally for all users. Instead of having distance fares based on 5 cent increments that change from station to station, how about rounding all fares to the nearest quarter? Or having a maximum of, say, 5 total fare levels.

I'm also leery that this would be worthwhile to implement. Wouldn't the ability to 'print' paper RFID cards soon render the farecards obsolete and redundant?

by Alex B. on May 31, 2011 3:54 pm • linkreport

Half of me says that this is a good idea similar to the way that the cash fare is handled on buses, in that cash riders pay the highest fare and get no discounts or transfer benefits.

On the other hand, it does seem a bit wrong on principle. But I do at least kind of see where you're coming from.

by Ben Schumin on May 31, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport


The system is underfunded as it is. If you want to see lower fares, petition your elected officials to provide better funding for WMATA; the simple fact is that transit systems are expensive to design, built, operate, and maintain. When subsidies fall short of what is needed to keep the system running, riders make up the difference through fare increases.

@Alex B.:

A limited-use contactless smart card will almost certainly be part of WMATA's New Electronic Payments Program, but that's at least a few years off.

Rounding off fares doesn't get around the problem of having 86*85 fares; it just makes it easier to pay in cash.

A small number of 'fare levels' sounds suspiciously like a zonal fare structure, something which I've argued for and which was characterized as a bad idea on GGW.


by Kurt Raschke on May 31, 2011 4:07 pm • linkreport

I have always found it hard to believe there are those too poor to afford a Smartrip card and why it remains a sticking point concerning changes to the Smartrip system as a whole. Not meaning to sound offensive, but does anyone have any numbers concerning this oft quoted statement? Is it in the hundreds? thousands?

If one's income is so low that a Smartrip card cannot be saved for and purchased, are these same people riding the metro at all?

If the number is small enough and can be identified, I'm sure there would be willing people to donate and contribute Smartrip cards to promote transit amongst low income persons, effectively making this a non-issue.

by cmc on May 31, 2011 4:23 pm • linkreport

Offering customers the option of "refunding" the money is pretty problematic IMHO. It's akin to saying "Put money on this card and if you don't use it, we'll give it back to you!"

A better system to have is one set of fares for paper cards; for example, have it always be "peak of peak" fare so that no matter what time they travel it's the same and no revenue is lost. This wouldn't affect everyday riders because SmarTrip fares would still be the same time structure (of course, we would need the cards to be more accessible and cheaper to justify requiring all DC commuters having them).

1. Rewards SmarTrip use for commuters.
2. Simplifies fares for visitors, while not losing revenue.

by John M on May 31, 2011 4:25 pm • linkreport


There are more issues here than just the cost of a SmarTrip card; the reality is that some people cannot use a SmarTrip card because of physical or cognitive impairments and the inaccessibility of the SmarTrip system. I suggest you look at Penny Everline's article on the subject, which Michael also linked in the article.

by Kurt Raschke on May 31, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

With Google throwing their weight behind Google Wallet allowing people to pay for things with their phones I feel that's the ultimate solution.

Yes it won't be widely adopted for a couple more years and then it'll take a few more for Metro to get on board but that seems to be where the payment economy is headed.

They should put their effort in adopting it sooner rather than later. Just swipe your phone when you leave, simple.

Again this is just to help toursts. I understand that a lot of DC residents don't have money for smart phones.

by JohnDC on May 31, 2011 4:50 pm • linkreport

The only time I use a paper farecard is when I lose/misplace my smartrip. Not sure why WMATA would want to penalize that use...

I am pretty sure that if you're dumb to use a Smartrip you shouldn't be using rail....the linked article had nothing on "cognitive impairments".

You can't see the balance because of bad sight? Good luck. On most buses that display isn't working. Mental health issues making you lose your cards? Get in line for excuse central.

by charlie on May 31, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport


I understand the argument for people with physical impairments to using the Smartrip card. I have read and shared the article in the past. But I am specifically talking about low-income users or users "who can't afford a smartrip card."

Has any one person or agency come up with numbers that capture this demographic? Any time GGW talks about smartrip, the inability of low-income users to purchase one always comes up.

Without any numbers, how can we begin to take steps to solve the issue? Without any numbers, how can WMATA effectively make policy that works best for its customers?

by cmc on May 31, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport

I'm with cmc on the low-income thing - I'd love to see some info on which bus lines have more/less smartrip usage. If there are people out there who just can't afford a card WMATA should be giving them out as it makes it easier for everyone.

by MLD on May 31, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

Maybe the problem isn't the fare structure but the way the tickets are purchased. The Shanghai Metro also has a complicated fare structure but they use touch-screen ticket machines. I remember them being pretty easy to figure out... you can select English as the language and then use the the map to select which station you want to get to and how many tickets you need. The machine auto-calculates the fare and asks you to deposit the necessary amount. It's not perfect, but it's better than what we have.

by Adam L on May 31, 2011 5:16 pm • linkreport

For the "befuddled tourists" in "Metro stations", Metro has just the ticket: a One Day Pass.

by Turnip on May 31, 2011 5:39 pm • linkreport

This is an interesting idea that tries to solve two different problems.

One is that the fare tables look complicated. This has an easy solution. Since the three different fare periods differ only by a standard amount, simply list one base fare with a prominent note that during other periods, the fare is increased or reduced by $0.25 (or whatever the difference is).

The other problem is that tourists want to put the precise amount on their farecard. Since they'll only be using the system for a few days, they don't want to overpay since there's no way to get a refund. This means they spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out the exact fare. One way to solve this would be to offer refunds for unused amounts on farecards. The downside here is that WMATA would lose some money this way (although it's not rightly theirs anyway). An alternative would be to only sell farecards in fixed amounts -- say, whole dollars. This would result in less precise calculation because you have to round up to the next dollar anyway, but tourists would still have to do some math, and WMATA would end up taking even more of their money.

A related issue may be that farecard users don't want to go under their fare for fear of being stuck in the system without change for an Addfare machine, which (IIRC) still only take cash. Of course, that could be fixed by having Addfare machines that accept credit/debit cards.

by Gavin on May 31, 2011 5:50 pm • linkreport

@Adam L

Those touch-screen machines are fantastic. I've used them for light rail systems across the US. Sound Transit in Seattle has multiple fares based on distance, and the fare machine asks you for your destination and calculates the fare automatically.

Long term, this is the type of technology Metro should have in stations.

by Alex B. on May 31, 2011 6:04 pm • linkreport

@ cmc and MLD -- I would say that it is less about affording a smarttip card itself and more about being able to afford to keep significant amounts of money on a card.

This would be less of a problem if there were more places on bus routes people could add small amounts of cash to their card. Currently access outside metro stations is poor unless you want to slow up everyone boarding a bus.

@ charlie - So would you rather the cognitively impaired us Metro Access? We all know how much you love that. One thing paper bus passes did was allow people for whom handling money was a problem to have some measure of independence in some ways.

by Kate W on May 31, 2011 6:05 pm • linkreport

This doesn't affect bus customers. Bus customers already pay a penalty for using cash and lose the ability to obtain free transfers to other buses and discounts when transferring to or from rail.

Metro has some money for replacing rail fare collection equipment, but it isn't much, about $2M per year or so, and that's to replace probably close to 600 machines. I haven't seen anything come out of Metro that shows me they're working on the new generation of AFC equipment other than mentions that a redesign would be good.

The one day pass is a terrible deal. It's almost $10. Maybe it'll be a better deal if my proposal is approved. It's also no good during the morning rush period.

I think the single fare with a prominent note to add or subtract a certain amount was already tried, when Metro posted the Smartrip fares and had a note to add 25 cents for cash. It didn't work.

I would like to point out that London also has distance-based and peak/offpeak fares and they use the system I proposed, but even worse. The one-zone ride is £4 with cash, a fairly large amount.

by Michael Perkins on May 31, 2011 6:23 pm • linkreport

1) In some systems the paper farecard only allows for one ride even if too much money was placed on the card. Maybe Metro could go to that to help 'nudge' more people to use SmartTrip.
2) Why not make the paper-farecard equal to the peak of the peak fare and eliminate the regular fare? Only Smart-Trip riders would receive the 'regular' fare as 'regular' riders.

I recognize there are drawbacks to this, but the tourist books would quickly make visitors aware of this.

Additionally, WMATA could offer a visitor Smart-Trip card where refunds would be done electronically when the card is turned in. It would take some effort to set-up, but the refund process should be pretty simple if the money is just going back to a credit-card.

by Rob on May 31, 2011 6:30 pm • linkreport

Michael, what didn't work about the note to add or subtract from the base fare? I'm guessing it's because the "base fare" wasn't the paper farecard fare, who are the riders we're concerned about here, and many of whom are tourists or occasional riders -- and who are least familiar with the fare structure. So the sign should have been designed for them, with a notice for SmarTrip users to deduct 25 cents.

by Gavin on May 31, 2011 7:20 pm • linkreport

+1 to Perkins for identifying bus customers.

If you are that disabled, you are probably getting free metrorail rides anyway through metroaccess.

This issue came up before. What happens to the .15 cents on a paper fare that gets carried home to Topeka and washed. I think the argument with unused smartrip fares is they never get accounted for by WMATA, but clearly these paper sales are being counted.

by charlie on May 31, 2011 8:05 pm • linkreport

You're all thinking too small.

Two things the federal govt should require as a condition of getting transit funds:

1) mandatory acceptance of some form of stored-value card, similar to the London Transport Oyster card, valid on any transit system that accepts Federal dollars. Cash fares still available (for those worried about being tracked, traced and otherwise afraid of Black Helicopters), but the stored-value card would give you a minimum of 10% off the cash fare (20% for buses, because it would significantly speed boarding time). The benefit is that you would be able to use this same card on basically any transit system nationwide. Arrive in San Francisco and walk onto the BART. You don't need to know how the fares work or what card you need to buy or how. Just use the card.

2) The card would then also make possible the following additional mandate: any two transit systems that accept federal $$ and have stations that are within a quarter mile of each other must have joint fares that essentially treat the two systems as one. So, in NYC, the NY subway system and the PATH trains would be treated as, and the public would come to regard them as, one system for the purpose of fares. I.e. one fare for both systems. The card would see you go out of one system and then immediately onto the other one and calculate a joint fare that's significantly cheaper than the two separate fares.

And joint fares would work transitively -- if systems A and B are close and systems B and C are close, then there must be joint fares from A to B to C that will essentially pull A, B and C together as a single system from a fare standpoint.

Public transit has network effects -- the more comprehensive the network, the more powerful it is. Yet US transit systems are typically balkanized -- little to no coordination between, say, BART and CalTrain in SF (and no such thing as a joint fare, so far as I know).

by enplaned on May 31, 2011 8:18 pm • linkreport

@enplaned little to no coordination between, say, BART and CalTrain in SF

And this makes sense. BART uses automatic fare control gates, and CalTrain use tickets and human ticket collectors. Same reason why SmarTrip and MARC are fundamentally incompatible.

The UK does this fairly well. When they split up British Rail, they at least had the sense to maintain a centralized ticketing system and agency. Commuter and long-distance services across the country use interchangeable tickets, and you could book/purchase a London commuter train ticket at a station in Scotland if you really wanted to. More usefully, you could buy a ticket for an itinerary that originates on one carrier and transfers to another. (Amtrak and the various commuter systems really need to implement this...)

On the other hand, London and various other big cities each maintain their own payment systems for short-distance trips. This isn't ideal, but it's easy to see why it exists -- up until a few years ago, a nationwide system would have been a nightmare to operate from an accounting perspective. Also, the synergies between railroads and metro systems are not always particularly tight. It's a long and awkward walk from the Silver Spring MARC to the Metro station, even though they're directly adjacent.

Of course, now we have the technology, and it'd be nice to see the US and other countries unify their systems. (Sidenote: this could be very tricky from a political perspective.) Now that most agencies are standardizing on ISO 14443 proximity cards and readers, there'd be very little new *hardware* required to link systems together. Writing the software to tie everything together, and getting the various stakeholders to agree would be the tough part.

Oh, and SmarTrip and CharmCard are already interchangeable, so there's at least one example of two cities/agencies cooperating and linking their payments.

by andrew on May 31, 2011 8:47 pm • linkreport

I would think that WMATAs outrageous fare increases are the largest barrier to using the transit system for low income riders. People can make excuse after excuse for not being able to get a $5 card that will save them money after a short period of use. If they don't use it, they are short sighted and not well informed. This is similar to those Federal empployees, for whatever reason turn down retirement matching contributions by not contributing at least 5% of their pay in the Thrift Savings Plan. Not only are they receiving more for the long-term, they are also reducing their taxable income.

by Anon on Jun 1, 2011 2:53 am • linkreport

This is pretty much the way it works in London (where I now live, but I used to live in DC) and it works very well. I have an Oyster card (akin to a Smartrip Card) and I pay £1.50 for most fares, a paper fare card is £4.00. There is a zone system here, too but since I have an Oyster on auto top-up I don't have to know what the fare is. Plus, I can use my oyster card on buses, trams, overland trains (similar to MARC and VRE) in greater london and I think (but I'm not 100% sure) that I can use it on the bikeshare. It's much simpler and it favors residents who have Oyster with a huge discount, but it also simplifies it for tourists with various day and weekly passes.

by Rachel M on Jun 1, 2011 4:49 am • linkreport

How feasible would it be to implement a single fare to go anywhere in the metor system, like in NYC? That would save riders time and simplify the process.

by TD on Jun 1, 2011 7:32 am • linkreport

Tourists would benefit greatly with a choice like 1-day, 3-day and 5-day passes. It might be prricey, needing 4 or more daily trips to break even, but the time and bother saved is valuable to leisure or business travellers.

When travelling (mostly as a tourist), I look for these cards because my time is better spent enjoying myself than figuring a price structure that I may seldom if ever use again.

by Tim W on Jun 1, 2011 8:11 am • linkreport

@TD: Single fare for anywhere would be $5.25.

1-day pass is $10, and it doesn't work during morning rush. 3-day pass could be sold at $30 and 5-day at $50.

Oh, is that not what you meant?

by Michael Perkins on Jun 1, 2011 9:42 am • linkreport

Yes, I've found that sort of fare structure very useful when travelling. The particulars, of course, would vary based upon Metro's current prices and target users.

Aside, my biggest gripe with Metro isn't the fair structure but its incredibly poorly designed fair-purchasing machines (the big blue ones. They deserve top awards for bad design: Look right—put money here—look down—look up—look right—collect card over there—reach down—Big font—small font—all caps—upper and lower case—etc.

by Tim W on Jun 1, 2011 9:59 am • linkreport

This is a great idea, but Metro should create smart trip vending machines and allow tourists to buy them for $5 and sell them back for $4 when they are done. Not neccessarily a money maker but will eliminate the hassle of hordes of tourists befudled why the family can't use one paper ticket, can't manage to insert said paper ticket, or otherwise confused by 20th century technology.
I like the Undergound's map how its ringed in circles that dictate the cost of fares. It'll be a nod to the nostalgia of the much loathed taxi zones. within a zone it costs $1.95, two zones $2.15, 3 zones $2.50 and so on.

Tourists and business travlers (those most likely to use paper tickets) won't stop coming to DC because of it, nor stop using Metro simply because fares increase.

by andy(2) on Jun 1, 2011 10:20 am • linkreport

Refunds are great, but how many repairs will be needed when angry users begin banging on a machine for their refund when it refuses a wrinkled card or there's another machine malfunction. Then again, maybe refund malfunction cannot happen!

My feeling is that user-interface with these poorly designed machines should be minimized as much as possible. I may be stupid or something, but it took me three tries to figure out how to put "Smart Benefits" (from my employer) onto my SmartTrip card. The instructions/prompts are not intuitive, and the slots, buttons, and labels are confusing.

by Tim W on Jun 1, 2011 10:40 am • linkreport

@Michael, I mean instead of charging by distance, Metro charge a flat rate. Entrance to metro could be $2.50 (for example) no matter how far one goes in the system, and includes transfers.

by TD on Jun 1, 2011 11:43 am • linkreport

@TD: And I'm saying we could do that, but the price is $5.25. $2.50 doesn't get you anywhere close to budget balance. Let's not forget that the base fare with a Smartrip off-peak is $1.60, so you're already talking about nearly a dollar increase.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 1, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

I thought we killed the zone fare and flat fare debates with our previous article?

by Michael Perkins on Jun 1, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

@Michael, thanks. I missed that "previous" article, which was two months ago. Zone pricing doesn't simplify anything; that scheme would still charge riders based on distance traveled. I understand that some riders would pay more to travel short distances. But, they would also pay less than under the current scheme, in order to go longer distances. There are winners and losers to any pricing scheme.

by TD on Jun 1, 2011 2:16 pm • linkreport

I'm not advocating this, but one pricing scheme with few "losers" would be a no-fare system, fully subsidized.

It would reduce local pollution by encouraging use of mass transportation, at the same time reducing traffic congestion on roads.

Employees could get to their jobs at less expense.

Employers could hire lower-paid workers closer to minimum salary, knowing that transportation would be less of an issue.

Fare machines, machine repairmen, armored collection crews, tickets, passes, and fare confusion would be eliminated.

Metro could hire repair personnel for trackwork, railcars, elevators, and escalators in lieu of fare-collection, fare-security, and machine-repair personnel.

Lastly, politicians and lobbyists would have a field day shouting "epithets at each other, and reporters would be employed reporting on these "events."

by Tim W on Jun 1, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

@Tim W: your proposal assumes that we will somehow be able to nearly double the metro subsidy.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 1, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

@Tim W

The user interface for the Farecard machines is indeed more complicated than it needs to be. I suspect that it's partly because the mechanical arrangements for the innards of the machine are driving the placement of controls and slots on the front panel.

That's the case with the NYC Metrocard machines, the bigger cash-accepting ones. Mechanical engineering considerations aren't a reason for user-hostile interfaces, though; Antenna did a good job redesigning the front panel of the Metrocard machines around the existing slot positions.

I asked my user interface/user experience design class to rethink the Farecard machines, for a project last fall. Got some good insights about how people use those machines and some great ideas, most of them centering on touchscreens.

by David Ramos on Jun 1, 2011 9:24 pm • linkreport

Why not just change the machines so that you can just put in where you going and have it figure out the fare?

by Doug on Jun 2, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

The best solution is to just set up the smartrip vending machines in all stations

At ground level of stations where you have 10+ plus routes serving them near the bus bays or just near busy or deep stations

1 day, 3 day, 7 day passes which start at opening and pass work for all services (metrorail, metrobus, etc)

Perhaps biodegradable smartrip cards for 1, 3 or 7 day passes and if you use them more than 7 days its your own fault

What ever happen to those paper smartrip cards that were planned some years ago.

@ cmc

Low income people use metrobus so they do use the metro

@ John M

It is not problematic to give refunds; it is done in several countries around the globe. The problem is the morality and ethnics of our society

WMATA already owes users money for the faults of their employees whom were stealing from the parking lots which caused WMATA to accept only smartrip and blaming users who were not responsible

by kk on Jun 2, 2011 4:21 pm • linkreport

All this flies right over the head of tourists who are most at risk under these plans. They just need to get on the train, not try to figure out what peak of the peak means, much less why there are suddenly two blue lines.

To start, sell prepaid $5 and $10 SmartTrip cards at National and Union Station.

by Box on Jun 2, 2011 10:48 pm • linkreport

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