Greater Greater Washington

Metro doesn't need just any "monthly pass"

At a finance committee meeting on Thursday, WMATA board members approved putting "a monthly pass" on the docket, without providing much detail. Metro now has an opportunity to provide a needed and valuable monthly pass, or they can hinder the process by creating a pass nobody wants.


Photo by aaron13251 on Flickr.

During the meeting, discussion about various passes showed differences of opinion about what a monthly pass would be good for. Metro has proposed getting rid of the all-day rail pass, stating that the pass is not popular. Similarly, Metro cited lack of interest when they proposed discontinuing the short rail pass.

Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal pointed to the SmarTrip card as one reason that riders wouldn't need a pass. She stated that since SmarTrip holders don't typically know the balance on the card, and don't always know what trips will cost them, customers wouldn't benefit from a monthly pass where additional trips are free.

Kissal also compared Metro to London's Tube, which has passes available in daily, weekly, monthly, and annual time periods. According to Kissal, the Tube gets a lot of tourists, while Metro has a larger proportion of commuters. She stated that there might be a place for passes but it might not be for the majority of riders.

As we have advocated before on Greater Greater Washington, the best "audience" for passes in the Metro fare system is front and center: daily peak commuters.

In our view, customers who pay for their regular, daily commute should get the rest of their trips included on a monthly pass. This is similar to many transit agencies around the country, including Portland's TriMet, Philadelphia's SEPTA, Chicago's CTA, and San Francisco's MUNI. Metro's time and distance based fares complicate the issue, but an innovation in Puget Sound makes monthly passes possible even with a variable fare system.

For most transit agencies, a monthly pass is typically a multiple of the single ride price. This multiple is usually around 3840, which is the number of trips people typically take in a month to commute to a regular office job. Since most transit systems have only one adult fare, there is often only one monthly pass.

Metro's system has many possible fares. If Metro sold only one monthly pass that was valid for any trip, the price of the pass must be high enough to prevent a lot of revenue lost when people switch to passes from per-ride payment.

With Metro's proposed maximum fare of $5.75, this would make a monthly unlimited pass about $230 per month. However, most people spend far less than this per month and take much shorter trips, so a $230 pass would not be a sensible option for them. If Metro sold a monthly unlimited pass for only $150, a lot of revenue would be lost from commuters who are normally paying more than that today.

Puget Sound's innovative solution was to sell passes at varying prices via the PugetPass (Minneapolis/St. Paul's Metro Transit also has a flexible pass option). Logically, more expensive passes would be valid for more expensive trips, and less expensive passes would be valid for less expensive trips. Customers could choose a pass based on their typical trip and pay a reasonable amount for a month's worth of transit.

WMATA's finance committee has requested that the proposed public docket for board approval include a monthly pass. What kind of pass Metro offers will have a huge impact on how popular the pass is. If Metro only offers a $230 unlimited pass, few people outside of long-distance commuters will be interested. The unpopular pass will be discontinued, and the idea of monthly passes will be branded a failure.

Instead, Metro should offer a monthly pass good for unlimited short trips. For $120 a month, Metro could offer unlimited trips of $3 or less. Trips that cost more than $3 would be discounted so that you only pay the difference automatically from your SmarTrip balance.

When they requested a monthly pass option, board members cited various reasons for the request. Many pointed out that off-peak rail service has become full of delays and disruptions, and asking customers to pay more for poorer service didn't appeal to them.

Some pointed out that customers would like to chain their trips, performing errands such as shopping or picking up dry cleaning along the way. Others stated that customers might go out to eat at night or on weekends, and having a pass might entice them to take transit instead of drive. All of these uses would be met with a pass where the additional free trips are significantly cheaper than the maximum distance peak fare.

This pass would be an excellent start to a monthly pass system which offers a pass at every fare level. After a medium-value pass proves its worth to customers, Metro could start offering short trip passes for customers that live near the center of the city, and longer passes for customers that live further away and therefore take longer trips on average.

Eventually, a range of passes would be available, and all regular Metro riders could choose the pass that best suits them without being a big revenue loss for Metro.

Metro should take this opportunity to introduce a monthly pass that makes sense and prove that it's a good idea for our region.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia. 

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There should be a semester pass for college students like there is in Boston.

by Anuli on Jan 23, 2012 10:38 am • linkreport

@Anuli: Is your college willing to fund it?

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

When we visited New York last Summer for the first time, we got a couple of unlimited week-long farecards. It was amazing. I LOVED being able to move around that amazing city with ease and not once having to care about how much it would cost, or running out of money, or what not.

Now, Washington's mass transit system is a far cry from New York's, but the ideal remains - when people have the idea that they can get anywhere in town for 'free' [once it's paid for], they will, and everyone benefits - businesses, customers, etc. It's not like one person riding a train 100 times is costing the system more than the person who rides it once. The train's going to run either way.

by Andrew on Jan 23, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

You haven't addressed the pass issue as it relates to buses. I primarily take the bus and right now you can only buy weekly bus passes (which you can get on Smart card). I have been hoping that a monthly bus pass would be put into effect. Please revisit this conversation for bus riders!

by GMM on Jan 23, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

@Mperkins; you've laid a good case for the pass and benefits for users. What I still don't see (and perhaps I've missed) are the benefits fro WMATA.

by charlie on Jan 23, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

@Charlie: benefits to metro are getting a consistent stream of revenue from people that buy passes on subscription. WMATA is only giving up revenue from relatively empty trains during offpeak. Also, if you have a pass and end up sick or take a day of leave, WMATA already has received some money from you when you bought the pass thinking you might take that trip.

@GMM: the bus issue is complicated because WMATA charges separate fares for rail and bus. Eventually I would like to see a system where the monthly pass price could be applied to your bus and rail fares equally.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

@Charlie: The other benefit is that you satisfy the request of at least four sitting board members.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

@Michael

I think you need more than a consistent stream of revenue. That's not much of a benefit, really - it's neutral at best - i.e. not a negative.

The argument should be made that passes will increase off-peak ridership, and increasing off-peak ridership is a means to encouraging more transit-oriented lifestyles and therefore building a broader coalition of support from said riders in their various political jurisdictions.

by Alex B. on Jan 23, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

@Mperkins; thanks. I now remember you making the first argument. Again, much like the passes themselves, not sure I buy it. The revenue loss during snow days or snow weeks should be more minimal.

The point about the board members, however, is new to me.

by charlie on Jan 23, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

Another benefit of a pass system - one that kicks in when MOST riders have passes - is that METRO can run "free" days (and other reduced-fare promotions) without foregoing significant revenue from regular commuters.

by egk on Jan 23, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

@Alex B makes a good point. Another point would be that passes protect regular customers from fare increases in the off-peak. Therefore, off-peak fares could be a higher fraction of the peak fares. However, Metro seems to be going to higher off-peak fares regardless of the existence of passes.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 11:24 am • linkreport

@charlie: what's the revenue loss today due to lots of federal workers riding during the non-peak hour compared to peak hour? (200,000 workers * about $1.50 difference in fare for each person?)

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

Under this scenario, can I use the pass to take the train from White Flint to Dupont Circle, provided that I stop for coffee in Bethesda?

by JimT on Jan 23, 2012 11:29 am • linkreport

@ Michael Perkins ; unless the feds claw that back for this month or next month's transit benefit -- absolutely nothing.

And as far as I've heard (the GF is a fed, so secord order information here) there is nothing about removing the peak of peak calcluation from the benefit.

The $1 she saved will get spent. Illegal, I know. And perhaps not spent in WMATA (circulator, for instance)

by charlie on Jan 23, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

@JimT You can do that now, with the metro short trip pass.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

Monthly passes for rail lines with varying fares have been worked out before. I had one in Japan in 1997.

Basically, I would pay the monthly fare for a trip from station A (eg: Dupont Circle) to station B (Silver Spring). I could then enter or exit at any station between the two for 'free.' If I entered or exited at other stations I would go to the 'exit fare' machines and pay the difference (I think SmartTrip cards could do this automatically now).

With Metro, maybe you would have to designate a route if there are multiple ways to get from station A to station B.

In Japan, I know there were a number of trips I would take just beyond my commuting zone because the price was only marginally more. Using the example above, if I wanted to go out in Adams Morgan and started in Silver Spring I would only need to pay for the Dupont Circle to Woodley Park part of the trip because the pass would cover the Silver Spring-Dupont Circle portion. It would be up to Metro to decide if they view Dupont Circle to Woodley Park as separate (about $1.85) or an extension of the trip where I would only need to pay the marginal difference (~ $0.25).

by Rob P. III on Jan 23, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

@ Rob P.,
Interesting RE: $.25. Has anyone done the math? Charging a set fee, let's say $1 and the 25 cents for each stop passed?

by cmc on Jan 23, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

@Rob: It's actually the same fare, but I see the whole point.

The way my proposed pass would work is that you would only need to pay the marginal difference, rather than a new trip.

Also, the passes would be tied to particular fare values, rather than to specific stations or segments.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

@MPerkins...great breakdown!

by HogWash on Jan 23, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

@charlie: I think we've had this argument before, but here goes.

Metro doesn't actually get the money from a federal worker until it's actually spent on something, like a pass or a transit trip.

If it's spent on a pass, then Metro gets the revenue right away, regardless of whether you take the trips or not.

If you're on pay-per-trip, then any trips you don't end up taking either reduce the amount of federal subsidy you use, or they reduce the amount of your out of pocket spending on transit. If you don't end up using all the federal subsidy, then it gets returned to your agency.

So unless you do something weird like take additional transit trips for the sole purpose of using up leftover federal subsidy, Metro gets revenue that it wouldn't otherwise get if they have people using passes rather than paying for each ride.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

@Michael

But compare that against revenue forgone from off-peak travel that's now free thanks to the pass and I'll bet it's a wash.

That's why I think selling this from the revenue perspective is the wrong tactic.

Instead, it's about better utilization of existing capacity and about building ridership and the constituency for quality transit services. It's about repairing Metro's reputation with riders.

by Alex B. on Jan 23, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport

@ Michael that is a very good idea. But then again your idea is pretty much a zonal system structure without the name. A hybrid proposal like yours would add complexity and probably would further the deficit wmata currently has.(decrease in off-peak revenue)

by Vincent on Jan 23, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

The pass you propose will wind up being as complicated for users as the current cash fares. Keeping up with a balance is a headache esp. if trips vary in cost--my daily commute includes peak and non-peak and sometimes the peak is peak of the peak. I have graduate training in statistics--lots of it and I wouldn't want to deal with this.

The kind of pass that would be simple and appealing to the largest number of riders would require a radical change in the base fare structure (e.g., getting rid of the time of day stuff and explicating the implicit fare zones that exist) and offering a people a real bargain (i.e., less than they would ordinarily pay).

by Rich on Jan 23, 2012 1:50 pm • linkreport

@Mperkins; we have tangled on this before, and you picked a bad example. In this case, the small amount today (difference between PoP and regular fare) will be used up an "extra" trip. I'm sure WMATA will put out a press release saying "OH, today we lost half a million dollars because of OPM" but in accouting reality they'll still get their money.

There is a loss from people who didn't show up at all -- although those with the federal benefit will still probablu use their $5 or so in the rest of month during an "extra trip". Crazy, I know.

Now, yes, during a serious snow event that shuts down WMATA for a week, it does add up, and then the benefits may be recalibrated. THat is a very rare instance. ANd not to bag too much on WMATA, but the amount actually lost today is probably far less than our friendly MTP coin stealers made out daily.

Alex's arguments are interesting but not sure if they fly -- very long term. I'd also see the argumetn that WMATA should do something for customers and make it easier/cheaper for them to use the system - although cutting non-rush hour fares is easier -- warning, pet issue, and I don't want to go all Doug Willinger on that.

Actually, now that I think about it, the entire structure of WMATA fare pricing is designed to prevent people from observing the REAL sabbath. Fight for the truth, people.

by charlie on Jan 23, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

Yes, it's a long-term argument, Charlie.

It's also dependent on WMATA shifting gears from trying to balance their budget from cycle to cycle and to think about why they exist in the first place. Admittedly, that requires some help from their constituent governments, but also from their riders.

by Alex B. on Jan 23, 2012 2:10 pm • linkreport

@AlexB; even given what you say, I doubt more consituency/membership development is going to help. Look at the ill- fated program two years to kick in more money from local goverments -- DC and MD laughed at it.

If you want support, look at where Unsuck clearly pricks public anger -- lazy/incompetent frontline employees and WMATA's continuing lack of credible communciation. You've aleady got a large, captive audience of transit users but mostly they sit around and bitch about WMATA.

by charlie on Jan 23, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

So unless you do something weird like take additional transit trips for the sole purpose of using up leftover federal subsidy

Why is that weird? If one has leftover federal subsidy, then given the choice between driving and riding metro for free, they may very well choose metro. But, if they didn't have leftover subsidy, they might drive.

I like the idea of a pass but don't see it as revenue neutral. If that's the case, what's the fare increase you'll implement to make up the lost revenue and what's the impact of that?

by Falls Church on Jan 23, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

@charlie

Of course, any reform of Metro must be structural and not a pledge drive. If DC and MD laughed at such attempts, that's because the attempts were worthy of a chuckle or two. But that's an entirely different issue...

As far as Unsuck's stories go, there's no doubt that Metro needs to improve customer service and experience - but that's not independent of the price you pay for said service.

The larger point is that if you want passes for Metro, you don't sell the idea to Metro staff, you sell it to those who put pressure on Metro staff - Board members, the riding public at large, etc.

by Alex B. on Jan 23, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

According to Kissal, the Tube gets a lot of tourists, while Metro has a larger proportion of commuters.

Really? Having ridden both systems I got the impression that the Metro had more tourist ridership.

by Steven Yates on Jan 23, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

For $230, you could just get a TLC pass. it includes a MARC Monthly pass and unlimited trips on anything that uses SmarTrip (Metro, Bus, Light Rail, etc) in DC or Baltimore. I don't understand why they don't come up with a pass based on this, minus the MARC monthly pass.

by Dave Murphy on Jan 23, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

Metro should create an even more confusing system of passes which no one understands. Then they should select escalators to randomly speed up and slow down. Additionally, they should invite graffiti artists into the stations to put their excellent art all over the grey walls.

by MetroEscalator on Jan 23, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

@Dave Murphy: Part of the reason Metro is willing to sell this pass at $230 is the assumption that people that are also buying MARC passes are not likely to need a lot of long-distance Metrorail trips (MARC trips typically end at Union Station, near the center of the Metrorail system). Also, the $230 is more expensive than the current Metrorail passes.

If you were to remove the MARC montly pass portion and sold an unlimited Metrorail and Metrobus pass at, say $180 per month, that would break the system. People who currently pay $5.25 + $1.00 to commute, each way, would buy them and save roughly $70.00 per month that they're currently paying for their commute.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 3:59 pm • linkreport

When I first started riding Metro a monthly rail pass was $100. Oh how times have changed.

by Over the River on Jan 23, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

Over, that $100 unlimited monthly rail pass included buses in DC and Arlington, too, back in the day.

by dcseain on Jan 23, 2012 7:07 pm • linkreport

How much were the passes WMATA sold 20 years ago

by kk on Jan 23, 2012 9:03 pm • linkreport

@Rich: The proposed passes are no more complicated than the cash fares. Metro is getting rid of the peak of the peak fares, which reduces your complexity by half. In your case I would recommend getting a pass for the amount of your commute. If you have a variable commute, buy the pass for the cheaper leg of your commuter, and pay the extra (automatically) for the other leg.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 10:29 pm • linkreport

@kk, considering wmata 20 years ago was only two lines, I think it's not quite a fair comparison.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 23, 2012 10:31 pm • linkreport

My proposal is different from what I've seen, but it accounts for the complexity of the Metro system. You pay a monthly fee on the order of $50. After that, you only pay for the 25 most expensive fares for the month. It works equally if you are constantly criss-crossing downtown or if you commute from Vienna to New Carrolton 5 days a week.

by movement on Jan 23, 2012 10:47 pm • linkreport

@movement: That one is interesting. I'll have to think about how it works. I went with the proposal I did because I had at least two other cities that were using that system to do their passes. (Seattle and now Minneapolis. London's system is somewhat similar).

by Michael Perkins on Jan 24, 2012 8:44 am • linkreport

How about something really innovative: Like a "Loyalty Points Program".

You get "points" added to your SmarTrip Card based on your usage. Those points are accumulated for... says a 45-day period before they expire. They would have no cash value and cannot be transferred to other cards. They are purely a perk from using your SmarTrip Card. When you run out of funds, the points kick in and trip fares are then deducted at whatever value is assigned to the points.

This type of program is surely to ease revenue loss for Metro over a straight-up low-cost monthly pass. Although, I admit is might be a challenge to implement.

by John @ RI Ave on Jan 24, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

I take the redline 11 stops from NY_Ave to Friendship heights back and forth Monday - Friday traveling at 8:30 AM and 6:00 PM. That total is 3.50 each way or $130 total.

My monthly total is never $130 because often I will leave home or work later and not suffer the peak of the peak charges. Sometimes I might get a ride home, stop for happy hour and walk home etc.

Your proposal for a $120 pass would cost me much more per month because of the $3.00 trip limit.

Only way the majority of people will consider these passes is if they think they will save money.

Is it fair to say my monthly cost is about average for the 9-5er? If so these passes should be about $130 flat. Sure they will lose revenue from some, but overall, with people like me they come out ahead.

by druw on Jan 24, 2012 9:56 am • linkreport

@Michael Perkins, "considering wmata 20 years ago was only two lines"? Really? As of December 1991, just over 20 years ago, there were five lines, and two of those were complete. The Green Line was still stunted, and they hadn't finished the termini of the Red and Blue lines.

by Andrew on Jan 24, 2012 10:32 am • linkreport

@druw: do you ever take a trip that isn't related to going to or from your work? If you don't take more than 38 trips per month, there's not much a pass is going to do for you.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 24, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

@andrew: My mistake, I did the math wrong and was thinking 1981 instead of 1991. Duh.

The passes as of 2003 were a $25 weekly pass and a $100 28-day pass.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 24, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

Please revisit monthly passes, its a steady dependable stream of income for WMATA. If you could match it with the tax deductible amount allowed for transit it would be FANTASTIC, and most people would me more willing to take the metro outside of work times. Hopefully reversing the trend, if they keep pushing they are going to push everyone off the system entirely. They could even limit it the way Japan East does, your monthly pass only works between your home & work with everything else being a fraction of what it would be based on your area.

by TeganAnn on Jan 26, 2012 9:39 am • linkreport

I know it's hard to compare, but in Boston a regular monthly pass (for subway and most buses) is $59.

by AL on Jan 26, 2012 11:02 pm • linkreport

@AL

MBTA has had a lot of problems raising their fares and with their budget in general. Some people in the industry think they have been cooking the books on their budgets to make it look like things are OK when they are not.

Consequently, they are looking at a 30-40% across the board fare increase in the near future, see the information booklet here: http://www.mbta.com/about_the_mbta/?id=23567

That $59 pass is about to become a $78-$80 pass.

Also, Metro goes out much further than the T. Metro's reach to the outer stations is more like MBTA's Commuter Rail, where fares are comparable to Metro. E.g. Brockton, MA is about the same distance to the center city as Shady Grove, and the fare from there is $5.75.

by MLD on Jan 27, 2012 8:28 am • linkreport

@MLD

That is all true, and I wasn't trying to say the MBTA is much better without its own problems. I grew up in Montgomery County, and I was just struck by the differences when I moved to Boston. About the distances though, I know Metro lines go out much further, but it also feels Boston is just denser in general (so that 1 mi here != 1 mi elsewhere) but I could be wrong.

Also, an $80 monthly pass is still much cheaper than some of the numbers being proposed above ($130). Currently, buying 4 weekly Fastpasses would be $47*4 = $188 for a month!

MBTA does have massive funding problems though; something to do with debt taken on from the Big Dig project? In addition to proposed fare increases (which I would be willing to swallow) they are also proposing service cuts, including not running the commuter rail on weekends. Rough times ahead!

by AL on Jan 27, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

To sort of echo Alex B, the benefit of this system is getting more riders to use this system without adding much to cost. Alex goes farther to say that this creates political benefits for WMATA. Whether true or not, getting more riders is a benefit in and of itself. That is Metro's reason for being. I don't think any of us would like a Metro that turned a small profit while moving absolutely no one. On the other hand, if Metro moved twice as many people at little or no cost, that would be a good thing.

When we ask "why is it good for Metro" we're really asking "why is it good for tax payers" because tax payers are Metro.

by David C on Jan 27, 2012 11:44 am • linkreport

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