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Metro's proposed monthly pass could serve more riders

An unlimited-use pass could allow Metro to reward their most frequent customers and increase off-peak usage. But the pass needs to be well-designed if it's going to succeed. A good pass system needs to work on SmarTrip, offer price levels that would work for many commuters, and provide enough of a discount to be worthwhile.

Photo by jcolman on Flickr.

System shutdowns for track maintenance and replacement are making rail service outside of peak hours worse. Unlimited monthly passes would allow customers to get their off-peak trips for free, giving them reasons to keep riding even though the service has degraded during maintenance.

A pass would let customers pay a lump sum up front each month, then ride as much as they want. The proposal has merit, but will likely prove unpopular unless it is tweaked to provide a better deal than the weekly paper pass that already exists.

Under Metro's proposal, riders could choose from two differently-priced 28-day passes, good for trips up to $3.25 or unlimited. Any trip of the pass value or less would be free. If customers use a pass for a more expensive trip than the cap, they'll pay the difference.

Passes need to be on SmarTrip

Metro's pass proposal calls for using paper farecards, at least initially, for the monthly pass. But that will depress use of the passes, as it does with the two existing weekly passes.

The weekly rail fast pass and short trip pass are not popular, in part because paper farecards are inconvenient and relatively fragile. The short trip pass is especially inconvenient since it requires Metro customers to carry exact change for every ride that is more than $3.25. With a Smartrip card, this extra fare could be automatically deducted from stored value.

The risk of damaging the card combined with the need to carry a bunch of coins for more expensive trips tilts the field away from using passes. And the calculus is even worse for a pass that needs to last a full month rather than a week. If the new passes are paper-only, customers likely won't buy enough of them to make the new passes worthwhile.

Add a 3rd tier for the shortest trips

While a choose-your-own-value pass is ideal, Metro believes it's too technically complex to implement. But they could improve upon their proposal by adding a third tier for shorter trips.

The two existing passes are good for trips up to $3.25 and up to maximum fare. This offers a good deal for customers that regularly take medium and long-distance trips, but is not a very good deal for customers that live closer in and rarely take a trip that long.

The new pass should be good for trips costing up to $2.10. Any additional fare would automatically come out of the stored value in the customer's Smartrip account. Metro should encourage customers to buy higher-tier passes by adjusting their prices. The higher-tier passes should be slightly cheaper in comparison.

Price 28-day passes differently than weekly passes

Under the current proposal, the "monthly pass" would actually be a 4-week pass, and it would cost exactly 4-times the amount of the weekly pass.

Mathematically that may make sense, but it doesn't make sense from a customer service perspective. Considering the added risk of losing or damaging a farecard, or of not using it on vacation or sick days, customers would have little incentive to purchase a monthly pass instead of 4 weekly passes.

The monthly version would be a greater risk, and would offer no corresponding greater deal to compensate. So why buy it?

If WMATA wants customers to pay more up front, there will have to be some added incentive to do so. One option might be to make the 4-week pass a true monthly pass, which would essentially make the 29th, 30th, and 31st days of each month free to pass holders. Another option might be to reduce the cost of the 4-week pass, to be slightly less than 4-times the cost of a weekly pass.

Based on these ideas, Here's table showing suggested passes and prices:

Pass cost
Good for
trips up to
Very Short$2.10N/A$22$84
UnlimitedMax fare

WMATA deserves praise for considering more flexible payment options, but needs to more carefully consider its pricing structure. If monthly passes don't offer a stronger incentive, customers will probably not use them. That should not be taken as a sign that monthly passes aren't needed, only that the math isn't working for customers.

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. 
Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post
Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Heís a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Very interesting ideas. Clearly lots of thought has gone into this. Unfortunately, that itself is telling. Using mass transit--and justifying using mass transit--should require little or no thought. Accessibility means ease of use, and metro completely fails in that regard. Makes me want to walk, bike, drive, cab or somersault to my destination. Anything is better than metro.

by MJ on Feb 7, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

Good article.
There's another reason why it's essential that the monthly pass be on SmarTrip: employee transit benefits. Virtually all Federal agencies now require employees to use SmarTrip cards that are, technically, owned by their agency in order to receive WMATA transit benefits. Many private companies do the same. A SmarTrip-only benefit package, because it's electronic and traceable, is easier for the accountants and reduces the risk of graft.

by tom veil on Feb 7, 2012 11:10 am • linkreport

some typical negative teen-ager style pushback:

1. You've address the pricing issue in MPerkins last post on this, so I won't rehash it here. And you're not even making the argument, which is probably better. But the rewards to WMATA, as I see it, are rewarding customers and increasing off peak. I don't see WMATA wanting to reward customers. And it is very unclear to me whether they want to increase off peak traffic. Yes, I go back to lower off-peak fares as a better tool for that, but I don't want to go too off track.

2. From readint between the lines, I got impression that WMATA though passes were not posible on the current smartrip software. I don't see you addressing that problem -- if it is real.

3. Buckets. As I understand it now, you have 3 buckets on smartrip. Transit benefit, parking and personal travel money. Given a huge bulk of metro customers get either the federal benefit or the transit benefit, where does that money dip into? And for that matter, would federal benefit users get to buy passes -- which would defeat the entire purpose unless the pass was MORE expensive than the benefit they were receiving.

by charlie on Feb 7, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

What word doesn't appear in this article? Bus.

by NoPass on Feb 7, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

Excellent point about the price of monthly passes.

The cost of a 28 day pass is actually greater than the cost of a DC-New Carrollton TLC pass, which would give unlimited use to not only the Metro but any service that takes SmarTrip in DC or Baltimore... plus it would be unlimited rides on MARC to New Carrollton and discounted rides anywhere else.

At $202 a month for a TLC, why on earth would anyone get a 28 day pass that only works on Metro and costs $8 more?

by Dave Murphy on Feb 7, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

GGW always seems to shoot down the zone idea as being too complex, but honestly this is just incredibly subjective. A rigid zoning system is easier to understand, less vague, and easy to accurately price. It would also allow for an easy implementation of unlimited passes of all sorts.

by Phil on Feb 7, 2012 11:48 am • linkreport

While a choose-your-own-value pass is ideal, Metro believes it's too technically complex to implement.

I think Metro is being honest here. The complexity required is part of the underlying complexity in the fare structure.

The solution is for Metro to simplify their overly complex fare structure. Perkins has long advocated passes as a way to bypass that complexity, but passes have their own merit. The solution requires simplification of the fare structure while also offering passes.

A straight-up zone system isn't likely a good fit, but Metro could stay true to the existing fare principles by simply reducing the number of possible fare permutations.

Round every rail fare to the nearest 50 cents. So, your potential rail fare, instead of being any possible combination of 5 cent increments from 1.60 to $5.00 (or higher, with increases) would be one of:

2.00, 2.50, 3.00, 3.50, 4.00, 4.50, 5.00, 5.50.

Or use whatever break points would work better. The point is that any given peak trip would have 8 possible fares, rather than dozens, each in five cent increments.

Thus, the variable pass structure that Perkins has proposed would only have 8 pass permutations to chose from, instead of hundreds.

You'd still have peak and off-peak, you'd still have fares based on distance, but they'd be easier to understand and easier to collect.

by Alex B. on Feb 7, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Look, this is pretty simple. The pass as proposed would be a benefit to customers and would make transit use easier and cheaper. The two key questions are: 1) how much would such a pass cost Metro in revenue in net (lost revenues and service increases to meet demand); and 2) does the Board feel the benefits to riders are worth the budget risk?

Question 1 requires analysis to determine the magnitude of the revenue risk, which is inherently tricky to forecast because there's limited data for WMATA to use to predict likely outcomes

Question 2 requires Board members to do policy analysis: are the benefits to customers and businesses from the pass worth the possible increase in subsidies required for Metro?

by jnb on Feb 7, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

Why is Metro using such inefficient and outdated Smarttrip software that they can't put a monthly pass on it. Chicago introduced that EIGHT YEARS ago. Does Metro plan for anything?

by Joe on Feb 7, 2012 12:47 pm • linkreport

The very short pass (</= $2.10) is useless, since the minimum peak of peak fare is $2.15. We already know that the peak of the peak doesn't actually force people to avoid that time, it just makes them annoyed. Why would I want to buy a pass and then still have to pay $0.05 every time I take a trip during peak of the peak? It really would be nickel and diming people...

by Em on Feb 7, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport

I agree with Phil wrt zones. The outer parts of the system function like commuter rail, the inner parts don't. A pass system should recognize the difference.

wrt Dave Murphy's point, I agree but the fact is that the MARC prices are going to increase. According to the WMATA site, it says that the subway portion for unlimited service costs $102/month. Recognize that the MARC monthly pass already includes "free" additional access to MTA subway, regular bus, and light rail, regular Metrobus, and RideOn.


by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

@em: Proposed peak boarding charge is $2.10 in the latest docket. The peak of the peak surcharge is proposed for elimination. Therefore, the $2.10 pass would cover the boarding charge at any time.

@Dave Murphy: These pass prices are based on the proposed fare structure after the fare increase expected in July. I would expect the price of the TLC to increase at the same time.

@everyone offering ideas for zone fares or simplified fare system: This proposal is for a pass system that works with our existing fare system. Since a complete fare system overhaul is not on the table for this budget season, I limited the proposal to what could actually be implemented in July.

@Nopass: There's a $15 weekly bus pass that's a pretty good deal. Unfortunately, combining bus and rail on one pass comes with a lot of complexity. My Smart Pass proposal covers this complexity but unfortunately I don't think Metro is there yet. It doesn't help that the bus and rail systems are essentially separate fare systems and budgets. If you look at the way Metro is structured, Bus and Rail are not very well integrated, from operations all the way to fares and budgeting.

@charlie: In terms of "which purse" the extra would come out of, it should follow the same rule as fares today. That comes from the transit-only purse first, then from the undesignated purse second.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 7, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

We didn't argue that a zone system was too complex. We argued that it was almost as complex as a graduated fare system and that the tradeoffs would hit many riders hard.

by Matt Johnson on Feb 7, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

So, my GF is typical federal worker in DC. She gets the transit benefit; which would be 2.15 for a fare in the AM and PM. 5.30 a day, maybe $106 a month.

And, again, that is for someone living and working in DC, and thus not ultilizing the full value of the federal benefit.

Under your proposal, she would qualify for the short or very short pass. Why the difference between 2.15 and 2.10 in fare I don't know. So let's go with the very short pass, at $84 a month.

That is going to be loss to WMATA of $22 a month.

I have no idea how that scales out. I've seen a lot of numbers about the number of workers getting the federal benefit, but not how many don't get the full amount and use WMATA -- as opposed to another agency.

Perhaps a better way to frame the pass is to capture more money from other agencies -- if they offered a max pass where people who use commuter buses/trains buy a WMATA pass first?

by charlie on Feb 7, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

@charlie: check your math. twice $2.10 is $4.20 a day.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 7, 2012 1:13 pm • linkreport

@Mperkins; my bad. Big difference. So 86 vs 84.

by charlie on Feb 7, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

As someone who has used short trip week passes for years, I can honestly say I was excited for the 4-week option until I heard it was going to be paper, sometimes at the end of one week my card has seen better days, and to think that it has to be used for three more weeks! If they moved to a plastic-y paper card like NYC than it would be fine, but I'm sure that would be to costly to replace all the fare machines in each station to do that.

by James on Feb 7, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

@charlie: her new fare is going to be $2.10, by the way.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 7, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

I think the whole point of passes is to allow riders to get more value for their money. In New York, when you add more than $10 to your pay per use MetroCard, you get a 7% bonus. Assuming nothing changes with Smartrip cards and there are no passes you can load to your Smartrip, what if WMATA implemented a similar policy (although I doubt they will be that generous, but even a 5% bonus for a $100 add to SmartTrip would be awesome!)

If you do the math, Metro would lose less money as opposed to allowing unlimited weekend trips with a monthly pass and riders could still get a couple free weekend rides per month...

by AM on Feb 7, 2012 3:32 pm • linkreport

@AM - They used to offer a 10% bonus if you added $20 or more to your card, but they did away with it some years ago (I don't remember exactly when). It would be interesting for someone to do the math regarding money lost/gained for Metro if they just re-instituted the 10% bonus or something similar.

by Laura on Feb 7, 2012 4:33 pm • linkreport

@Laura, AM: I think the difference between a 10% bonus and unlimited ride passes is that the 10% bonus is available even to people that don't ride that much (you can buy $20 in fare and leave it on your card for years), whereas the benefit to riders with passes is available only for people who ride more than just commuting.

Also, with the fare bonus additional trips are slightly discounted but still cost something, whereas with unlimited ride passes additional trips are already paid for and feel "free" (or at least heavily discounted).

The other thing is that with passes, there's a chance that someone buys a pass for a whole month and doesn't end up using it enough to have made it a good deal for them. If you can subscribe to passes, this would be more likely as people might put their pass on autopilot. Compare this to the fare bonus where it is automatically a discount for the customer regardless of how much or how little you ride.

The fare discount program would require a large increase in general fare levels to balance out, and doesn't enhance many policy goals, while an unlimited pass program requires a smaller increase in general fares and enhances the policy goals of having zero marginal cost for transit trips and rewarding frequent customers.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 7, 2012 6:34 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins - Thanks for the response. For the record, I'm in favor of the monthly pass and think it is a good idea generally.

by Laura on Feb 7, 2012 7:16 pm • linkreport

Wow -- what a ripoff! Over $200?! In London, 112 pounds (about $178 USD) buys you access to the robust network of stations in zones 1 and 2 of the city (a massive area, including more stations than the entirety of Washington's Metro), as well as unlimited rides on the city's extremely robust bus network. Oh, it's also for a MONTH, not 28 silly days. And things get even cheaper if you buy an annual pass.

It's appalling that this Metrorail-only pass will cost more than a pass in one of the world's most expensive cities, and not even include bus rides.

by James on Feb 8, 2012 10:39 am • linkreport

Am I the only one that doesn't like SmartTrip cards? I resent having to pay $5 for it and resent the tracking.

Why does Metro feel the need to re-invent the wheel here? Us the sturdier cards like NYC and Chicago do. Problem solved.

by beatbxo on Feb 8, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

@James: As soon as DC has a congestion charge to support transit, I'm sure there will be money to bring down fares.

@beatbxo: You don't need to register your smartrip card if you don't want to. And switching to the sturdier cards would require a wholesale replacement of all equipment.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 8, 2012 3:09 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins

I think that DC should have a congestion charge, but even so, this is still dramatically more expensive than an unlimited MetroCard in NYC, which is one of the world's great transit bargains. And NY does not have congestion pricing.

by James on Feb 8, 2012 5:02 pm • linkreport

@James: I think this is an argument about fare levels rather than passes. The pass prices are designed based on the overall fare levels here, which are higher than in NYC.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 8, 2012 11:25 pm • linkreport

Too many bus riders are passing up the best deal in town ($15 7-day regional bus pass) because they won't get a SmarTrip card. This pass is only available using a SmarTrip card (no paper) and can not be purchased on a bus. People paying cash on the bus or adding cash to their SmarTrip card on the bus slow the bus down by adding dwell time. The big majority of these people are low-income riders (as shown in the 2008 Regional Bus Study results) who need to be included in this discussion.

by Steve Yaffe on Feb 9, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure the juice is worth the squeeze here given WMATA's assertion that the pass would be paper. The idea is to make things easier, but the paper pass works in the opposite direction.

Cheaper is good if it's as easy, but given telework and compressed work schedules and sick days and work travel, ten commutes a week isn't as common as it used to be.

by Kim on Feb 9, 2012 5:55 pm • linkreport

two years too late perhaps. just moved here from San Francisco, CA where everything is beyond the beyond expensive. their muni aka metro pass costs $62.00 per month and you go anywhere in the city, bus or underground. if you use cash, they give you a transfer. this system here seems like an insane amount of money.

by Louloulou on Jul 16, 2014 8:39 am • linkreport

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