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New Metro fare table may confuse new riders

Metro fares rose on Sunday, and the surcharge for a paper farecard increased to $1 per trip. Metro chose to list the SmarTrip fares, not the paper farecard fares, on the fare tables, along with a separate note about the surcharge. This could create significant confusion for the riders most likely to consult the tables: tourists using paper cards.

Photo by the author.

Metro could, instead, have shown both the SmarTrip and paper farecard fare for peak and off-peak trips, but this would show a lot of information and would likely be too cluttered. Or, they could show the paper farecard prices with a note that SmarTrip users save $1 per trip.

Vistors and infrequent riders, who need to look up their fare for a specific trip, are the ones most likely to use the tables. Since these riders are more likely to use a paper farecard, it makes more sense to list the paper farecard fares and have a note that you save $1 by using a SmarTrip card.

With the fare table Metro chose, a customer that doesn't notice the note would buy a card with the fare listed on the table, get to the destination, then get frustrated when they realize their farecard doesn't have enough to pay for the trip. The exit fare machines don't take credit cards, so customers that don't carry cash could end up stuck (or station agents will let them out without paying).

If Metro instead listed the paper farecard prices and stated there was a Smartrip discount, the worst case is that a SmarTrip customer would end up with an extra dollar per trip on the card. SmarTrip customers are more likely to load a larger amount regardless of the price of an individual trip, so this is not likely to be a huge problem.

Further, Metro's latest improvements to SmarTrip allow you to add fare online or have your account automatically topped off when your balance gets low, so SmarTrip rail customers are not as likely to need to use the fare vending machines or the fare tables.

New fare table. Photo by the author.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel defended the move. He wrote in an email:

Today, roughly 80 percent of Metrorail trips are taken with SmarTrip cards. We wanted to show what the vast majority of customers would be paying as clearly as possible.

It is not correct to assume that the majority of people using the fare machines are paper transactions. Already, SmarTrip transactions exceed paper farecard transactions at the machines—and the share of ST vs. paper will only increase over the next several months due to the surcharge.

Speaking of "surcharge," that's what we're calling it. It's not a "discount" for using SmarTrip, but rather a "surcharge" for using paper. So, the fare charts display the fares as they are, and there's a big bold box that says add $1 if you're using paper.

This is all technically correct, but ignores the key difference between different types of customers that use the vending machines. Many customers that use the fare vending machines don't look at the table at all, such as Smartrip customers topping off a card by adding a fairly large amount of money that they plan to use on multiple trips.

The customers that want to look up the fare for a specific trip or a round trip are more likely to be infrequent riders or visitors, are less likely to know the fare system well, and are less likely to be using SmarTrip.

Metro's leadership seems to feel that increasing surcharges on paper farecards will eliminate their use entirely, or reduce it to the point that the customer experience with paper farecards no longer matters. I disagree. Metro should make the system as simple as possible (though more expensive) for paper farecard 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. 


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I just noticed in that picture midnight-3am is peak. I had no idea.

by Ron on Jul 2, 2012 12:43 pm • linkreport

I agree. And the spokesperson seems pretty impressively blind to how people are actually using these charts--I can't imagine that many SmarTrip users actually consult them very often. If they do, they're likely savvy enough to figure out that SmarTrip prices are different from paper farecard prices, though tourists will surely be baffled.

But I also wonder about this:

Speaking of "surcharge," that's what we're calling it. It's not a "discount" for using SmarTrip, but rather a "surcharge" for using paper. So, the fare charts display the fares as they are, and there's a big bold box that says add $1 if you're using paper.

Wasn't it branded as a SmarTrip "discount" when it was 25 cents?

by Gray on Jul 2, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

On a couple occasions I've paused to observe users at the machines. If I recall my notes correctly: 100% of people studying the board would purchase paper cards. And if I don't recall my notes correctly: that value was at least in the high 90%'s.

by Bossi on Jul 2, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

Nice story M Perk, totally agree me and my girlfriend never pay attention to individual fare prices since we load up the cards. WMATA should definitely make their info on cost more digestible for out of towners who obviously in a city like DC are a significant population also.

by Tysons Engineer on Jul 2, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

This article is spot on.

I obviously own and use a SmartTrip, but often buy paper cards for tour groups or out of town visitors. That's the only time I ever check how much fares cost. I've never once glanced at it when recharging my SmartTrip.

by Tim Krepp on Jul 2, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

Oh, and I should add that there is one way the terminology has definitely improved with the new fare structure and signage: it's now officially "peak" and "off-peak" fares, rather than the confusing "regular" and "reduced" that they insisted on using for so long.

But I'm not sure why they had to switch at the same time from a SmarTrip "discount" to a paper "surcharge."

by Gray on Jul 2, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

I'm going to say I actually agree with WMATA's approach on this one and support the way in which they are showing information. While I understand the fare tables may be a bit "busy" with a lot of information for infrequent users to digest, the $1 surchage signs are pretty clear. Also, with WMATA adding SmarTrip sales machines to all stations by fall of this year (I think that is their goal), even infrequent users will have incentive to use SmarTrip.

With infrequent users having improved access to SmarTrip, maybe they will venture and use the bus systems too. The one thing I hated about the paper farecards most was the fact that I could not hop on a bus and pay bus fare with the paper farecard.

Time will tell to see how many people become confused with this new fare chart design.

by Transport. on Jul 2, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

It appears to me that they could have put a column of "+$1"s next to the column of fare prices which a title like "Paper Farecard Surcharge" which (theoretically, assuming tourists are observant enough) would draw tourists' attention to the fact that their trip will cost an extra dollar using paper.

by grumpy on Jul 2, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

But I'm not sure why they had to switch at the same time from a SmarTrip "discount" to a paper "surcharge."

I believe a lot of this wording stems from the laws that guide the way that Senior/Disabled fares are calculated.

Basically, Metro needed to word things carefully so that that law wouldn't require them to virtually give those fares out for free. I don't have the specifics in front of me, but I think this relates to Metro's somewhat odd practice of referring to the "peak" fares as "regular," and everything else as "reduced," rather than vice-versa.

Also, once we get more SmarTrip machines, and cheap cards to match, this will be a much smaller issue. When the cards drop to $2-$3, it'll be a no-brainer for tourists to purchase one. I think Metro had targeted putting SmarTrip vending machines in every station by the end of the year.

Hopefully we can also eventually ditch the current TVMs, and add touchscreens to make this process a lot less confusing.

by andrew on Jul 2, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

While I agree that displaying the fares for paper would likely cause less confusion, I think it sends the wrong message. The message it sends is that using paper cards is "normal" behavior but those wishing to seek a discount should use a smartrip. The current approach, where there's a sign that asks "Using a paper farecard?" makes it sound like you're not following the normal and recommended process if you use paper.

What's left unsaid but likely implied by a sign that says "Using a paper farecard?" is "...then you're pretty dumb". That's not to say there are legitimate reasons for using paper, but a sign like that clearly discourages people from using paper.

by Falls Church on Jul 2, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

There's merit to both sides of the argument, but I think the signs are pretty clear as it is. It's not really in WMATA's best interest to spend a lot of money on new signs that set the paper farecard price as the baseline when they are trying to phase out paper farecards in the first place. The author of this post is clearly on the other side of the aisle and wants to see paper farecards continue, but I wonder why he would also argue to make them more expensive. If you want to make them easy to use, just eliminate the charge altogether and save someone the confusion and extra expense.

by Scoot on Jul 2, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

Scoot: Some people advocating for the surcharge weren't necessarily pushing it as a way to phase out paper cards but as a way to charge tourists a little more, since they are only riding a little bit and are already spending a lot of money on hotels and so on, plus they don't pay taxes to the region.

By that token, you want to make farecards EASY to use, since you want tourists riding Metro, but that doesn't mean you want to make them CHEAP.

Metro seems to have a different priority, getting people off them. Certainly getting tourists on SmarTrip is even easier, because the SmarTrips don't demagnetize in your pocket like paper cards do, but we're a long way from that.

And WMATA just had to reprint all the charts anyway.

by David Alpert on Jul 2, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport

All Red Line riders should get two days each free considering how messed up the east side has been year after year after year.

by John Muller on Jul 2, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

*should get two days free each week*

by John H Muller on Jul 2, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

Forgot my SmartTrip last week and was thrust back into paper farecard HELL: You can't buy a farecard at L'Enfant Plaza - no backwater station here, one of the main transfer points on the entire system - AND you can't use the farecard on the bus later. Oh oops.

I'm surprised some enterprising lawyer hasn't filed a class action suit on behalf of each and every farecard user, $2 a pop, each and everyday until they have a SmartTrip dispenser in EVERY station. If they can have 4 dispensers at West Falls Church, they can put them in everywhere. And don't tell me the sell the cards at CVS et al - you can't expect tourists to figure out how to get from some station to a little pharmacy down the street.

Even tourists deserve a fare chance to get the best fare.

by Jim Call on Jul 2, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

Just saw a guy at the Exit Fare machine at Vienna.

I don't think it was a coincidence that he was exactly $1.00 short.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 2, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

"...fair chance to get the best fare." Spellcheckers like homonyms.

by Jim Call on Jul 2, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

My current thought on paper is that paper farecards should always pay peak fare, and that's all the incentive that people should need to go get a smartrip card.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 2, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

I find the whole idea of the surcharge to be pointless. If Metro doesn't want people to use paper farecards, they should eliminate them, and either create a Tourist SmarTrip card, which can be given back to Metro and used again for more tourists, or, as Matt suggested in January, reduce the fare to a low price.

by Vanmo96 on Jul 2, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

You're a tourist coming off the train at Union Station, or off the shuttle at National. Where can you get a SmartTrip?

And will you know what to do when the card is rejected at the turnstile?

by Dane on Jul 2, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

We've rapidly reached the point where it will be cheaper and easier for a tourist family of four to grab a cab than use the Metro. And that's saying something with the state of our cabs.

by Tim Krepp on Jul 2, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert

If the author of the post does not agree with WMATA's plan to phase out the paper farecards, then the post should be on that topic, instead of on the topic of the design of the lookup table. To me, the lookup table relays WMATA's objectives to the customer fairly succinctly. The design implies that Smartrip is the preferred method of fare payment and customers will pay a "penalty" for a paper farecard. The author's argument, while fair, does not appear to consider whether the design is in concert with WMATA's own vision for the system.

I think we can all recognize that the biggest obstacle to total Smartrip adoption is WMATA itself; but in lieu of this, I don't think a stopgap solution is to make the fare table suited specifically to paper farecard users.

by Scoot on Jul 2, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

I just don't think it is a practical goal for there not to be some sort of non-permanent card available to tourists or infrequent customers. Metro is working to eliminate paper farecards, but the replacement will probably be lower grade smartcards rather than expecting all customers to purchase a permanent grade card.

In any case, you make your customer information useful for the people most likely to use it.

You also try to eliminate the consequence of people getting it wrong.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 2, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

I just don't think it is a practical goal for there not to be some sort of non-permanent card available to tourists or infrequent customers.

I thought the plan was to use temporary RFID cards that would use the same readers as the new SmarTrip cards.

Ski resorts are using disposable RFID cards for lift tickets now. The technology exists; it's only a matter of integrating that with fare policy and cost-effectiveness.

by Alex B. on Jul 2, 2012 4:09 pm • linkreport

@alexb that's the plan. I think mbta has those, but the Charlie cards and the Charlie tickets

by Michael Perkins on Jul 2, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

I believe that MUNI already use paper RFID cards.

by andrew on Jul 2, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

There are some at Metro that don't think we need a tempo card. Everyone can just use their contactless credit card or something.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 2, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

People are making some good arguments for why WMATA would want to have the SmarTrip fares on the machines - make SmarTrip the "normal" choice, make the surcharge seem like a penalty.

I still agree with Michael - figure out who is using the sign first (and I suspect it is by and large people using paper cards) and design the sign for those people. Designing the sign for smartrip fares means more tourists at exitfare machines, more time wasted by WMATA employees, and more inefficiency (albeit hard to quantify) for the transit system.

And if you want tourists to buy and use smartrip cards put a machine in every station with a BIG SIGN next to it that says "SAVE $1 PER TRIP".

Michael, you are also right that there will be a shift sometime in the future to fare machines that dispense NYC Metrocard-type cards with a chip in them (rather than the magnetic stripe).

by MLD on Jul 2, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

YES! Thanks for pointing me to someone who already has these:

These would be better for WMATA than the current paper tickets because they do not require the mechanical systems in the faregates.

The idea that people will be able to use a contactless credit card is misguided - not enough people get these by default or even know they exist, and what do you do if you have kids who need a ticket?

by MLD on Jul 2, 2012 4:53 pm • linkreport

Metro's in-station communication for the limited trip riders (tourists) does seem to be lacking. I've only seen a few anecdotes as I rush through the station, but you tend to notice when you're stuck behind a family of 5 trying to get through the turnstiles using one paper ticket that they just loaded $50 onto. It seems like it could save the stationmasters a lot of time if WMATA could hire a good graphic designer to come up with an info sign that gives unfamiliar riders a guide to the fares, passes, and how to use them.

by Another Josh on Jul 2, 2012 5:34 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins

I think mbta has those, but the Charlie cards and the Charlie tickets

So, once those are in place and the magstripe tickets are gone, then there's no need for a paper ticket surcharge. The policy reason for that fare increase goes away.

The confusion in communicating the fares is a symptom of a complicated fare policy. Simplifying the policy will simplify the communication. With paper RFID cards instead of magstripe ones, then there's a big opportunity to simplify the fare structure.

by Alex B. on Jul 2, 2012 6:14 pm • linkreport


Don't think the policy reason for charging temporary cards more than permanent cards. Metro is still going to want to charge infrequent customers and visitors more than others.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 2, 2012 6:37 pm • linkreport

I wish they could just do away with paper tickets altogether, and make the cards themselves free.

by AL on Jul 2, 2012 6:54 pm • linkreport

Why dont they have fare machines that dispense Smartrip cards ? Why should one have to go to an extra machine to just get a damn Smartrip card in the first place.

@ Another Josh

It doesnt take a designer to figure that one out just put a big ass sign at eye level (wmata has a problem with eye level signs) that says all people must have own farecard/smartrip

by kk on Jul 2, 2012 11:58 pm • linkreport

Why dont they have fare machines that dispense Smartrip cards ? Why should one have to go to an extra machine to just get a damn Smartrip card in the first place.

It is inconvenient but at the same time probably not worth it for WMATA to go and replace all of the fare machines to something that can dispense paper magstripe cards and smartrip when the eventual solution is fare machines that can dispense temporary RFID smartcards.

by MLD on Jul 3, 2012 8:44 am • linkreport

I hope WMATA is moving toward using something similar to MARTA's (ATL) system. To ride MARTA all fares must be loaded on to a "Breeze" card, which are slightly more flimsy than SmarTrip cards, also rechargable, and only cost $1. You go to the fare machine (which are very similar to MTA's (NYC) machines), punch in how much fare you want to purchase, and pay. If you don't already have a Breeze card, they charge you an extra $1 for the rechargable card which is dispensed from the machine. If you do already have the card, you touch it to the sensor to reload it. Everyone uses the same card, it's not prohibitively expensive, and it makes the fare structure simple. Easy peasy japanesey.

WMATA should just buy the same system and fare machines as MARTA, but I doubt they'll want to replace the "new" SmarTrip machines so most likely you'll have a machine that dispenses only fare cards and another machine used to purchase fare. Kinda stupid to make people go to two machines just to ride, but it's probably the only way WMATA can do it given their cash flow problems.

by 7r3y3r on Jul 3, 2012 9:45 am • linkreport


Don't think the policy reason for charging temporary cards more than permanent cards.

They've said it is in the past, have they not?

If they get paper RFID cards, the point of charging tourists more is moot. It would be one thing to have a pass and offer regular riders a discount of some kind, but with paper RFID cards the technical difference between a regular rider and a infrequent rider is zero.

That's going to be a much harder sell for Metro.

by Alex B. on Jul 3, 2012 10:16 am • linkreport

@Alex B: There may not be a technical reason for charging infrequent customers more money, but there may still be a political reason.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 3, 2012 1:45 pm • linkreport

There may not be a technical reason for charging infrequent customers more money, but there may still be a political reason.

And, as I said, that will be a much harder sell for Metro.

If they want to do passes and offer discounts to frequent riders that way, that's fine. That's a difference in policy. Passes cost X per ride, individual rides cost X+1, etc.

However, if they kept the same surcharge in place for a fare media and a fare policy that was essentially exactly the same, that would a) make no sense, and b) be very hard to support.

Moreover, I'm not sure it would make sense from Metro's standpoint. The cost to WMATA of just having someone re-use a 'disposable' RFID card will likely be favorable compared against the high cost of the old SmarTrip technology anyway.

by Alex B. on Jul 3, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the story. My family of four will be visiting DC soon and this confirms what I was thinking. Because it doesn't make sense for us to invest in four SmarTrip cards for our two and a half day visit, and the surcharge for paper ticket greatly increase costs, it actually makes more sense for us to take cabs everywhere. Seems rather sad that public transit is as expensive as taxis.

by Tom on Jul 5, 2012 5:03 pm • linkreport

This article is spot on. I just returned from a trip to DC, and used the metro twice, to go between the airport and downtown. Both times I purchased exactly what I would need for the trip, based on the fare table, and both times I was surprised to find I needed to add another $1 before I could exit.

After getting home I hit Google to figure out what went wrong.

by Kevin Horton on Jul 20, 2012 7:31 am • linkreport

I am not a tourist, but I used the metro system for the first time in about 2 years. I looked at the fare chart to see what a round trip ticket would cost as any person with common sense would do. So, it says 3.50 to travel to Metro station-- logically I put in 7.00 for round trip, not noticing the line on top which states the 1.00 surcharge for paper card. A traveler who doesn't utilize the metro frequently, is only going to look at the fare price listed on the chart. When I returned to the metro station after a lovely day in DC, my kids and I couldn't get thru with our cards. I questioned the worker in the booth, and she said it us 9.00 not 7.00 round trip. She proceeds to ask,"didn't you look at your card to see what you have left?" I replied, "no, because I assumed I had the right amount." all I can say is extremely frustrated -- but now I know what that the paper tickets are 1.00 more. I feel for tourists as they will be extremely confused.

by Andrea on May 5, 2013 6:24 pm • linkreport

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