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Metro fare signs confuse the riders who need help most

Nearly every Metro fare machine has a paper sign on it: "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." Yet even with this reminder, some riders get stuck at the faregates, wondering why Metro won't let them leave.

Photo by Tim Krepp.

Most people riding Metro use SmarTrip, and that's great. But the ones that are more likely to need extra help with a fare table are the infrequent customers that use a paper farecard.

It makes no sense to list SmarTrip prices on the fare table and then ask people to add $1. Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards. We want to make purchasing a farecard as easy as possible, while not necessarily offering them the best deal possible.

The simplest solution would be to list the paper farecard prices on the tables, and then have notes that SmarTrip riders get a discount. Even if these riders don't notice, they'll just end up with extra money on their cards, which they can use later.

An even better approach would be to eliminate the $1 surcharge, and instead always charge peak fares for people using paper farecards. The fare machines would simply list the peak fare for each destination, with a note that SmarTrip customers get discounts during off-peak, discounted transfers to and from trips on buses, protected fare balances (with registration) and a guarantee that they won't be trapped in the system if their balance goes too low.

All paper farecard customers would have to do is look up their destination, and make sure their farecard had the corresponding amount. No math, no timetables, no figuring out whether it's currently peak or off-peak.

WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel said the agency is aware of the confusion and complaints about these signs, and is "considering" making changes to the posted fare tables and signs.

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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Better solution:

Allow users to just select which location(s) they want to go to on the fare machines and it should just tell them how much it will cost. So, instead of a user picking how much money to put on a card, they just pick where they want to go. It will know what station you are in, you tell it where you are going, and it tells you how much.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of eliminating the surcharge and replacing it with a flat, peak rate for paper cards. Visitors are less likely to adjust their schedule based on peak/non-peak times anyway, and they're the primary users of paper cards.

It could potentially capture more revenue for the system while at the same time making it less complex for visitors. Right now there are three variables they have to calculate: paper vs. SmarTrip, peak vs. non peak, and distance. It's a tough calculation when you don't know the system. Eliminating two of those will help a lot.

by Tim Krepp on Apr 23, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

Right on. Simplify, man!

by Alex B. on Apr 23, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

Note, this was confusing for me and I use metro everday but I felt like a first time tourist trying to buy fare cards for my parents.

I had considered just buying two extra smart trips to keep around for visitors and next time I'm doing exactly that.

by drumz on Apr 23, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport

Most visitors dont use the system at peak, so this might actually be a fare hike for them, even if they are using paper farecards.

The system should definitely display the true fare using a paper fare card and not the discounted smart trip price. They probably went the other way to avoid sticker shock. "A single trip costs $3.15!"

QQ does the $3.50 unlimited pass let you take trips over $3.50? If you make a trip that costs $4.05, does the pass get activated and you pay the balance of $.55 or do you pay the whole $4.05.

by Richard Bourne on Apr 23, 2013 12:41 pm • linkreport

@Richard Bourne: for a trip that costs $4.05, you have to visit the exit fare machine and put in exactly 55 cents to exit.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 23, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

Here's another option:

Allow users (even tourists) to put their credit card in the fare machine, receive a Metro card, and give permission to charge their credit card based on where they go. Since day passes are $14, it could say "You won't be charged more than $14" or something like that.

There are so many solutions Metro could be using that really shouldn't be very expensive or difficult.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

@drumz: WRT extra "visitor" Smartrip cards, Don't forget that if you load $$ online, you must use the card within 7-14 days or your online load will not process & will be credited back to your farecard. One of the smaller Smartrip frustrations, but better than arriving at the station on a Saturday 2 minutes before the train & discovering the system has undone your online fare load!

by Bitter Brew on Apr 23, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

Quick question: why can't DC have a flat fare, all day every day, not based on distance traveled? I can ride the entirety of the Philly, Boston, or New York systems for $2-$2.75 for a single ride, and Boston and NYC have discounts for multi-use cards.

I honestly don't know the WMATA budget/economics enough to know the answer to this, but hoping someone else could share some insight.

by Matt A on Apr 23, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

Bitter Brew,

Thanks for the heads up. Though I always load at the station and would likely do so in the case of visitors.

by drumz on Apr 23, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

In a perfect world Metro would just eliminate paper farecards altogether, and have one single card for everyone.

I think in the real world Metro needs to get away from this practice of asking people to calculate their fares. People already clearly have lots of difficulty figuring out the fare structure. They also have trouble figuring out the surcharge. When they discover it, they are mad. It doesn't reflect well on the system -- it gives the impression that the system is gouging customers.

I think Metro should really start hawking those day or weekend passes for a flat fee. If it is simple, I don't think people will care whether they have a little bit of money left over on their card at the end of their trip.

by Scoot on Apr 23, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

This is simply a "tourist tax" and everyone, including metro knows it. The District had ~18 million tourists last year. I don't know how many of them take metro during their stay, but I assume its a lot of them. Between the $1 surcharge and the money they all inevitably leave on their cards when they leave, never to be used, Metro makes out like a bandit with tourists.

by Urkel on Apr 23, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

@Matt A

Matt Johnson wrote a great explanation of this a while back:

TL,DR: Metro is a hybrid between a subway and a commuter rail system.

by Peter K on Apr 23, 2013 12:56 pm • linkreport

@Matt A: Metrorail is much larger, in terms of distance, than those systems. It's almost like a commuter rail and a subway all in one. I can't find them now, but somewhere there are images of a scaled Metro map superimposed on other scaled subway maps.

Given that, the costs are higher than a standard subway would be. So if you take the average cost of a trip, it would be much higher than a fare in Boston, Philly, NYC, etc. Essentially, those going from Farragut North to Judiciary Square (a relatively cheap ride in terms of Metro's cost) would be subsidizing those going from Franconia-Springfield to Shady Grove (a very expensive one).

So, it's basically about fairness.

by Tim on Apr 23, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

DC's system goes much further into the suburbs than NYC, Chicago or Philly and those trips cost significantly more to run.
Charging by use is also better in that is charges people more on what they actually use meaning there is more available for other people. Being able to charge different rates at different times and for different lengths is the more modern, advanced way to do it. WMATA has the expensive faregates to allow this type of calculation. Wasting it to be more like NYC wont do much good for anyone except tourists from NYC.

by Richard Bourne on Apr 23, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

Metro should have a 3-day visitor's pass. For $30, they can go anywhere on the WMATA system. For most visitors, that's the weekend or a holiday. If they want more time, they can purchase the 7-day pass. The 7-day short trip pass is, which forces visitors to know where the $3.50 limit/distance stations are, is ludicrous. I like JH's solutions.

by Randall M. on Apr 23, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

I agree that the Metro fare system is too complicated with the $1 extra fee for paper cards being the straw that breaks the camel's back. I feel sorry for the poor tourists standing at the machines trying to figure it out.

Are there plans for replacing the current vending machines? The TVMs should be replaced with TVMs with touch screens with the capability to show prices and buy tickets between specific stations. In general, a modern TVM with menus, touch screens and displays in multiple languages.

The next time I have out of town visitors, I plan to have extra Smartrip cards to loan to them. Which, of course, is the reason for the $1 extra fews - to push people to use SmarTrip cards.

by AlanF on Apr 23, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

This confusion makes money - so what would be the motivation to invest money in a new system that would cut off this revenue stream?
Why any tourist would still use paper cards is beyond me - but I actually think WMATA shouldn't fix this until its revenue situation is healthier.

by andy2 on Apr 23, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport


"Why any tourist would still use paper cards is beyond me"

A couple reasons:

1) Because that's what the fare machines spit out.

2) Smartrip cards cost $5. So, as long as you make 5 or less trips, you might was well just use the paper card. Two days of going from Vienna to Smithsonian and back to Vienna costs $4 in extra paper fare.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 1:31 pm • linkreport


Why would someone who is coming to DC for a day or two pay $5 extra to buy a card they will likely never use again, and just like the paper card, will carry home or dispose of with ~.50cents to 1.50 left on it?

Millions of those 18 million visitors come for the day, ride metro once or twice. Going through the effort of pre-purchasing a card prior to their arrival that they will never use again, or getting here and paying $5 extra for the use isn't something 98% of tourists are going to do.

Metro knows this, this is why they instituted this plan when they did away with peak of the peak.

by Urkel on Apr 23, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

This confusion makes money - so what would be the motivation to invest money in a new system that would cut off this revenue stream?

Well, since WMATA always blames its declines in ridership on external factors rather than its own behavior, then I suppose there is rarely any motivation to do anything around there.

by Scoot on Apr 23, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

Good Lord. Not to be the naysayer, but if a sign that says, "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." confuses you, I really don't know what to tell you. As for "Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards," if you're incapable of adding a dollar to something, you probably shouldn't be traveling around a city unsupervised.

by dcd on Apr 23, 2013 1:35 pm • linkreport


Why would someone who is coming to DC for a day or two pay $5 extra to buy a card they will likely never use again, and just like the paper card, will carry home or dispose of with ~.50cents to 1.50 left on it?

Go to other cities and you'll see their fare vending machines are integrated with their Smart Card machines - you buy a single-ride fare, you're getting their equivalent of a SmarTrip card, whether you like it or not.

I've used such fare machines recently in LA, San Diego, and Atlanta, just as examples.

The key differences are a) their versions of the SmarTrip do not cost $5, and b) the purchase of the card is integrated into the purchase of any fare media (e.g. they've eliminated paper tickets).

by Alex B. on Apr 23, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

I've done exactly what drumz is thinking about doing. I have two extra SmarTrip cards for visiting guests. That way, anyone who visits me can use the metro or the bus seamlessly and easily and can reload the card themselves at a Metro station much more easily than dealing with paper farecards.

by David T. on Apr 23, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

As for "Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards," if you're incapable of adding a dollar to something, you probably shouldn't be traveling around a city unsupervised.

Well, that's easy to say, but sometimes behavior surprises us. People don't like having to do math to figure out Metro fares. And it's not necessarily just as easy as adding a dollar -- it may be calculating an entire day's worth of fares, often to multiple locations, for a whole family on a system people are not very familiar with. I ride the system every day and I admit I had trouble getting exact paper farecards for my parents when they got into town (in the future I'll have ST cards for them).

But really the ripple effect comes when people are less likely to use the Metro in the future, and since it's probably one of the few public transit systems they will encounter in their lifetime, it does not really make them likely to support public transit in their own neighborhoods.

by Scoot on Apr 23, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

Paper farecards have gotta go.

My wife and I have 2 extra smartrips for when we have visitors - they're so much more user friendly.

Do away with paper cards, and only sell smartrips. Reduce the cost of the smartrip to $6 for $5 in fares, or even no cost (and make up for it later by increasing a base fare by $0.05 or whatever makes sense). The $5 surcharge (though can't you get a $3 rebate or something now?) always shocked me.

by Nick on Apr 23, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport


Tons of people, of all levels of maturity and IQ, don't read instructions. It's just the way it is. "We just need to add better instructions" is rarely the solution to a problem of people not reading instructions. (Not necessarily saying WMATA thinks there's a problem here.)

You know why those taped on signs seem obvious to us? Because we see those fare machines all the time. It jumps out as being different. To a tourist, it's possibly just a few more words on a machine that appears to have 1000 words on it. Seriously, look at those machines. Way too many words that people don't read. And those pictures don't even capture the ridiculous fare chart.

Despite all that, let's pretend they do read instructions. Do we really want people to stand at a fare machine, causing lines while they read all that stuff? And, when they actually get to the sign in question, it says, "Using a paper farecard?" If I was a tourist, my response would be, "I don't know. Am I?"

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

The reason you have the $5 surcharge is because you can take the card to -$5 and still get out. Make a toursit friendly card that costs $5 and is worth $5 and cannot go negative. All future cards will be that way.

For simplicity just add $5 to ALL current smart cards but prevent them from going negative.

by Richard Bourne on Apr 23, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

@dcd: Good Lord. Not to be the naysayer, but if a sign that says, "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." confuses you...

Well that is pretty snarky.

Consider what a visitor, who may not be a native speaker, is confronted with:


I myself have trouble figuring out the machines. If nothing else, simplifying the machines would shorten the lines for the natives.

by goldfish on Apr 23, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

I would say just having senior leadership at metro stand around Shady Grove station in the late morning and afternoon and watch behavior would kick start changes to Metro's process.

I still remember when I used the system as a tourist. First find the station you want on the map. Next look down at the list and figure out the price. Wait, there are two prices, whats that mean? Ok. work out which two we need. Now add those together for the round trip and remember this number while waiting in line at the vending machine. I guess now one would have to remember to add two bucks. Hope the line isn't too long and the kids don't distract from remembering the magic number!

We follow the actions of those ahead of us. So when we see everyone touching this white disc, we do the same. Don't worry, a regular will eventually point out to the tourist that they need to use the slot for paper fare cards.

On the way back, one of two things will happen. One, the card will not have enough money. Again, a regular of the system will point you to the Exit Fare machines. You have cash, right?

The other possibility is that the card disappears and doesn't appear where it has been appearing all day. The machine broke! Nope, Metro just keeps all zero value cards. So add five cents to your card when you purchase it. It will be the cheapest souvenir you buy in DC.

I would be curious to know how much money Metro spends on paper fare support. Shame Metro couldn't move forward. I would have thought the Silver line would open with SmarTrip only gates.

by Duncan on Apr 23, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

They should really just steer tourists to day passes, perhaps with some discount if you buy 3 or more at once to make it family friendly. Probably throw in free bus transfers on the day passes too. A lot of people would pay a little extra not to deal with that hassle. Perhaps they should have a reduced fare off peak day pass too that you can't use from 7-9 or 3:30-5:30?

Other than that maybe they should quote the higher fare and offer a $1 discount for card users? Most people with Smartrip just have a running balance in my experience and generally know what the fare is anyway.

by Alan B. on Apr 23, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

@Alan B.

Last year, I suggested family passes as a Momentum topic. I NEVER take Metro into DC on the weekends with the family. Too expensive for my family.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 2:26 pm • linkreport

It's too complicated for tourists.

Then, there is the fact that some machines take bills - some do not.
Some machines take charge cards - some do not.
Some machines update smart cards - some do not.

There are too many capricious machines.

by Capt. Hilts on Apr 23, 2013 2:36 pm • linkreport

Having recently used the NYC subway with an anxious kid in tow and a throng of regulars behind me, I can report that it's much harder to process all the signs in a noisy unfamiliar environment. I can also report that I found buying two new cards on the NY subway to be easier than adding fare to my Smart Trip here on the system I've been riding ever since it opened.

by Sally M. on Apr 23, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

For those of you that maintain extra Smartrips for your friends, just be sure to get it back from them before they leave. My spare is traveling Europe right now and many never come home! And had $9 on it!

by Another Nick on Apr 23, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

I can't believe they still have the paper signs up! I was confused by this last fall when taking a rare Metro trip (I usually bike). I couldn't figure out why I wasn't allowed to leave so started to slip through the barrier, knowing I had paid, when I was informed of the error of my ways by Metro police. Surely by now they should have figured out they have a problem and they've fixed it?

by DE on Apr 23, 2013 2:45 pm • linkreport

I was in Bangkok recently and used both the BTS skytrain and the MRT subway, both of which either have fares based on the number of zones crossed or stations you travel through.

The BTS farecard machines were so simple to use. Simply select the station you're at and the desired destination and, voila!, the fare was calculated and displayed on the screen. You paid the fare and you got the farecard which you used to enter and exit the system. For a visitor, that's as simple as it can get, complete with different language options. (Imagine the mess if WMATA farecard machines displayed multiple languages!)

The MRT fare machines operated in mostly a similar fashion, except that it gave you an electronic token that you used to swipe into the system and deposit when you exited.

I'm assuming it'd be too difficult to retrofit the existing WMATA farecard machines or too expensive to get new machines that would automatically calculate the fare by plugging in your starting point and destination, and do so with multiple language options. When I see foreign tourists try to figure out the farecard machines, I often try to help them out, but I get confused, too.

by Michael_G on Apr 23, 2013 3:19 pm • linkreport

I would be curious to know how much money Metro spends on paper fare support.

Me too! Now that we have Smartrip kiosks in every station (we do, right?), we're only a few steps from just bolting over the paper farecard slots and going to an all-Smartrip system.

How attached are we to the negative balance thing on Smartrip cards? Isn't that the main reason they cost $5 now instead of $1, or free? I wonder how costly it would be to add a Smartrip-supporting exitfare machine or two inside the gates at each station. Probably too much when you get rid of the tourist tax captured from paper farecards.

by worthing on Apr 23, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport


It's certainly not too difficult, but it could be too expensive depending on priorities and where money is already being directed.

But, I'd think the current machines could be adjusted somewhat. They have monitors/displays and buttons that can generate actions. So, to my totally untrained eye, the machines could just use a software change to approach selecting a farecard differently.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

@jh The smarttrip fare machines display what, three lines of text? Imagine having to scroll through a station list on that.

by Distantantennas on Apr 23, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport


A) Maybe it could display more?

B) You can group stations together in one line that would result in the same fare.

C) You could build in a hierarchy of questions that limit the number of results. For example, since this idea is probably mostly helpful for tourists, you can have a "Tourist Attraction" option that limits the choices to Smithsonian, Capitol South, Archives, Zoo, etc. And, again, you wouldn't have to list them all out separately since many will cost the same.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 3:41 pm • linkreport

A) I guess even if it could display more (on the right side), that wouldn't help much without buttons on that side.

As mentioned earlier, touch screens are needed. Slowly add one or two touch screen machines to select stations.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

The pay-per-distance system discourages the people we WANT to ride transit from doing so. If someone at Van Ness doesn't like the cost of a subway ride, they have the bus as an alternative.

by Capt. Hilts on Apr 23, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

@DE: They have solved the problem - the paper signs. The $1 surcharge is intentional not a mistake, and the paper signs are probably the easiest way of making newbies aware of it. Already the fare charts are hard enough to read withe Rush/Non-Rush; adding two more to account for paper Farecards would make it worse.

Otherwise, I am sure that we will not see any major change in the fare machines until the new replacement for the soon to be out-moded Smarttrip cards is chosen. Hopefull that's when we'll see touch screen and some of the other good ideas mentioned here.

by DC20009 on Apr 23, 2013 4:20 pm • linkreport


The solution is that the prices on the fare machines should be paper farecard prices. Nobody who has a smartrip loads one trips' worth of fare on their card, there's no reason for smartrip users to really care about how much an individual trip costs.

by MLD on Apr 23, 2013 4:33 pm • linkreport

How about just replace the damn fare machines with something new; lets get rid of the 1970's or 1980's tech and replace with something new.

1 Touchscreen machine that has map of entire system and you just touch stations you're going to or list of stations. This would also help cause you could program them to have other languages, since there are or have been at times maps published in Japanese, Korean, Spanish etc.

2 Flat fare in DC all times of day; raise the off peak fare to $2.10 (this would cover stations at the border or just beyond DC borders suchas Naylor Rd, Rosslyn, Silver Spring)

3 Refundable deposit with machines giving out smartrip cards (other cities do this)

4 One day, 5 day, 7 day, 14 day, monthly, 6 months and 1 year passes valid on WMATA trains and buses.

Quite frankly I can come up with a list of problems dealing with the fare machines and faregates

Just look at machines from other cities across the globe and you will notice the problems here when it comes to the stations and equipment in addition to actual service.

by kk` on Apr 23, 2013 4:53 pm • linkreport

@MLD: Nobody who has a smartrip loads one trips' worth of fare on their card, there's no reason for smartrip users to really care about how much an individual trip costs.

Sorry, not true.

I am an infrequent rider, and when I use the smart trip card, I only put enough on it to cover the round trip. And likewise for the extra cards we have for guests and/or our kids.

by goldfish on Apr 23, 2013 5:13 pm • linkreport

related -during the Cherry Blossom Fest, in several stations I saw sandwich board signs that read something like, "Avoid lines-buy a day pass". But the signs were INSIDE the fare gate at every station where I saw them, so by the time anyone who might benefit saw it, it was too late! They already had their single trip paper ticket.

by Tina on Apr 23, 2013 5:13 pm • linkreport

The more I think about it, the more I think there should be an EZ Pass type of option that charges you after you exit rather than requiring you to know how much to put on a card in advance.

Put your credit card in a machine, tell it how many cards you want, use the cards, system charges you based on where you go. And, as I mentioned earlier, it should know not to charge you more than $14 in one day since that's the cost of a day pass. Same idea for weekly, monthly, or any other passes.

by jh on Apr 23, 2013 5:21 pm • linkreport


And would you be devastated if you accidentally put a couple extra bucks on the card because the fares listed were the paper farecard ones with the $1 surcharge?

What I'm saying is paper farecard users have much more reason to need to easily know the exact fare than smartrip card users.

by MLD on Apr 23, 2013 5:22 pm • linkreport

@MLD: when I am buying fares for 5 people, that extra $2 becomes $10. Yes, for my family, that hurts.

Business should be done in a businesslike way. The fares should plain, regardless of how they are paid for.

by goldfish on Apr 23, 2013 5:55 pm • linkreport

Just have everyone swipe their mobile phone at the gate and charge the fare to their phone bill. No smartcards needed.

by Chris S. on Apr 23, 2013 6:11 pm • linkreport

As someone who grew up in DC and took the subway to school (using pink discount farecards -- those still exist?), I still find the machines and pricing ridiculously confusing -- when I leave my pass at home by accident, I just chuck $10 on a farecard rather than calculate the actual fares. It is baffling why the machines aren't set up to just ask the destination and compute your total. That's how it works in London, which has a similar (though much more expensive) distance-pricing scheme, and you learn pretty quick that paying $6.50 to go three stops on a paper ticket is a good reason to get a plastic pass. And the pricing is transparent.

by 20816 on Apr 23, 2013 8:58 pm • linkreport

Hong Kong also has distance pricing and also has the touch-screens. They're pretty touch where you're going (on the map), select one-way or round-trip, and it spits out a card with the correct fare. By far one of the most user-friendly transit systems I've used, and about the same age and coverage (distance and stations, for the MTR...the buses and trolleys make the overall system MUCH more extensive) as Metro. Plus they use re-usable plastic cards for single-trip cards, cutting down on expenses. They even ask you to deposit your ticket for the train to/from the airport (if you choose that option, which you should, since it's very convenient and pleasant with plenty of convenient space for bags) before you depart, so it can also be re-used. Bonus, their "Smarttrip" is available in watch form, so that one convenient item you wear every day can double as your transit pass.

I remember way back in the day, arriving at the DC Metro for my first trip into the city, with a group from college (yeah, yeah, many Midwesterners aren't big travelers and my family was no exception). We stared at the huge fare charts for a minute before a station manager asked us where we were going, when we would be returning, and told us the round-trip fare and gave us directions. If we had better staff today, things would be easier for tourists. As it stands, before the paper surcharge, I mis-calculated my mom's fare once myself. Fortunately she always carries change, so we could use the exit fare machine to free her. I think I was only off by a nickel or dime, but still. The best part of that whole incident was my mom gently mocking me with "I thought you were an economist" as I struggled to figure out the correct fare (4 trips on the same at rush hour...carry the 2...). When I told her she was free to calculate it herself she just said "oh, no way, that sign might as well be in Chinese...I can't even read the print from more than 2 feet away." My mom may not be an economist -or- an experienced transit rider, but she's not dumb. I mean, come on, she managed to hold down multiple jobs and 2 teenagers and a household all by herself for years. But she's a typical tourist, and, bottom line, those signs are just too much. I now have an extra Smarttrip with $50 on it to lend guests so that they can avoid the surcharge, I can just look up online how much they spent during their trip, and they can pay me back before they leave.

I don't really have a problem with a "tourist tax," but solutions to the complication of the surcharge aren't as easy as they seem. I, for one, would like to discourage tourists from using the Metro at rush hour (personally, I avoid using mass transit at rush hour when *I'm* a tourist...I only did it with my mom because we were going to a Nats game and rush hour starts really early so even heading to the stadium at 4:30 we were in rush-hour FARE territory). So all-the-time peak fares don't really appeal to me. HOWEVER, there's no reason that the machines can't ADD THE SURCHARGE THEMSELVES! Nowadays, the machines ask you if you want a single fare card or multiple farecards. Add a second screen that asks you to enter the number of trips you'll be taking on that card (using the keypad that's already there for the pin), add an extra dollar to the fare requested for each trip they say they're taking. It's not perfect, but it's better than what we have. Or just get touch-screen machines that automatically add the dollar surcharge, like I said above.

by Ms. D on Apr 23, 2013 9:54 pm • linkreport

Also, and I may be recalling this incorrectly, but beyond offering multiple languages (at least English and Cantonese), the farecard machines in Hong Kong have a straight arrow next to "one way" and the two-arrow circle next to "round trip." A few universal symbols can make things a little easier in areas frequented by tourists from many countries.

by Ms. D on Apr 23, 2013 10:07 pm • linkreport

An all-day peak fare for paper card users doesn't do anything to un-complicate the process for tourists having to find their station on the machine and calculate how much money needs to go on their card. All you're doing is swapping "always add $1 each way" for "always use the stated peak fare."

In my unprofessional people-watching estimation, the two main groups of people still using the paper cards are:
1) Tin-foil hat wearing crazies who aren't down with "THE FEDS" being able to look up their ridership history on the card, or something
2) Tourists

One thing that both of these groups have in common is that neither of them are apt to complain if they find themselves paying a flat fare. (For wildly different reasons, mind you, but still.) $6 peak, $3 off-peak - nice, simple, round numbers. Hell, at that point, the only sign you even need is "Paper Card Flat Fare: $3, Fares are doubled from 5-9:30 AM and 3-7 PM every day." Nothing's idiot proof, but that comes close if I do say so myself.

And yeah, considering the peak fare is more than the maximum possible SmarTrip peak fare and the flat $3 off-peak is likely still more than 90% of riders would have otherwise paid, it isn't "equitable" or "fair" - but for extremely infrequent users / tourists, I'm not sure it needs to be.

by Ryan on Apr 23, 2013 11:30 pm • linkreport

I have to say, these sound like a lot of complicated solutions for the smallest of problems. I had surplus smartrips for guests even before the surcharge as they are just plain convenient. The machines and fare structures are not at all difficult for regular users to figure out and there's no reason to go through such expense to make the experience marginally easier for rare users. The money would be much better employed improving service for regular users who care more about frequent trains. Or fixing the escalators. Or anything else, really.

Considering the alternatives are to figure out driving in the country's most oddly laid-out and accident-prone street "grid" or to pay for an overpriced taxi I don't think reading a couple signs and forking over a surcharge are so bad.

by LHomonacionale on Apr 24, 2013 3:38 am • linkreport

If the fare policy were more simple, the machines could be more simple.

In Toronto, it's FAR more simple.

As someone who uses the Capitol South stop - it's too complicated for the constant stream of first-time users that use that station.

by Capt. Hilts on Apr 24, 2013 7:04 am • linkreport

I've been amazed for years by the unnecessary complexity of the pricing. It probably costs Metro more to implement, monitor, and fix those machines than it does any other city that runs just a simple, flat-rate designed system. I can't imagine how confusing it is to tourists. My sympathies go with them.

by Ben on Apr 24, 2013 8:02 am • linkreport

In my unprofessional people-watching estimation, the two main groups of people still using the paper cards are:
1) Tin-foil hat wearing crazies who aren't down with "THE FEDS" being able to look up their ridership history on the card, or something
2) Tourists

One thing that both of these groups have in common is that neither of them are apt to complain if they find themselves paying a flat fare. (For wildly different reasons, mind you, but still.)

Another thing those two groups have in common is that they are not groups around which WMATA should be basing transit policy. No need to overhaul the system to accommodate one-off users, or lunatics.

by dcd on Apr 24, 2013 8:19 am • linkreport

For those who aren't interested in making life easier for "infrequent users/tourists" or "one-off users", ask yourself

1) how much faster you would get through the Metro if these same users weren't clogging up the station in long lines as they try to figure out the system that is so very easy for you

2) how much better it will be for all of us if Metro staff have to spend less time helping these people and can focus on other issues to make Metro run more smoothly and safely

by Ronit on Apr 24, 2013 8:31 am • linkreport

@dcd: Another thing those two groups have in common is that they are not groups around which WMATA should be basing transit policy.

Tourists are the lifeblood of this city, and in fact as US citizens they bankroll this place and therefore it belongs to them and not DC residents. Yes, their experience matters, and accommodating them is, or should be, a priority.

And again, if nothing else, reducing the confusion by people trying to comprehend the incomprehensible fare machines will reduce the lines for the residents.

by goldfish on Apr 24, 2013 8:38 am • linkreport

Yes, an ideal would be if the fare machines could let you select origin and destination, one-way or round trip and then just put the correct amount on whatever media you are using (paper ticket or smartrip).

But that won't happen until they upgrade the entire fare system and replace the machines. In the meantime the current situation could be better if the fare tables just had the paper ticket prices. Or if there were just one set of fares (peak fares) for paper tickets.

by MLD on Apr 24, 2013 8:41 am • linkreport

Just have everyone swipe their mobile phone at the gate and charge the fare to their phone bill. No smartcards needed.

I think that is a damn good idea.

by goldfish on Apr 24, 2013 8:47 am • linkreport

Okay, but the paper farecards are going to be eliminated altogether soon. The fare machines have been pre-signed for that eventuality. Not saying it's the right or wrong way to go, but just pointing out what I believe the rationale was.

by Brian on Apr 24, 2013 9:56 am • linkreport


Paying train fares by mobile phone is already fairly common practice in countries like Japan and South Korea, and I think has been tested on at least a small scale in San Francisco. So far though this kind of usage of phones as "mobile wallets" seems to be slow to gain acceptance in the U.S., so I'm not sure when it might make its way to DC.

by Chris S. on Apr 24, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

@dcd: No, and that's why I'm not advocating for the terrible idea of moving everybody to one flat fare.

But to transition a fare medium that will be entirely gone within two to three years to a flat fare, with the tourist/lunatic/"don't make me think" tax pre-built in? That's worth doing, especially since it's liable to boost farebox revenue without an associated drop in ridership. $6 hurts, yes, but most tourists aren't (or shouldn't be) riding the Metro at peak hour and $3 is a nice round off-peak fare that isn't onerous.

by Ryan on Apr 24, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

Except the off-peak paper farecard fare has to be more than the max fare off-peak, otherwise people will just buy paper farecards when they need to take those trips. Or at least that's how WMATA sees it.

When they go to a new fare system it should absolutely work like Oyster (London), where if you end up taking enough trips there is a daily price cap that basically functions as a daily pass ( For weekly/monthly passes you have to specifically load that onto your card.

by MLD on Apr 24, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

Ryan, if flat fare is so terrible, how come so many cities use it? Toronto, NYC, Moscow, etc.

I have no problem with some kind of graduated fare system, but the cost of long-distance commuting on Metro is prohibitively expensive for too many people. It leaves lower income people stuck on flatfare buses.

by Capt. Hilts on Apr 24, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

Only the subway has a flat fare and it's entirely within the city limits. All the commuter rail lines into NYC have an graduated fare structure by distance.

by Alan B. on Apr 24, 2013 11:10 am • linkreport

@Chris C: Paying train fares by mobile phone is already fairly common practice in countries like Japan and South Korea, and I think has been tested on at least a small scale in San Francisco.

Even better. That saves WMATA the cost of developing the software.

I recently bought my first smartphone, the thing is amazing. Google wallet, and proximity transactions...this could easily supplant smartrip cards. Course paper fare cards will have to be available for the foreseeable future, as there always will be people without a phone, or who misplaced their phone.

by goldfish on Apr 24, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

Paper farecards will probably eventually be replaced by temporary smartcards - something with the consistency of the NYC metrocard but has a chip like a smart card. So they won't have to maintain the mechanical parts of the faregates that read the current paper cards, and will save money.

by MLD on Apr 24, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

I won't repeat all the really good points and ideas about why the current system is not very good and ways to improve it. My thought when I would see these "Add $1" signs every day back when I was commuting was that they gave they looked unplanned and unprofessional as well as confusing. Not the sort of impression you want to give visitors to your city or transit system.

by Another Josh on Apr 24, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

That's true, those signs do look very unprofessional, like they belong in an elementary school cafeteria. But I guess that's Metro for you, circa 2013.

by Chris S. on Apr 24, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

Another thing that would be helpful is to make the signs bigger. To see the sign at the station masters booth you have to be less than 1 foot away and the ones on the farecard machines can not be seen with people with vision problems at all.

To me it seems like WMATA simply doesn't give a f**k when it comes to making the system truly accessible for this who are old (broken escalators, audio that is unclear, signs with small type), physically disabled, blind or partially blind and deaf

Considering how many stations have wasted space in them before you get to the faregates. Take one of the spaces used for advertisements in each station and put a giant display of the stations and fares

Ones with extra room near the faremachines Van Ness, Gallery Place, Metro Center, Benning Rd, Stadium Armory, West Falls Church, Greenbelt & PG Plaza come to mind first use some of the space on the wall to put up an enlarged version of the fares that are displayed on the station masters booth.

by kk` on Apr 24, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

Hey Metro ... If you have to resort to duct taping signs to your machines, you have a problem. Hire someone who knows a thing or two about USABILITY already.

by JB on Apr 26, 2013 12:11 pm • linkreport

This is what a Toronto Transit fare machine looks like. Simple. Easy. Inexpensive to maintain. Self-explaining.

by Capt. Hilts on Apr 26, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

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