Greater Greater Washington

Comparing Metrobus and Metrorail farebox recovery is apples and oranges

Metro is planning to raise bus, rail, and paratransit fares this year, and last week Michael Perkins talked about the transfer discount. In the comments, some talked about the difference between bus and rail farebox recovery. But those numbers aren't really comparable.


Photo by velobry on Flickr.

"Farebox recovery" is the amount of operating expenses that fares cover. For example, if a system costs $1 million to operate every year and takes in $500,000 dollars in fares, it would have a farebox recovery of 50%. A profitable system would have a number above 100%.

In the WMATA system, Metrorail has a farebox recovery ratio of 67.5%. Metrobus has a farebox recovery of 24.3%. Both on Michael's post and on Twitter, readers asked whether rail passengers were subsidizing bus passengers. Why should rail passengers pay 67% of the cost of riding, but bus passengers pay only 24%? Unfortunately, that's not the whole story.

Not every rail rider pays 67% of the cost of his or her trip. Not every bus rider pays only 24%. The farebox recovery varies from route to route. At any rate, the Metrorail and Metrobus farebox recovery rates aren't directly comparable because each service has different goals and measures success differently.

Ridership versus coverage

Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit, divides transit service into two broad categories: ridership service and coverage service.

These two types of service come from the conflicting goals transit providers face. On the one hand, they're supposed to cover all of their service area. On the other hand, they're supposed to have as many riders as possible for as little subsidy.

Generally, agencies solve these competing goals by providing both types of service. In the WMATA service area, there are clear examples of ridership service. The overcrowded 16th Street Line is a perfect example. The busy H Street Line is another.

While some lines are clearly ridership lines, much of the Metrobus network (and especially the jurisdiction-operated bus services) are coverage lines. These are lines that are never going to compete with car trips, but they serve areas that WMATA and local governments feel should be covered. If the agency was only concerned with profitability, these areas wouldn't have any service.

Lower-performing coverage routes include the 2T in Virginia and the R3 in Maryland, each with about 14.8% recovery. But even in the District, some lines are coverage lines. The 64 is a borderline case. It runs down 11th Street NW between frequent service lines on Georgia Avenue and 14th Street, and is within walking distance of both. But for those who aren't willing to walk further, it's a coverage service, though it has a decent farebox recovery of 37.9%.

Apples and oranges

And this is where the problem with comparing rail and bus comes in. In this region, and in most regions, most rail service is ridership service. This is for several reasons. At least in modern systems, Federal Transit Administration rules only allow rail lines to be built if they'll have good ridership. And transit agencies themselves don't make large capital investments in rail unless they're going to have good ridership.

Buses, on the other hand, fall into both ridership and coverage categories in almost every region. So when we compare rail, which is almost entirely composed of ridership lines, to bus, which is a mixture, we are comparing apples to oranges.

Farebox recovery is not a good metric for coverage lines, because their goal is not to generate ridership, but rather to provide service to areas the agency thinks need to be served, regardless of productivity.

Since the Metro rail lines are all ridership lines, they have a very high farebox recovery ratio. Some bus lines in DC have good farebox recovery. But much of the network has worse farebox recovery because by design it's supposed to.

Several of WMATA's bus lines cover more than half their cost through fares, including the X2 bus on H Street and the 70 bus on Georgia Avenue. One bus line, the 5A to Dulles Airport, actually has a farebox recovery ratio better than the rail average.

What does this say about WMATA bus fares?

Really, this doesn't say anything about WMATA's bus fares.

The farebox recovery ratio measures how much rider fares cover the cost of service, and that's it. In the WMATA budgeting process, the agency figures out the cost of providing the service, and then they determine how much money they'll get from the jurisdictions. The remainder has to come from fares. Essentially, the agency (and the funding jurisdictions) determines what the farebox recovery ratio is going to be.

On individual lines, farebox recovery gives us a sense of the productivity of the route. But just because a route is performing poorly in farebox recovery doesn't mean it shouldn't exist or that the fare is too low. Sure, if it's below a certain threshold, the agency can look to determine how to make it more productive or whether to keep it. And WMATA does do this. But they track a whole set of performance measures, not just farebox recovery.

Some people say that we should strive to make the bus and rail farebox recovery ratios the same, or at least closer to each other. But that's not a goal that works. At least not as long as we have coverage-type services in one set, but not in the other. If anything, we shouldn't try to make bus have a higher farebox recovery ratio; we should try to make rail have a lower one.

Nationwide, heavy rail systems like Metro have an average cost recovery of 47.2%, much lower than WMATA's 67.5%. On the other hand, the US agencies that operate both heavy rail and bus systems have an average bus farebox recovery of 28.0%, barely higher than WMATA's 24.3%.

Over the past few years, Metro has kept bus fares lower as a conscious decision because many people who rely on buses have limited incomes. That's a perfectly valid policy decision. And the result, of course, is a low farebox recovery ratio.

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. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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Great article!

I'd love to see analysis that includes the increased mobility that 'coverage service' offers transit dependent riders. I'd bet that the return on investment in through the dollars generated at the end of the trip, as well as dollars saved in social services would more than cover the difference in farebox recovery.

by jeff on Mar 6, 2014 12:44 pm • linkreport

Over the past few years, Metro has kept bus fares lower as a conscious decision because many people who rely on buses have limited incomes.

Agree that the reason to provide heavily subsidized "coverage service" is because people on low incomes can't afford to pay more. Instead of heavily subsidizing the service for everyone, why not provide low income people a card that gives them discounted fare and charge everyone else a higher fare.

Basically, if you think of "coverage service" as an entitlement like Social Security, than the low-income-discounted fare policy would be akin to means-testing for Social Security. It's a way to capture more revenue from the wealthy (bearing in mind that metro bus's median rider income is $70K) without hurting the poor.

by Falls Church on Mar 6, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church:
Sorry if I wasn't clear. Coverage service is NOT providing service to a low-income community.

It's providing transit service to a place where transit is not competitive with other modes. I would suggest that almost every bus line outside of the District boundary (except *maybe* for the frequent service lines) are coverage lines.

So my bus line, the G12, out in Greenbelt is patronized by lots of people of different incomes. Many of us are transit riders by choice. But it's still coverage service.

by Matt' Johnson on Mar 6, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

Some of the low ridership numbers you cite are due to equally low levels of service, on "coverage" lines that could easily be competititve.

The 64 you mention, for example, runs 30 minute headways normally and then less than HOURLY on weekends. The 64 is actually super convenient for me, but I never take it because I'd end up waiting ages. So I walk to much-more congested 14th Street instead.

I think you'd find that some of these routes would see noticeable increases in ridership if the service and headways weren't so abysmal.

by LowHeadways on Mar 6, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

Coverage service is not necessarily providing a service to low income people, but to all transit captive individuals. That can include physically challenged people who cannot drive, teenagers (and even preteens) not old enough to drive, people unable to get drivers licenses for whatever reason, etc.

In theory if they are not low income, their income is high enough to afford a high fare. But faced with very high fares they might simply choose to make fewer trips - aside from that possibly conflicting with other policy goals, it wouldn't save you money, since you would still be running the service for the low income folks.

One could as easily make the argument that fares should be close to zero (not at zero, since then you would get people using the bus for shelter and other non transport functions, or simply joy riding) since the marginal cost of one more rider is close to zero.

Note a coverage line may still get a few "choice" riders - and there are of course semi-choice riders - members of carlite households who could manipulate their schedules to use their cars but find the bus handier, people who find the inconvenience of parking at their destination a deterent, etc - who might be deterred from riding if the fares were much higher - and who would no longer add revenue to a service being run anyway.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2014 1:18 pm • linkreport

@LowHeadways:
I didn't cite ridership numbers. I cited farebox recovery.

Increasing the frequency of the 64 would probably lower the farebox recovery (because drivers are really freaking expensive).

But that's okay. The point of this article was to explain why farebox recovery isn't the best measure to compare bus and rail. If we want the 64 to run more frequently, we should do it.

But at the same time, there's no reason to. Imagine if we could take all the 64 buses off 11th and add them to 14th. Those buses could come even more frequently.

Yes, everyone wants a frequent bus outside their door. But we don't have those kinds of resources. We have to concentrate.

So what's better? A set of buses that runs every 30 minutes on every north-south street, or a frequent corridor every 1/2 mile, so that no one is more than a quarter mile from one?

by Matt' Johnson on Mar 6, 2014 1:19 pm • linkreport

Does any of this take into accounts of
1 broken fare boxes
2 drivers waiving people through who try to add money
3 fareboxes only taking one form of payment when the other is broken

The R3 probably has low ridership and fare recovery because the route gets changed about every 3 years. It use to go from Ft Totten to Greenbelt then the portion near Ft Totten was changed so it was taken over by the F6 the current route goes between PG Plaza & Greenbelt is rushhour only, when it use to be Ft Totten to Greenbelt Monday-Saturday and Ft Totten to Pg Plaza Sundays all day.

Is there any information on bus routes ridership & fare recovery at different times of the day. I have been on some buses where ridership is not that good during the day but between 11pm and 1am when Metrorail is closed has packed buses.

by kk on Mar 6, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

"Farebox recovery is not a good metric for coverage lines, because their goal is not to generate ridership, but rather to provide service to areas the agency thinks need to be served, regardless of productivity"

Sure it is, and farebox recovery between modes is a fair source of comparison, especially since one seems so far from another.

Not convinced, lets then compare apples to so called apples and look at bus farebox recovery around the nation, since all bus systems are supposedly "coverage" systems.

Bus Specific Farebox Recovery:
NJ (NJ Transit) 41.3%
Chicago (CTA) 35.3%
New York (MTABUS) 31.6%
Philadelphia (SEPTA) 30.7%
Los Angeles(LACMTA)28.9%
DC (MetroBus) 24.7%

DC's bus farebox recovery is nearly a full 20% lower, than the next lowest system, and I would propose that most of the other listed systems have far more spread out, less ridden, less profitable bus lines than WMATA does.

"Over the past few years, Metro has kept bus fares lower as a conscious decision because many people who rely on buses have limited incomes. That's a perfectly valid policy decision."

Well, it may have been a valid policy in the decades past, but it certainly isn't true anymore. Metrobus rider median income is 70K a year, which is hardly destitute or low income. All DC students also get to ride Metrobus for free (and get unlimited rail rides for $30 a month), and ultra low income DC residents are eligible for additional transit subsidies as well through DC-DHS.

For comparisons sake, the median income of LA County Bus riders is 24K. The Median income of NY MTA Bus rider is 55K a year and while I haven't bothered to look up the median income of the other systems bus riders, metrobus has a lot of room to make up for in farebox recovery.

by Arkie on Mar 6, 2014 1:27 pm • linkreport

I had considered this when i read the past article, but Matt articulated it much better than I ever could have.

In considering the future of transit, I wonder what will eventually replace the bus? A lot of people answer Street Cars but I disagree. The street car will never be able to provide the coverage and flexibility of a bus fleet (not an argument against a street car at all, I think we need that network as well [with as many dedicated lanes as we can muster])

by potomacaveres on Mar 6, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

@Arkie:
Point of order: I didn't say that all bus systems were "coverage". I said that most bus systems contained coverage elements.

And it is not possible to compare one set of data that only includes ridership routes to a set of data that contains both ridership and coverage routes.

That being said, your comparison to other bus networks is completely valid, from a comparison standpoint.

by Matt' Johnson on Mar 6, 2014 1:29 pm • linkreport

Matt, I don't disagree with you - with service as presently constituted, converting 64 trips into 50s trips would be a much better idea. At some point though - and sooner without dedicated lanes - you reach full saturation wherein you really can't add more trips (e.g., 16th Street today). And at that point it would be a good idea to add additional corridors.

I guess my point is that it's really frustrating having a nearby line with awful service, and I'd rather they not run it all than continue it at these levels.

by LowHeadways on Mar 6, 2014 1:32 pm • linkreport

Another reason that bus fares are lower than rail fares is that the bus provides a lower level of service. The headways are generally longer and more variable, you're more likely to have to wait somewhere exposed to the elements, and you will cover less ground in the same amount of time.

by alurin on Mar 6, 2014 1:33 pm • linkreport

For the differences between the 64 and 50's or 70's could it be that some riders have a choice and others don't.

Has there been any surveys to figure out where people are coming from who take XX bus route. With Georgia Ave there is no other bus routes to the east for the most part. You have the 80 on North Capitol which is about a 1/2 to mile away so anyone west of Childrens Hosp will gravitate to the 70.

North of Petworth you have the 60's east of the 70's along 5th Street or North Capitol with no service to the east so everyone there would take a 60 something bus.

Between U Street & about Park Rd you can take a bus on 16th, 14th, 11th, Sherman Ave & Georgia Ave. Certain parts of these streets are closer together than others I would bet the parts where they are the closest the 60's lose out rider ship to the 70/79 or 52/3/4 due to how often they run.

In Upper NW 16th & Georgia Ave are only 4-5 blocks apart further south it jumps between 6-10 depending on where; this could play a point in ridership numbers.

I Bet the the 60s have more people riding then along Kansas, New Hampshire Avenues and North Capitol Street where there is no other choice, or where there are apartment buildings compared to 11th or Sherman Avenues where you could easily walk 5 minutes and take another bus.

by kk on Mar 6, 2014 1:45 pm • linkreport

I think WMATA should denote which of it's bus services are coverage and which are ridership, with a letter or number convention.

The vehicles should be different as well. Ridership lines need to have larger, more powerful vehicles while coverage lines need smaller, more fuel efficient. Obviously they cannot be that different, one needs to be able to fill in for the other but the system could save a lot of money and provide a lot more service by making these changes.

by Richard on Mar 6, 2014 1:49 pm • linkreport

What are the %'s of people who ride free on each? I had heard 50% on Metro but that sounds way too high, although maybe reasonable for MetroBus. I assume MetroAcess isn't paid out of Metro funds.

Circulator should be free like Baltimore.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 6, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

@ Arkie

The Median might be 70K but where is it really. I bet most that rider buses in SE, NE DC or Montgomery or PG County in Maryland don't make 70K; maybe some riders on the 30's, D6, S's, 15K/L, or the N's but for the most part it is not true.

Do you have a list of the bus routes these 70K people take? I Bet most of these routes are concentrated in Chevy Chase, Georgetown, AU Heights, Conn Ave, McLean, VA, Gaitherburg, MD, Dulles, VA etc.

You could skew the results with just the 15KL, J7/9, 5A, J5, Z11/13, Z9/29, 11Y, D5, 3Y, P17/18/19, 24T, W13/14, W15, W19, L8, B21/22, B24/25, B27, B29, L2, E6 & T2.

Then it depends on how the info was gathered was it surveys or tax information given from the jurisdictions. If it was surveys people lie about there income.

by kk on Mar 6, 2014 2:01 pm • linkreport

"If anything, we shouldn't try to make bus have a higher farebox recovery ratio; we should try to make rail have a lower one. Nationwide, heavy rail systems like Metro have an average cost recovery of 47.2%, much lower than WMATA's 67.5%. On the other hand, the US agencies that operate both heavy rail and bus systems have an average bus farebox recovery of 28.0%, barely higher than WMATA's 24.3%."

I'm confused- shouldn't it be WMATA's goal to have a relatively high farebox recovery on a ridership service? Considering Metrorail doubles as both a commuter rail and high frequency subway, is it reasonable to say that having a 67.5% farebox recovery is commendable, and should be maintained/improved upon?

Also, how/why would we lower it? I can imagine that fare decreases would be relatively small. I can see a high farebox recovery as justification for adding more coverage service in Metro, but that may also cause crowding in the core.

by Jason Ledesma on Mar 6, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

As an economist, I have to disagree with Matt when he says "Metrobus farebox recovery rates aren't directly comparable because each service has different goals and measures success differently." Farebox recovery is a purely quantifiable number and is directly comparable across modes of transportation, routes, etc. As a society, we might choose to subsidize one mode or one route or one spectrum of society over another, but that does not mean the farebox recovery rates are not directly comparable. His statement about farebox recovery rates not being directly comparable mixes up economic efficiency measures with income redistribution goals.

by Jeff on Mar 6, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

@kk

No, I don't have that granularity, but it is uneeded. Of course there are going to be some poorer people, and some richer people.

Metrorail median is 100K/yr, but that doesn't mean there aren't people who make 15K a year taking it too.

The bus mode median is 70K a year, much, MUCH higher than other cities (see my post above) whoalso have higher bus farebox recovery.

DC is lowest on the farebox recovery list, with likely the richest bus rider demographic. Clearly there is room for farebox collections improvement.

by Arkie on Mar 6, 2014 2:06 pm • linkreport

His statement about farebox recovery rates not being directly comparable mixes up economic efficiency measures with income redistribution goals.

Of course farebox recovery rates can be directly compared, but I think you're missing why Matt says they're not a good direct comparison - and that's because the metric does not accurately measure the goals of each service; and the goals are not necessarily the same.

If you're a sports fan, think of it like comparing the baseball stats of a leadoff hitter compared to a slugger. Or, better yet, since we're an NL town, the batting stats of a starting pitcher compared to a position player. That leadoff batter is going to have better batting stats than the pitcher. And those stats are directly comparable. But it's not a particularly useful comparison to make in evalutating the importance of each player to the team.

by Alex B. on Mar 6, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

@ Richard

That would be easy to do just paint the articulated buses and buses ran on the 5A and B30 another color.

The articulated buses run mostly on the 70's, S's & X's though over the past 20 years I've seen them on the K6, U8, J2, Q2, Y's, J9, J5, Z2, and the old D2 route.

The letter and number convention would be tough; you would have to rename every route in DC, Maryland & Virginia. They change the names of a bunch of buses in either 93 or 95 and it was horrible people asking drivers where so and so bus went all the time.

Good luck with WMATA explaining the changes on the site about the changes they're terrible normal route changes it would be horrible for them to explain every route.

by kk on Mar 6, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

Outside of the discussion on pricing and coverage, I am curious as to why all non-fare cards (e.g. the monthly passes or passes for the elderly) don't require the transit user to scan. It seems like a huge portion of data is being skipped over, and thus making it difficult to get a feel for how many rides someone with a reduced/free pass actually uses it. Any news on Metro making everything swipeable?

by Brent on Mar 6, 2014 2:15 pm • linkreport

"@Falls Church:
Sorry if I wasn't clear. Coverage service is NOT providing service to a low-income community.
It's providing transit service to a place where transit is not competitive with other modes. I would suggest that almost every bus line outside of the District boundary (except *maybe* for the frequent service lines) are coverage lines.

So my bus line, the G12, out in Greenbelt is patronized by lots of people of different incomes. Many of us are transit riders by choice. But it's still coverage service"

@Matt Johnson,

You continue to bring up income as a factor, which it is anytime one talks about the rate to which buses should be charged, which is part of the farebox recovery.

Coverage is one part actual geospatial coverage, but has been altered by politicians to also include income coverage and THAT is where it goes too far.

by Navid Roshan on Mar 6, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

@Navid:
I didn't bring it up. Falls Church did.

And what I said was that coverage service is not (NOT) "NOT" [[NOT]] *NOT* equivalent to providing service to low-income people.

Also, I said that it is NOT equivalent to providing service to low-income people.

Coverage service is simply service that is provided in a place where it cannot be competitive with other modes for trips. It is service that is provided by an agency that wants to cover an area regardless of how many riders will take the bus.

It has nothing to do with income.

I did not say that it did. I do not believe that it has anything to do with it.

You continue to say that I am taking that position. I have not taken it. I will not take it.

by Matt' Johnson on Mar 6, 2014 2:23 pm • linkreport

That would be easy to do just paint the articulated buses and buses ran on the 5A and B30 another color.

The articulated buses run mostly on the 70's, S's & X's though over the past 20 years I've seen them on the K6, U8, J2, Q2, Y's, J9, J5, Z2, and the old D2 route.

The letter and number convention would be tough; you would have to rename every route in DC, Maryland & Virginia. They change the names of a bunch of buses in either 93 or 95 and it was horrible people asking drivers where so and so bus went all the time.

Good luck with WMATA explaining the changes on the site about the changes they're terrible normal route changes it would be horrible for them to explain every route.

are the WMATA numbers mostly originated from old street car lines?

I understand familiarity but really these things need to more consistent and user friendly.

2 digit numbers for ridership service
3 digit numbers for coverage service
letters denote branch lines / late night service(all lines are coverage lines late at night)

by Richard on Mar 6, 2014 2:26 pm • linkreport

@matt, sorry mis-attributed the comment towards you.

by Navid Roshan on Mar 6, 2014 2:26 pm • linkreport

This posting fails to refute the argument that rail riders heavily subsidize bus routes. In fact, it confirms that’s exactly the case of how WMATA budgeting works. It’s also false to say that comparing fare box recovery rates between the different bus/rail modes is “apples to oranges” – it is not. There is no reason that revenue collected from riders and the operating costs associated with Metro providing the services cannot or should not be compared to one another. Instead, the author’s argument twists what it means to compare operational costs of bus service and rail service and reframes the argument as a matter of social justice for lower-income people to have access to transit. Fine, but that's a straw man.

One can make a strong case for the need to cross-subsidize rail and bus operations for a variety of economic and social reasons, but it’s untrue to say that it’s a false comparison and it’s arrogant to ignore the fact that many riders of both overcrowded trains and buses silently slug through their often hellish daily commutes knowing that a good portion of their paid fare is being spent not to improve or fix the systems, but to subsidize someone else. And many riders are very accepting and even supportive of that fact. So please don’t tell us it’s not true.

by Harry on Mar 6, 2014 2:32 pm • linkreport

If the rail farebox ratio is less than one (before even looking at capital) does it make sense to say rail is subsidizing bus? If bus went away (leaving aside the huge number of intermodal riders) rail would still need money beyond the farebox. Its more true to say that we provide both modes with money beyond the farebox to achieve important public purposes (reducing congestion on roads, reducing pollution, encouraging economic development, and yes providing mobility to transit captive people)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2014 2:40 pm • linkreport

I mean you could suggest that if bus went away, the non farebox money that goes to bus could be given to rail instead, lowering the fares, but why would public officials do that? The money they give to buses is for specific public purposes that buses serve - its not "owned" by transit regardless of mode. If bus went away the subsidy to bus would go somewhere else - social services (for the low income and other transit captive people who now had a harder time getting around) or to build more roads, or back to the taxpayers. It would not go to rail, and rail fares would not decline.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

@ Harry

Another thing about rail subsidizing bus is that a good portion of rail riders don't even pay their trips it is paid by an employer through smartbenefits. Those who pay their fare out of pocket thus are really paying more than anyone.

I have a question for everyone here how many of you pay out of pocket for all or more than 70% of transit fare on Metrorail or Metrobus/Dash/FFX Connector/etc. Those not paying out of pocket and are instead using an employer benefit should not be saying anything about the fare recovery.

by kk on Mar 6, 2014 2:48 pm • linkreport

I mean you could suggest that if bus went away, the non farebox money that goes to bus could be given to rail instead, lowering the fares, but why would public officials do that? The money they give to buses is for specific public purposes that buses serve - its not "owned" by transit regardless of mode. If bus went away the subsidy to bus would go somewhere else - social services (for the low income and other transit captive people who now had a harder time getting around) or to build more roads, or back to the taxpayers. It would not go to rail, and rail fares would not decline.

+1

by Richard on Mar 6, 2014 2:59 pm • linkreport

@kk I used to have the full subsidy (not just the pre-tax contribution), but I changed jobs and now I pay out of pocket 100%.

What is particularly irritating about the fare structure are two things. The first is the lack of a reasonably-priced monthly pass that would cover bus and rail over a certain distance. It's ridiculous that we don't have that; there is no legitimate obstacle to providing this as an option.

The second is our idiotic transfer pricing. If I transfer from rail to bus, the bus portion should be free. And if I transfer from bus to rail, the rail fare should subtract the cost of a bus ride. It is absolute insanity that we don't do this already.

by LowHeadways on Mar 6, 2014 3:01 pm • linkreport

@LowHeadways:
That's exactly the fare pricing I'd like to see.

by Matt' Johnson on Mar 6, 2014 3:02 pm • linkreport

@kk

I have not worked for a company using Smartbenefits that has covered the transit cost. They take pre-tax dollars out of my paycheck, but don't add any money in of their own. Employees paid out of pocket. Not sure how that stacks up to others.

by Brent on Mar 6, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

I have a question for everyone here how many of you pay out of pocket for all or more than 70% of transit fare on Metrorail or Metrobus/Dash/FFX Connector/etc. Those not paying out of pocket and are instead using an employer benefit should not be saying anything about the fare recovery.

Most smartbenefit programs I have seen have taken pretax dollars. Likely you are paying 2 dollars for every 3(if you are talking 80k income) Still paying SS and Medicare, but no state or federal income tax on it.

by Richard on Mar 6, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

Isn't an even bigger factor that the farebox recovery doesn't account for capital costs? Operational profitability may be higher for rail because the costs per rider are much lower for rail, but it's not as if we could save money by replacing every bus line with a rail line.

by Dan on Mar 6, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

I don't understand the premise of this article - that one can compare a rail system - which has huge fixed costs to build and maintain, with a bus system - where operating costs are a far more significant proportion of total costs. Even if bus rides were free, they would still be far cheaper to build and run than any rail system. In any case, metrorail used to run a surplus prior to 9/11 that was returned to DC, MD, and VA governments, when security costs ballooned (and arguably should have been picked up by the federal government - the probable target and reason for the increased security measures). Still, even if with that, considering the huge up front costs of building a rail network, buses are still many orders of magnitude cheaper to set up and run.

by Jonathan on Mar 7, 2014 9:10 am • linkreport

While Matt's essay on coverage vs. ridership is an important and well-written part of the conversation, there is another comparison between bus and rail that ought to be brought up -- the vastly different capital costs of the two systems. The rail system is much more expensive to build and maintain than the bus system. Most of the money taxpayers are contributing to WMATA via their local jurisdictions (and states) go to rebuilding and maintaining the rail system. If one looked at the farebox recovery ratio for all costs at WMATA, both rail and bus would be lower and closer together.

It is also worth mentioning that on a cost per passenger basis, Metrorail and Metrobus are not too far apart, $4.55 vs. $4.47 per passenger in the proposed FY15 budget. Metrorail has a much higher farebox recovery ratio primarily because its fare is so much higher.

by Steve Strauss on Mar 7, 2014 9:15 am • linkreport

@Matt
Over the past few years, Metro has kept bus fares lower as a conscious decision because many people who rely on buses have limited incomes....

Sorry if I wasn't clear. Coverage service is NOT providing service to a low-income community.

Actually, I wasn't clear. What I meant was that the rationale you provided for heavily subsidizing coverage service is that some low-income people use it and I agree with that rationale. My point is that since many (if not most) coverage service riders are NOT low-income, it doesn't need to be so heavily subsidized for all riders. Provide the low-income people a discount card and raise fares for everyone else who's not low-income and doesn't need service to be heavily subsidized.

Reinvest the additional revenue into providing more transit. In this way, we can leverage a given level of subsidy from the government for more/better transit service.

by Falls Church on Mar 7, 2014 12:13 pm • linkreport

One could as easily make the argument that fares should be close to zero (not at zero, since then you would get people using the bus for shelter and other non transport functions, or simply joy riding) since the marginal cost of one more rider is close to zero.

I don't think you could make that argument for buses anymore than you can for rail.

The problem is that it's a zero sum game. You have a fixed transit subsidy from the government to spend (from the standpoint of a transit agency like wmata). You can spend that money by providing 100 units of transit for free (funded entirely by the subsidy) or spend it by providing 200 units of transit (funded half by subsidy and half by fares). The question is what is the best way to spend that money -- should you minimize rider cost or maximize transit service.

I'd argue that except for poor people who can't afford higher fares, most everyone else is better off with more transit service even if it means a higher fare. It's actually a virtuous cycle because by providing lower headways, better facilities, and more reliable service, you'll attract additional riders which provide more revenue for more/better service. That's the opposite of the death cycle that comes from rock-bottom fares which translates into rock-bottom service which only people who are too poor to have any other option will ever use.

by Falls Church on Mar 7, 2014 12:22 pm • linkreport

Yes, everyone wants a frequent bus outside their door. But we don't have those kinds of resources.

Only the government subsidy is fixed. Resources from fareboxes are not fixed. If we raised fares for people who are not low-income so it was not so heavily subsidized, there would be plenty of money for more frequent service. And, if buses were run more frequently, you would attract more riders, creating more revenue and a virtuous cycle.

by Falls Church on Mar 7, 2014 12:28 pm • linkreport

"I don't think you could make that argument for buses anymore than you can for rail."

I think that both rail and SOME bus lines you could argue that there is sufficient congestion (at least at peak) that there is substantial incremental cost to an additional passenger. Right now the jurisdictions have ponied up $75 million to go to universal 8 car trains to deal with congestion.

But lets say that rail did have zero incremental cost per passenger than coverage bus routes. It might still make sense to have a higher fare recovery ratio, because of differences in price sensitivity between rail riders and coverage bus riders. Or it might go in the opposite direction - its an empirical question.

"The problem is that it's a zero sum game. You have a fixed transit subsidy from the government to spend (from the standpoint of a transit agency like wmata). "

I dont think the money to WMATA works like that. Its determined how much it costs to operate metro rail and the core bus lines - but the coverage bus lines are basically paid for by the jurisdictions, which decide how much bus service they want to buy (and of course they can decide not to buy from metro and use their county run lines instead). I think even for intercounty service, the counties weigh in what they want.

Take, for example, the 29K bus on little river turnpike/duke street, that runs in Fairfax County and City of Alex. It runs about once a half hour at peak, and less frequently at off hours - on saturdays once an hour, and on sundays doesnt run at all. Less frequent and its almost unuseable. If you raise fares and keep the frequency the same you will get even lower ridership, and less reason to have more frequency. You could raise fares and increase frequency, but you will likely not get a significant increase in ridership (might even get a decrease) and Fairfax County and City of Alexandria would have to question why pay to run so many buses with only a few people on them?

Running more frequency makes sense when you have more riders, and raising fares (even with somewhat more frequency) will not get you more riders on local bus routes in most parts of the region.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 7, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

another example - the other day my wife and I needed to go together to the orange line. We took the FFX connector 401 bus. We wouldnt have come home together so it was 3 fares vs parking at the metro garage. $4.80 for the bus, vs $4.75 to park - the bus is slower and less flexible for side errands on the way home, but we could avoid clearing snow from the car and didnt have to worry if DL garage would fill up.

Double the bus far, to $9.60, and its worth leaving earlier to make sure there's room at the garage. Heck, add that to the metrorail fare, and the cost of garage parking downtown begins to look attractive.

Of course we are avid transit users, and dislike paying for garages - most 401 users are lower income, and price sensitive. You could try to give them some subsidy - but aside from the additional paperwork burden (on both low income folks and on the govt) there are probably immigrations status issues for many of them.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 7, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

Take, for example, the 29K bus on little river turnpike/duke street, that runs in Fairfax County and City of Alex. It runs about once a half hour at peak, and less frequently at off hours - on saturdays once an hour, and on sundays doesnt run at all. Less frequent and its almost unuseable. If you raise fares and keep the frequency the same you will get even lower ridership, and less reason to have more frequency. You could raise fares and increase frequency, but you will likely not get a significant increase in ridership (might even get a decrease)

The 29K is probably an example of an atypical wmata bus line -- one that is predominantly used by low income people who have no means to create other choices for themselves. That's not typical since we know that median rider income is $70K.

If you raised the fare on the 29K but provided all the low income riders a discount card, the effect wouldn't be a fare increase because essentially all the riders would have a discount card. So, status quo in that example from implementing my recommendation.

Where you'll see more impact is on the more typical bus line that serves customers with a mix of incomes. Some will receive the discount card, others will pay higher fares. Those fares could then be reinvested into providing more frequent service. On those routes, I agree with commenter LowHeadways who said:

I think you'd find that some of these routes would see noticeable increases in ridership if the service and headways weren't so abysmal.

For a lot of riders, they are more sensitive to having their time wasted than paying a higher fare. This is especially true of bus service to metro stations in the suburbs. Parking costs $4.75, so if buses were more competitive with driving from a convenience standpoint, you could charge a lot more for bus fare and it would still be cheaper for people to take the bus than drive.

Basically, tech companies in Silicon Valley have realized that they are better off providing their employees shuttle service that probably costs them well over $15 per trip than giving each employee extra money in their paycheck. That goes to show how much people value convenient bus service over cash in their pocket.

the other day my wife and I needed to go together to the orange line. We took the FFX connector 401 bus. We wouldnt have come home together so it was 3 fares vs parking at the metro garage. $4.80 for the bus, vs $4.75 to park...Double the bus far, to $9.60, and its worth leaving earlier to make sure there's room at the garage.

It's hard for transit to compete with multiple occupancy driving. Transit is best suited as a substitute for SOV driving. That said, don't forget all the incremental costs related to each additional mile you drive.

by Falls Church on Mar 7, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

"The 29K is probably an example of an atypical wmata bus line -- one that is predominantly used by low income people who have no means to create other choices for themselves. That's not typical since we know that median rider income is $70K."

that may be average income for all bus riders - a group that includes riders of high frequency services in NW DC, riders of express buses (including the many lines that terminate at the Pentagon, etc) The original post specifically distinguished "coverage lines" and I think the 29k may be a very good example of such.

"If you raised the fare on the 29K but provided all the low income riders a discount card, the effect wouldn't be a fare increase because essentially all the riders would have a discount card. So, status quo in that example from implementing my recommendation."

Except there are A. People who have financial situations that leave them quite price sensitive, but are not technically low income B. Occasional riders, for whom getting a discount car is not worth it C. People whose legal status precludes them from getting any form social services such at that. You assume that a low income discount card will account for all price sensitive people, and I do not believe that.

by TheSilentFactor on Mar 7, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

Folks, I think people are getting all riled up about a VERY small difference. Remember, the WMATA Board in making its fare changes is governed by its bylaws and FTA regulations which prohibit from making any fare increases (without another set of public hearings, and it's too late for that) above what they advertised. They advertised a rail fare increase of 4 percent and bus fare increase of $0.15 for Smartrip customers and $0.25 for cash customers. What was proposed to the WMATA Finance committee was a rail fare increase of 3 percent and the maximum proposed increase on bus. So even if we increase rail fares by 4 percent instead of 3 percent, that means bus fares still need to go up, just by less and that's assuming the Board doesn't use that revenue to make the MetroAccess fares go up less.

One thing Matt loses sight of this blog story, is that at one point way back when, Metro's bus fare and peak period rail fare were the same. Over time, the rail fares have gone up faster than the bus fare so there's currently a big discrepancy. Still, assuming the proposed increase is implemented, it's a 10 percent increase on bus and only a 3 percent increase on rail, and the peak period base (minimum) rail fare will be $2.15 (Smartrip) and the bus fare will be $1.75.

I agree with other comments, that we need to do more for the have not's in society but not through the WMATA budget. WMATA is no a social service agency and there's nothing wrong with trying to improve it's bus cost recovery ratio. If you really want to help the poor, then create a low income fare like in Seattle and have that funded above and beyond the regular WMATA operating subsidy by the member jurisdictions. Quite frankly, MetroAccess should be funded the same way. To be honest, the rail fare increases in the last four years have been used to cross subsidize MetroAccess when WMATA compact member were not able to increase their subsidy at the same rate as the growth in MetroAccess costs.

Bus fares need to go up, and I don't think we should be quibbling over whether it's a $1.70 or $1.75. For the most part all of us are mass transit advocates. What I'm more worried about is a rollback of Metroaccess fares to double the bus fare. If Metroaccess use starts growing again, then are arguments on whether to increase rail fares 3 percent or 4 percent will look like petty bickering over nothing.

by Arlington Traveler on Mar 24, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

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