The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Metro isn't the NYC subway, part 1: Rapid rail vs. subway

Metro's fare structure came under some criticism in the Post recently. A Sunday editorial argues that bus fares need to rise, while Dr. Gridlock says they are too complicated.

Photo by SliceofNYC.

Both cite other systems including New York's, where all rides in the five boroughs, on rail, bus or a combination, all cost $2.25. The doc suggests we would never adopt such a system because Metro is "resistant to change" and such changes would "launch political wars." If politics weren't an issue, is New York's flat fare what Metro should aspire to?

No, it shouldn't. While a flat fare is appealing, Metro fundamentally fills a different role in the region than the New York City Subway. The subway only goes to the five boroughs. Commuters from Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut ride three different commuter rail systems, whose fares, like Metro's, are based on distance and in most cases on peak vs. off-peak as well. New Jersey Transit's fares, for example, range from $1.50 to $16.50.

If Metro were like the New York subway, it'd only go to destinations in DC and Arlington, and everyone from Maryland and elsewhere in Virginia would ride a much-expanded MARC and VRE. Those riders would have to change to Metro at Union Station or L'Enfant Plaza, like commuter rail riders have to change at Penn Station, Grand Central, Flatbush Avenue, or Hoboken (for PATH to NYC).

As Matt Johnson explained, Metro is a different type of system than the New York subway, a "regional rail" system more analogous to BART and just as close to SEPTA's regional rail commuter trains (fares $3.50-$18.00) as to the Philadelphia Market-Frankford Line ($2.00 cash, $1.45 with token). Matt also created a detailed chart comparing fares in various U.S. rail transit systems.

Sure, Metro's fare could be simpler. We could switch to a zone system like London's. Inevitably, some people's rides would get cheaper and some more expensive. But it's worth investigating, and a more sensible and appropriate simplification than a flat fare.

Next: Are bus rides too cheap?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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It's also easier to tax commuters in NYC and every other US city. In DC, it is impossible.

by aaa on May 25, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport


Right on.

Also too, that Post editorial is oblivious to the cost of constructing and maintaining Metrorail. Sure, they may recoup more of the operational cost, but I am interested to know what that cost is as a percentage of both operating and annualized capital costs. That would be a better comparison.

by Adam L on May 25, 2010 12:37 pm • linkreport

I respectfully disagree. Metro could have a much simpler fare structure without resorting to the mess it has now and the disaster it is considering.

You could have a $2.00 flat fare for anywhere in DC raising it by zone as you get farther out.

But your comparison to NY is flawed. We don't have the expanded MARC and VRE that could be like PATH, LIRR or Metro North systems. And while we have multiple jurisdictions to deal with, the WMATA system is much smaller then the MTA and lacks the benefits of a more functional design (4 tracks on some routes).

Peak of the peak and other novelty fares are not the fare structures we should be adopting.

Perhaps we should create a single jurisdiction from PG, MoCo, DC and Nova if only to make addressing our regional needs as a region. That would be simpler then the current mess we're navigating.

by Redline SOS on May 25, 2010 12:49 pm • linkreport

Ohh, the great bogey-bear of the DC commuter tax....

Although what does a commuter tax has to do with a multi-jursidiction public transit authority?

I think the MTA and WMATA rail system are about the same size, physically. Granted MTA is far more dense in that area, but bringing people in from Queens isn't much further than bringing them in from Bethesda. The far stations might change that, and the Silver line definitely will.

That being said, the basic point that WMATA is a commuter rail system is good, and the problem with the most used lines (red and orange) are about as full as they can get without more frequent 8 car trains. I like zones too, but I think the real key is getting more people to ride the system during off hours, when the trains are running mostly empty.

by charlie on May 25, 2010 12:54 pm • linkreport

NYC Subway: 229 route-miles, 468 stations.
DC Metro: 106 route-miles, 86 stations.

As for scale, see this map:

by Matt Johnson on May 25, 2010 12:58 pm • linkreport

Big difference that is not always mentioned about flat fare is the lack of exit gateways. You just walk right out because you've already paid. So from an infrastructure standpoint, how would Metro divide circulation to effectively do that? People in the booths would actually have to pay attention.

by Lou on May 25, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

The fact that New York is larger is not a reason WMATA is like the NYC Subway and not the NYC commuter rails. Everything is larger in NYC. The point is that the subway serves only a fraction of the people, and those who live in the center city area.

The argument applies similarly to smaller cities like Boston and Philadelphia which have flat-fare inner core systems and variable-fare commuter rail systems. Boston's has a few odd long extensions but most of the lines don't go more than 5 miles from downtown. That's about the distance of Friendship Heights to downtown DC.

by David Alpert on May 25, 2010 1:03 pm • linkreport

NYC's commuter tax does not fund transit. The MTA (which runs the subway, LIRR, Metro North, Staten Island Rapid Transit, and most busses) is primarily financed by tolls on MTA-owned bridges and tunnels in NYC.

The PATH system is financed by tolls on Port Authority bridges and tunnels. NJ Transit is a state agency which gets money from NJ taxpayers.

I would support tolls on all bridges into VA. However, erecting toll plazas would be a disaster. Go to an EZ-Pass only system. If you have EZ-Pass, you pay a set toll. If you don't, your license plate is recorded and you pay a toll plus a penalty. No toll booths, no back-ups waiting to pay tolls, and no toll-collectors on the payroll.

Erect similar tolls on major approach roads from MD (NY Ave, Wisconsin Ave, etc). Use the money for transit.

by urbaner on May 25, 2010 1:04 pm • linkreport

MARTA has a flat fare and patrons still have to go through a faregate to exit. You have to tap your Breeze Card when exiting or you don't get free rail-to-bus transfers.

WMATA could use a farecard/SmarTrip system with a flat fare or they could set up faregates to automatically open when a patron approaches. It's not a technical hurdle at all.

In New York, exiting patrons still have to pass through faregates, they're just free-wheeling.

by Matt Johnson on May 25, 2010 1:06 pm • linkreport

The systems may be similar distance-wise, but if you take the NYC subway from the end of the line to the city center, it's going to take a lot longer than on Metro. And the distance traveled is probably shorter in NYC.

by MLD on May 25, 2010 1:09 pm • linkreport

It's unlikely that London's zone system is actually simpler than Metro's. You still have a fare table listing zone A to zone B, and those combinations and permutations are so big that it might as well just be a station-to-station fare matrix. At least you don't have to look up what zone your stations are in first before finding the fare in the table.

Seriously, look at this mess.

I think technology will only make it easier to charge Metro riders a fair fare. The question of what is fare is where things get complicated.

by michael on May 25, 2010 1:12 pm • linkreport

urbaner -- Along with the commuter tax, tolling the bridges into DC is another thing that we are not allowed to have.

But the larger point is that the MTA and New York have a great many more options when it comes to generating revenue, whereas WMATA and DC are very restricted -- more than any other city. This is another reason why it makes sense not to have a flat rate.

It's also worth noting that ONE line in NYC -- the Lexington 4,5,6 -- carries more trips than all DC subways combined.

by aaa on May 25, 2010 1:28 pm • linkreport

A zonal system together with a peak surcharge in/to/from zone 1 (Central DC) should just do the trick and would encourage people to take the metro in the suburbs more than it does at the moment.

Also how about having fare integration with VRE & MARC? And Making MARC & VRE systems appear on the map? What DC needs is a true integrated system across all mode, fare integration is the first step!

by Vincent on May 25, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert

Good analysis. That should be the Market-Frankford Line, by the way.

I still think that fares could be simplified without going to a flat fare, and rail/bus integration should be better for visitors. Once someone buys a rail farecard, it's something of a disincentive to ride the bus.

by Matthias on May 25, 2010 1:38 pm • linkreport

If tolls are erected on the Potomac bridges, I guarantee there would be a negative economic impact. However, one might also argue that metro rail ridership would spike significantly...on the already maxed out Orange Line on weekday rushes...maybe the Blue line would finally be useful Eastbound past Rosslyn in the morning.

by Matt Glazewski on May 25, 2010 1:38 pm • linkreport

Matthis: Thanks for catching the typo. Fixed. I had looked up the name of the line to make sure I got the last letter right (Frankford not Frankfort), then managed to leave out another letter. Aargh.

by David Alpert on May 25, 2010 1:47 pm • linkreport

Just a minor thing: You can't switch from PATH to NYC Subway at Hoboken. You can switch from NJ Transit to PATH there, but if you're taking the PATH into the city, you can switch at 14th, 23rd or 33rd/Penn Station (or WTC if you take that line in).

by Thrillhouse on May 25, 2010 2:07 pm • linkreport

Why don't we make it easy? Three zones: DC, MD & VA. If you go through one zone you pay $2, two zones $3.50, three zones $5? If you only have to go one stop and it's in the next zone too bad. It also would deal with the congestion in the core issues, right? Now solving parking and bus fares... I don't know anything about that!

by Travis Vaughan on May 25, 2010 2:07 pm • linkreport

Thrillhouse: What I meant was, you change from commuter rail (NJ Transit) to PATH at Hoboken to get to many destinations within NYC.

by David Alpert on May 25, 2010 2:12 pm • linkreport

Don't forget that in NYC, there are express buses which are generally interborough with fewer local stops and a premium fare.

In addition the subway does not go to five boroughs; Staten Island does not have a subway, although it does have a parallel in the Staten Island Rapid Transit rail line.

Also the Staten Island Ferry is now free although arriving to it or departing from it by transit on the Staten Island side requires a fare payment.

There's a two-hour free transfer window, so if your timing is right you could, for example, take the Staten Island SIRT to the ferry to the uptown 1 train all on one fare payment.

by RSR on May 25, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

The fares are too complicated? How so? If you know where you are leaving from and where you are going, there is a chart in every station that tells you the fare. The fare card machines tell you what it costs when you leave.

Maybe I'm too conservative, but shouldn't the service be priced based on how much you use. A one-stop trip should cost less than a twelve-stop trip. A fixed fare based on an average will provide a disincentive for users in the district to use metro for short trips.

by Tom on May 25, 2010 2:37 pm • linkreport

David: I see now. I was reading it wrong. PATH always struck me more as commuter rail since nobody uses it for intracity travel in New York. In fact, while I lived there, I commuted from Brooklyn to Jersey City every day. The emptiest train you'll ever see is the one going from Manhattan to Jersey City in the morning.

by Thrillhouse on May 25, 2010 2:38 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson; the number of miles isn't a measure of "size" it is measure of density. Eyeballing your link, the area covered by MTA and WMATA are roughly similar.

I just think Dave picked a weak analogy; bringing commuters form Queens to Manhattan isn't so different than bringing them Vienna to DC. The difference is the volumes and density. For better or worse, DC is mostly a commuter rail system.

Creative use of buses could mitigate that, but the general indifference to buses in WMATA b/c of the subsidy issues, poor people in DC and union costs make it impossible. Which is why WMATA must be broken up and bus and rail separated.

by charlie on May 25, 2010 2:44 pm • linkreport


Measuring miles is a poor substitute for transit station density or coverage (or however you want to define it). compare Metro to BART, both have similar track lengths.

Dave's analogy is fine, the scale is just different for New York. You'll note that Vienna is the end of the line here, Queens may be the end of the line for the subway in New York, but the LIRR goes well beyond that.

by Alex B. on May 25, 2010 3:05 pm • linkreport

Slightly related, but why doesn't WMATA own and/or operate VRE and MARC? It seems to me that most commuter rail systems in cities that have urban mass transit are at least owned by that mass transit agency, if not operated by it too. And if they aren't owned by it, they're owned by another agency with a similar charter, purpose and governance.

by Tim on May 25, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

@Travis Vaughan --That zoning idea sounds great! And is simple!!!

by Maurice on May 25, 2010 3:32 pm • linkreport

I keep telling my friends in Manhattan that the $2.25 flat fare is a subsidy to the bridge and tunnel crowd, but they don't seem to care.

by Steve S on May 25, 2010 3:41 pm • linkreport

Tim: It varies. Philly's SEPTA runs the commuter rail and the urban trains, and the Boston MBTA runs the subway and commuter rail. But BART is totally different in its governance from Caltrain and ACE is totally different too, because they're all funded by counties. In New York, the MTA runs Metro-North and the LIRR but not NJ Transit or PATH since those cross state borders.

Generally, the interstate railroads have their own authorities, except Metro-North which goes to Connecticut. We'd probably have one authority if the whole region were inside one state, the way Baltimore's transit is all the Maryland MTA.

by David Alpert on May 25, 2010 3:45 pm • linkreport

So what percentage of DC is covered by WMATA compared to NYC by MTA

If Metro were like the New York subway, it'd only go to destinations in DC and Arlington, and everyone from Maryland and elsewhere in Virginia would ride a much-expanded MARC and VRE.

Why so Arlington is outside of the District of Columbia so if Metro was like NYC the metrorail would only go inside of DC

by kk on May 25, 2010 3:48 pm • linkreport

Most regular subway riders in NYC use unlimited ride metrocards. So the fact that the per mile charge for intra-Manhattan rides is much higher than the per mile charge for inter-borough becomes irrelevant.

The flat fare enables unlimited ride metrocards.

I don't see why we couldn't have a flat fare (and unlimited ride smartrip cards) inside the Beltway. Charge per trip (and by mileage) for trips across the Beltway.

by jim on May 25, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

I doubt placing tolls on VA roads connecting NOVA/DC would do anything more than harm the District. As a resident of Arlington, I can tell you that I don't use Metro outside of my commute to and from work. I take one bus in and one bus out and this bus runs only during rush hours.

I live a commuting distance of three miles from my office in the District and I don't use Metro outside of work because it simply requires far too much time. On the days that I have to leave work early or work late I drive in (commute time less than 15 minutes) yet if I take Metro outside the window of my regular bus the same trip takes 50 minutes.

Do I even have to mention the fact that Metro Rail in particular requires most NOVA commuters to hop a bus to reach Metro Rail? That is a major flaw in MetroÂ’s design that will not change and as such, suburban riders still wonÂ’t use Metro outside of the commute to work when they have a perfectly good private vehicle of their own that allows them to accomplish more tasks than Metro ever could.

The District just lost-out on a bid to a major contractor to two counties in NOVA. I seriously doubt that erecting tolls on major thoroughfares in and out of the city would benefit the City. If anything it would encourage more organizations to look outside the city.

by NPGMBR on May 25, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

Munich has a zone-based fare system and still allows for unlimited rides - within the zones for which you purchase your pass. There are 4 zones, each with 4 circles. Season passes are sold by circle. Passes must be purchased for 2 adjacent circles.

The more circles you select, the more expensive the ticket. So it's still relatively graduated.

by Matt Johnson on May 25, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

I agree with David Alpert completely but would include two additional issues to consider regarding the organizational structure of urban rail vs. commuter rail systems. Part of the differences between commuter and urban rail systems stems from the differences in the history of the modes and the regulatory environments they operate under.

For instance, Marc began operating in MD when Conrail was relived of the requirement to operate commuter passenger services around 1982. WMATA has existed since about 1966. Since WMATA was created as a financial balance between the 3 jurisdictions it would have been difficult to add MD commuter rail service. Many of the commuter railroads that existed before the 1990 shifted from private to public hands in the 1980s while most urban rail systems in the US already existed at that point and it would have been more trouble to reorganize them. This is evident somewhat in the NY MTA since the subway, Metro-North, and LIRR all operate as separate units even today.

Also important is the fact that commuter rail services operate under FRA regulations while urban rail services mostly operate under MTA regulations. Since each mode operates under its own regulatory system there is less of an economy of scale to combining operation, maintenance, or capital purchases.

by AdamG on May 25, 2010 4:39 pm • linkreport

I think the current fare system makes sense for the Metro during the weekdays. But flat fares or a very simple zone system should be investigated for weekends and holidays to see if it boosts ridership.

The main thing that bugged me about the Metro's fare system is the annoying paper farecard. The slow adoption of the Smartrip system is frustrating. London's Oyster Card system was more comprehensive when I visited that city in 2005 than the Smartrip is today.

by PeakVT on May 25, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport


Off-peak Metro has distance-based fares of $1.45, $1.95, and $2.45. So kinda like zones, but you don't get screwed if you only want to go one or two stops that might cross a zone in another system.

by MLD on May 25, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

Has anyone who argues that buses are too cheap actually ever taken a bus in the district? And I don't mean the circulator.

I take the bus more than metro because of where I live and service can best be described as subpar. Schedules have little relation to when buses actually arrive. They often arrive in big clumps with none for a long time. Drivers routinely drive by stops if the bus is too full, which on some routes happens all the time.

Weekend and nonrush hour service on lots of bus lines is a joke.

I'll pay more for bus service when I don't wait 3o minutes for a bus that is supposed to arrive every 10 on a regular basis.

by katydid13 on May 25, 2010 6:13 pm • linkreport

The argument presented in this thread seems to deliberately ignores facts.

If NYC were like DC, Brooklyn and Queens would be the suburbs, because laws would have prevented them from being incorporated into the city. If DC were like NYC, the cities boundaries would have expanded to incorporate Silver Spring and Arlington and Chevy Chase and Bethesda as the population grew.

Complex pricing structures are a turnoff to customers regardless of what the business is.

by ogden on May 25, 2010 7:27 pm • linkreport

Making Smarttrip cards as readily available as London's Oyster cards -- which cost about the same, three pounds -- would go some way to making the problem irrelevant. I pay no to the costs of individual rides on either syste attention m; I simply keep an eye on what remains on the card and when it hits single digits add a fairly large amount. This is not unlike keeping my car fueled: I don't keep track of the amount of gas consumed on any trip but just fill the tank when it drops below about a quarter.

by davidj on May 25, 2010 9:42 pm • linkreport


I disagree with your point regarding price structure complexity. I think the average consumer cares what the total cost is. I doubt they care how that price is calculated [in the case of metro, a congestion zone (maybe), mileage rate, travel time]. For instance, when was the last time consumers protested to simplify the airline seat pricing system or to have the individual components o their FedEx package rate explained to them. At most people care which general factors affect the fare.

Metro should concentrate on creating the most socially equitable & economically efficient fare system possible, regardless of the complexity up to a point. Spending a small fraction of the increased revenue on digital fare calculation kiosks at the stations or increasing the functionality of the website would alleviate most issues for occasional users. I don't think the fare structure should be as complex as a term paper, but a the same time making it simple enough to fit on a coaster is a little extreme also.

by AdamG on May 25, 2010 11:13 pm • linkreport

@davidj: how much easier does it need to be? You can buy a smartrip card at CVS all over the region, from vending machines in many stations, online or over the phone. They're certainly available if you really want one.

Though Zimmerman had a good idea of reducing the cost because they don't cost wmata $5 each.

by Michael Perkins on May 25, 2010 11:32 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins: You can buy an Oyster card at any London Underground station. I still cannot buy a SmartTrip card at any of the Metro stations I normally use. I first saw a SmartTrip card dispenser in the West Falls Church station -- ironically, on my way home from London. I haven't seen one anywhere else. Yes, you can get them in some drugstores, but that isn't, to me, a natural association -- shouldn't you be able to get a Metro card in Metro stations and not have to go hunting around in unrelated commercial enterprises? Yes, you can order them online; that's how I got mine.

Yes, you can get a SmartTrip card "if you really want one." That's my point: you have to really want one, enough to go online or look up a telephone number and call it or find out where they're sold and make a special trip there. They should be sold in every station, not just West Falls Church and maybe some others that I'd have no other reason to go to.

by davidj on May 26, 2010 12:31 am • linkreport


There are good reasons to support a graduated Metro fare system, but dismissing the NYC subway system because it doesn't reach the burbs isn't among them.

Their system extends to as many "county-like" jurisdictions (much of 4 boroughs and part of a fifth), more area and greater travel distances, and more population than DC's; only a mile-wide river bounds the system from extending farther from the city center in all directions than Metro.

I love your blog but you can do better than this one...

by Kim on May 26, 2010 12:51 am • linkreport


That all depends on what you mean by 'burbs.' To steal the New Urbanist line of thought, the transect of Metropolitan Washington that Metro travels through starts in much more suburban areas than anything that the NYC Subway touches, even in the furthest reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The actual government jurisdiction (whether it be city, county, borough, etc) is mostly irrelevant. This is evident by the fact that you have dense suburbs served by massive commuter rail operations that extend well beyond the reach of the NYC subway. That's not the case here, as MARC and VRE can't match that level of service, nor do they serve similarly developed areas.

More importantly is the simple fact that a system like NYC's Subway would probably love to have variable distance pricing the way Metro does, but their fare gate infrastructure doesn't easily allow that.

by Alex B. on May 26, 2010 8:53 am • linkreport

I don't understand what is to be gained from a flat fare system.

Places like NYC and Boston don't use one because it's better, they just use it because it's the way it's always been and it would be prohibitively expensive to change it. And you still have to buy a farecard anyway, it doesn't really save you any time.

There's no "complexity" to the fares for Metro, really, because there is no real need to figure out their exact fare in advance. Even if you are a one-time user (tourist, e.g.) you can just buy a $2 card and pay exitfare if you have to. But few people would ever have to do this.

Unless you want to let people pay for their rides by inserting dollar bills into the turnstiles I don't see the benefit in any flat-fare system, since it's less "fair" than one that charges you based on distance. Most rides within DC are under 2 bucks anyway.

by Jamie on May 26, 2010 9:41 am • linkreport

Just annex all the non-federal government portions of DC into Maryland, let MTA-Maryland run the Washington Metro system. This will reduce the number of governments involved in the funding to two instead of three (and they can run MARC and Metrorail together) -- and congress will no longer be involved in any way at all. Judging by the MTA-M's current transit management record, I'm sure they'll flatten out the rates -- and lower than they should be, of course. People will be able to ride Metrorail for cheap, and though the service will probably be worse, they can buy those monthly passes everyone always talks about.


In all seriousness, I think it's counterproductive to compare the WMATA system to the NYC MTA. There's an entirely different outlook on transit there. Driving is heavily discouraged in New York by toll bridges and the deliberate lack of wide highways and driver-friendly surface streets. People have to ride the subway. In DC, we've got nice wide streets. The Beltway and 270 keep expanding to accommodate more cars. DC will never attract enough transit riders to make a flat fare feasible unless there's a conscious effort to change how people think about traveling throughout the region.

by andrew on May 26, 2010 10:14 am • linkreport

Good heavens Jaimie, you really think the NYC subway authority just accidentally fell into a flat fare system and never considered alternatives, either when the system was built, or ever since? That is just stupid. Of course they considered many pricing structures. They chose a flat fare system for a reason. And they have reconsidered many times, for a reason. Your argument makes it sound like you think fare structures are some sort of manifest destiny or something.

by ogden on May 26, 2010 11:51 am • linkreport

Huh? Of course I realize NYC has considered other pricing structures. My point was that they have not adopted them to date largely for technological reasons. It has not been an option.

Can you think of any subway that had a distance or time-of-day based fare system prior to the 70's? How would it have been implemented?

Fixed-fare systems were the only option in the early to mid part of this century. Now there are two options, and obviously, places with fixed fare-systems are looking at changing to a different one. But until the technology was available (which until very recently in New York, it was not), this was not an option.

"This isn’t the first time the idea has been proposed. William Vickrey, a Columbia University economist and 1996 Nobel laureate, suggested it back in 1952. It’s come up again a number of times, most recently in 2007. But the technology to do it — namely, a computerized fare card system — hasn’t really been ready until now."

by Jamie on May 26, 2010 12:22 pm • linkreport

Forget the technology of flat fare vs zone vs whatever else.

What is the benefit to riders is the one which should be used but we all know that damn sure wont happen especially in this country.

Speaking of Maryland why is Marc & Commuter buses under MTA ? when everything else is just transit for Baltimore.

If Marc and the Commuter buses are under MTA why not add RideOn, The Bus and all other bus systems in Maryland to it.

by kk on May 26, 2010 2:52 pm • linkreport

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