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SmarTrip Web site, passes coming this year

SmarTrip upgrades including a self-service Web site to check your balance will be launching in July, according to a presentation to the WMATA Board for this Thursday.

The Web site will initially let riders register SmarTrip cards and see their balance and recent history.

In October, the Web site will add "autoload" capability, letting riders enter a credit card and having the system automatically refill SmarTrips when they get low, like E-ZPass.

All of this requires the NextFare 5 system, currently being installed. The system will replace a hodgepodge of systems that serve Metrorail, Metrobus, and regional partners. The incompatibility between those systems meant, among other things, that there couldn't be a differential between cash and SmarTrip fares on rail, but was on bus. The new system will allow for that, which is part of the planned fare hike, the new "peak of the peak" to be possible in August, and more.

The new system will also allow for current unlimited passes to go onto SmarTrip cards. Today, Metro has passes, and the bus "flash pass" is very popular, but rail passes are not very well used. The "short rail" pass covers rides up to $2.65, but longer rides require using the Addfare machines, which only take cash, and don't integrate with the funds on SmarTrip. If that pass starts to work with SmarTrip, more people are likely to buy it, and therefore Metro needs to formulate some recommendations.

According to federal Board member Mort Downey, when New York introduced the Metrocard and, for the first time, unlimited rides, ridership increased but total revenue did not decrease significantly. Many people started taking short trips on transit, especially on bus, which they might not otherwise have taken. If someone was traveling just a few blocks and a bus was coming their way, they might now hop on.

That's a worthy objective and WMATA ought to formulate passes to encourage this. Many people ride Metro for their daily commute but little otherwise. Meanwhile, there's excess capacity off-peak, during middays, evenings and weekends. If commuters paid for their commute costs but then got extra rides free, we could foster more of a "transit culture" where more people ride transit for discretionary trips. That could build general support for transit, especially buses and bus priority treatments.

In the presentation, staff promise to bring recommendations to the Board soon. Hopefully they will include an analysis of some of Michael's ideas. Basically, the recommendation is this: let people choose a dollar value for their regular everyday commute, pay 10 times (for a week) or 40 times (for a month) that value, then get extra trips of equal or lesser value free. A related suggestion was to offer an incentive that if people bought 11 passes in a row, they got the 12th free.

Regardless of the details, the key is this: How do we evolve Metro from a primarily commute-only transit system to a commute-plus-discretionary trip transit system? As New York found, passes are a major factor.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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cutting fares during off-peak hours would do the same thing, and WMATA is reluctant to take that step.

ANd if bus and rail were better integrated, buying and using a pass would be more attractive.

But both are steps that WMATA doesn't like, and I don't see a software upgrade changing their mind.

by charlie on Jun 8, 2010 1:33 pm • linkreport

Replacing the bus flash pass with a SmarTrip pass would save money too, I think. How many paper passes are printed each week, do you suppose -- and at what cost? Meanwhile, how many fares are lost from riders flashing an expired or counterfeit pass?

by Gavin on Jun 8, 2010 1:38 pm • linkreport

@Charlie: Cutting fares off-peak? Even after the fare increase, a trip of under 7 miles in off-peak ($1.65) will be less than most cities with a rail component and a trip of under 10 miles off-peak ($2.20) will be less than New York, Chicago, and some light rail cities (St. Louis, Sacramento). How low do you think they should be?

I'd think flat faring off-peak hours would be a more daring move.

by Jason on Jun 8, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

I'm just excited I can start using a SmartTrip card and stop annoying people behind me in the turnstile queues. :D

by yatesc on Jun 8, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

Why multiply by 10 and 40? I think that using those numbers would discourage commute-only riders from buying passes, because it doesn't save them any money. In fact, if they take a trip during another fare period, take a vacation or even a holiday, a pass will cost them more (say you buy a one-week pass for 10x, but you only ride 8 times because of a holiday).

The weekly bus pass is currently $12, versus the $13.50 it would cost to take 10 rides. So it costs 8.9x the what a commute-only rider would pay for a week of trips. I think that that's a good number and it provides a good incentive.

by Tim on Jun 8, 2010 2:45 pm • linkreport

Metro can evolve "from a primarily commute-only transit system to a commute-plus-discretionary trip transit system" by working better.

by Unsuck DC Metro on Jun 8, 2010 2:56 pm • linkreport

How about implementing a system like London's OysterCard, where your fare is automatically converted to a pass after you've spent $7.50 (or whatever a day pass costs) in a day.

This might actually lead to increased ridership and revenues, especially during off-peak hours, as riders don't need to anticipate their day's travel schedule in advance to get the best fare, and won't have to "think twice" about riding Metro.

by andrew on Jun 8, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

@tim: weekly bus pass after July will be $15 compared to a $1.50 smartrip fare.
(assuming board passes current guidance)

I think WMATA would be concerned about losing money if they lower the price below 10 and 40.

The deal should be that you pay for your peak usage and get your off-peak usage free. There will be weeks where you end up getting a lot of off-peak usage for free, but there will also be times where you're sick or end up going in late or leaving early, or you take a vacation day.

If the passes are priced at a normal commute and are on a subscription (automatically renewing via credit card or something), most people won't bother cancelling their passes even if they know they're going to take a leave day. So Metro will gain some revenue by charging a full-price commute even for people who end up only riding 9 times during peak hours.

In exchange, people who sign up for passes know that they will get some free rides when they go out at night or on the weekends.

Some systems provide discounts for passes, with larger discounts given for longer pass periods, to encourage people to lock in. For now, I think it will be hard for WMATA to accept a significant discount. Eventually, I think it would be fair to use 10 and 36 as the multipliers, to encourage purchase of the monthly pass. As it is, at 40 you do get a commute day "free" a couple times a year.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 8, 2010 2:59 pm • linkreport

@andrew: The price capping on Oyster is only for daily passes, and only kicks in after paying for four full-price fares for peak or three for off-peak.

London also offers an extensive array of passes, priced at approximately 14, 55 and 573 times the normal fare for weekly, monthly and annual, respectively. (at least for the 1-zone, I didn't check the others).

So the London system brought here would be that you have to ride more than three times in a day before you get free rides, whereas what I'm proposing is that you'd just have to ride ten times in a week to start getting free rides, which is better.

On the other hand, you would have to know in advance. Perhaps price capping is better for tourists, and time period passes are better for commuters?

by Michael Perkins on Jun 8, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

Michael: the system we have right now is that you buy 9 full-price rides, you get any others free. I like 9 better than 10. :)

by yatesc on Jun 8, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins: But in London, the passes and the fare caps all include bus fares as well. So if you're not lucky enough to live right on top of a tube station, so that "a ride" means taking the bus to the tube, the passes and fare caps become a good deal much faster. (There is no transfer discount if you're paying with single fares.)

And saying that a weekly pass is "better" than daily price capping ignores people (like me) who commute on foot (or by bike or even by car) but who ride Metro a lot on weekends. I'm probably not typical, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this.

by Johanna on Jun 8, 2010 4:06 pm • linkreport

@yatesc: That's only true for the people buying the unlimited rail pass and then normally riding the longest rides possible. Something that we kind of had to do when our technology was not as advanced. At this point it would be hard from a equity standpoint to argue for a significant pass discount only for suburban commuters, so it's probably going to go away when the passes are redesigned.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 8, 2010 4:13 pm • linkreport

The key is that the result has got to be revenue neutral in this political and budgetary climate.

Any unlimited pass, then, is going to have to cost more than 10 rides a week. If the full pass (or the short trip pass) were priced at about 13-14 rides a week, people who otherwise would only pay for 10 or 11 might actually pay for the pass because it appears to have extra value, pleasantly adding to Metro's coffers.

What we don't want happening is creating a so-called "moral hazard" where the users currently contributing the most revenue are able to scale back their contribution considerably, while at the same time not increasing revenue from less frequent users.

Otherwise we'd create a fiscal crisis.

by Joey on Jun 8, 2010 4:51 pm • linkreport

In Germany, passes are steeply discounted (or individual fares heavily marked up, depending on how you look at it). In Stuttgart, for example, a monthly passes costs only about what 28 single trips does. If you buy an annual pass you get TWO WHOLE MONTHS free (12 for the price of 10). So everybody who rides at all regularly has a pass. Sort of keeps the budget stable.

Another nice thing is that the transit agencies can have "free ride" days to promote transit, and it doesn't end up costing them much (since the regular commuters aren't really riding for free).

by egk on Jun 8, 2010 4:59 pm • linkreport

@egk: while it would be super-awesome to give everybody a bunch of discounts and heavily discounted passes, Metro's financial situation doesn't allow for a lot of wiggle room when it comes to revenues.

@Joey: I'm not sure I agree that they'll need to be priced much above 10. The extra rides don't cost Metro much to provide (there's surplus capacity), and the revenues from people that take a leave or sick day but don't cancel their pass would be expected to provide some additional revenue above what they're normally getting.

Remember when the snow shutdowns decimated WMATA revenues? With passes that problem gets smaller, because not everyone would cancel their pass based on a snow day happening on one unexpected day.

Most transit agencies offer their passes for basically what it costs to commute. The ones that are more expensive typically charge for transfers, and the ones that are significantly cheaper are trying to spur ridership because the system has a lot of surplus capacity. We don't have a lot of surplus capacity, at least during peaks on the Orange and Red lines, so if we're going to be discounting trips, they should be the off-peak ones.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 8, 2010 6:09 pm • linkreport

When can we use it on MARC and Amtrak?

by Redline SOS on Jun 8, 2010 6:18 pm • linkreport

Will the passes be the same as current ones, new combinations such as a bus + rail passes

by kk on Jun 8, 2010 6:59 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins; but isn't the "We don't have a lot of surplus capacity, at least during peaks on the Orange and Red lines, so if we're going to be discounting trips, they should be the off-peak ones." the crux of the problem. We have LOTS of surplus capacity -- even on Red and Orange during off hours. But given that Metrorail is 85% a commuter rail system, we need to find ways to push up demand during off hours.

Also, how do passes work with the federal benefit? I can't imagine the feds buying weekly passes for workers that would allow them to use (legally) on their private time.

Remember the old deal of buy $20, get a ride for free? Again, what killed that? WMATA greed? the feds gets ancy? or the fraud with paper cards?

by charlie on Jun 8, 2010 7:29 pm • linkreport

I just got a job where I get to work from home most of the time. I'm so happy to have Metro (and especially Metrobus!) become a smaller part of my life.

by ed on Jun 8, 2010 8:06 pm • linkreport

Feds are perfectly ok with paying for a pass as long as it doesn't exceed your normal commute cost.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 8, 2010 8:31 pm • linkreport

What killed the 10% bonus was essentially Metro needing to close a $120M budget gap in 2003, if I have the year right. Could have been 2001 but I seem to remember getting the bonus for a few years after I got my current job.

If you want to push up demand during off peak, you can cut prices during off-peak. If you want to do that without too much revenue loss, you can do that only for people paying a lot to ride regularly, and in a way that they sometimes end up paying more than they might have -- with passes.

The problem with the 10% bonus was that people could use it to get a discount even on peak service which is now crowded.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 8, 2010 9:03 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins; ok, thanks for the info on the feds and the 10% bonus. Agreed, the bonus being used for peak service on red/orange might be a bit of an issue.

But our basic disagreement is would people ride Metrorail more if off-peak fares were lower? There are a number of problems with my argument:

1. People have nowhere to go (i.e. they aren't going to ride metrorail to Bethesda for lunch)
2. Until you throw bus into an unifed fare mix, metrorail has limited amount of service areas
3. Might take 2-3 years for demand to pick up as people become aware of it.

Now, parts of your pass ideas are appealing. Tough line to walk between giving the customer a good deal and not destroying revenue. Snow weeks aren't going to happen very often and even when people go away for 2-3 days and not cancel their passes doesn't represent a good revenue stream.

The key seems to get people to prepay as much as possible: monthly or yearly passes. Then you system might work. Weekly passes not so much.

Larger point is I suspect WMATA management doesn't want larger off peak hours. More pressure on the system, perhaps more pressure for frequent service, and harder to shut down station entrances.

by charlie on Jun 8, 2010 9:32 pm • linkreport

@charlie:
but isn't the "We don't have a lot of surplus capacity, at least during peaks on the Orange and Red lines, so if we're going to be discounting trips, they should be the off-peak ones." the crux of the problem. We have LOTS of surplus capacity -- even on Red and Orange during off hours. But given that Metrorail is 85% a commuter rail system, we need to find ways to push up demand during off hours.

This is exactly why you would offer an unlimited pass for the price of peak commuting (or slightly more). Then your off-peak trips are free because you have a pass, which means you might be more inclined to ride off-peak.

And I agree, you should be offering monthly passes instead of weekly ones. Not just for the fact that revenue will be more stable (because people won't skip a pass if they are taking half a week off), but for the convenience of riders!

WMATA definitely does want more off-peak riders. Capacity off-peak is above ridership at this point, so each rider you add is more revenue into the system. Having more people riding off-peak also means that more people are getting used to a lifestyle where they use transit for more trips. When they make their next decision on where to live they might locate to where it's more convenient to use transit, meaning more ridership, etc.

by MLD on Jun 9, 2010 9:30 am • linkreport

@Redline SOS

Never I would bet - or not anytime soon.

MD MTA is supposedly testing Charm Cards on Baltimore Metro (and presumably light rail and buses) but no mention of that card working for MARC has been mentioned.

That and the Charm Card was not supposed to be compatible with WMATA SmarTrip cards last I heard.

by Q on Jun 9, 2010 12:43 pm • linkreport

Metro doesn't have a ridership problem in peak or off-peak. Metro (particularly Metrobus) has a revenue problem. The only pass with a regular following is the much discounted weekly bus pass. The fact is Metro might be better served by eliminating all passes. Stored value smartrip provides for seamless transfer between systems. Even with the fare increase bus fares remain a good value and relatively cheap when compared to other systems.

by Interested on Jun 9, 2010 1:05 pm • linkreport

@MLD; "capacity off-peak is above ridership at this point, so each rider you add is more revenue into the system". Yes. But I think WMATA looks at it as "our costs are fixed, can't reduce wages, only way to reduce costs is cut service during off-peak" which leads to 20 minute wait times, which means rail is not effective during off-peak at all. And buses are even worse..

by charlie on Jun 9, 2010 1:14 pm • linkreport

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