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Can Metrorail fares be simpler?

During a review of fare policies, WMATA recently conducted focus groups in which customers said they wanted fares to be simpler. They said they especially didn't like confusing three-column fare table available in Metrorail stations. Here's one way the Metrorail fare structure could be simplified.

Photo by afagen on Flickr.

First, a refresher on how Metrorail fares work "under the hood." There are two basic schedules for rail fares, regular and reduced, which most people think of as "peak" and "off-peak." All the fares are based on "composite miles," which is the average of the distance you travel along the rails and the distance between the stations "as the crow flies."

For SmarTrip users, Metro charges between $1.60 and $2.75 for reduced fares and $1.95 to $5.00 for regular fares, depending on distance. When you ride using a paper farecard, Metro adds $0.25 to the SmarTrip fare.

When you ride during the hours of 7-9:30 am or from 4:30-6 pm on weekdays, Metro adds $0.20 for "peak of the peak" fare. This requires Metro to have a three-column table showing each possible destination station and the cash regular, reduced and peak-of-the-peak fares.

If we could get rid of the need for three different time periods for cash users, that would make buying farecards a lot simpler.

Metro could simplify the fare system with a plan like this:

Make paper farecards always regular (peak) fare, rounded up to the nearest quarter. Paper farecard customers during off-peak represent a very small portion of the ridership. I assumed that 75% of the ridership was peak, and that 75% of the riders use SmarTrip, so less than 10% of the riders are farecard off-peak. People that want to enjoy discounted fares should obtain a SmarTrip card. London uses this system, charging cash customers £4 cash for a one-zone downtown ride, with discounted fares available if you use an Oyster card.

Abolish the peak-of-the-peak fare. It's too complicated. Even though I recommended it, it seems that people hate it even more than I imagined, and it leaves Metro open to criticism that people are paying more for service that isn't much better. Before anyone gets too happy about peak-of-the-peak being gone, very few people get a net discount under my plan compared to the current fares, due changes in the distance-based pricing.

Set reduced (off-peak, SmarTrip) fares at half of the equivalent regular fare, but at least the same as the SmarTrip bus fare. Under this part of the plan, SmarTrip reduced fares generally become cheaper than under the existing Metro fares. Together with the previous two changes, this cuts the three-column fare table down to one column, since the reduced fare no longer exists (for farecards) or is just half the regular fare (for SmarTrips). So if, for example, the SmarTrip bus fare is $1.50, the Smartrip fares would be between $1.50 and $2.60.

Regular fares get a new schedule. The regular fares increase to $2.00 to $5.25 based on distance. Under this change, the biggest SmarTrip change is for a middle-distance regular fare, and most short distance peak-of-the-peak riders see a discount. Most long distance fares increase 5%, which affects about 7% of riders.

This proposal collects about the same amount of revenue as the existing fare structure. The net revenue effect of all these changes under static analysis (assuming no rider behavior changes) is about a 1.4% revenue increase.

If this proposal were adopted, customers buying Metrorail farecards would see a much simpler fare table on the vending machines. It would have only one price for each Metrorail destination, so they wouldn't have to figure out the difference between peak, peak-of-the-peak and off-peak pricing. SmarTrip customers would have only the peak and off-peak fares to worry about, and the off-peak pricing would be a little more predictable since it's half of the regular fare. This is a lot simpler, while preserving distance-based pricing and the opportunity to save money during off-peak, which are key features of the WMATA fare system.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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Simpler then that.

Minimum $2.50 fare. $3.50 for trips that take you more then 10 stations. $5 for trips that require 11+ stations.

by Redline SOS on Nov 17, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

I'd personally be a fan of converting the fare tables to electronic format... perhaps an electronic kiosk where people choose their origin, destination, and departure/arrival time (assuming immediate entry by default). That technology is already in the Trip Planner tool, so I wouldn't think it an immense stretch to put it at the stations.

by Bossi on Nov 17, 2010 1:07 pm • linkreport

I agree. Also how about off peak gets a flat rate all the time reguardless of where you are going, set it at 2.50.


by Matt R on Nov 17, 2010 1:20 pm • linkreport

I live in Paris and I love the system here. One single fare for central zone; a second higher fare once you go outside central Paris. You can buy a monthly pass that is based on what zones you travel in. The pass works for the entire system: metro, bus, commuter trains and even for rental bikes. Compared to the DC area, Paris is light years ahead when it comes to making commuting simple!

by Kathy on Nov 17, 2010 1:23 pm • linkreport

These are some interesting ideas for changing fares around the margins, but they don't address the fundamental confusion with Metro's fares (confusion that existed well before the most recent fare increase, with peak-of-the-peak and paper surcharges, etc) - the distanced based pricing could be substantially simplified.

Either via a zone structure or much larger 'bins' of fares would be much simpler. The current peak fare structure contains way too many possible permutations based on distance. Instead of cutting that so precisely, adjust fares so that there are only 3 (or some other small number) 'bins' your fare could fall into - just like the current off-peak fares.

by Alex B. on Nov 17, 2010 1:24 pm • linkreport

@Bossi I've proposed something similar in the past, but would offer a slightly different solution.

Have a big sign (say, the same height, and twice the width of the map) with each of the stations listed on it. Next to each station, put a digital display that shows the CURRENT fare and travel time to that station.

Get rid of the fare charts on top of the vending machines.

Alternatively, make the fare structure simpler. Round all fares to nearest $0.25, and ONLY list a base fare for each station. Under the list print some surcharges, ie:
+ $0.75 -- PoTP
+ $0.25 PAPER CARD
- $0.25 SENIOR

Also, round all fares to the nearest $0.25 to make the math easier. A few fares would go slightly up, a few would go slightly down.

by Andrew Schmadel on Nov 17, 2010 1:34 pm • linkreport

@Redline: "Minimum $2.50 fare. $3.50 for trips that take you more then 10 stations. $5 for trips that require 11+ stations."

So someone traveling from Ft. Totten to Anacostia, or Columbia Heights to Clarandon, pays double whan someone traveling from Vienna to Farragut West, or West Falls Church to Metro Center, pays? No thanks. That's just city residents subsidizing suburban commuters. Simplicity doesn't override fairness.

by dcd on Nov 17, 2010 1:47 pm • linkreport

I for one would prefer a zone system with weekly passes that actually save people money. I'm not saying, pay less than we do now, b/c we all know Metro needs the revenue to slowly improve things.

by Josh on Nov 17, 2010 1:48 pm • linkreport

That can work both ways. What about suburb-to-suburb commutes that have no choice but to go the long way through the city and get charged high fares compared to people who travel short distances within the city?

by Mike on Nov 17, 2010 1:51 pm • linkreport

@andrew schmadel: By law, Senior fares have to be no more than half of the regular fare, so -0.25 isn't legal.

You need to list the paper farecard prices on the list, because the people using the list are more likely to be using it to purchase a paper farecard for their trip.

Anything that requires the installation of an electronic sign of any sort is going to cost about $500,000, because it has to be installed in at least 100 locations, and there are development costs to boot. I would guess $100,000 for development costs, and $4,000 per installation is not an unreasonable estimate. And then, you have the issue with there being only one or two of them per station, and they get overloaded by too many people trying to figure out the fare, like with the rally a couple weekends ago.

@Alex B. If there is a different fare for every station pair, you're still going to have to have a 86-row table to lookup the fare.

Matt Johnson and I are looking into a zone fare system. Right now the design has five zones and costs between $2.00 and $5.75 for peak fares. Some people have fare increases of over 100% under the new zone system. (for example, West Falls Church to Ballston crosses two zone boundaries).

@Kathy: Zone fares are nice and simple but typically don't collect as much revenue unless they're very punitive for some trips.

@Matt R: An offpeak fare that high is approximately double the current off-peak fare for short trips.

@Redline: That's a pretty big fare increase for short-distance folks, I'm pretty sure DC would veto that plan.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

Now that I have a good model of the Metro fare structure written in MATLAB, I can analyze more of these things. I'll take a look at some of these ideas and give my calculation reaction to them.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

@Josh: are you taking advantage of the weekly passes Metro already sells?

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

People like to complain about Metro. If you change the fare system, people will complain about the changes you made. If you go to a zone system, people who are going one stop past a zone boundary will complain about the zones. If you go to a flat fare system, people who use Metro for short trips will complain. There's no way you'll find a system that will make everyone happy.

by Rob on Nov 17, 2010 1:59 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins

To me, the complexity of the system has nothing to do with the fare table and everything to do with the fare structure. The fact that a trip of one extra station means an extra 5 cents is inherently confusing.

If there are only 3 or 4 possible peak fare permutations from any given station, you might not need a table at all. You could do a map from any given station and show which stations you can get to in 'zone' 1, 2, or 3, with each zone corresponding to the current off-peak price points. No table needed at all.

by Alex B. on Nov 17, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

@Alex B: I'll do a calculation keeping it revenue neutral but making the fares three-tier like you suggest. Break points will be less than 6 miles, 6-12 miles and 12+ miles like with the current off-peak fares. I think you'll find that some people's fares jump by $1.00 which is a bad thing.

Just a wild guess, but the tiers look like they'll be $2.50, $4.50 and $5.25.

There's definitely a balance between simplicity, equity and revenue.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 2:10 pm • linkreport

@Michael Good points. That also explains why our "Regular" fares are really "Rush Hour" fares. I never understood that.

by andrew on Nov 17, 2010 2:14 pm • linkreport

I just want a fare structure that is easier for the faregates to compute. Ever since the new fares went into effect my Smartrip card takes just about as long as a paper card to get through the gates and it is much more susceptible to invalid reads because I take it away from the sensor too quickly.

Though I haven't been using Metro as much recently because CaBi is often times much faster than waiting for Metro for my intra-District travels.

by Bryan Patterson on Nov 17, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

@mike - you mean the Silver Spring to Rockville commuter? Doesn't that add another variable - as-the-crow-flies miles? I'm not sure that should be considered. Fares can only be determined within the confines of the existing system, not based on "If the mythical Bethesda-Silver Spring Mauve Line existed, this would only be 2 stops." It still seems to me that fairs should be based on rail distance traveled. Simplifying is great, but basing fares on the number of stops will never get past the DC representatives on the Board.

by dcd on Nov 17, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

The "mythical" Bethesda-Silver Spring line is actually called the Purple Line. And there will be 3 intermediate stops between Bethesda and Silver Spring (Connecticut Avenue, Lyttonsville, and 16th Street).

by Matt Johnson on Nov 17, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

If three tiers aren't enough, then how about just rounding to the nearest quarter?

The current peak range is from $1.90 to $5.00 in five cent increments - giving you sixty two possible fare values for a trip. That's far too many to be simple and easy to understand.

by Alex B. on Nov 17, 2010 2:24 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson: Until someone can actually board the Purple Line, it will remain mythical. Just like the DC streetcar.

Anyone want to bet how long before Metro announces a new peak of the peak of the peak surcharge so they can offer customers the same service for even more money?

by Fritz on Nov 17, 2010 2:29 pm • linkreport

From the article: "All the fares are based on "composite miles," which is the average of the distance you travel along the rails and the distance between the stations "as the crow flies.""

So that commuter that goes on the red line all the way through town doesn't pay the straight-line distance and doesn't pay the along-the-track distance, but something in between.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 2:29 pm • linkreport

@ MattJohnson: Great. When my grandchildren use it to commute to work, they'll pay a smaller fare. As of now, though, it's still mythical, and fare calculations shouldn't include it.

by dcd on Nov 17, 2010 2:32 pm • linkreport

I was just pointing out that you don't need to invent a color for it.

And as Michael stated just a moment ago, the straight line distance is a part of the current fare calculation.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 17, 2010 2:34 pm • linkreport

Part of simplifying fares should be to call "Off-peak" what it is: a regular fare. You pay a premium to travel during rush hour, and a peak of peak of travel, well, I guess it is the same as rush hour.

Glad to hear peak-of-peak has been unpopular.

by charlie on Nov 17, 2010 2:39 pm • linkreport

I say just make it an all flat rate system.

by Johnny Cocker on Nov 17, 2010 2:40 pm • linkreport

A few thoughts: DC had a zone system and we hated it, had it removed and are now happy with our pay-for-what-you-use system. But I'm taking about taxis. Let's not move forward with taxis and move backward with rail. Has anyone in this debate tried to determine a fare with the London Tube's zone based system? Check out their fare table: What a mess.

The secret is to simplify without generalizing. I think the solution is in rounding plus much better graphical communication of the fare levels, times of day, and such.

The "mythical" Bethesda-Silver Spring line is actually called the Purple Line. And there will be 3 intermediate stops between Bethesda and Silver Spring (Connecticut Avenue, Lyttonsville, and 16th Street). -Matt Johnson

... and it wont' be Metrorail, so it will have a totally different pricing scheme. Let's make sure to only compare apples to apples. I know you're happy the purple line is moving forward, but let's not muddle a Metrorail conversation with purple, since it wont' be part of the same system and won't be operated by WMATA.

by Michael on Nov 17, 2010 2:51 pm • linkreport

Speaking of nomenclature, currently we have a "peak of the peak" fare but no "peak". Simply "regular" and "reduced."

by Michael on Nov 17, 2010 2:52 pm • linkreport

has anyone noticed that the metrorail fares page on is misleading?

First it notes the SmarTrip $0.25 discount, then it lists the SmarTrip fares without identifying them as such.

Something tells me this is an issue of how they want to portray the SmarTrip "discount" versus a cash surcharge, but it ends up misleading people who read the page.

by Fare-Is-Fair on Nov 17, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport


I'd like to see the hard numbers comparing it to other rapid transit systems, but I suspect that Metro takes a much bigger hit during rush hour (compared to the baseline level of ridership throughout the day) than most other transit systems.

"Peak of the peak" is not the same service as is offered throughout the rest of the day, as the extra trains put into service during this time sit unused outside of rush hour. It costs Metro a lot more money to offer additional capacity in the morning, when it won't be used during the rest of the day.

Like others have mentioned countless times, Metro is a hybrid subway/commuter railroad. Compared to most subways, it's kind of expensive. However, compared to most commuter railroads, it's very cheap -- and peak-hour pricing is pretty much ubiquitous for that type of service.

If anybody is unfairly penalized by Peak and PoTP, it's the commuters who travel a short distance entirely within the district.

by andrew on Nov 17, 2010 3:03 pm • linkreport

I'd be in favor of one flat fare, anywhere in the system at any time, for single rides. Along with that, I'd say keep have passes for single day, 1 week, and add a 1 month pass for unlimited travel during those time, and ditch the "short trip" pass. Yes, the people who only take short trips will cry, "we're subsidizing the suburbs," but no matter what, someone is going to be unhappy with any fare structure instituted. Having just the flat fares and passes will make the process much easier for those occasional riders and tourists, who then won't be nearly as prone to hold up the natives when buying fares and asking for help from the station managers.

by IsoTopor on Nov 17, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

I don't have any real skin in this game, cause I don't live in DC, but...I have some thoughts! :)

1. i still have no idea what 'peak of the peak' means. [and I see @Michael has noted we have 'peak-of-the-peak' but not regular 'peak' -- just 'regular'. got it?] we should call things what they are. if there is actually something that someone could possibly conceive of as a 'peak of the peak', then i would suggest we are doing it wrong. we've mis-designed/mis-conceptualized/mis-spoke/mis-underestimated/mis-something.

2. the fare system should have decongestion/peak pricing in order to keep system comfortable (i.e. to prevent overcrowding). but i have no idea what 'peak of the peak' pricing is, so maybe we don't have peak pricing at all? -- no idea. we should have it tho.

3. the terminology we use should be consistent, as much as possible, across transportation systems. i.e. if it makes sense to talk about 'peak fares' for transit, then it probably makes sense to talk about 'peak tolls' for cars/roads/bridges. ditto 'decongestion pricing', etc.

4. people who buy electronic-type 'convenience' passes/cards should pay more for that privilege/benefit, mostly because it is a great benefit, but also because they are probably most likely to be able to afford it.

5. pricing of fares should be based on maximizing ridership, not 'cost recovery'. we should aim to have the system at/near 100% utilization for all the hours it is in use. if we start pricing the system this way, we can get a lot closer to that 100%. in effect, that means we'd probably need to drop off-peak fares down close to $0/free -- fine. lets get some more tour operators to ride transit.

6. we should start pushing more and more-effective highway/decongestion tolls, to start getting some better 'cost recovery' of our road/car/pollution/victim system. we don't actually want motorized travel to be free (that'd be bad for sustainability), but we want relatively environment/people/city-friendly travel to be much less expensive than car travel - the worst of all modes. people actually have the audacity to talk about the bike-sharing system (extraordinarily inexpensive, by comparison) achieving 'revenue neutral' status, but in the same breath they wave their hands at the prospect of a 'revenue neutral' road/car system. that needs to change. SF is talking road decongestion pricing again (though, they call it 'congestion' pricing). i cruised out on 280 from SF this morning (and into SF on 280 last night) -- it was a breeze, and i would gladly pay for the privilege of cruising 80-in-a-65 like I and all my law-abiding driving brethren did. the 101 last night, as always, was horrific (with traffic) - and that was a 'reverse commute', if there even is such a thing anymore.

7. DC should raise the DC gas tax by 100% over the next 5 years or so. do it similar to the federal gas tax increase bill -- a penny increase per month -- or just bump it up 5 cents every year for five years, and then index to inflation (if it's not already). use 35% of the money for walk projects, 30% for bike projects, 25% for transit, and 10% for 'innovation/experimental projects' like bike counters, more/better information tools for all modes, various trials/street treatments, etc. and the road tolls are not to 'subsidize transit' -- they are to 'keep car traffic moving', and/or/ie to 'prevent the catastrophic cost of auto congestion to the regional economy', and to 'begin to make an attempt at cost-recovery for our road/car system'.

8. the transit fare system above is confusing to me, so one way to reduce rider frustration/anger over the system is to reduce fares significantly where possible, as i advocated above in #6, above.

and i wish there was some type of tag or subject/section/Special 'finder' link for the 'Struck in DC' series. another 'Special Section' tag would be for the 'Breakfast Links' feature. etc.

by Peter Smith on Nov 17, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

Perhaps I can't read today, but I don't really see any serious proposed simplifications in the system. All you propose is to get from incomprehensible to very difficult.

True simplification would be to get rid of the peak-of-the-peak, and round current fares to the nearest 50c.

by Jasper on Nov 17, 2010 3:15 pm • linkreport


Current system has six fares for each origin-destination pair:

Smartrip peak of peak, smartrip regular, smartrip reduced, cash peak of peak, cash regular, cash reduced

My system has three fares for each origin-destination pair.

Smartrip regular, smartrip reduced, Cash regular.

This means the fare table customers see on the fare machines (for cash transactions) is only one price listed for each destination. You don't have to know what time the peak of the peak is, you don't have to know, is it "enter" or "leave" during those times.

Also, the cash fares are rounded to the nearest quarter for ease of buying, and the smartrip fares to the nearest dime. That, and the reduced fares are always half of the regular fare rather than being on their own schedule.

I tried rounding everything to the nearest quarter, but some people were getting hit with 20% increases while their colleagues one station away were only getting 5%, so I was trying to keep it fair.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 3:35 pm • linkreport

Maybe I'm in the minority but I don't think the current fare structure, albeit complicated, is such a big deal. Certainly not to the point that I'd want to cut off the nose to spite the face. Implementing a change that will reduce revenue streams to a cash strapped system is a bad idea. So is reducing the cost of Vienna-to-DC long distance trip while hiking the cost of the intra-DC trips.

If you're a daily commuter get a SmartTrip. Looks at how much one week of commuting costs you and use that to gauge how much you should put on your card each month. If you're a tourist or a local who uses the system twice a year to go to caps games who cares? If these occasional users need an extra two minutes staring at fare charts before they board why is this bad? Their time is not that precious. Why prioritize them over the people who ride metro for hundreds of trips a year?

In my office in Rosslyn very few ride metro. None of those that don't have said "the fare system is too complicated." They don't ride because transit will take longer, transit is too crowded, or they just prefer their car. I sort of think this is fare complexity is not the issue some transit geeks think it is. I'm not against any and all modifications. If there is a way of simplifying modestly without causing new inequalities I'm open to listening. But charging the U Street to L'Enfant commuter $40 extra bucks a month and reducing the cost of the Vienna to Farragut commuter is not the worth it.

by Paul on Nov 17, 2010 3:38 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins

Do we know that 75% of riders are peak riders?
Do we know that 75% of riders use SmarTrip?

It sounds like you just made an assumption and ran with it. What is that assumption made on?

@Peter Smith:
1. Peak of the peak means that at some point during the peak (aka rush hours) there is an even higher level of ridership (crush capacity?) Making pricing higher during that one or two hours of the peak can spread ridership out and increase revenue. It is basically congestion pricing.

3. Terminology. I think WMATA's terminology for pricing (regular/reduced) stems from the fact that when the system was envisioned, these new transit systems were basically designed to get people into the city center for work and out of the city center to home. They were designed for rush hour use to supplant/replace highways that would be built for the max daily capacity, but remain unused at other times. So "regular" was the fare when people were going to be using the system (rush hour) and "reduced" was at other times - because that other ridership was basically a bonus/handout to the lower class.

As to your complaints about congestion vs. decongestion pricing, "congestion pricing" is the accepted name - as congestion increases, so does the price.

4. You pay more for that benefit in that you pay $5 for the card, but the reality is that the transit systems want to increase use of those cards. It is convenient for both passengers AND the agency if everyone uses electronic cards - less fraud, faster boarding, and fewer moving parts in machines are three examples of benefits to the agency. A better way to increase equality and give the benefit to everyone is to just give cards to those people who cannot afford them. Then they get the lower price benefit and the agency gains the efficiency benefits.

by MLD on Nov 17, 2010 3:52 pm • linkreport

WMATA needs a zonal fare structure, simply put. A zonal fare structure eliminates the need to calculate fares for every origin-destination pair, and makes it possible to offer weekly and monthly passes for various combinations of zones (something the current fare structure sorely lacks).

The zonal fare structure in London actually works quite well, contrary to what some here have suggested. And it's important to note that stations which are close to a zonal boundary can actually be placed in both zones; that's the case for a number of stations in London.

As to peak fares, if fares are going to vary by time, there should be at most two periods.

by Kurt Raschke on Nov 17, 2010 3:56 pm • linkreport

@MLD: Based on data obtained from metro and board reports, I know that about 75-80% of metrorail trips are using smartrip.

Based on data I obtained earlier, the estimate for peak vs off-peak is reasonable. It might be closer to 65/35% but I did a sensitivity study and found that the model is not particularly sensitive to small changes in the assumptions, especially between cash and smartrip.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

If you're a daily commuter get a SmartTrip. Looks at how much one week of commuting costs you and use that to gauge how much you should put on your card each month. If you're a tourist or a local who uses the system twice a year to go to caps games who cares? If these occasional users need an extra two minutes staring at fare charts before they board why is this bad? Their time is not that precious. Why prioritize them over the people who ride metro for hundreds of trips a year?

This. I don't really understand why WMATA's "ridiculously complicated" fare structure needs to change. It's not even THAT complicated, as evidenced by the London Underground. The people who use the system all the time will have a SmarTrip. If they get commuter benefits they will figure out their trip to work X2 X20 and request that. If they need more they'll slap an extra $20 on their card. They don't CARE what the fare is for each trip they take. For the tourists (that includes Metro tourists who only ride a few times a year) maybe they spend an extra couple minutes figuring things out, but I think that could be improved just by improving the signage - there's gotta be a better way to design a table that shows the fares that already exist.

by MLD on Nov 17, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

@ Michael Perkins: Current system has six fares for each origin-destination pair:

Smartrip peak of peak, smartrip regular, smartrip reduced, cash peak of peak, cash regular, cash reduced

My system has three fares for each origin-destination pair.

Smartrip regular, smartrip reduced, Cash regular.

So your going from 6*each OD pair to 3*each OD pair. That is a reduction of 50%. But the remaining number of fares is still way too many, because the number of OD pairs is still "a lot".

I like simple things. Metro could keep the current prices, but for simplicity's sake just round to the nearest 50c. If you round fairly, on average it does not matter. Prices can then still be increased by 5c, but that would only mean that 1/10 of all people see a 50c increase. Which would be hard to explain, but so is the current price forest.

by Jasper on Nov 17, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

My 2 cents:
* Switch to a zone system with boundaries at the Beltway, the DC border, and Arlington Cemetery. The basic rate is $2 in-zone, add a dollar for each additional zone
* Two sets of fares, one for when the system is expected to be at capacity (including events) or late-night weekends and a discounted rate ($1.50, $.50 per zone) for everything else.
* Agree that paper tickets should always pay the full rate

by movement on Nov 17, 2010 4:48 pm • linkreport

What we truly need is a separate subway system or a lightrail/streetcar system that covers the jurisdiction and make the metrorail system as a commuter system.

If DC & Arlington ever get their streetcar systems perhaps they could cover their whole jurisdictions so that locals could get around without using metrorail.

Does anyone know how fares are calculated between L'Enfant Plaza and Pentagon or Gallery Place and Ft. Totten how is the fare calculated via the blue or yellow, red or green.

Option 1

What about having fares that cover a whole jurisdiction at all times plus stations on the borders. There would be a DC Zone, MC Zone, PGC Zone, AC Zone, Alex Zone and a FfC Zone let the jurisdiction decide what the fare for trips within their zone is and cross jurisdiction trips equal -5 % Stations such as Capitol Heights, Friendship Heights, Rosslyn, Southern Ave would be counted as either zone depending on where you end at ie if you start at Rosslyn and go further into Arlington its counted as Arlington if you go into DC its counted as a DC zone fare.

And if anyone is dumb enough to ride a route such as from Shady Grove to Glenmont, Wheaton, Forest Glen, Silver Spring charged their ass the highest fare to encourage them to take Ride On/Metrobus.

Option 2

What they could do is charge the same for bus and rail

$2.20 base fare for both can transfer between both no add cost within 2 hours
$3.10 second fare for rail/busfare with cash
$4.00 third fare for rail
$4.90 fourth fare for rail/express bus
$6.00 fifth fare for rail/airport routes.

all fares include bus fare for trips of lower value.


What about people who dont get commuter benefits at all and pay for all transit out of pocket.

by kk on Nov 17, 2010 5:59 pm • linkreport

What type of fares should the Purple Line should they be either the metrorail or bus fare why or why not

by kk on Nov 17, 2010 6:05 pm • linkreport

@MLD: a lot of the screw-up from the rally to restore sanity was customers that took a long time buying farecards. Additionally, customers in focus groups identified that the system was too complicated. This was a post to look at ideas that would simplify things.

This simplification that I've proposed doesn't do much for Smartrip riders, except get rid of the peak of the peak fares.

The real point was to seriously simplify the table customers see at the fare machines. The current tables have three possible prices for each of 86 destinations. My simplification would have one price for each destination, and significantly eliminates decision making by eliminating any time basis for cash fares. This comes at a cost. Cash customers no longer get any discounts at all, even during off-peak. This is a pretty big jump in fare (about 100%), but it's avoidable for locals by getting a Smartrip card.

If you can, please figure out a way to design a table that has three possible fares based on time of day for 86 possible destinations that's simpler and more user friendly than what we have. I concluded it can't be done.

@Jasper: The simplification goes from 3 possible fares listed *on the sign* to one possible fare *on the sign*, which is a big improvement. There is a way to simplify the number of origin-destination pairs, but I'd rather not close any Metrorail stations so that's not really an option.

If you're proposing rounding to the nearest 50 cents or a dollar or whatever in order to reduce the number of possible fares, how does that make things simpler? You still have to look up what station you're going to and then over to what the fare is for that station. The stations have to be listed in alphabetical order, they can't be grouped because then they'd be harder to find for tourists.

On average, rounding may not matter, but the people who are helped will ride more, and the people harmed will ride less (or worse, will call their board member to complain). This will reduce the revenue generated and will require the average to be moved up. So more generous rounding would actually move the fares in the up direction to generate the same revenue and would create a class of "losers" that would know it.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 17, 2010 6:28 pm • linkreport

@ Michael: If the problem is that the table is too complex, then get rid of the table. I doubt it's the 3 fares that make it complex, I think it's the 86 entries (times 3 or 6 fares).

In stead of a table, every station can have a map, showing in 50c increments what the cost is to the next stations.

Metro can keep an internal table of the current pricing scheme and make price increases by whatever amount they want to. The result will be that some prices will jump 50c and others not.

Rounding assumes that all prices between .26 and .75 go to .50 and all between .76 and .25 go to .00.

This is cost neutral, because rounding should not matter across the 86!/2 fare options. This is also politically neutral. Same reason. Approval is irrelevant, this will not happen anyway. Lack of customer empathy.

Paris has had maps that show how to get somewhere. You push the station that you want to go to and the shortest route shows up. Worked in the 80s. This is America. Country of Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Google and Apple. You can do better.

by Jasper on Nov 17, 2010 7:11 pm • linkreport

Count me in the crowd that says "complicated fares" doesn't seem to be too big of a concern. Most commuters are using Smartrip cards anyway. People are complaining that the trains are consistently late, doors break on trains, Smartrip cards aren't being read at the turnstiles, and escalators are broken.

Also, not once have I been traveling with someone who wants to wait until "peak-of-the-peak" is over so travel is cheaper. The current tiered-fare could be simpler, but I believe the problem is communication. Classic WMATA breakdown in communication. I mean seriously, who designed those god-awful ticket machines? I get Smart Benefits every month and I STILL get confused every time I go to reload. Press B, then A, then B twice if you're 6' tall, then A four times real quick, except if it's Tuesday then hit C.

For tourists, I like the suggestion of an earlier poster. Select your destination and the computer screen simply tells you what your fare is. That would eliminate the need to print new 56-column tables every time fares change.

by OX4 on Nov 17, 2010 8:11 pm • linkreport

You need to prioritize the system for tourists and occasional users. As people keep posting, in general SmarTrip commuters don't care how the system works. There is no complication to it. You swipe and get on, and if your balance is running low, you just put a bit more on. You don't worry if you are off a bit because you can dip into the negative.

So you need to prioritize the buying experience for paper farecards. The base fare shown should be for paper, not for SmartTrip. That just adds extra math when people are standing at the machine trying to figure out how much to put in. So increase the base fare 25 cents, then say SmartTrip gets a 25cent discount.

And get rid of the peak of the peak. I haven't noticed many personally, but I imagine that there have to be lots of paper farecard users who are 25 cents short because of the paper surcharge or 15 cents short because of peak of the peak surcharge, neither of which they knew about. Then they are scrounging for change to pay the exit fare box, and if they paid with a card and have no cash they are in trouble.

by Brian S. on Nov 17, 2010 8:34 pm • linkreport

I agree wholeheartedly with MLD and OX4; tourists are going to use Metro no matter what, and it's not too hard for commuters to calculate their weekly/monthly/annual costs.

by EJ on Nov 17, 2010 8:36 pm • linkreport

Metro is OBSCENELY expensive. A peak hour round trip from Bethesda to Capitol Hill costs $8.20!!!! I cannot imagine riding in from Shady Grove and also having to pay for parking. This policy discourages the very people we want to use transit from doing so. Stupid.

by Captain Hilts on Nov 17, 2010 9:47 pm • linkreport

This is not a priority. (Peak pricing is good because it reduces congestion at the margins.) Advocate for improved maintenance, capital investment etc... to improve the system. Not simplifying the fares so a penny-pinching tourist doesn't get stuck with $1.2 on a card....

by Michael on Nov 18, 2010 12:25 am • linkreport

Peak of the Peak is a great idea which should stay, since the additional service available at that time does cost appreciably more money to provide than off-peak service. (It should get a new name, though: perhaps the three bands should be named peak, shoulder, and base.) Just because it seems confusing right now doesn't mean people won't get used to it; indeed, electronic payments argue for more complexity in the future, not less. Singapore changes toll road prices in five-minute intervals, and Capital Bikeshare has four price bands ($0/$1.50/$3/$6). We're all sold on congestion pricing for roads, so why is it suddenly bad for transit?

If getting tourists and other occasional riders to understand the system is a concern, then change the way the tickets are sold: sell 1/2/3-day passes and roundtrip tickets, or allow people to choose their station pairs from the machine rather than consulting a table. Or do what Japan does and post a big map of fares rather than a table -- which I could quickly figure out even when it was all in Japanese. The map could even be done in e-ink, so that the displayed prices could easily change with the time.

Michael, the simplicity argument for getting rid of Peak of the Peak doesn't hold water. Your proposal gives a 50% discount for off-peak rides and removes that column from the fare chart -- so why can't the flat 20¢ peak surcharge also be moved off the fare chart?

As for a flat rate, that would be a huge and highly regressive gift to some of the country's wealthiest, sprawliest suburbs, and for what gain? Metro's $1.60 base fare is actually one of the cheapest for a subway in North America; you'll pay almost twice that (C$3) for a mile-long bus ride in Toronto. Suburban commuters who take transit to work can just drive to the grocery store or to visit grandma three miles away; that's not an option for the transit-dependent. It's telling that very few new subway systems use flat-rate pricing; those that have it are usually older systems which use antiquated fare collection systems (or just stuck by the resulting path dependence). Distance-based pricing recognizes that it's more expensive to provide longer trips in lower-density areas, and that people are willing to pay more for longer trips. We never question why the New Jersey Turnpike or American Airlines factors distance into pricing, so why is it bad for transit?

by Payton on Nov 18, 2010 1:03 am • linkreport

I kind of agree fare complexity is a minor issue accross the board and is a moot point for SmarTrip users. But in ther interest of helping out the occasional user of paper fare cards, list the fare chart in paper card prices and put that there is a discount for SmarTrip on there (maybe this is how it is now, as I use SmarTrip, I have no idea).

Now, how about just printing lists for popular destinations for each station (you might even be able to do most popular paper fare card destinations from each station) and print those along with relevant prices? I'm guessing most occasional users only use a handful of destination stations (Gallery Place, Smithsonian, etc.) so hopefully most people can just quickly look at that.

by Steven Yates on Nov 18, 2010 1:15 am • linkreport

Also, people complaining about high fares should be throttled. $4.10 from Bethesda to Capitol Hill? So what? A 10-mile trip on New Jersey Transit commuter rail is $5; on MBTA commuter rail $4.75; on a NYC Transit express bus $5.50 (and with slower, less frequent service). Per AAA, driving a 10-mile trip is $7.40 even before paying for parking. Typical Bethesda families can spare the change; their median income of $170K would pay for 57 roundtrips every day. Atypical Bethesda families can save money by traveling off-peak, or riding buses or bikes instead.

Okay, so a 10-mile trip is cheaper in Tokyo or Hong Kong or NYC, but the cost of providing transit service falls dramatically with such high densities.

by Payton on Nov 18, 2010 1:41 am • linkreport

@ Payton

How does eink compare to actual paper for people with low vision (that could be a problem with complaints or lawsuits)and what is the cost benefit of replace 100+ paper signs with eink how long will it take to recoup.

You seem to be talking alot about suburban commuters what about people who reside within the city and do not leave it that perhaps travel short distances or even from end to end.

Since you speak of other cities and regions How much does it cost to get from one part of the city/region (the real borders of the jurisdiction not suburbs) to another in Tokyo, Hong Kong, NYC

The problem with all examples of comparing commuter rails to DC is that Metrorail also functions as a city subway and that needs to be accounted for. There is no viable way to travel short distances in DC or the areas that border Western, Eastern, Southern Avenues or the Potomac.

Unless someone is going to build a actual subway in DC people who travel short distances of less than 1-5 stops need to be accounted for since it is the only real way that could be travelled since many of the buses routes do not travel across the geographic barriers (Anacostia, Rock Creek Park)within the city.

by kk on Nov 18, 2010 2:12 am • linkreport

Excerpted from Peter Smith's comments:

"DC should raise the DC gas tax by 100% over the next 5 years or so. do it similar to the federal gas tax increase bill -- a penny increase per month -- or just bump it up 5 cents every year for five years, and then index to inflation (if it's not already). use 35% of the money for walk projects, 30% for bike projects, 25% for transit, and 10% for 'innovation/experimental projects' like bike counters, more/better information tools for all modes, various trials/street treatments, etc. and the road tolls are not to 'subsidize transit' -- they are to 'keep car traffic moving', and/or/ie to 'prevent the catastrophic cost of auto congestion to the regional economy', and to 'begin to make an attempt at cost-recovery for our road/car system'."

The problem with this argument is that it fails to recognize its own impracticality, which stems from the point that very few people actually have to buy gas in DC, even DC residents, and that if DC raises the gas tax, even fewer will do so. In other words, it's sort of like the situation along the Canadian border, where many Canadian residents cross over to the United States to buy gas because it's cheaper. Gas in Virginia is already cheaper than in either Maryland or DC, and I believe the last time I looked gas in Maryland was cheaper than in DC. So why wouldn't anyone in DC who isn't face with a tank about to run dry simply drive out to Maryland or Virginia? If the difference is only 10¢ a gallon, it's not worth it, but if DC were to double the gas tax it would be a completely different situation.

(Consider how many of us who live in Virginia head into DC to buy liquor due to the greater selection and often lower prices due to the privatized market there.)

by Rich on Nov 18, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

@kk: What about people who dont get commuter benefits at all and pay for all transit out of pocket.

I left a sentence out of there, which should have been included. If you are a regular rider, whether you get benefits or not, one would assume you do one of two things - either you calculate ahead of time how much you will need and put enough on each week/month so you will be OK, or you just reload your card with $20-$50 when it gets low. Regardless of whether you get commuter benefits or not, if you are using a SmarTrip to commute every day you are going to just put money on it on regular intervals. If you are going to the fare machine every day to put one day's worth of fare on your SmarTrip you are doing it wrong. For those people they really only need to figure out their fare once so "speed/ease" isn't as much of a concern.

@Michael Perkins

I can cut the table down to two columns today if you take your approach and make people do math themselves. Just take out the "peak of the peak" column and add a note that says "trips between X times are an additional $0.20."

Honestly I don't know if it's a good idea to make paper farecard trips peak pricing at all times. I worry at the effect that might have on off-peak (especially weekend) trips. If I had to guess I would bet that off-peak a higher percentage of trips are taken on paper farecards. Maybe you could combine this with an effort to push one day passes and maybe have a three day pass as well?

In the future (when WMATA upgrades to a new type of smartcard) there will probably be temporary RFID cards (about the consistency of NYC metrocards) that people will be able to buy from farecard machines.

The backup at special events comes from the fact that the farecard machines take a long time to use - period. Maybe this could be sped up by simplifying fares, but I think it could also be sped up by making it easier to buy one-day passes. That's what people should be buying for those events - just make it super simple.

by MLD on Nov 18, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

Here was my original thinking on this (I had a lot of free time one day and actually typed this out):

Base fare: $1.50 - charged to all trips up to 2.9 miles Tier 1: Add $0.50 if trip is 3.0 - 5.9 miles
Tier 2: Add $1.00 if trip is 6.0 - 9.9 miles
Tier 3: Add $1.50 if trip is beyond 10.0 miles

Then, if trip occurs during set "peak" periods, add $2.00 to the fare; call it a "premium" and market it as paying for the increased frequency and number of trains in the system during those times.
If passenger is using a farecard, then add $0.25 to the total fare and market it as a "fee" which pays for the cost of the paper farecards and recycling (or something).

Non-peak trips (with Smartrip) would be $1.50, $2.00, $2.50, or $3.00 under this system. Trips during peak hours would be $3.50, $4.00, $4.50 or $5.00 wtih Smartrip.

This would allow for one column representing the cost from one station to another. The customer would only then have to identify what time of day they are riding and add the $2 as appropriate and/or the $0.25 if using a farecard. Seems simple enough to me and is on par with the current system.

This allows for short trips taken off-peak to compete with the metrobus fare, and could go up as metrobus fares go up. This would allow WMATA to raise the base fare independantly from the mileage and peak charges, helping to ease the PR blow for a raise to one aspect of the fare.

The mileage charge could also be converted into a zone system, with each tier representing an additional zone the trip passes through. Though I favor the mileage system since zones could be hard to define or represent on a map and would be subject to the squabble of jurisdictions. Plus, with zones, you could go only two stations but cross the zone boundary and pay a higher fare, which doesn't seem fair to me.

by Matt S. on Nov 18, 2010 12:16 pm • linkreport

Payton, we want to ENCOURAGE not DIScourage long-distance riders to ride transit. People who do not ride transit, benefit when these long-distance commuters ride transit.

$3 for a busride in Toronto is if you buy just one ticket. If you buy at least 5 the price goes down. But, Toronto is going to shift to pay by distance pricing soon, so they will have the same disincentives that Metro now has.

by Captain Hilts on Nov 18, 2010 1:00 pm • linkreport

If anybody is unfairly penalized by Peak and PoTP, it's the commuters who travel a short distance entirely within the district.

That's cause those people can probably walk or bike more easily. If you live in Foggy Bottom and are taking Metro to get to Farragut West or McPherson Sq..well, then....

As for the taxes situation, what someone above wrote about people just crossing to VA to buy gas is so true.

The biggest problem Metro encounters, bigger than anything in my view, is that it crosses 3 jurisdictions, DC, MD and VA and each one has a different set of rules and sets taxes, commuting priorities, budgets differently.

This has always been one of the major obstacles at getting anything passed/changed in WMATA.

People from other areas seem to forget this adds a lot of complication to some of the simplest changes.

That being said, I would like to see MD and VA pitch in a lot more to fund the system, particularly since I think a majority of riders are suburban commuters living in those nearby states versus DC residents.

I concede that in the last 10 years or so, as DC has grown in population, perhaps the DC riders number has increased, but still I bet a majority of riders, particularly during rush/peak hours are VA/MD residents.

And most of them living in some of the richest counties in the country like Montgomery County or Fairfax or Arlington Counties.


by Stefan Sittig on Nov 18, 2010 4:31 pm • linkreport

The problem with this argument is that it fails to recognize its own impracticality, which stems from the point that very few people actually have to buy gas in DC, even DC residents, and that if DC raises the gas tax, even fewer will do so.

i think it's a practical idea. first, DC is a very high-income/high-wealth jurisdiction -- drivers here can afford the raised gas tax. poor people don't drive.

also, most of us have all sorts of choices to make ever day based on any number of factors. i don't know how many gas-buyers DC would lose to outside areas -- i think we should find out. would it be 1%? 2%? 5%? 10%? 50%? and at what percentage level does it become 'unhealthy' for DC, or unfair for gas station owners, or healthier for non-driving residents who have to put up with cars and gas stations which are not, imo, paying for the detrimental effects they have on the city?

DC will lose a few folks who live on the fringe, and a few who typically buy in DC for whatever reason, but the increase in revenue-per-gallon will, I suspect, far outweigh any folks that DC 'loses'.

the argument is similar to the "rich people will evacuate New Jersey if NJ institutes a 'rich person' tax" debate we had here on GGW a few months ago -- well, we saw what happened -- some rich people did actually leave to go to Pennsylvania (or wherever), and New Jersey got an extraordinary bump in tax revenues -- mission accomplished. here's a list of some studies, with, an excerpt on the NJ case:

4) New Jersey increased taxes on high earners in 2004, and Princeton researchers did find (PDF) that New Jersey lost $37.7 million in tax revenue after migration by wealthy tax payers. However, that number was dwarfed by the more than $1 billion overall revenue gain from the tax increase, and the number of high-income filers still increased between 2004 and 2006.

that data point, and others, may not be conclusive, but they mean something. the idea that DC area drivers will 'Go Galt' and take their gas tax money outside of DC is, I suspect, not realistic. i don't have proof - i think we should try it.

and with the slow tax rate increase (unlike New Jersey), we'd have plenty of time to watch it develop, so there'd no potential for an emergency situation -- more likely, just more money coming in for at least a few months before 'the market' (aka drivers/gas stations/etc.) had a chance to adjust their behaviors accordingly -- by driving less and walking/biking/riding more, by switching to outside-DC gas stations, by purchasing more fuel-efficient cars, DC gas stations becoming more attractive, etc. -- and we'd just have to see what happened with gas stations and gas tax revenues. gas tax revenues would either decrease, or stay about the same, or increase -- my guess is that they would increase very substantially, if not quite 'explode'.

if drivers want their gas tax money to improve DC infrastructure instead of Virginia's, they will fill up in DC.

the purpose of using the gas tax money in DC to support walk/bike/transit initiatives is that when you start using tax money for things that actually benefit people, people will be much more supportive of those taxes. we see this effect when comparing Euro health care and relative tax rates to the US, and we see similar effects when business districts institute performance parking (a revenue-raising 'tax') that goes to improve the streetscape, among other things, etc.

So why wouldn't anyone in DC who isn't face with a tank about to run dry simply drive out to Maryland or Virginia?

bunch of reasons - it'd be further, it 'costs' time and pollution and possibly lots of traffic/frustration/anger/etc., it costs fuel, it costs wear and tear on your car, added danger of longer trips, tolls, etc. etc. Our economy can operate fine even with $8/gal gas, but it needs time to adjust -- so building out walk/bike/transit infrastructure now, before any gas price spikes, is super-important. and raising gas taxes in DC will encourage politicians to raise gas taxes in neighboring jurisdictions/states (at least, i would hope) - and that'd be a great thing.

If the difference is only 10¢ a gallon, it's not worth it, but if DC were to double the gas tax it would be a completely different situation.

i say we try it and see what happens - and remember, the 'doubling' would happen very smoothly, with monthly 1-cent increases per month, over the course of five years - it wouldn't happen overnight. if it leads to economic collapse after the first month(s)/year(s), we'll stop the increases or roll it back. simple. we could even put in a 'safety/shut off valve' -- if gas tax revenue, or gas stations businesses, are decimated in the District, by 'X'%, then we stop the program and/or roll back rates - no further Council votes needed. done and done.

(Consider how many of us who live in Virginia head into DC to buy liquor due to the greater selection and often lower prices due to the privatized market there.)

there are lots of people who do lots of things -- sometimes smart, sometimes not. my buddy, for instance -- and we _all_ have at least one buddy like this -- will drive from DC out to California just to avoid ATM fees if his ATM is located in California and not DC. it doesn't make sense for him, nor for any of us in the car with him, nor for society, but he'll do it b/c he has some mental block against paying ATM fees. fine - so everyone suffers. if it turns out that drivers refuse to pay higher gas taxes in DC, and they all abandon DC gas stations in droves, then it might not be something we want to do -- but i think most folks won't be bothered about paying some more in gas taxes to further improve DC. there's one way to find out - try it.

by Peter Smith on Nov 18, 2010 5:53 pm • linkreport

@kk: Um, I'm all for keeping prices low for intra-city riders, which is why I strongly oppose a single fare. International comparisons for intra-city trips are meaningless; "Hong Kong" refers to several overlapping jurisdictions. The economics of transit there are worlds apart: urban-core population density is just flabbergasting (10X higher than DC), subway trains cram 80% more passengers, and the minimum wage is just $3.61.

@Hilts: we want to encourage everyone to ride transit. A flat fare discourages those making relatively shorter trips within more congested corridors.

by Payton on Nov 18, 2010 9:53 pm • linkreport

Searched through the comments and didn't see this correction; apologies if I missed it. AM peak-of-the-peak is 7:30 to 9 am (not 7 to 9:30 am).

by Liz P on Nov 19, 2010 8:17 am • linkreport

@Liz: Noted. Thanks.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 19, 2010 8:22 am • linkreport

@ Peter Smith: Gas prices do not vary much more over jurisdictional borders.

Most expensive pump I can find quickly is in Glen Echo....

by Jasper on Nov 19, 2010 9:13 am • linkreport

Let me rephrase that: Gas prices do not vary significantly over jurisdictional borders, compared to the variation between nearby pumps (from $3.34 in Glen Echo to in the $2.7x elsewhere, notably in PG. From the map, MoCo near DC seems to be the most expensive region for gas, PG near DC the cheapest. Obviously, prices drop when you go out further.

Zooming further out, MD and VA seem to have cheaper gas than WV and PA. NY and CT are the most expensive on the east coast. MD and VA are more or less on average, with the south being cheaper.

by Jasper on Nov 19, 2010 9:20 am • linkreport

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