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


Should Metro switch to zones? (No.)

It's frequently suggested that Metro should switch to a system of zones to simplify its complex system of fares. What would such a zone system look like, and would it be better for riders?

As it turns out, zones wouldn't simplify things much, and the tradeoffs for Metro and for riders would be steep.

Diagram by Matt Johnson. Click to enlarge.

How it works

Under this system, you would pay based on how many zones you traverse. A trip in just one zone would cost a base fare; each additional zone would cost more.

Fares are based on the number of zones you pass through. You only pay for each zone once. So a trip from East Falls Church (zone 3) to New York Ave (zone 2) through the core would be a 3-zone trip. Zone 2 is counted only once for that trip.

Some stations are on the zone boundary, however. These stations can be counted in either zone, whichever is cheaper for the rider. So a trip from Court House (zone 2) to Rosslyn (zone 1/2) would be a 1-zone trip (all in zone 2).

Zones TraveledPeak FareOff-Peak Fare

Any serious proposal needs to be revenue-neutral or revenue-positive to be practical. We drew the zones so that if ridership stayed roughly the same, Metro would not lose any fare revenue over the current system. Different fare values or zone boundaries could produce a different result.

We've eliminated the "peak of the peak" fare. Fares would go back to being either "regular" (peak) or "reduced" (off-peak). But we've set the zone fares so that Metro would earn the same the overall revenue as they do today.


A key advantage is that tourists and others unfamiliar with the fare system would be able to buy tickets and passes more easily.

The complicated fare table on all vending machines could be replaced by a zone map and a chart showing the rates to travel in each zone. Passes also become simple. You can buy a one-zone pass for a certain price, a two-zone pass for more, and so on.

Converting to a zone system might simplify transfers between rail and bus. Metro could treat a bus trip as just an additional zone, making the system a little more integrated in terms of fare system. In this case, a bus trip and a one-zone rail trip would be $2.75, and transferring from rail to bus would be an additional $0.75 instead of an extra $1.

For some trips, the fare is a great deal cheaper. For example, trips from the far edge of a zone, through the central core, and out to the far edge of a zone are much cheaper.

One such case is from Benning Road to Ballston, a trip that's currently $4.05. Here, it would be only $2.75, a 30% drop, and the same price as a much shorter trip from Woodley Park to downtown.


For other trips, the fare increases significantly. A good example of this would be the relatively short trip from West Falls Church to Ballston. A trip that would be $2.45 to Ballston becomes $3.50 under the zone system, and even a trip to Rosslyn currently at $3.05 becomes $3.50.

West Falls Church is the terminal for many Fairfax Connector buses, and it's not a stretch of the imagination to think that a lot of those passengers are bound for office buildings in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

Customers living near these borders would object to any decision to put a zone boundary between them and downtown, and some of these customers facing large increases would abandon riding Metro. Remember that the analysis assumed the same mix of trips in the system as before, which becomes an unlikely assumption once large fare increases come into play.

The fact is, it would be impossible to draw a zone map that allows for a relatively low base fare around $2.00, and a high max fare of $5.00, without either having very expensive zone boundaries or too many zone boundaries. Expensive boundaries raise equity concerns, where a short geographic distance between riders at two adjacent stations turns into a big fare difference.

Large numbers of zone boundary, on the other hand, just mimic the current slow, steady gradient of fares that our current system uses. The former seems unfair, and would create groups of riders that lose out and would know it. The latter would be nearly as complicated as our current system.

Are there ways for Metro to simplify its fares without creating zones? Yes, and an upcoming post will explore some of these alternatives.

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. 
Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Heís a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


Add a comment »

Just shrink the numbers of fare 'bins'. Metro's off-peak fares have 3 bins for short, middle, and long distance trips. I don't recall how many there are during peak hours, but you end up in situations where traveling one extra station costs you another 5 cents.

If Metro's peak fares were calculated as they are now and then rounded to the nearest quarter, that would simplify things a great deal.

by Alex B. on Mar 31, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

Interesting. How did you model this. You must have detailed ridership data from metro. That is, you must have data that tells you how many people go from one station to every other station during each of the different fare periods. So please, tell us how you did it!

by Ken on Mar 31, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like basically zone 1 here is downtown DC, zone 2 is the rest of DC, zone 3 is the within the Beltway, zone 5 is just ... way out there.

This would prove tricky if something like the Purple Line were to be built (and incorporated into Metro). Bethesda to New Carrolton, for example, is one zone.

by Tim on Mar 31, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

defactor, they already have zones. I'm not sure it would make the complex fare system any simpler. Regular riders who use more than one line on a frequent basis would get it, but if anything it might be even more confusing for visitors. It also would give Metro less flexibility in fare setting.

by Rich on Mar 31, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

It seems to me that one way to help with some of the 'short-trip high-fare' problem would be to make all the boundaries at, rather than between, stations (maybe except where stations are REALLY far apart). For starters, then you'd never have to pay a 2-zone fare for a one-station trip. In fact, you'd never cross more boundaries than the number of stations you go. I think this would seem more intuitively fair to people.

For the WFC-Ballston example, if the boundaries were at those two stations, you'd have just a 1-zone trip. WFC to anywhere else in the RB Corridor would still be 2 zones, but in that case you are going several stops.

If this proposal reduces total revenue too much, maybe it would be worth the trade-off to make an additional zone cost $1.

by RichardatCourthouse on Mar 31, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

Metro should import the fare machines that the Chinese use for their subway systems. In Shanghai, fares are per kilometer, but you don't need to do any complicated math; just punch in your destination station on an LCD display and it tells you the fare to that station.

by Phil on Mar 31, 2011 2:50 pm • linkreport

I was going to make a suggestion like Phil -- can't the fare machines just be upgraded to allow the user to select the destination and calculate the fare accordingly?

But is it really that much trouble? Maybe this sound callous, but so what if some tourists have a hard time - big deal. Why should Metro have to retool the whole system (all the while the legislators from said tourists' hometowns are busy stripping Metro of funding...).

by hillie on Mar 31, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

I recently travelled to san francisco and they have a very similar fare system on BART that metro does- basically one that seemingly has no order. However, if you are using google maps to get you around, it tells you how much each trip will cost. as a result, there's no thinking involved. It just works! Either load up a ton of money on a farecard and then you don't care or pay what its going to cost, knowing that ahead of time with your convenient smartphone app :)

by Allan on Mar 31, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

@Ken: I have origin-destination matrices for peak, off-peak, peak of peak trips for weekdays and weekends for farecard and smartrip transactions, it's almost 100,000 data points if I remember correctly. Analysis was done in octave, a GNU clone of Matlab. The analysis was static, in that it did not assume any ridership changes.

I basically calculated an average fare for the current fare system, then I modeled a zone fare system and adjusted the zone system prices until I achieved the same average fare.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

@phil/hillie: We already have that! The fare to/from each station is posted on each vending machine.

Now, that chart could definitely use a major redesign (and maybe some technology to highlight the *current* fare), but the information's definitely already there.

The chart is also a bit more complicated than it could be, thanks to the ADA requirement that forces Metro's "Base" fares to actually be the "Peak" fare. The difference is purely pedantic, but does make the charts harder to read.

I'd also love to see a workable reverse commute system devised to encourage those individuals to take Metro instead of driving. (But that's another topic altogether)

by andrew on Mar 31, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport


Absolutely. The fare machine in Shanghai was very easy to use and had multiple languages. Just touch your destination and off you went. The only problem with the system, as far as I can tell, is that the Shanghai Metro does not vary fares based on the time, just distance.

by Adam L on Mar 31, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

I assume this will come up in a later post, but will there be any consideration given to the way that T operates (and the subway in NYC, I believes), which is just a flat $2 fare for every ride, no matter destination length? Obviously, that greatly benefits suburban commuters over those who live and work in downtown, but I wonder how Boston handled the inevitable negative reaction from city-dwellers in that situation. (I'm not saying I espouse this method, but I wonder how it stacks up, revenue-wise.)

by BOS on Mar 31, 2011 3:17 pm • linkreport

BOS: Many of Metro's lines are equivalent to the commuter rail lines, not the T lines. It's as if the T went well outside Route 128. It wouldn't be fair or affordable just to have a single fare to Waltham as well as Somerville.

by David Alpert on Mar 31, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

@BOS: I think I ran an analysis and found the flat fare would be something like $3.25. However, for our system the political reality is that the inner jurisdiction has a veto power over all changes, so that would definitely draw a DC veto.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

I'm not the same Phil, but I think that if Metro actually delineated zones they could open up the way for unlimited passes, something that would greatly increase ridership.

by Phil on Mar 31, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

@BOS - As D. Alpert alludes, the T is a true urban subway, not a glorified commuter rail like Metro and the flat fare works since most stops are in Boston/Cambridge/Somerville. If you go to the new 'extension' stations further out in the 'burbs (eg: Quincy Adams, Braintree) there is a surcharge. In the days of tokens, it was 2 tokens to get on there, and an extra token to get off at those stops (ala Charlie...).

by dcole on Mar 31, 2011 3:37 pm • linkreport

@phil: Might want to take a look at the "Smart Passes" concept, which sets up zones that are based on fare values you pick, rather than geographical zones.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

Metro Smart Passes (link this time!)

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

I think RichardatCourthouse gets it right. Putting WFC on the boundary 4/3 instead of in 4 would make the fare to Rosslyn as just one zone and eliminate that issue mentioned above. A station should sit on each zone boundary in this exercise.

by NikolasM on Mar 31, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

andrew - no, a chart is not the same as fare machines that would automatically calculate the fare to the selected destination, which is what I meant, and I'm pretty sure that's what Phil meant. There could even be a 'return trip' option to double the calculated fare.

I'm not in favor of the zone system but those charts are asinine. impossible to read, especially in a rush, and how much does Metro spend to update them all everytime there's a fare increase? Post one in each station as a record copy and then get real fare machines and dump the guesswork.

by hillie on Mar 31, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

@everyone: I think during the analysis we considered doing more stations sitting on zone boundaries, but it did make the analysis more complicated (each time you do that you have to add a virtual zone just for that one station and create the rules for travel between that one zone and all other zones).

If you want all the source code and files, you're welcome to do it yourself.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 3:52 pm • linkreport

I think zoning makes a lot of sense and despite the fact that most everyone can agree that the metro utilizes some type of zoning system, it seems rather arbitrary and is seriously complicated to figure out.

I don't think the fares should be based on the number of zones traveled through on a journey, rather it should be based on exactly what zones are being traveled to and from (i.e. zone 2 to 4, or even, zone 2 to 2). That way even if you cross multiple zones you would pay the base fare for staying within one zone. The idea is not only to get people into the city, but also to give people who live outside the city access to a cheaper alternatives to driving. The more expensive it is the less likely residents will use it, and the less likely development or improvements will be accepted outside the city center.

London has a really great zoning system which should be looked at (all European public transit should be considered when trying to improve our system). They use this method of to/from zones so for example, zone 1-3 is 2.50 off peak (pounds) but zone 2-3 is 1.30 and zone 2-4 is only ten pence (cents) more. They have peak and off peak fares AND most importantly they not only utilize a pass system, but they charge different fares for riders paying for paper tickets (4 pounds vs. 1.90 for example). Tourists usually get screwed trying to figure the system out, and seeing as DC gets flooded with tourists in the summer, it wouldn't be a bad way to offset some of the lower fares for daily riders. Oh not to mention they cap their fares at a total cost, depending on the zones traveled in. That way someone who has to make a ton of one off trips won't be paying more than $20 (or pounds for that matter) in one day.

Here's a link to their fare system if anyone's interested:

If anything, Metro should make a monthly pass available. You can still do it even if a zoning system is developed. It's like the weekly bus passes - if you're not riding a bus (or not in the zones you purchased the monthly pass for) you are charged on the amount of money you have stored on your card.

by arlingtonian on Mar 31, 2011 4:32 pm • linkreport

Switching to zones is a no-brainer but your proposal is needlessly complicated. Use the natural boundaries we already know and love. Here are all the zones you need:

1: DC
2: Inside Beltway
3: Outside Beltway
4: Dulles / Loudoun (assuming these get built)

Every time you cross a zone boundary, your fare increases.
1 zone: base $2
each additional zone crossed: $1

Going from Vienna to Springfield is 3 zones because you have to go to 2 also. Going from to Vienna to New Carrolton is 5 zones.

by movement on Mar 31, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

"The only problem with the system, as far as I can tell, is that the Shanghai Metro does not vary fares based on the time, just distance."

No, but I imagine it's very easy to program the system so that it also takes time into account. I even noticed while there that Lines 1 and 2 of the Shanghai Metro use the same faregates as the DC metro..

by Phil on Mar 31, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

Non-starter. Way too complex. What if you go from Vienna to Franconia-Springfield? Do you cross 8 zones? And what if you go from Franconia-Springfield to Huntington? [Correct answer: you should have taken the bus].

by Jasper on Mar 31, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: It's no more complex than the current system. In fact the zones would mean fewer unique fare values. In that respect it's simpler.

But it wouldn't solve the problems people seem to think we have with the current system.

To answer your questions:
Vienna->Franconia = 5 + 4 + 3 + 2. Since zones aren't counted twice, that's a 4-zone trip.

Franconia->Huntington = 5 + 4 + 3. Since zones aren't counted twice, that's a 3-zone trip.

There is no way to "cross 8 zones". There are only 5 zones. You can't cross more than 5. At least not until the Silver Line opens.

by Matt Johnson on Mar 31, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

Seriously, click the link to the London fare system and tell me it's better.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 5:16 pm • linkreport

Just make Metro $0.35 per station, with a minimum of $1.75. If you're riding from Franconia-Springfield to Glenmont, you'd pay $7.35. If you rode from Shady Grove to any station up to Grosvenor, you'd pay $1.75. Every station after that would be another $0.35.

If you know it takes $2.80 to get from Vienna to Rosslyn under this scheme, then if you need to figure out how much it would cost to get to Foggy Bottom, just add $0.35.

by Sam on Mar 31, 2011 5:23 pm • linkreport

One point that I think maybe didn't get articulated well enough in the post is that a zone system is necessarily centered on the CBD. A graduated system (which we have now) is completely disconnected from the CBD. It only cares about distance.

Imagine it this way. The current system is a zone system. And each station is at the center of its own zone map. Unfortunately, we can't draw that kind of map at a system scale with any clarity.

by Matt Johnson on Mar 31, 2011 5:26 pm • linkreport

The current metro fare system is not based on zones and it's not "arbitrary". Here's how it works:

For each station pair, compute the "composite distance", which is the average of the distance along the tracks and the point-to-point distance between the two stations. This yields an 86x86 matrix (actually a symmetric matrix with a zero diagonal)

For peak fares, compute the fare for each station pair. The peak fare has a minimum, a maximum, and per-mile charges in between. There are two per-mile rates used, one for the first six miles, and the second for the following miles.

For off-peak fares, there are three fixed fares corresponding to short, medium and long trips.

For peak of the peak, add $0.20 to the peak fare.

For cash fare, add $0.25 to the corresponding Smartrip fare.

For elderly/disabled, take half of the peak Smartrip fare and round down.

This sounds complicated, but we have computers that can handle billions of calculations per second. I can (and have) generate the complete WMATA fare table in excel in 10 minutes -- you just need that origin/destination matrix of distances.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 5:28 pm • linkreport

Michael, Matt:

Thanks for putting this together; it makes a convincing argument.

I see Michael's remark on London's fare structure above, but I wonder if you could address a broader question: is the root of the problem zonal fare structures for mass transit (as opposed to commuter rail, where they do not seem to be as controversial), or is it a matter of particular implementations? That is, can a zonal fare structure ever work?

by Kurt Raschke on Mar 31, 2011 5:28 pm • linkreport

@ Michael Perkins--

I hear you that a zone system has drawbacks. What changes, if any, do you think we should make to the pricing system? Let's leave aside your SmartPass idea. (It's great, I like it, but you already explained it in your link)

by WRD on Mar 31, 2011 5:34 pm • linkreport


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.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 5:36 pm • linkreport

Zones in some German cities are used for buses as well, so that the entire trip's zone coverage is taken as part of the computation. (Stuttgart comes to mind, of course). If we become serious about express buses this might be useful revenue.

by egk on Mar 31, 2011 5:48 pm • linkreport

David Alpert, BOS, Boston used to charge higher fares for different stations.

The Braintree branch, which is metro style regional subway used to charge exit fares and higher entrance fares.

The D lines also had their own system. Outbound was free, but inbound was $1.25, $1.50, $2.50 or $3.00 depending on distance.

In fact, "Reservoir" which is shared with the C Line (called Cleveland Circle) charged $1.50 while the C line charged $1.25 because the D got you downtown faster...but passes were valid at both.

In 2006, the MBTA decided to simplify the system and charge a flat $1.70 for unlimited rides in the system.

There was no backlash, as simpler is simply better. The transfer system was also simplified (free to buses).

Of course, the commuter rail system does charge different rates (by zones), but it's much larger. The furthest station is about 1:20 from Boston.

by JJJJJ on Mar 31, 2011 5:55 pm • linkreport

Also, let me add that theres one huge reason it's easier to use zones in a commuter rail system than a metro system:


As someone else mentioned, going from Bethesda to it the same zone? Is it 5 zones?

Commuter rail, in american, generally offers no transfer opportunities (except for local buses).

You go from central station to a single suburban station. You dont switch lines.

Generally, when you board at a suburban station, your destination is the CBD. Very, VERY few people travel between suburban stations.

So it's an easy calculation. If your boarding station is zone 5, you pay the zone 5 fare because your destination is always downtown.

Thats not the case with a metro.

The only way to make it easy with metro would be to have two zones. Essentially, inside the beltway and outside the beltway.

Going to zones would just add to the confusion.
Right now, at the station, you can see
"Going to Dupont will cost me $2.10. I should pay $2.10"

Making it a zone, the process becomes:
"Ok, we're in zone 3, and we want to go to zone 2. Hm, is that one zone, or two zones...? Ok, two zones, lets see, to travel between two zones it's $2.10. I should pay $2.10"

Why add another step?

by JJJJJ on Mar 31, 2011 6:02 pm • linkreport

@Andrew: Can you cite the part of ADA legislation that forces WMATA to have the peak fare as the "base" fare? I won't buy it until I see it in writing since it seems convoluted.

@JJJJJ Simpler is one thing, but in making things simple the MBTA may have shut themselves out of a good revenue source when they ended extra fares for the Braintree and outer D branches. I ran the distances in laymans terms and MBTA riders get a bargain during rush hours as your average Park St-Braintree or Riverside commuter would pay over $4 one-way under WMATA fares.

I could see Ward 4 fighting this zone map because of the fact that the main station within its borders (Takoma) and a narrowly out of DC station with a lot of DC ridership (Silver Spring) would get punished for being too far.

by Jason on Mar 31, 2011 6:25 pm • linkreport

Why would you put Eisenhower and Huntington in different zones? I realize Huntington outside the beltway, but only just, and as a commuter station, drivers are already paying extra to park. If there were stations beyond Huntington it might make more sense, but it just seems greedy to charge more for that last (or first) 30 seconds.

That's also a bgt gripe with London's system -- that zone assignments have less to do with geography and more to do with increasing revenue.

by Mele on Mar 31, 2011 8:03 pm • linkreport

Jason, not every transit system is on a path of raising fares and cutting service. DC has the highest fares in the country....why would anyone else want to emulate that? Sure, it means more revenue, but at what social cost? Higher fares simply encourage more drivers.

Boston also charges $1.25 for buses, one of the cheapest in the nation for large cities. (Note, long distance express buses do have a different fare structure).

To keep their finances in order, sales tax was raised in 2008 (or was it 2009?). I think that was a much better strategy.

Boston has been the only large city to not raise fares or cut service in the past 4 years. That's something other cities should be trying to emulate, not searching for more ways to nickle and dime transit riders while leaving costs fixed for drivers.

by JJJJJ on Mar 31, 2011 8:24 pm • linkreport

What I don't get is why we need to charge an extra fare to ride the bus. As metro becomes more and more crowded we will need to take advantage of busses more often. Charging extra for intra-zone mode transfers will discourage use of busses and simply encourages driving. Not only that, it makes things more complex. I'd like to have a revenue neutral zone system similar to London's that is mode agnostic and very easy to use.

by Josh on Mar 31, 2011 8:53 pm • linkreport

ok let me see...lets take the cabs off the zone system cos tourists get confused but its ok to put the buses on zone system so they dont hmmmm

by dc cab driver on Mar 31, 2011 9:52 pm • linkreport

JJJJJ: The T is totally f**ked.

Basically, they've been borrowing more and more money each year because they don't want to/can't raise fares and the state won't fund transit as it should.

But I totally agree with you that the fares should be low. Governments should pay for transit as they do the roads. Find some regional taxes to levy to pay for it. Absolutely.

Boston isn't a city to emulate, though.

by David Alpert on Mar 31, 2011 9:57 pm • linkreport

@Josh I agree. If you pay $1.50 to take a Metrobus to your local Metro station, that $1.50 should be applied to the $2 I propose to travel within your home zone.

@dc cab driver Come on. There are a finite number of stops on Metro and a small number of lines to get you there. There are an infinite number of places a taxi can go and a large number of roads to get you there. Get the difference?

by movement on Mar 31, 2011 10:10 pm • linkreport

Currently, you pay more to ride one more stop to Huntington. That's how a graduated fare system works.

The station assignments are based on distance from downtown Washington. It so happens that Huntington fell into the 4th zone.

It apparently bears repeating that our exercise had to be revenue neutral. It's all well and good to question the methodology. But is it important enough for Huntington commuters to save a few cents that everybody else in the system has to pay a higher fare?

It's all hypothetical anyway. And remember, of the two authors of this post, 100% of them think that the zone based fare system is a bad idea. But we decided to test it out to see if it was feasible.

WMATA does not have the highest fares of a rail system in the country. They have the second-highest fares. BART's highest possible fare is $10.90, double Metro's highest fare.

by Matt Johnson on Mar 31, 2011 10:10 pm • linkreport

@Mele, the zones were based on distance tiers from the closest transfer station (L'Enfant, Metro Center, or Gallery Place), with some adjustments made to put things like Pentagon and Rosslyn in dual zones. Huntington got put one zone further out because I think Eisenhower was already near the border.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 31, 2011 10:25 pm • linkreport

I don't have much to add to this otherwise excellent analysis. Great job.

One question to raise -- which won't be answered -- is we are all assuming "tourists" are a net positive to Metrorail ridership.

I don't know if that is the case anymore. With degraded off-peak day service trains are full since they are not running often. Tourists are a nightmare at rush hour. Smithsonian, Arl. Cemetery and perhaps union station are the only station that meet a touristic need.

Personally, pushing tourists onto Metrobus/Circulator is going to be hard.

by charlie on Mar 31, 2011 10:29 pm • linkreport


Is this what the scientific method has become?

>It's all hypothetical anyway. And remember, of the two authors of this post, 100% of them think that the zone based fare system is a bad idea. But we decided to test it out to see if it was feasible.

So let's take an idea we think is a bad idea, then present an idiotic implementation which proves that it is a bad idea. Come on. You're not even trying!

If you're actually serious about this, provide the usage data and let others try to come up with a better algorithm. I guarantee that I or someone else can come up with a system that is both simpler and revenue neutral.

by movement on Mar 31, 2011 10:52 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised no one's talked about switching to charging on entry rather than exit (i.e., fare doesn't change based on ride distance). What about a three-zone system, with no exit gates and entry fares based on time?

Zone 1: DC, Arlington
$5 during afternoon rush hour and $3 all other times

Zone 2: Alexandria, Tysons, Bethesda, etc.
$4 during both rush hours and $3 all other times

Zone 3: Two or three stations in from the end of each line (besides Yellow)
$5 during morning rush hour, $3 all other times

This eliminates exit fare while keeping peak pricing and accounting for distance traveled. The fares could be further apart or higher or something like that, but the key is that they're very simple.

by jakeod on Mar 31, 2011 10:57 pm • linkreport

David Alpert, did you read the article you linked to?

"$3 billion of preexisting debt was piled onto the system — including $1.67 billion in borrowing related to the Big Dig that had less to do with the T and more to do with political horse-trading."

Thats the problem right there. The state built a highway and decided the mass transit people should pay for it.

You remove that, and the T is in excellent financial state.

As I said, sales tax went from 5% to 6.5% a couple of years ago, and the T gets 20% of that.

Thats why the T was able to hold fares steady AND increase service.

"Boston isn't a city to emulate, though."

Since we're talking about transit, then I assume you're talking about the MBTA vs Metro/MARC/VTA

Why shouldnt DC emulate Boston?

-Low fares
-Fare card that allows reloading online (and is free)
-Google maps integration
-Worst subway headway is 12 minutes (vs 20)
-Commuter rail is 7 days a week (vs weekdays only)
-Downtown is covered with transit stops, unlike DC, where there's nothing in georgetown or the southwest (below the mall)
-Has 15 "key" bus routes that supposedly operate on a rail-like schedule.

I've lived in both cities. The DC metro is obviously nicer, as it's newer...but after having to wait 22 minutes for a subway transfer in DC, and having to pay twice the Boston fare for that pleasure, I'll take Boston any day.

Although DC does get points for 3am service on weekends and having nextbus first.

by JJJJJ on Apr 1, 2011 12:50 am • linkreport

@movement: Don't appreciate the effort being called "idiotic". We divided the fare system into zones as a transit system would, with the zones increasing as you go out from the center. The one-zone fare was kept about the same as the current, the highest fare was made about the same as current, we picked a number of zones that seemed a reasonable balance between complexity and equity.

People may have problems with the location of the fare boundaries near their stations, but that's part of the point: proposing a zone fare system instantly becomes an argument over where the boundaries are. With distance, there are no boundaries, and the fares are based on an objective function.

The proposal you stated earliest has big fare cuts for many long trips (Shady Grove would be $4 to downtown, a 20% cut from today). Where would the funding for this come from? It has equity concerns, such as why should Pentagon City to L'Enfant be $3, while Georgia Ave to Navy Yard be $2? Why should Vienna to Eastern Market be only $4 when it's $5 today? And why are you increasing off-peak fares so much? It shouldn't be $5 during off-peak to take a trip on the Metro.

I'll agree that you can come up with a plan that's simpler and revenue neutral. You could do that with a flat fare. There's an equity concern too. The trick is to keep the plan from increasing the fare too much on too many people. Metro's fare principles include a requirement for "equitable fares".

Ridership data is available at:

Good luck!

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 6:32 am • linkreport

@Jake OD: Your plan assumes everyone boarding in Arlington or DC is going to be taking a maximum distance trip. What about people who are only taking a short trip, say from Archives to Columbia Heights? Should that be $5 in the evening, when it's only about $2 now?

I think this plan would get the DC veto for sure. It would also be a huge fare increase for off-peak riders.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 6:39 am • linkreport

Looks like the sugar sync link I posted requires you to sign up for a free account. If you're unwilling to do that, you can contact me for the files.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 6:41 am • linkreport

Let's fix something that isn't broke.

Thanks so much fellows. You've just increased my fares astronomically while no doubt savings bundles for yourself.

When should I pay $2.75 to go from Eastern Market to Dupont Circle and the same $2.75 to go from Eastern Market to Capitol South??????????????

by Brian Coverdale on Apr 1, 2011 8:12 am • linkreport

@Brian: I agree. That's why we recommended against a zone fare system. Anywhere you draw the line, someone will complain.

If it makes you feel any better, for public disclosure my normal ride from EFC to EM goes from $3.80 to $3.50 because I take a relatively long cross-city trip. My mom's trip goes from $1.95 to $2.75, so it balances out. I think Matt Johnson's trip goes from $3.60 to $2.75. My trip re-enters zone 2 on the other side of the city. Matt's travels all the way across zone 4 and zone 3 and then doubles back without crossing into zone 2. These are the kinds of trips that are helped by zone fare systems.

In any case, the post should be clear that we don't like zone fares and both think that distance-based is a more equitable way to charge for Metrorail.

Title of the post was: "Should Metro switch to zones? (No.)"

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 8:32 am • linkreport

I think everyone's missing the more fundamental problem with zones in DC... there's no way a gvt agency is going to approve an iconic transit map that looks like a target centered on the nation's capital!


by Steven on Apr 1, 2011 8:59 am • linkreport

Except the Capitol is actually over to the side of the bullseye. Suckers, you just got the old post office building.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 9:48 am • linkreport

So what happens if there is ever a circular line or a line in DC that goes due east/west or north/south ?

Why not base the zones of number of miles from a specific point such as WMATA headquarters, everything from the headquarters to 1.5 miles is zone 1, 1.5 to 3.0 is zone 2 and so fourth.

by kk on Apr 1, 2011 10:55 am • linkreport

If we ever get a circular line, the fare zones would have to change. The Purple Line won't inside Metro's fare gates at any of the transfer stations, so it could have it's own fare zone arrangement if necessary.

The zones *are* based on distance from downtown. Just like you suggest.

by Matt Johnson on Apr 1, 2011 10:58 am • linkreport

I came up with my plan on the back of a napkin in five minutes. Seeing that the plan comes up short on longer distance trips, I amend it to this:

in-zone: $2/$1.50
cross-zone: $3.50/$2.50
cross 2 zones (Maryland / Virginia zone 3 to/from DC): $5/$3.50
cross-zone and return (e.g. Vienna to Springfield): $4/$3
Maryland zone 3 to/from Virginia zone 3: $5/$5
Maryland zone 3/2 to/from Virginia zone 2/3: $5/$4.50

As a reminder
Zone 1: DC
Zone 2: inside beltway
Zone 3: outside beltway

Also, I believe that paper fares should always pay peak price. Even if you are privacy conscious, a smart trip pays for itself within a few uses.


> distance-based is a more equitable way to charge for Metrorail

Says who? That isn't how things work in a lot of places. We often pay more at boundaries and river crossings. So my plan charges a lot for going from Pentagon to L'Enfant Plaza. You're also crossing a bridge. City politicians would always prefer for people to stay within their jurisdiction when possible. Crossing a boundary should cost more. The Beltway takes so long to cross it might as well be a river.

by movement on Apr 1, 2011 11:43 am • linkreport

@movement: So you're advocating that Forest Glen to Takoma, a current $2 ride, should be $5? Or Grosvenor-Strathmore to Tenleytown, currently $2.80, should be $5? Or how about Largo to Benning Road, which is now $2.60, should be increased to $5.

I could point out a ton of cross-border trips that also suck.

The point of this exercise is that you can't make a zone fare system work without drawing lines, and lines make people upset. Your proposal makes the lines fewer and harder.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 12:22 pm • linkreport

I don't have a major problem with increasing all of these fares because the system is broke and jurisdictions don't want to pay. Interesting that all of these problems are in Maryland, but moving the DC Maryland zone 2 boundary in to Ft. Totten and Stadium could help. If the district wants to make it cheaper for commuters to get there, move the outer stations to Zone 2. If the district wants to make it cheaper for residents (e.g Anacostia), leave them in Zone 1.

I haven't had the chance to run the numbers yet so I don't know the exact effect my proposal would have. However, you can't prove a negative and I submit you haven't done your due diligence in fairly evaluating it.

by movement on Apr 1, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

I like the comments from @Phil and others about the machines calculating the fare. As far as I can see it, if each zone is counted only once, that's not very intuitive. For instance you go from Zone 3 in VA to Zone 3 in MD. It's a 2 zone trip, but could be counted as 5 if you don't read the instructions.

The commuter trains in Chicago have zones. However, it's a list of stations for each zone. So you pick your zone based on the station where you are getting off. It's easy to use and the machines are based on where the station you start from. No complicated rules to remember.

I personally don't like that I would now be paying $2.75 (2 zones) to go downtown when I used to pay $1.50. That's a huge jump!

by Martha on Apr 1, 2011 1:34 pm • linkreport

@movement: but then you'd just move the line so that someone else would complain.

My point was that politically you'd create losers who would know it. No matter where you put the lines, there will be a line somewhere, and people will hate where you drew it. The benefit of zone fares is so minimal that it is not worth pissing people off to do it.

What are you using to run the numbers?

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 1:44 pm • linkreport

You're making your point for me whether you realize it or not. Using Metro is absurdly cheap for those who live in the inner suburbs. Since the jurisdictions aren't willing to cough up the funds, users of the system have to step up. Switching to a zone system provides a coherent way to raise prices and simplify the system.

by movement on Apr 1, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

@JJJJJ: Everyone I know in Boston who has ridden Metro wishes that the T was more like Metro. The issue with them is how much longer they can sustain such low fares. It's reached the point that riders would go to any length to keep fares as they are (right now it's become pressuring the Commonwealth to raise the gas tax). This from an agency that is running 40+ year old cars on the Red Line and is running rusted out 25 year old cars on the Green Line that needs to replace the former and rehab the latter.

Besides, in its existence the MBTA has flat-out abandoned four rail lines (A branch to Watertown, Orange Line Charlestown El, E branch from Heath St to Arborway, Orange Line Washington St El) with only one of the four getting comparable/better replacement rail service. Is that a good track record?

by Jason on Apr 1, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

I call shenanigans. The metrorail fare formula is concave down, meaning the price per mile gets better for longer trips than for shorter trips. Furthermore, the longest trips are capped, meaning customers taking long-distance trips pay even less the further you go.

As I recommended earlier, we should change the way the subsidy is allocated to take into account the revenue riders bring to the table. I ran some preliminary analysis and found that under this proposal, the inner jurisdictions are actually overcontributing because they have so many riders providing their fare revenues.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

I'm done with this stupid exercise. If we're not allowed to raise the rates for anyone, what is the point? Of course it isn't possible to switch the pricing schemes, not raise prices, and stay revenue neutral. You start with a negative that can't be proven, apply all sorts of constraints that prevent a better solution, and declare success. Like I said from the beginning, this is science? You've got to be kidding me.

If you want to be taken seriously, how about starting with a fresh look at the problem (funding plus a system that does not really meet jurisdiction needs) with no preconceived notions of the solution.

Until then, you win. Congrats.

by movement on Apr 1, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

I'm not trying to be obstinate here. You keep ignoring one of the fundamental design criteria, equity. Your proposal raised the price for some customers by over 100%. If you can come up with a system that raises the price on any particular trip by less than, say, 25%, I'd like to see it. That's what we have accepted in recent years as a reasonably large fare increase.

What is this negative that can't be proven?

The problem is you can't look at this with a "fresh look" because politically, everyone is going to evaluate the proposal against what they're paying now. This wouldn't be an academic exercise in what's "pretty", this would be a political decision made by people that are answerable to constituents. You can't just increase what people are paying by a thousand dollars a year just because you want it to be simple.

Yes, if we were starting from scratch, you could do a zone system, but it's not going to happen here, and we explained why.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 1, 2011 5:18 pm • linkreport

Jason, anyone can ride a system for a weekend and decide it's awesome. Thats because in that one weekend, you're not likely to see all the failures.

When I came to DC from Boston, I also said "this is great! It's so clean, and nice!". But that was before I started paying fares every day (I need to add another $20, again!?!). That was before dealing with 22 minute headways. That was before finding out how much fun a broken escalator can be. That was before realizing the red line was THE place to commit suicide in DC (resulting in long rush hour waits)

Likewise, a DC resident visiting Boston would not notice the constant track fires, leaks in the ceiling etc. You'd more likely say "wow, the green line comes every 45 seconds!"

And yes Jason, the MBTA does have an excellent track record when it comes to restoring service after 1980. Providence, Worcester, Greenbush, among many, MANY other commuter rail improvements. The orange line was moved, not eliminated, so the length of service is the same. Silver line 1,2, 4 and 5 were all added (3 was added and then removed). A was abandoned before the MBTA.

But don't take my word for it, there's a fantastic resource that tracks every change in service in the MBTA system over the last 50 years.

It's amazing to read, you can see the system go into decline (line after line being cut, night service cut, weekend service eliminated etc) and then the turnaround begins with abandoned lines being brought into service again.

Also note that new red and orange line cars will arrive in 2014, as well new green line cars (2015). The 1990 green line cars (not old at all, in transit terms) are undergoing midlife rehabs.

by JJJJJ on Apr 1, 2011 9:35 pm • linkreport

A decent zone-system that could also be applied to buses would be a county-based zone (ie. one zone for Montgomery Couny, one for PG, one for DC, etc.) Then, if WMATA needs to, it can create a inner-outer beltway fare increase during peak periods.

by Paul Hoffman on May 10, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

What is needed is Rush hour fare based on DIRECTION.
The zone thing is cool, but fails when you pay rush hour fares both ways.

In the morning Rush hour "peak" fare should be inbound (Going into DC)
In the Afternoon/Night "peek" fare would be outbound (Going out of dc)

by Zombiexm on Dec 11, 2013 2:16 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us