Posts about Fares
Metro is planning to raise bus, rail, and paratransit fares this year, and last week Michael Perkins talked about the transfer discount. In the comments, some talked about the difference between bus and rail farebox recovery. But those numbers aren't really comparable.
"Farebox recovery" is the amount of operating expenses that fares cover. For example, if a system costs $1 million to operate every year and takes in $500,000 dollars in fares, it would have a farebox recovery of 50%. A profitable system would have a number above 100%.
In the WMATA system, Metrorail has a farebox recovery ratio of 67.5%. Metrobus has a farebox recovery of 24.3%. Both on Michael's post and on Twitter, readers asked whether rail passengers were subsidizing bus passengers. Why should rail passengers pay 67% of the cost of riding, but bus passengers pay only 24%? Unfortunately, that's not the whole story.
Not every rail rider pays 67% of the cost of his or her trip. Not every bus rider pays only 24%. The farebox recovery varies from route to route. At any rate, the Metrorail and Metrobus farebox recovery rates aren't directly comparable because each service has different goals and measures success differently.
Ridership versus coverage
Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit, divides transit service into two broad categories: ridership service and coverage service.
These two types of service come from the conflicting goals transit providers face. On the one hand, they're supposed to cover all of their service area. On the other hand, they're supposed to have as many riders as possible for as little subsidy.
Generally, agencies solve these competing goals by providing both types of service. In the WMATA service area, there are clear examples of ridership service. The overcrowded 16th Street Line is a perfect example. The busy H Street Line is another.
While some lines are clearly ridership lines, much of the Metrobus network (and especially the jurisdiction-operated bus services) are coverage lines. These are lines that are never going to compete with car trips, but they serve areas that WMATA and local governments feel should be covered. If the agency was only concerned with profitability, these areas wouldn't have any service.
Lower-performing coverage routes include the 2T in Virginia and the R3 in Maryland, each with about 14.8% recovery. But even in the District, some lines are coverage lines. The 64 is a borderline case. It runs down 11th Street NW between frequent service lines on Georgia Avenue and 14th Street, and is within walking distance of both. But for those who aren't willing to walk further, it's a coverage service, though it has a decent farebox recovery of 37.9%.
Apples and oranges
And this is where the problem with comparing rail and bus comes in. In this region, and in most regions, most rail service is ridership service. This is for several reasons. At least in modern systems, Federal Transit Administration rules only allow rail lines to be built if they'll have good ridership. And transit agencies themselves don't make large capital investments in rail unless they're going to have good ridership.
Buses, on the other hand, fall into both ridership and coverage categories in almost every region. So when we compare rail, which is almost entirely composed of ridership lines, to bus, which is a mixture, we are comparing apples to oranges.
Farebox recovery is not a good metric for coverage lines, because their goal is not to generate ridership, but rather to provide service to areas the agency thinks need to be served, regardless of productivity.
Since the Metro rail lines are all ridership lines, they have a very high farebox recovery ratio. Some bus lines in DC have good farebox recovery. But much of the network has worse farebox recovery because by design it's supposed to.
Several of WMATA's bus lines cover more than half their cost through fares, including the X2 bus on H Street and the 70 bus on Georgia Avenue. One bus line, the 5A to Dulles Airport, actually has a farebox recovery ratio better than the rail average.
What does this say about WMATA bus fares?
Really, this doesn't say anything about WMATA's bus fares.
The farebox recovery ratio measures how much rider fares cover the cost of service, and that's it. In the WMATA budgeting process, the agency figures out the cost of providing the service, and then they determine how much money they'll get from the jurisdictions. The remainder has to come from fares. Essentially, the agency (and the funding jurisdictions) determines what the farebox recovery ratio is going to be.
On individual lines, farebox recovery gives us a sense of the productivity of the route. But just because a route is performing poorly in farebox recovery doesn't mean it shouldn't exist or that the fare is too low. Sure, if it's below a certain threshold, the agency can look to determine how to make it more productive or whether to keep it. And WMATA does do this. But they track a whole set of performance measures, not just farebox recovery.
Some people say that we should strive to make the bus and rail farebox recovery ratios the same, or at least closer to each other. But that's not a goal that works. At least not as long as we have coverage-type services in one set, but not in the other. If anything, we shouldn't try to make bus have a higher farebox recovery ratio; we should try to make rail have a lower one.
Nationwide, heavy rail systems like Metro have an average cost recovery of 47.2%, much lower than WMATA's 67.5%. On the other hand, the US agencies that operate both heavy rail and bus systems have an average bus farebox recovery of 28.0%, barely higher than WMATA's 24.3%.
Over the past few years, Metro has kept bus fares lower as a conscious decision because many people who rely on buses have limited incomes. That's a perfectly valid policy decision. And the result, of course, is a low farebox recovery ratio.
See all of the discussions here.
In our discussion about transportation, both Nate Bennett-Fleming and John Settles spoke about how lower-income residents find fares on the bus and train, or fees for car sharing and other transportation options, to be a significant barrier to getting to jobs and making a good living.
If you try to go from far Southeast to upper Northwest, the time and the cost is prohibitive. A lot of women who graduate from [the workforce development program at the Southeast Children's Fund] get jobs in Northwest. They're paying a bus fare to drop a kid at school, a second bus fare to get to Metro, then a Metro fare to get to their job in Northwest. Cumulatively, they're spending $15-20 a day on transportation, and for someone that makes $10 an hour that's prohibitive. And it doesn't make sense.Bennett-Fleming pointed to newer technology-based transportation options as one approach to help lower-income residents:
[N]ew things like Lyft and UberBennett-Fleming went on to talk about open government and open data. He cited tools like "Outline" which help residents see the effects of legislative proposals and contact their elected officials.
— those are tools that can really be a bang for people that are economically distressed, and that's an option for them, and how can we encourage more people to know about these tools, have awareness about these tools, and actually use them.
Because at the end of the day, the transportation cost in the District of Columbia is a form of regression tax. So many people don't have the resources and they're spending so much of their incomes getting around the city. So we have to make sure we have options to bring the cost of transportation down, make sure people are equipped, even our most vulnerable residents, with the options that they need to get around without fundamentally changing their budgets and ability to afford to live, to put food on their tables, etc.
Settles praised new options like car sharing, but argued that these are not really going to significantly decrease costs for low-income residents:
We have to look at how we expand options. The Circulator has been effective at providing options downtown; we need to expand it east and west. And other multimodal options. A lot of people are driving in from Maryland and Virginia. Why don't we have multimodal transportation hubs so they can park their car, pay us a parking fee, and get on public transportation so we're reducing the cars and the on-street traffic.
For me personally, I can afford the multimodal uses ... [but] for lower income individuals the cost is prohibitive. They can't spend the $10-12 an hour for Zipcar, Enterprise Car Share or car2go. So I think we have to get serious about having better transportation solutions.
Both Settles and Bennett-Fleming seem generally on board with the streetcar program, but have concerns about the way DDOT is planning it as they go, not to mention the many missed deadlines. Rubio said,
I'm glad we have it and I hope that we expand it more throughout the city. It's definitely been a slow process and I'm disappointed with that. We've been waiting forever for the H Street streetcar. And I'd like to expand the streetcar to other neighborhoods.He specifically cited Ivy City as a place the streetcar could benefit. Rubio also supports dedicated bus lanes: "I've taken the 16th Street bus ... but during rush hour your commute doubles, and I agree that we preserve a lane for just buses, and also for bike riders."
Bennett-Fleming and Settles were generally positive about the idea of bus lanes, but didn't explicitly endorse a 16th Street lane; rather, both called for studies to figure out if it can work.
On the topic of cycling, Bennett-Fleming suggested that to get more people bicycling, rather than adding cycle tracks DC needs to "change the culture" around transportation. He pointed to Berkeley, where he went to school, and where they have more bicycling but fewer miles of cycle tracks. Instead, there is just a strong culture of cycling, he said.
How can that happen? He pointed to driver education programs for young drivers, public information campaigns, and perhaps programs when people renew their licenses.
Watch the whole discussions with each candidate about transportation:
WMATA staff presented to a plan to raise bus and rail fares to the agency's board yesterday. For riders taking both bus and rail, the proposed increase will hit them doubly hard.
The proposed budget increases rail fares by about 3% (the rush hour base fare increases from $2.10 to $2.15) and by 15¢ on bus (from $1.60 to $1.75 for SmarTrip, which will now be the same as the cash fare).
The 50¢ transfer discount will remain the same, as it has for many years. As the rail and bus fares increase, the transfer discount is becoming a smaller part of the fare system.
The transfer started out as a paper ticket you got at a Metrorail station and showed to your bus driver to get a 90¢ discount on the bus fare. Unlike transfers from one bus to another, which allowed a free ride, the rail-to-bus transfer discount was not enough to cover the whole bus fare.
Once WMATA moved bus transfers to SmarTrip, it removed the transfer machines from stations, and you got the transfer discount automatically. The 90¢ discount from rail to bus became a 50¢ discount in both directions.
Since then, bus and rail fares have continued to increase, but the transfer discount has stayed the same. This is unlike other transit agencies, who for the most part either give a free transfer between vehicles, or set a transfer fee (the cost to ride rail after bus or bus after rail) rather than a discount off the base fare for both.
Systems with a transfer fee is periodically review and increase that fee as necessary, because the agency gets more money when this happens. For WMATA, however, it is financially beneficial to overlook increasing the transfer discount, even as both rail and bus fares have increased.
The transfer fee is an important part of the Metro fare system, which takes into account the high cost of riding both rail and bus. It encourages people to take the bus to Metro, rather than drive, congest the roads, and use up a parking space. It's an acknowledgement that we can't build the rail system everywhere, but we can build a transit system using multiple modes that can reach a lot more people at a reasonable cost.
WMATA should at the very least establish a policy that when the base rail and base bus fares both rise, the transfer discount should rise by the same amount. This will ensure the customer only sees one fare increase rather than both fare increases at the same time, and would help promote using rail and bus as an integrated system.
WMATA is considering raising bus fares, with the justification that they're lower than in other cities. But somehow every time this topic comes up, people forget that there's a big difference between our bus fares and other cities': riders transferring between bus and rail pay a lot more.
The agency recently put out a survey which, among other things, asked riders what they thought about various options for a fare increase. For Metrobus, the survey asked about raising the bus fare from the current $1.60 to $1.75 or $1.85:
Passenger fares cover about 30 cents out of every dollar of the cost of providing Metrobus service. The current Metrobus fare is $1.60 for SmarTrip® and $1.80 for cash. Metrobus fares are relatively low compared to other major metropolitan areas around the country:
STANDARD BUS FARES:That makes it look like our bus fares are relatively cheap, right? Maybe compared to those cities if you're just riding the bus. But a lot of people don't just ride the bus. They take a bus from home to a Metrorail station and then ride the train, and back again in the evening. Or a bus to a train to another bus.
San Francisco & Chicago $2.00 Philadelphia $2.25 New York City & Atlanta $2.50
Many buses, in fact, don't go downtown at all. They end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, the agency cut back many of the buses so they just fed the rail system. The same is going to happen around Tysons when the Silver Line opens (or even before).
Therefore, to really compare fares, we have to look at the fares for a rail and bus trip. Since our rail system has variable fares, it's more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let's look at the rail-to-bus fare, assuming you've already paid for a rail trip from some other location.
|City & |
|Bus fare (w/card)1||Bus fare after rail||Bus fare after other rail||Rail+bus pass?||Inter-agency rail+bus pass?|
|Washington (WMATA)||$1.60||$1.10||Full fare from MARC/VRE||No||Yes|
|Philadelphia (SEPTA)||$2.25||$1.00||$1.65 from PATCO2||Yes||No|
|$1.50||35¢/$1.503||No other rail||Yes||No|
|$2.00||25¢||Full fare from Metra||Yes||Yes|
|New York (NYCT)||$2.504||FREE||Full fare||Yes||No|
|Atlanta (MARTA)||$2.50||FREE||No other rail||Yes||N/A|
|San Francisco (MUNI)||$2.00||FREE||$1.75 from BART||Yes||Yes|
|$1.50||FREE||Full fare from commuter rail||Yes|
If you look at the 2nd column here, among these cities listed in the WMATA survey, taking the bus after a rail trip costs more here than in any of those cities. Three, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta all have a flat fare for a trip throughout the city, no matter whether it's on one train, one bus, or a combination (though in San Francisco, that's just MUNI light rail, not BART).
We're not necessarily the worst. If you ignore SF Muni's light rail for a moment, the San Francisco Bay Area has a regional rapid transit system (BART) that's very similar to the Metro, and both its base bus fare and transfers between BART and buses are more expensive. Los Angeles has no transfer discount at all between LA Metro bus lines, but its base bus fare (and rail fare, for its limited rail system) is much lower, so many riders are paying less there.
Don't forget passes
In addition, all of the listed cities have combined passes that offer rail and bus trips for a discount. Large numbers of commuters in these cities don't pay every time they ride the bus or train; instead, they subscribe to a weekly or monthly pass and get their transit free. WMATA has a bus pass that a lot of people use, but nothing for rail and bus users. WMATA has, in fact, has been very stingy about passes overall.
Many cities have inter-agency passes, such as Chicago, where you can get a pass for Metra commuter rail and also the L or bus in the city. MARC and VRE also offer passes for their tickets as well as Metro rail or bus; in fact, you pay less to add unlimited Metrorail and Metrobus to a monthly MARC or VRE ticket ($108) than to get an unlimited Metrorail "short trip" pass for 28 days ($140) which offers free rides up to $3.50 but no bus rides.
WMATA could certainly move to a system like other cities' where most people subscribe to transit rather than paying each time. It has a lot of advantages, like blunting the fare loss when there's a big storm, a federal government shutdown, or just the holidays. But every time the issue comes up, finance staff say they're nervous about the relatively unknowable financial impact of the change. (They also say that they need to wait for the next generation of fare systems).
That's in large part because discussions about changing fares only arise around a fare hike. If costs have risen a certain amount, then the agency needs to raise a certain amount more money, not revamp the fare system. But we never have the discussion during the off years, either.
Should bus fares go up?
Maybe bus fares need to change (or maybe not), but this survey is pushing the idea through remarkably misleading statistics. If the proposal is to raise the bus fare but at the same time make transfers cheaper, that is certainly an option. To compare the base WMATA bus fare to the one in other cities without any mention of the transfers or passes, however, does not give riders a fair picture.
Come spring, Boston's transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), will start offering late-night service on all subway and 15 major bus lines. Like Metro, MBTA may charge higher fares for it. Could this discourage transit use?
Currently, the MBTA shuts down shortly after midnight seven days a week, leaving revelers and workers of unusual hours with no recourse but automotive ones. Under the new schedule, which is a one-year pilot program, Boston will match DC's practice of staying open until 3 am on Saturday and Sunday starting this spring.
The announcement was a big deal to native Bostonians like myself, who for years have been frustrated having to choose between staying out late and being able to get home. However, the MBTA is also considering emulating WMATA in another, less desirable way: charging higher fares for late-night service.
The MBTA may consider charging $3 or $3.50 after midnight instead of the usual $2 fare for a train ride. (Boston has a flat fare that does not increase, even during rush hour.) It's not hard to understand why WMATA charges rush hour fares during the wee hours, and why the MBTA might want to follow suit. Late-night public transit is a niche service that only a small subset of the population uses.
Rather than spreading the cost of providing it across the whole transit-using population of greater Washington, late-night riders should have to pay a little more to support their customized service, right? Put another way, if WMATA is expending a constant amount of resources for fewer-than-usual users, each user needs to pay more than usual in order to meet budget.
The problem is that Metro does not apply this logic evenly. If you accept this premise, then fares should actually be lower during rush hour, when huge ridership will never have any problem sustaining even elevated frequency of service.
Instead, the correct pricing principle is one that conforms to supply and demand. Metro rightly charges peak fares during rush hour precisely because that is the busiest time of day; it knows most commuters don't have the choice to be scared away by sticker shock then, and if they are scared away it knows it can absorb the blow.
Higher fares serve to some degree as crowd control; if we have to discourage transit use (which higher fares necessarily do), we ought to do so when transit use least needs to be encouraged. And, most elegantly, people rightly pay higher fares when they are causing the most strain on the system, helping to offset the wear and tear caused by rush-hour crowds.
The flip side of this, of course, is that WMATA, and the MBTA that seeks to emulate it, should charge its lowest fares when the system is least crowded. These are the times when transit use needs more incentives, and of course entrance fees are one of the most surefire ways to manipulate that.
By charging peak fares between midnight and 3 am, Metro is creating a deterrence, even a small one, to people taking public transportation. Crucially, peak fares after midnight also do not come with the benefit of extremely frequent trains that accompany rush-hour peak fares.
Of course, there is always the chance that fare manipulation may not have a huge effect on ridership after midnight. In that case, by charging off-peak fares, WMATA would give up revenue it currently relies on. However, it's dubious to think that the laws of pricing dynamics cease to apply after midnight.
Perhaps Metro volume is fairly inelastic during rush hour, when many people have to commute to work no matter what, and when many people feel that they have no other choice but to take the train because of DC traffic and the cost of car ownership. But people certainly do have a choice about whether and how to travel late at night. Lower fares after midnight would not only result in that many fewer Uber trips, but more importantly, they would entice more people to go out.
The upside-down fare system is unfortunate in DC, but in Boston, it could be fatal to its experiment of late-night service. MBTA officials will only make late-night transit permanent if enough people use the service during the one-year trial period. If higher fares deter people from taking the train, the MBTA may very well determine that there is not as much demand for the service as it thought.
This is a realistic worry; $3.50 doesn't seem like much, but it's a 75% increase on the fare Bostonians are used to paying; and for a group of four friends out at a bar, a taxi ride would only need to cost $14 to be an equal or better deal. Indeed, excessively high fares were one reason Boston's previous foray into late-night service, "Night Owl" buses that cost up to $4 one-way, went under. (The Night Owl's failure to attract riders is more proof that late-night ridership is not inelastic.)
Thankfully, because Boston is just reacquainting itself with late-night service, there is still time to avoid these mistakes. DC has fulfilled an important role by serving as the Boston's likely model for late-night service; a fellow cash-strapped system that needs all the overnight maintenance it can squeeze in, WMATA showed the MBTA that late-night service was still possible.
It's probably no coincidence that Boston is adopting the same weekend schedule, but that doesn't mean it should copy DC's methods wholesale. At least in the way late-night fares are structured, Boston can and should do better.
Starting this fall, students in DC will get to ride Metrobus for free, thanks to a budget surplus. It's good news for kids who take the bus to school. WMATA could take advantage of this opportunity and simplify its system for student fares as well.
Metro already offers a discounted fare for students, but it's hard to take advantage of it. In order to make our family eligible for student fares, my husband had to obtain the proper forms from our children's schools. One school had no idea what we were talking about.
Then, he had to take them in person to one of 4 Metro sales offices or WMATA headquarters, which are inconvenient to reach and only open on weekdays during business hours. Each form allowed us to purchase a bag of 10 tokens for $7.50. We have to transfer buses to get to school, so we would save 10¢ per trip, not accounting for the initial ride to the sales office.
Students can also get a monthly SmartStudent pass for $30, but only after they obtain a Student Travel Card from the District Department of Transportation. You can get it at the sales office or 8 DCPS schools, if a student goes there. But unless you use it roundtrip nearly every school day, it's more expensive than tokens.
We don't yet know how Metro or the DC Council will implement the fare change. I vote for simply allowing younger students to board the bus for free, while letting those who are older use their student ID. Of course, it probably won't be that easy.
A good option won't involve schlepping down to WMATA headquarters every month with new forms. The current system is not easy or convenient for parents who have 9-to-5 jobs or students who are in school all day. And if your school doesn't have the proper forms, you are out of luck. These hoops likely exist to avoid fraud, but there's got to be a better way.
Neighboring jurisdictions already provide student discounts in different ways. Students in Montgomery County can ride the bus for free on weekday afternoons with a student ID or buy a discounted Youth Cruiser Pass, though like DC, you can only buy them in a few places. In Arlington, students can use a student ID or tokens to ride for 75¢.
Giving students free bus fare is a great idea, but parents and students also need an easy and convenient way to take advantage.
Starting Monday, Metrorail riders can purchase a "short trip" pass online or at a fare machine and apply it to their SmarTrip cards. It's a big improvement for Metro customers that commute regularly and use Metro on the weekends or for additional trips in the evenings.
The pass costs $35 and is good for one week. It covers all off-peak trips and the first $3.50 of peak trips. If you take a trip costing more than $3.50, the difference comes out of the stored value on your SmarTrip.
Metro already offers SmarTrip passes that give rail riders unlimited rides of any length. Those cost $15 for one day, $57.50 for a week and $230 for 28 days. Those are useful for riders taking longer, more expensive trips. But those who only ride a few stops won't find that pass worthwhile. These new "short trip" passes are much cheaper because they don't cover long trips that riders may not need.
"Short trip" passes were previously available only as a paper farecard. If you took a trip of more than $3.50, you would have to use the Exitfare machine to pay the exact fare when leaving. Putting the pass on a SmarTrip card is much more convenient for riders who take the occasional longer trip, because the faregates can automatically calculate and deduct the extra fare.
Next, consider discounts and even passes for even shorter trips
You can also subscribe online to have the pass automatically renew when the old one is about to expire. For some riders, this is a good option. But since the pass costs the equivalent of 10 rides, it's not such a good deal that you'd want to set it and forget it, which could mean you'd end up buying one even on weeks with work holidays or vacation. I'd like to see a monthly pass with a discount, so that more riders would find it worthwhile to just buy passes automatically even around holidays.
Now that Metro's figured out how to implement a pass where people pay and get trips under a certain amount free, they could even try offering passes with a threshold below $3.50. For example, a pass that costs $100 per month and allows all trips under $2.50 each way for free might be very popular among riders that live in DC.
Give credit for bus transfers
One downside to the "short trip" pass is that it doesn't discount transfers between bus and rail. WMATA representatives have previously said that allowing transfer discounts to pass holders would be like giving discounts on top of discounts.
However, the transfer discount used to be available for pass holders when WMATA used paper transfer slips. When the WMATA Board approved replacing them with SmarTrip tracking, there was no discussion about eliminating the discount as well.
The discount isn't really a "discount," anyway. It's a recognition that a trip that uses bus and rail is really one trip on two modes, and the fare probably shouldn't be the same as two totally separate trips. You don't pay double the rail fare if you transfer between rail lines. In many cities, like New York, a bus plus rail trip costs the same as just one trip alone.
WMATA should restore the transfer discounts for all pass holders, and give riders with a rail pass the same reduced fare on the bus as any rider coming from a rail trip. Similarly, all riders should get the same fare when they transfer from bus to rail, whether or not they have a Metrobus pass.
All in all, "short trip" passes on SmarTrip are a great option, and I expect to subscribe to them in the future.
Nearly every Metro fare machine has a paper sign on it: "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." Yet even with this reminder, some riders get stuck at the faregates, wondering why Metro won't let them leave.
Most people riding Metro use SmarTrip, and that's great. But the ones that are more likely to need extra help with a fare table are the infrequent customers that use a paper farecard.
It makes no sense to list SmarTrip prices on the fare table and then ask people to add $1. Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards. We want to make purchasing a farecard as easy as possible, while not necessarily offering them the best deal possible.
The simplest solution would be to list the paper farecard prices on the tables, and then have notes that SmarTrip riders get a discount. Even if these riders don't notice, they'll just end up with extra money on their cards, which they can use later.
An even better approach would be to eliminate the $1 surcharge, and instead always charge peak fares for people using paper farecards. The fare machines would simply list the peak fare for each destination, with a note that SmarTrip customers get discounts during off-peak, discounted transfers to and from trips on buses, protected fare balances (with registration) and a guarantee that they won't be trapped in the system if their balance goes too low.
All paper farecard customers would have to do is look up their destination, and make sure their farecard had the corresponding amount. No math, no timetables, no figuring out whether it's currently peak or off-peak.
WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel said the agency is aware of the confusion and complaints about these signs, and is "considering" making changes to the posted fare tables and signs.
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