Talkin’ Transit: Transfer Pains

Photo courtesy of Mr. T in DC
Metro SmarTrip Card, courtesy of Mr. T in DC

Metro has announced they are moving forward with their plans to eliminate the free paper-to-bus transfers, as well as the discounted rail-to-bus transfers, beginning on January 4 of next year. Discounts aren’t going away, however – you just have to have a SmarTrip card to get it.

There’s a lot of flak hitting Metro for the decision, however. Riders groups in the area have mentioned a few concerns, namely that of time and money.

The time issue revolves around giving riders time to make the adjustment to the paperless system, despite the fact that Metro announced this plan back in 2007. The Riders’ Advisory Council wants Metro to hold off until the SmarTrip card system is upgraded to compute bus and rail pass fares, something that Metro itself has delayed until 2010. Ideally, paper transfers would exist alongside the SmarTrip program until such an upgrade is completed.*

The problem is that Metro has already stopped ordering the paper needed to print the passes. According to WMATA, the paper costs over $350,000 a year. About 25% of Metrobus rides involve the paper transfer.

The current plan by Metro has a Metrobus ride costing $1.25 by using the card; a transfer as recorded on the card reduces the cost to 35 cents. If using cash, the bus ride is $1.35. Transfer times will be extended from two to three hours and Metro will increase the number of places you can buy and reload SmarTrip cards, including Giant and Safeway stores.

Money has been the other concern, thanks to the perception that Metrobus riders can’t afford the cards or don’t want to use them. (I personally can’t see the logic here, since the cards only cost $10 – $5 for the card and $5 in fares. And the card is reusable indefinitely.) Metro’s already given 50,000 free cards to various social agencies so they can be distributed to low-income riders.

While part of the reason for the switch is to reduce operating costs, other reasons include “boarding inefficiency” (this is where people try to use invalid transfers or argue with the driver, which slows the bus down) and fraud. It’s common for passengers to share or sell transfers, which takes money from Metro’s pockets.

Officials simply point to other successful rail systems in other cities that have eliminated paper transfers, such as Chicago, where the city dropped the program in 2006 and revenues went up over $35 million. Chicago officials claim a large portion of that came from the elimination of fraud inherent in the paper system. And with WMATA having budgetary woes, I’m sure they’ll do what they can to make a little more dough.

So, like it or not, Metro’s becoming paperless. Whether the program’s a good or bad thing, well…that’s for you riders to decide.

*The RAC is meeting tonight to discuss the upgrade and transfer program. Council meetings are open to the public. Meetings are held the first Wednesday of each month from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the lobby level Meeting Room at Metro’s Headquarters located at 600 Fifth Street, NW. Call 202.962.2891 for more info.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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13 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Transfer Pains

  1. My question is, why does any regular user of Metrobus/rail still not have a SmarTrip at this point? Besides the convenience (for everyone, including the other people whose bus is held up if you have to flatten out dollar bill and search for change), it saves $.10 a ride. Yes, it’s a $5 upfront charge for the card, but ride the bus 50 times and you’ve made up for it.

  2. You should also be able to reload the cards online using a credit card.

    Also, the Smartrip eventually pays for itself because the bus fare is 10 cents cheaper.

  3. About time. The fraud inherent in paper transfers is out of control – people use them for hours, if not days. I’ll even admit to trying it a few times when I was first in DC.

    Most bus drivers will take any transfer paper rather than risking an argument with a rider. That cheats the system, dropping respect for Metrobus with every (lack of) transaction.

  4. Great news. Riders constantly pass them off to each other to avoid ever paying a fare. This will improve the system overnight.

  5. People CONSTANTLY give their paper transfers to their buddies, or whomever walks by the back of the bus! People go up to the window and beg for transfers. By losing the paper transfers people will be forced to get a smart card rather than pay 2x for one commute. if they have a card, they won’t stand there looking for correct change! I’m thrilled by the decision, and can’t wait until January 4th.

  6. If Metro thinks the problem with fraud is so significant then they can get off their ass and fix the problem with proper credit for rides. Claiming it’s not doable is flat-out nonsense. They may lack the capacity to alter it at the time of fare payment but they could run a nightly batch looking for qualifying events and crediting the SmarTrip cards.

    If it’s not important enough for them to do it right why should they make the most vulnerable among us suffer?

  7. Oh, and to the question as to why anyone would not have a card – ever see a terminal to reload your balance at a bus kiosk? You might save 3 seconds getting on by paying with a SmarTrip rather than cash but that savings doesn’t make up for the time spent on a special trip to put money on the card.

    People who are exclusively bus riders don’t have a simple way to add money to a SmarTrip.

  8. The SmarTrip card is all well and good for those of us that don’t live hand-to-mouth, but the downside for someone in poverty is that you have to pay for multiple rides *before* you actually take them. When you’re someone who has to make daily decisions about how — or whether — to feed your children, having to load up a SmarTrip card with $10 for rides you’ll use *later* might be the difference between three meals or one meal *today*.

    Of course, the organization that issues the card loves the “pay for multiple rides now, redeem them later” scenario, because of what’s called the “float.”

    Let’s say I put $50 on my SmarTrip card. Today I use $5, but Metro still has $45 of my money sitting in their bank accounts earning interest for them — instead of sitting in my bank account earning interest for me. That $45 is the “float” — the amount of unused value on a stored value card. Basically, I’m floating a loan to the organization that issued the card. That $45 might not seem like much, but multiply that float by several hundred thousand customers and the issuing organization has a nice fat bank account of money we’ve essentially loaned them at zero interest.

    I don’t have a problem with that business model per se, especially if the stored value card is, say, a Best Buy Gift Card or the like. And even when used for a public service, I have no problem when it’s OPTIONAL. But when the stored value card is, like SmarTrip will soon be, the ONLY way to access a critical public service — and one that is used most heavily by the lower income brackets — then I have a problem, because what we’re really seeing here is a regressive tax masquerading as a convenience. In short, making the SmarTrip card the only way to get a bus transfer is really a way for WMATA — a government agency — to get interest-free short-term loans from the people who can least afford to give their money away.

  9. No one’s talking about taking away paper farecards & cash bus rides. And, besides, aren’t people already doing exactly what you’re talking about by giving Metro a loan in order to get a monthly bus pass?

  10. Metro sent a long notice to my employer about this. No one could really understand what they were talking about. This is the first time it made sense. Thanks.

  11. In fairness to Metro and the ‘float,’ they do allow you to go negative on the value of the card based on the fact that the card costs $5.

    You’re right about the monthly passes, Tom, though there’s some serious savings benefit there. This transition, on the other hand, is going to -raise- some people’s costs.

  12. Regarding Don’s comments about adding value to a Smartrip card it’s wrong. It does take a while to add value to a Smartrip card but the whole idea behind the card is that you PREPAY for trips. So yes, it will a while to add value but let’s say I add $20. When you account for transfers, the time saved (which is more than 3 seconds.. only a fraction of riders get their dollar bill in and coins in 3 seconds more than a Smartrip rider) more than makes up for the times when you add value to the Smartrip.card.