Talkin’ Transit: Flat Fare

Photo courtesy of
‘Hole to the Sky’
courtesy of ‘Samer Farha’

There’s a giant hole in the Metro budget, and there is a plan for plugging it. Of course, it’s going to require fare raises and service cuts, and it’s not likely to be fun. Metro’s choice of a complicated set of charges based on distance and time of day (and peak-of-the-peak!) leaves my head aching for something less complex.

New York’s Subway has often been held up as the simplest way to do fare collection: each and every trip is the same price ($2.25). Sounds good to me, but would it work here, and what would it cost?

Let’s do some math, based on Metro’s proposed 2011 budget numbers (PDF – Table 3.8).

Metro is looking to raise $705,145,424 from “passenger revenue” — what you pay at the fare gate. That number is for rail, bus, and MetroAccess. They are estimating 349,922,641 rides over all systems in 2011. The math is pretty easy, and the flat rate per ride is just about $2.02. It doesn’t sound bad, does it?

The problem is that for the average bus rider, that’s a 50% rise in rates. And for those folks commuting from the edge of the rail system during peak times, that’s an almost 56% drop. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem fair or right, does it?

What if the bus and MetroAccess were left with their proposed increases for next year, but we tried to flat rate just the revenue from rail? To make the 219,607,596 equal the needed $567,887,615, you’d need to charge around $2.69. Assuming you only go a short distance on your morning commute, and your trip only costs $1.75, you’re going to be paying 54% more. That’s a tough hike to swallow in this (or any) economy.

Dave Alpert suggests that a flat fare isn’t what Metro should be looking to do, as the structure of the system is considerably different from that of New York’s. He suggests that a zone system, like that used in London, might be better. I’m intrigued by this, and want to run the numbers, but I don’t have the data that shows ridership between station pairs at the different day parts.

Personally, I would love to see a flat fare across the entire system of $2.25, but would be okay with even a $3 flat rate for the rail system only. Yes, I know it’s unfair, and it would likely drive many short-route folks away from the system, but it should draw more people in at the edges, and it should provide a decent injection of cash and stability to the system.

Born in Lebanon, Samer moved to DC to go to college. A lot of good that did him. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the area. When he’s not writing for a blog or tweeting incessantly, he wanders the streets (and the globe) photographing whatever gets in his way.

14 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Flat Fare

  1. The thing about the flat rate for short distance riders is this: it would encourage them to walk or bike. which would be great for everyone – for the crowded trains and riders, but also for everyone’s health and DC’s air quality.

  2. Well, a few things I’ve observed in the past few months of now commuting back to central DC after a brief 1 year hiatus.

    1) I believe there have been two fare hikes – now the commute one-way for me int he morning is over $4 – wha?!
    2) Metro’s gotten slower and seems to be “down” more than up.

    I now ride to work on my motorcycle more often because

    3) When I can find designated parking, it’s usually cheaper (for me $1.50 a day at most) than anything WMATA can offer me, bus or Metro.
    4) The bus schedules are ludicrous… I see inefficiencies on Conn. Ave., when I’ve seen as many as 5 #42 buses following each other, the first bus full-ish, and the other 4 following empty…
    5)… and to add on to that, the traffic issues they cause by poor route planning and transfers, leaving these huge busses to snarl traffic dropping passengers on the right side, and sliding three or more lanes to make an immediate left turn… as proven by Mythbusters, although in a controlled environment, lights and lefts are quick and may save gas, in a real word environment, right turns to make a left do actually work and make sense.

    I think WMATA could save a ton of money optimizing their bus routes based on turns and transfer points on a grid, and really make an effort to think about how they handle the fees when spread across the system (for maybe Red and Orange, a higher rate than a green and Yellow, based on ridership… maybe even a congestion charge?)

  3. Higher fares during peak times doesn’t seem right; with EZ Pass we pay more for less congested roads (unless there’s an accident, but what are you going to do?)

    South Florida’s Tri-Rail (single line, but three counties) uses a zone system. When I used the system I was able to defeat the zones with a monthly employee discount pass bought in the Northern-most zone (I rode to the Southern-most zone to get to work). At the machines where passes are bought you select your destination, your starting point is where you buy the ticket, and no matter how many zones you cross it’s $60.00 per month.

  4. What we need to do is adjust the price of metro relative to the alternative (driving and parking). This would mean increasing parking taxes and consider collecting tolls on certain high-congestion roads or bridges. I’ve lived in many large metropolitan areas, and when I moved here to DC 6 months ago, I was surprised to find parking in a garage downtown was relatively cheap. Increasing parking taxes downtown and in Arlington/Pentagon area would make public transit relatively cheaper and could increase ridership (not to mention the transfer from the parking taxes as a source of revenue themselves).

  5. All these fare raises and budget cuts aren’t going to, necessarily, make service better.

    For example: WMATA has decided to cut the contractor they have that maintains and repairs the elevators and escalators to save money. This contractor had 90% of the work and were still always far ahead of WMATA’s few internal repairs.

    Ever noticed how often these things break down? If you use the Dupont station you better get used to walking the escalator instead of riding it.

  6. London uses a zone system, similar to the old zone taxi system we had in DC.

    Why not go to that? You basically form concentric rings centered on down-town through dupont (then dupont to woodley; woodley to van ness; van ness to friendship heights; friendhsip heights to bethesda, etc.) then charge an increasing fare for each zone — say a 25 or 50 cent increase per ride.

    This doesn’t seem that difficult.

  7. Or — I would be in favor of a $1/day transit tax for any non-dc resident to enter the city (i.e. MD and VA people coming in for work) — sort of a poor man’s version of the $20 toll to use the holland tunnel in NYC.

  8. I think a zone-based faare system for Metro deserves a good looking into. A flat rail fare proposal would quickly smash up against the politics of the differing interests of the WMATA member jurisdictions – if nothing else I doubt DC would allow as high a flat fare as would be needed. And New York is not a good comparison since they are experiencing their own substantial money issues; I predict that the Metrocard in use there will enable the MTA to move to replace the flat fare with some kind of a zone system eventually, too (unless some kind of funding magic happens in Albany.)

  9. Why not just raise rates across the board by say 25% (if that’s the number needed to meet the budget gap)? Wouldn’t this meet the same goal as a flat rate or zones without changing the dynamics of the current system.

    Am I missing something?

  10. What people don’t get when the make the comparison to the NYC metro system is that yes, there is a flat rate applied inside NYC on the Subway, however you don’t use the subway to ride in from the suburbs.

    However, for people riding the train from the suburbs into Manhattan–comparable to the distance from Fairfax/Vienna (edge of the orange line) to the center of DC–it costs $7.25 to take the MetroNorth line, off-peak, one-way. A heck of a lot more than the same ride on the DC Metro. Even with that, NYC public transit is having trouble making ends meet.

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  12. I agree that zones a la London are the way to go – the system goes too far outside the city to charge the same rate for Vienna-to-Chinatown as it does for Dupont-to-Union Station. Zones are simple, easy to represent on a map, and appeal to common sense (the further you ride, the more you pay).

    I also wonder why Metro has never really embraced monthly commuter passes the way most other major cities have. There’s got to be a way to set the price point so that the numbers work. Plus, if most regular riders (i.e. locals) are buying passes, you’ll get less resistance to raising off-peak fares so they are equal with peak – since it will affect occasional riders and visitors more than regulars.

  13. I’m a rider who takes the metro/bus only for short distances and would fall into the category of “the average bus rider, that’s a 50% rise in rates”. And I am 100% ok with this.

    I think a flat rate would simplify EVERYONE’s use of the metro, and am willing to pay more just to keep tourists from asking me how to calculate how much to put on their card – or how to use the Exit Fare machine (which rarely works). A zone system would complicate this – already huge – concern.

    $2.00 each way is not a lot to ask. And it’s not a huge hike in rates. I want it.