Talkin’ Transit: Performance Fares

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

Most of us work in jobs where our performance matters. Every year, your boss sits you down and tells you what you did right or wrong, and if you’re good, the rights outnumber the wrongs and you get a raise. For some, the raise doesn’t come, and for others, you get fired. Companies like to pay based on performance because it motivates people.

If you go to a nice restaurant, and you order your meal, and as they’re bringing everyone else’s food out, they explain to you that they screwed up your order. Maybe they dropped it on the floor, maybe they realized they sold the last rabbit too late for your order, or maybe the waiter forgot to enter it. No matter, really. They usually apologize and, more often than not, they will take the hit and not charge you for your meal. Better restaurants go a little further and offer you a discount on your next visit, or a free dessert.

Both situations have one thing in common: the income is related to the performance. You get paid more if you do well. You have to lose money in order to correct a mistake. I think Metro could learn a thing or two in the realm of customer service and performance.

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

So how would a “performance-based fare” work? In London, you get a free ride if your trip is delayed by more than 15 minutes. Let’s make that the base and work from there.

If any escalator is broken on your path, Metro should deduct ten cents from your fare. If two or more escalators are down, that’s another ten cents, and the maximum.

If an elevator is broken on your path, but it doesn’t impact your ability to use that station, Metro should deduct five cents.

If an elevator is broken on your path and it impacts your trip (in other words, if you have to use an elevator and it being broken means you have to go out of your way to get to another elevator, or if you have to go to another station), Metro should deduct half your fare.

If your train is offloaded, you trip is free. This will create an incentive for Metro to only off load a single car if the doors won’t close, as opposed to the whole train.

If your train is delayed by more than three minutes, you should get a five cent deduction for every three minutes it is delayed. If your train is delayed by more than 15 minutes, your fare is free.

If your bus is delayed by more than five minutes, you should get a five cent deduction for every five minutes it is delayed. If your bus is delayed by more than 20 minutes, your fare is halved. If the delay is cause not by traffic, but by something that is under Metro’s control, your ride is free.

Photo courtesy of
‘Arrival of the Metro’
courtesy of ‘pablo.raw’

How would Metro do this? Well, first, it would be available only to people with SmarTrip cards. Not that it isn’t possible to do this in real time, just highly unlikely, and it’s another incentive for locals to get a SmarTrip card already.

Second, Metro has all the details, possibly even down to the minute, of when an escalator, elevator, train, or bus failed. Every evening, or possibly every weekend or end of the month, Metro should go back and plot the routes that people take, cross reference that with the various outage reports, and automatically adjust the fares. The next time you enter or exit a station, your SmarTrip card will be updated, and the website will always show the current value.

Some of you might be thinking that Metro can’t afford this, and you’d be right. I still think Metro needs something of this sort (perhaps only the 15 minute delay) in order to make passengers feel like someone understands there is a problem, and, while the five cents won’t fix it, it does acknowledge it. And it’s a damn sight more believable than another recorded “we apologize for any inconvenience” message.

Metro could take the accountability further: have the refunds come from the budgets of the appropriate groups. This probably won’t work well in the beginning as the system is being rebuilt, but it should be a consideration going forward.

If the CEO title for the GM is meant to show a commitment to “the buck stops here” corporate thinking, I think corporate practices for performance should spread within the agency.

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.

5 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Performance Fares

  1. “Most of us work in jobs where our performance matters” – I read this, and then I thought, ‘Hmmm…would be true if this wasn’t Washington DC’.

    I guess I’m just tired of knowing 101 government lawyers who spend exactly 8 hours on the job, and in that time manage to put out 10+ blog post updates, and then complain about how busy their jobs are.

    But I like your idea of gathering up that information on how riders are affected – but can we have that effect the salaries of Metro Management?

  2. Making SmartTrip fare changes as you suggest could be fairly complicated, and end up costing a lot when you’re talking about instant changes. We want metro to improve service, not spend money on things that won’t directly improve service. You’d be amazed how complicated system wide SmartTrip programming can be.

    I agree with most of your comments. But I think some system where outages, broken elevators/escalators, offloading, etc, each has some set time penalty built in. For example, a day with 5 elevator outages might cost the transit agency 3 hours penalty.
    These hour penalties would be recorded on a monthly basis, and when the total outages reaches 24 hours, then Metro would be required to set up a weekday where ALL metro rides on the entire metro system are free for 24 hours. This would be easy and cost effective for them to implement because they have opened the gates before in just this kind of fashion. Most important, it would be a great incentive to improve service much in the way you’re describing.

  3. How about, when you enter a metro stop, then leave the same stop five minutes later because you realize that no trains are going to come in the next 20 minutes, you don’t get charged? Once you’ve passed the turnstyles, it’s like you’re trapped. This would a be simple and fair change, and easy to implement.

  4. Ha! Right! WMATA would never think about the customer. It is contrary to their entire business model.

    WMATA is based on a system of disadvantage and penalty. The further you ride, the more it costs. The more frequently you ride, the more it costs. Want to ride during rush hour? It costs more than not using public transit. It is cheaper to drive, if you have parking provided (or still cheaper if you have to park at the metro as an alternative).

    Unlimited day passes are provided to tourists, with the inability to buy them during rush hour, because WMATA knows they cost less than three trips or about the same as a typical round trip commute. There is no discount for using your SmartTrip. In fact, it costs more unless you ride the bus and benefit from transfers or rate discounts. Plus, the cards break, get lost or lose magnetization and you have to front money for another.

    In other cities like NYC, Boston, Paris, Berlin and more, you get a discount with the more tickets you buy. Tourists, who are just visiting and can afford to pay more (because they are often the people breaking the food/litter rules anyway) on a short term. Commuters, who invest in saving the environment and their pocket books benefit. Additionally, they are usually flat rate, like the bus. You pay on entry, then exit no matter how far you go. It is painful enough to have to make the 1-hour commute if you have to go end-to-end on a line…let alone paying more. You may as well switch back to your car if it is only affordable to metro for two stops.

    All of this is regardless of the fares increasing as the quality of service has fallen. There is no model to reward patrons for usage to begin with, let alone to implement penalty benefits.