Flat fare falls flat

“Metro should have a flat fare.” I’ve seen this mind-boggling argument all over the place, much to my consternation. This scheme prizes mind-numbing simplicity over all else — economy, equity, efficiency, environment, everything.

Such a move would penalize DC & Arlington residents who take transit, rather than road-clogging and pollution-spewing cars, to make their trips around town — while giving a huge and highly regressive gift to some of the country’s wealthiest, sprawliest suburbs. Within DC & Arlington, Metro charges a $1.70 base fare: actually one of the cheapest for a subway in North America. Bus fares here are even lower: $1 for Circulator, $1.60 for Metrobus. You’ll pay almost twice our subway fare (C$3) just for a mile-long bus ride in poorer Toronto. The vast majority of people paying that short-distance fare are indeed actually residents, not tourists, and many of those people are transit-dependent and lower-income. The suburban commuters who would overwhelmingly benefit from a flat fare are people who can easily just drive to the grocery store or to visit grandma three miles away; that’s not an option for the transit-dependent.

Distance-based and time-based pricing recognizes that:
- it’s more expensive to provide longer trips in lower-density suburban areas.
- conversely, that trips within the core present a low marginal cost (so much so that cities like Pittsburgh, Portland, and Seattle have “fareless squares” where all downtown service is free): besides their short distance, the trains have to run through the core anyways just to distribute their suburban passengers. (If Alice is going 1-2-3 and Brenda is going 2-3-4, the marginal cost for the train to carry Charlie from 2-3 is $0, as no additional trains or drivers are needed.)
- more frequent rush hour service costs more to provide (since it requires purchasing more trains and paying more drivers).
- people are willing to pay more for longer trips at peak hours. This is especially true since many local employees, including most federal workers, have access to some kind of flex time.
- make more frequent transit trips, best customers who are traveling within the most congested areas and thus should be encouraged to ride space-efficient transit
- hundreds of thousands of suburbanites demonstrate every day that they’re willing to pay the higher fares charged to them, so cutting their fares leaves money on the table.

Therefore, if it costs more and the customers will pay more, then charge more. M arket economies use the price mechanism as the primary way in which consumers and producers match incentives, and transit is not an exception. We never question why the New Jersey Turnpike or American Airlines factors distance into pricing, so why is it bad for transit? We tacitly understand that hotels cost more during conventions, and restaurants cost more at dinner than at lunch, so why whine incessantly about how peak fares “confuse” the world’s most over-educated city?

Confused tourists do not merit a new fare system, they merit a better way of presenting the information at fare machines. Presenting a map instead of a table of fares might work: I could quickly figure out ticket prices in Japan that way, even at stations where nothing was in English. Selling 1/2/3-day passes and round-trip tickets would certainly simplify matters, and fare vending machines should have larger, more informative displays with more helpful prompts.

It’s telling that very few new subway systems use flat-rate pricing, and in fact some newer, all-electronic transit systems have even more bewildering pricing schemes: Singapore changes road tolls every five minutes, Capital Bikeshare has four price bands ($0/$1.50/$3/$6). Those transit systems that have flat-rate prices are usually older systems with antiquated, token-based fare collection systems, and as a result are hobbled by path dependence. We live in the 21st century, so let’s use the technology that we have to make things smarter and better. Stored-value smart cards like SmarTrip only increases the incentive for transit systems to have more complex, Metrorail-like fare structures. A huge percentage of fares are paid by regular commuters who either use passes or have auto-reloading cards and thus don’t have to count out the fares they’re paying — so why not optimize the fare structure with rush-hour surcharges, zones, and the like?

Also, people complaining about high fares should be throttled. $3.85 from Bethesda to Capitol Hill? So what? A 10-mile trip on New Jersey Transit commuter rail is $5; on MBTA commuter rail $4.75; on a NYC Transit express bus $5.50 (and with slower, less frequent service). Per AAA, driving a 10-mile trip is $7.40 even before paying for parking — or for the $5.25 in tolls that a 10-mile rush-hour commute on the Dulles Greenway, or for the wages foregone by having you drive yourself. Typical Bethesda families can spare that change; their median income of $170K would pay for 60 roundtrips every day. Atypical Bethesda families can save money by traveling off-peak, or riding buses or bikes instead. Indeed, typical Metrorail riders are considerably more affluent and educated than Americans as a whole. 80% of Metrorail riders and 59% of Metrobus riders have college degrees — compared to 27.5% nationally and 47.5% in DC (all 2007; the best-educated state is Massachusetts at a mere 37.9% college grad). And get this: over half of Metrorail riders earn six figures.

Perhaps a 10-mile trip is cheaper in Tokyo or Hong Kong or NYC, but the cost of providing transit service falls dramatically with such high densities — Hong Kong crams 10X more population density into its urban core and 80% more passengers onto every single subway car (which are of surprisingly similar dimensions).

[Themes developed in comments posted at WeLoveDC, GGW]

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4 thoughts on “Flat fare falls flat

  1. Just an FYI, Seattle actually just ended our downtown ride free area last month (exactly a month ago, in fact). It’s a bit of a complicated story but it was basically a political decision forced upon us by the less transit-friendly Republican members of our county council in exchange for a 2-year $20 vehicle license fee to maintain transit service during the worst of our revenue shortfall. In the end it may work out for the best, but reports thus far seem to indicate noticeable slowing of trips originating or ending downtown. Which was expected, since now we’ve got people taking extra time to pay when they get on the bus in the area of the city with the most buses flowing through it.

  2. It’s important to note that even though suburban transit is significantly more expensive than urban transit per rider, it’s a lot cheaper per capita. In the end, I do believe that suburban services should be no cheaper than urban services and that that extra money should come out of the pockets of suburban taxpayers who pay so little per-capita anyways. By reducing fares, it’s actually possible for transit to become competitive for suburb-to-suburb trips instead of only suburb-to-city.

  3. I think that fares are not quite as important to riders as is usually assumed — for most people (and particularly suburbanites, who generally have higher incomes, more travel choices, etc.) the time cost of taking transit far exceeds the cash cost of taking transit. Many suburbanites wouldn’t take existing transit services even if it was free.

  4. And Fareless Square in PDX is gone, too, as of September. Not as operatic a story as what appears to be the case in Seattle, simply a way of recouping revenue to fill a budget shortfall.

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