Photo by infosnackhq on Flickr.

A fare increase is likely next year. When the WMATA Board considers it, staff will give them many options for ways to make fares simpler, more equitable, or both. These options include some we’ve been advocating for years, and some we’ve brought up just to recommend against.

Their presentation to the board, scheduled for tomorrow, emphasizes that none of the ideas are yet being actually endorsed. They’re just studying many ideas right now. This is a good approach. Those of us who’ve written about fare policy a lot, like Michael Perkins and Matt Johnson, have our opinions about these, but WMATA has the resources to analyze them much more closely.

Plus, there are ideas we don’t support, such as instituting a single flat fare, that some riders frequently suggest. If WMATA investigates the option, we’ll have better information to justify a decision not to pursue that (or, perhaps, data will emerge that refutes our beliefs).

Below are brief descriptions of each idea, and our take on them.

Integrated monthly passes: Michael Perkins has long been advocating for this, which he calls Smart Passes. They resemble Sound Transit’s ORCA system. Basically, it could be good to get most regular riders habitually buying monthly (or weekly) passes. But how much should a pass cost? There many different fares.

The idea is to let you buy a pass of any size. It will cost 40 times the regular one-way fare of your regular commute. You get to take that trip, or any other trip of equal or lesser cost, for free with the pass. For more expensive trips, you pay the difference.

Benefits of this option include encouraging more off-peak ridership (“free nights and weekends”). Mobile networks are least busy nights and weekends, which is why many now offer these times free. Metro and buses are similarly less crowded, which is why off-peak ridership should be encouraged.

Many riders will save some money, so it might cost Metro, but on the other hand it will stabilize the revenue. If there’s a major snowstorm or government shutdown, Metro won’t lose as much because people will still have bought their passes.

Image by Matt Johnson.

Zone fares: This is another Greater Greater Washington suggestion; the presentation notes that their evaluation is “based on blogger proposal.” Though, actually, Matt and Michael proposed this specifically to explain that it might not be the best approach.

Zones make it a little easier to calculate your fare, since you just have to count zones. But you would still look up your fare in a table unless you opt to study the map and add. A zone system would still be complex, and some riders whose stations lie right near a zone boundary could end up paying a lot more.

Metro is studying different zone alternatives besides just the one Matt and Michael analyzed. One possibility would be to study a system where if you cross from, say, Zone 3 to the core (Zone 1) and back out to Zone 3 on the other side, you pay for 6 zones instead of 3. But that would still save some a lot of money and cost others greatly.

Flat fares: The simplest option is to just charge one fare. It gets suggested frequently, especially by people familiar with other subways like New York’s.

However, that comparison actually isn’t right. Metro is a hybrid of commuter rail and urban subway. In New York, Boston, Chicago and many other cities, the subway stays inside city limits, and a separate commuter rail system serves more outlying suburbs. Those commuter railroads all charge based on distance or zones.

Metro, and BART, combine the two. Someone commuting downtown from Shady Grove is more equivalent from coming in from White Plains on Metro-North. If DC’s transit were like older cities, Metro would not go outside DC, Arlington, and Alexandria, and most people in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax would take a larger MARC or VRE.

Anyway, a flat fare would mean everyone pays $2.70 per trip, much more than in other cities with urban subways that don’t go to the suburbs. Now, a lot of short Metro trips cost only $1.60, much less than, say, New York’s $2.25 regular fare.

And there’s the question of equity. A flat fare would mean people taking shorter trips would pay more to subsidize people taking longer trips. Is it fair to charge someone traveling from Union Station to Rhode Island Avenue the same as someone traveling from Shady Grove to Metro Center?

Flat fares for paper farecards: One way to simplify things for tourists would be to charge a flat fare for using a paper farecard, either everywhere or just inside a core zone. That fare could be the highest fare you’d pay for any trip in that zone. That costs tourists (and those without SmarTrips) more, but is very simple.

Free bus-rail transfers: During every fare debate, some suggest raising bus fares substantially. They point out that bus fares are much lower than rail fares and the farebox recovery rate on bus is much lower than on rail. Many other cities, including New York, charge the same flat fare for bus as for subway trips.

The typical counterarguments note that bus riders are generally lower income, meaning the difference serves a social equity purpose, and that buses are slower than the trains. There’s one more important point to remember: in New York, for instance, while one pays the flat fare for a bus ride, they can then transfer for free to rail, and vice versa.

Metro, instead, charges the full bus fare minus a 50¢ transfer “discount” when riding both modes. Metro could instead make the transfers fully free, letting anyone get on a bus who’s just gotten off rail without paying, and deducting a bus trip from the rail fare if someone rides bus and then rail afterward.

Higher fare for faster buses: If part of the reason for lower bus fares is that buses are slower, what about the faster limited-stop buses? Maybe those should cost more?

This makes some sense. One potential drawback is that riders who don’t understand the more confusing system could end up in altercations with bus drivers. The limited-stop buses are supposed to be blue while the local buses are red, but the bus garages don’t always follow the rules properly. It would be much more important to get them right if one type of bus costs more.

Get rid of “peak of the peak”: We pushed for instituting peak of the peak last year, but it hasn’t worked as hoped. The idea was to charge more at the busiest times, to either encourage people to shift when they commute or shift to bus.

However, very little behavior shifting happened. Metro made the peak-of-the-peak period longer than advocates had suggested, and decided to apply it to all trips instead of ones in the congested core, peak direction. Also, it was just more confusing. Few people will change their behavior if it’s not easily evident to them when they’re paying more versus less. And many people can’t change their travel times.

Therefore, it’s probably wise to eliminate this. That will, though, mean that regular peak fares or all fares have to rise more than they would otherwise.

The list of ideas includes a brief reference to “Rail reverse-commute discounts,” which seems to mean the possibility of charging less for the trips against the rush which just use mostly-empty capacity instead of adding to the crush.

Minimum on-board SmarTrip reloads: One of the biggest sources of bus delay is people loading SmarTrips on the bus, which takes a long time. The best solution is to find more stores that can offer SmarTrip loading, or install kiosks. Meanwhile, Metro could require riders load a certain amount on their SmarTrips.

Some riders might not have that much money at one time, so it would be very important to couple any minimum with other alternatives for those riders who need to load small amounts of money.

Others: A slide lists other options without much explanation, such as rounding all rail fares to the nearest quarter, setting rail fares based on number of stations traversed (unfair; would the Orange Line between Metro Center and Farragut Square cost twice as much as the Red Line?), a bonus for storing more value on a SmarTrip, more passes, and others.

Staff expect to make a recommendation in January. Hopefully they will also be able to release details of the analysis of all of these options, to help the public better understand why they made the choice they did and advocate for or against the choice.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.