Photo by jcolman on Flickr.

An unlimited-use pass could allow Metro to reward their most frequent customers and increase off-peak usage. But the pass needs to be well-designed if it’s going to succeed. A good pass system needs to work on SmarTrip, offer price levels that would work for many commuters, and provide enough of a discount to be worthwhile.

System shutdowns for track maintenance and replacement are making rail service outside of peak hours worse. Unlimited monthly passes would allow customers to get their off-peak trips for free, giving them reasons to keep riding even though the service has degraded during maintenance.

A pass would let customers pay a lump sum up front each month, then ride as much as they want. The proposal has merit, but will likely prove unpopular unless it is tweaked to provide a better deal than the weekly paper pass that already exists.

Under Metro’s proposal, riders could choose from two differently-priced 28-day passes, good for trips up to $3.25 or unlimited. Any trip of the pass value or less would be free. If customers use a pass for a more expensive trip than the cap, they’ll pay the difference.

Passes need to be on SmarTrip

Metro’s pass proposal calls for using paper farecards, at least initially, for the monthly pass. But that will depress use of the passes, as it does with the two existing weekly passes.

The weekly rail fast pass and short trip pass are not popular, in part because paper farecards are inconvenient and relatively fragile. The short trip pass is especially inconvenient since it requires Metro customers to carry exact change for every ride that is more than $3.25. With a Smartrip card, this extra fare could be automatically deducted from stored value.

The risk of damaging the card combined with the need to carry a bunch of coins for more expensive trips tilts the field away from using passes. And the calculus is even worse for a pass that needs to last a full month rather than a week. If the new passes are paper-only, customers likely won’t buy enough of them to make the new passes worthwhile.

Add a 3rd tier for the shortest trips

While a choose-your-own-value pass is ideal, Metro believes it’s too technically complex to implement. But they could improve upon their proposal by adding a third tier for shorter trips.

The two existing passes are good for trips up to $3.25 and up to maximum fare. This offers a good deal for customers that regularly take medium and long-distance trips, but is not a very good deal for customers that live closer in and rarely take a trip that long.

The new pass should be good for trips costing up to $2.10. Any additional fare would automatically come out of the stored value in the customer’s Smartrip account. Metro should encourage customers to buy higher-tier passes by adjusting their prices. The higher-tier passes should be slightly cheaper in comparison.

Price 28-day passes differently than weekly passes

Under the current proposal, the “monthly pass” would actually be a 4-week pass, and it would cost exactly 4-times the amount of the weekly pass.

Mathematically that may make sense, but it doesn’t make sense from a customer service perspective. Considering the added risk of losing or damaging a farecard, or of not using it on vacation or sick days, customers would have little incentive to purchase a monthly pass instead of 4 weekly passes.

The monthly version would be a greater risk, and would offer no corresponding greater deal to compensate. So why buy it?

If WMATA wants customers to pay more up front, there will have to be some added incentive to do so. One option might be to make the 4-week pass a true monthly pass, which would essentially make the 29th, 30th, and 31st days of each month free to pass holders. Another option might be to reduce the cost of the 4-week pass, to be slightly less than 4-times the cost of a weekly pass.

Based on these ideas, Here’s table showing suggested passes and prices:

Pass cost
Good for
trips up to
Very Short$2.10N/A$22$84
UnlimitedMax fare

WMATA deserves praise for considering more flexible payment options, but needs to more carefully consider its pricing structure. If monthly passes don’t offer a stronger incentive, customers will probably not use them. That should not be taken as a sign that monthly passes aren’t needed, only that the math isn’t working for customers.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post .

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.