Photo by 35mmMonkey on Flickr.

At last week’s WMATA board meeting, new Virginia member Jim Dyke suggested that the transit agency study a flat fare. While a flat fare would certainly be simpler to understand, it’s not a good policy. It would not be more equitable. Nor would it be cheap.

The idea of a flat fare for Metro comes up every so often, especially compared to the current, complicated fare structure that requires looking up fares in a huge table. This idea is to create a simpler system by charging everyone the same amount to ride, as is the case in many subway systems.

For someone used to paying $4.50 each way, a flat fare like Boston’s $1.70 or New York’s $2.25 looks attractively cheap. But the reality is that even if Metro were to adopt a flat fare, it would not be that cheap.

Michael Perkins ran the numbers and discovered that (assuming no loss in ridership) a flat fare would need to be at least $2.90 to be revenue-neutral.

Fare’s fair

That’s more than any other system with a flat fare, and is significantly higher than the $1.60 off-peak and $1.95 rush hour base fares. What the flat fare really means is that people making shorter trips (often those living in the urban core) will be subsidizing those making longer trips (often those living in the suburbs). And that’s simply not equitable.

If you’re traveling farther, you should expect to pay more. Can you imagine if all taxis regionwide had a flat fare? Would it be fair to charge the same for a trip by taxi from Woodbridge to Rockville as for a trip from Logan Circle to 12th and K? Of course not.

Everybody else is doing it

As is often the case when subway fares are being discussed, some suggest that WMATA should move to a flat fare because most other subway systems use them. And if all subway systems and regions were the same, perhaps that argument would make some sense. But there are significant differences between our Metro and other subway systems in America.

Part of it is a technology issue. A fare structure like Metro’s only works in systems with exit faregates, where a rider swipes the fare media to exit as well as to enter. Only Metro, PATCO in Philadelphia and New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART, and Atlanta’s MARTA have this technology today. It would not be cheap for systems like those in New York and Chicago to install new equipment to make variable fares possible.

Other systems also have momentum behind the flat fare. It’s very difficult to build the will to allow such a change, even if the infrastructure allows it. A few years ago, MARTA installed new gates, new fare vending machines, and even got a new name for the fare system. Even though a distance-based fare is now technologically possible, Atlanta continues to use a flat fare, not necessarily because they’ve decided it’s better policy, but out of momentum.

Metro is commuter rail and urban subway

Technology and history aren’t all that separate Metro from many other systems. There’s also the structure of the cities and the transit systems themselves. The older subways in the United States generally don’t travel as far as the modern heavy rail systems. When all trips are shorter, it’s not quite as inequitable to charge the same rate for everyone.

Metro is a hybrid between an urban subway and a suburban commuter rail operation. And as such it makes a good deal of sense to have a fare structure that reflects that.

It’s true that all trips on the New York City Subway cost the same. But people traveling the distances that Metro travels might not use the New York Subway. For example, Port Washington is a similar distance from Penn Station as Shady Grove is from Metro Center. But a trip to Port Washington doesn’t use the subway, it uses the Long Island Rail Road, and the peak fare is $10.00. The maximum you could possibly pay to go from Metro Center to Shady Grove is only $5.45.

Many people group Metro in with subways in New York and Chicago and Boston simply because they’re all subways. But it’s important to consider scale. The subway systems in those regions are generally compact and don’t reach many places with the kind of suburban settlement patterns at the end of Metrorail lines.

In those cities, separate commuter and regional rail systems, which don’t use flat fares, mainly serve suburban areas rather than the urban subway.

Let’s compare some Metro lines to similar lines in other cities:
 


If we compare the Metro Red line in comparison with Boston’s Red Line to Alewife and the MBTA Fitchburg Line, we can get a sense of scale.

Alewife is about as far from Downtown Crossing as Friendship Heights is from Metro Center. In Boston you’d pay $1.70 for that trip. Here, the fare would be just $1.60 off-peak or $2.70 during rush hour.

Bethesda is roughly the same distance from Metro Center as Waverly is from North Station. And in this case, Metro’s $2.15/$3.15 fare is cheaper than MBTA’s $4.25.

We can see similar trends if we compare our Orange Line to Philadelphia’s Lansdale/Doylestown Line.
 


I chose Philadelphia and Boston because their metropolitan regions are about the same size as DC’s. (Washington is the 7th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the nation, while Philadelphia is 6th and Boston 10th.)

Traveling along the Broad Street (in Philadelphia) or Route 2 (in Boston) corridors, a traveler going the distance of outside-the-Beltway stops in DC would not take the subway, but would ride commuter rail.

Our residents of places like Vienna, Rockville, Greenbelt, Franconia-Springfield, and soon Tysons Corner pay less than many would pay on commuter rail in those cities. Plus, they enjoy frequent, all-day, 7-day-a-week service. That has enormous benefits to our region, making walkable places like Rockville Town Center feasible and giving the DC region much higher transit ridership per capita than Boston or Philadelphia.

But just because Boston and Philadelphia’s much smaller urban subways charge a flat fare doesn’t mean it’s unfair that a ride from Vienna to Metro Center costs quite a bit more than a ride from Rosslyn.

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 an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.