Photo by the author.

Metro fares rose on Sunday, and the surcharge for a paper farecard increased to $1 per trip. Metro chose to list the SmarTrip fares, not the paper farecard fares, on the fare tables, along with a separate note about the surcharge. This could create significant confusion for the riders most likely to consult the tables: tourists using paper cards.

Metro could, instead, have shown both the SmarTrip and paper farecard fare for peak and off-peak trips, but this would show a lot of information and would likely be too cluttered. Or, they could show the paper farecard prices with a note that SmarTrip users save $1 per trip.

Vistors and infrequent riders, who need to look up their fare for a specific trip, are the ones most likely to use the tables. Since these riders are more likely to use a paper farecard, it makes more sense to list the paper farecard fares and have a note that you save $1 by using a SmarTrip card.

With the fare table Metro chose, a customer that doesn’t notice the note would buy a card with the fare listed on the table, get to the destination, then get frustrated when they realize their farecard doesn’t have enough to pay for the trip. The exit fare machines don’t take credit cards, so customers that don’t carry cash could end up stuck (or station agents will let them out without paying).

If Metro instead listed the paper farecard prices and stated there was a Smartrip discount, the worst case is that a SmarTrip customer would end up with an extra dollar per trip on the card. SmarTrip customers are more likely to load a larger amount regardless of the price of an individual trip, so this is not likely to be a huge problem.

Further, Metro’s latest improvements to SmarTrip allow you to add fare online or have your account automatically topped off when your balance gets low, so SmarTrip rail customers are not as likely to need to use the fare vending machines or the fare tables.

New fare table. Photo by the author.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel defended the move. He wrote in an email:

Today, roughly 80 percent of Metrorail trips are taken with SmarTrip cards.  We wanted to show what the vast majority of customers would be paying as clearly as possible.

It is not correct to assume that the majority of people using the fare machines are paper transactions. Already, SmarTrip transactions exceed paper farecard transactions at the machines — and the share of ST vs. paper will only increase over the next several months due to the surcharge.

Speaking of “surcharge,” that’s what we’re calling it.  It’s not a “discount” for using SmarTrip, but rather a “surcharge” for using paper.  So, the fare charts display the fares as they are, and there’s a big bold box that says add $1 if you’re using paper.

This is all technically correct, but ignores the key difference between different types of customers that use the vending machines. Many customers that use the fare vending machines don’t look at the table at all, such as Smartrip customers topping off a card by adding a fairly large amount of money that they plan to use on multiple trips.

The customers that want to look up the fare for a specific trip or a round trip are more likely to be infrequent riders or visitors, are less likely to know the fare system well, and are less likely to be using SmarTrip.

Metro’s leadership seems to feel that increasing surcharges on paper farecards will eliminate their use entirely, or reduce it to the point that the customer experience with paper farecards no longer matters. I disagree. Metro should make the system as simple as possible (though more expensive) for paper farecard 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.