Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

WMATA is considering raising bus fares, with the justification that they’re lower than in other cities. But somehow every time this topic comes up, people forget that there’s a big difference between our bus fares and other cities’: riders transferring between bus and rail pay a lot more.

The agency recently put out a survey which, among other things, asked riders what they thought about various options for a fare increase. For Metrobus, the survey asked about raising the bus fare from the current $1.60 to $1.75 or $1.85:

METROBUS
Passenger fares cover about 30 cents out of every dollar of the cost of providing Metrobus service. The current Metrobus fare is $1.60 for SmarTrip® and $1.80 for cash. Metrobus fares are relatively low compared to other major metropolitan areas around the country:



STANDARD BUS FARES:

San Francisco & Chicago$2.00
Philadelphia$2.25
New York City & Atlanta$2.50


That makes it look like our bus fares are relatively cheap, right? Maybe compared to those cities if you’re just riding the bus. But a lot of people don’t just ride the bus. They take a bus from home to a Metrorail station and then ride the train, and back again in the evening. Or a bus to a train to another bus.

Many buses, in fact, don’t go downtown at all. They end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, the agency cut back many of the buses so they just fed the rail system. The same is going to happen around Tysons when the Silver Line opens (or even before).

Therefore, to really compare fares, we have to look at the fares for a rail and bus trip. Since our rail system has variable fares, it’s more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let’s look at the rail-to-bus fare, assuming you’ve already paid for a rail trip from some other location.

City &
Agency
Bus fare (w/card)1Bus fare after railBus fare after other railRail+bus pass?Inter-agency rail+bus pass?
Washington (WMATA)$1.60$1.10Full fare from MARC/VRENoYes
Philadelphia (SEPTA)$2.25$1.00$1.65 from PATCO2YesNo
Los Angeles
(LACMTA)
$1.5035¢/$1.503No other railYesNo
Chicago
(CTA)
$2.0025¢Full fare from MetraYesYes
New York (NYCT)$2.504FREEFull fareYesNo
Atlanta (MARTA)$2.50FREENo other railYesN/A
San Francisco (MUNI)$2.00FREE$1.75 from BARTYesYes
Boston
(MBTA)
$1.50FREEFull fare from commuter railYesNo Yes5

1 All fare calculations assume you have the electronic fare media for that city. Most agencies offer better fares for people with the card (SmartTrip in Washington, MetroCard in NYC, Clipper in SF, Breeze in Atlanta, etc.)

2 Riders transferring from PATCO to select city train and bus lines can buy a round-trip ticket for $3.10, for an effective per-direction fare of $1.65.

3 Los Angeles offers no transfer discount even between multiple LA Metro rapid bus lines, but a rider on a Metro rail or bus line can transfer to a local municipal bus operated by one of the county’s cities for 35¢.

4 Riders using the pay-per-ride MetroCard also get a 5% fare bonus when putting more than $5 on the card, making the effective fare for riders who don’t have passes closer to $2.38.

5 The MBTA runs both commuter rail and Boston subway, so there aren’t enough agencies to have an inter-agency pass as in other cities on this table. However, the commuter rail passes do offer free “T” subway and bus rides, so Boston does have a pass analogous to those that give a “Yes” for the other cities.

If you look at the 2nd column here, among these cities listed in the WMATA survey, taking the bus after a rail trip costs more here than in any of those cities. Three, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta all have a flat fare for a trip throughout the city, no matter whether it’s on one train, one bus, or a combination (though in San Francisco, that’s just MUNI light rail, not BART).We’re not necessarily the worst. If you ignore SF Muni’s light rail for a moment, the San Francisco Bay Area has a regional rapid transit system (BART) that’s very similar to the Metro, and both its base bus fare and transfers between BART and buses are more expensive.  Los Angeles has no transfer discount at all between LA Metro bus lines, but its base bus fare (and rail fare, for its limited rail system) is much lower, so many riders are paying less there.Don’t forget passesIn addition, all of the listed cities have combined passes that offer rail and bus trips for a discount. Large numbers of commuters in these cities don’t pay every time they ride the bus or train; instead, they subscribe to a weekly or monthly pass and get their transit free. WMATA has a bus pass that a lot of people use, but nothing for rail and bus users. WMATA has, in fact, has been very stingy about passes overall.Many cities have inter-agency passes, such as Chicago, where you can get a pass for Metra commuter rail and also the L or bus in the city. MARC and VRE also offer passes for their tickets as well as Metro rail or bus; in fact, you pay less to add unlimited Metrorail and Metrobus to a monthly MARC or VRE ticket ($108) than to get an unlimited Metrorail “short trip” pass for 28 days ($140) which offers free rides up to $3.50 but no bus rides.WMATA could certainly move to a system like other cities’ where most people subscribe to transit rather than paying each time. It has a lot of advantages, like blunting the fare loss when there’s a big storm, a federal government shutdown, or just the holidays. But every time the issue comes up, finance staff say they’re nervous about the relatively unknowable financial impact of the change. (They also say that they need to wait for the next generation of fare systems).That’s in large part because discussions about changing fares only arise around a fare hike. If costs have risen a certain amount, then the agency needs to raise a certain amount more money, not revamp the fare system. But we never have the discussion during the off years, either.Should bus fares go up?Maybe bus fares need to change (or maybe not), but this survey is pushing the idea through remarkably misleading statistics. If the proposal is to raise the bus fare but at the same time make transfers cheaper, that is certainly an option. To compare the base WMATA bus fare to the one in other cities without any mention of the transfers or passes, however, does not give riders a fair picture.