Riding Metrorail outside of peak hours is less expensive, but the amount discounted off of the peak price varies quite a bit by how far you travel. Riders with the largest discounts are more likely than others to wait until off-peak fares start before they enter the system.

Photo by Malcolm Kenton.

Metrorail bases its fares on distances, meaning that usually, the farther you travel, the more you pay. Riders can find the peak and off-peak fares for their trips on the top of the fare payment machines in each system.

Peak fares are charged on weekdays from opening to 9:30 am, and again between 3:00 and 7:00 pm. Off-peak fares are in effect all other times. Around 9:30 am and 7:00 pm, you may notice riders idling outside faregates, waiting for the cheaper off-peak fares to kick in prior to swiping into their origin station.

Graphs by the author.

Presumably, these riders know what it would cost them to ride during both peak and off-peak times, and have decided that the savings are worth the wait. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re more frugal than those who swipe in just before 7:00 pm and pay the more expensive peak fare — what’s actually more likely is that those waiting get a bigger discount off their peak price than those who aren’t.

What’s interesting is that a lot of people don’t know that off-peak fare discounts vary— Metro’s planning blog itself describes off-peak fares as “generally a 25% reduction from peak fares” when in actuality, off-peak fares can range from a 19% to 40% reduction of peak fares. Riders simply know that they get a discount of some size, and they act accordingly.

Off-peak fares are capped differently from peak fares

So why do off-peak discounts vary so much, and who are the lucky riders getting the biggest savings?

Metro’s off-peak fare structure was updated to its current fee-per-mile structure in 2012. At that time, to lessen the impact of a large off-peak fare increase for some riders, WMATA limited the percent increase between the old (2010) and new (2012) off-peak fares to 27%.

It turns out this “cap” only affects trips of just under seven and ten miles. WMATA also set the maximum off-peak fare at $3.60. This fare cap benefits riders with trips longer than 11 miles. Metro’s current peak fare structure is simpler; the only limitation is a maximum peak fare of $5.90.

As seen below, when off-peak fare limits kick in, the difference between peak and off-peak fares is accentuated. Riders with trips of specific lengths (highlighted green) benefit from higher-percentage off-peak savings.

Basically, the large off-peak discounts are the unintentional outcomes of well-intentioned policies. These off-peak fare limits were aimed to benefit off-peak riders, but not necessarily sway would-be peak riders into off-peak travel.

And while the off-peak fare caps at just under seven and ten miles made sense in 2012, they seem a bit arbitrary now since most riders traveling these mileages probably aren’t the same riders who the caps were initially intending to protect.

But hey, we’ll take it!

You can read a more formal analysis of ridership patterns on my website.

Sam Winward is an analyst making sense of data through visualization and storytelling. He enjoys commuting via cycle and occasionally rides no handed.