The latest WMATA budget proposal would raise fares on Metro rail, bus, and parking, while also cutting service. It’s a crushing plan for everyone. In proposing to raise bus fares, the agency claims they are lower than in other cities, but for many riders who ride both the bus and rail, our bus fares are actually among the highest.

When announcing the fare hike plan, the WMATA press release read:

For bus riders, one-way local bus fares would increase from $1.75 — among the lowest nationally — to $2.00.

We’ve heard “Metro bus fares are low compared to other cities” before. Last time Metro raised fares, in 2012, the PR around the change said the same thing. However, that’s misleading at best — at least for the many riders who ride both bus and rail.

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.

That’s not just because they are using a lot of transit. Large parts of the bus network are designed as feeders to the rail system. In fact, many buses don’t go downtown at all, but end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, many existing bus lines were cut back to the nearest rail station, with the expectation that riders would take the bus only locally or to the nearest rail station rather than all the way to a distant job center.

If you do ride bus to rail or vice versa, you pay the full fare on both minus a 50¢ discount. By comparison, New York (for eaxmple) charges non-pass users $2.75 for any bus (or rail) trip, but a trip on a train and a bus (or more than one bus) still just costs $2.75, no more. You can’t ever take a Metrorail and Metrobus trip for only $2.75.

How do bus fares really compare?

This table compares fares for combo trips in the eight cities with the highest transit usage. Since our rail system’s fares vary based on how far you travel, it’s more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let’s look at how much you’ll pay for a bus trip once you’ve already paid for a rail trip from some other location.

City & agency Bus fare (w/card)1 Bus fare after rail Bus fare after other rail
Washington (WMATA) proposal $2.00 $1.50 FREE from VRE and for MARC or VRE pass holders
Washington (WMATA) today $1.75 $1.25
Philadelphia (SEPTA) $2.25 $1.00 $1.65 from PATCO2
Chicago (CTA) $2.25 25¢ Full fare from Metra
New York (NYCT) $2.753 FREE Full fare
Atlanta (MARTA) $2.50 FREE No other rail
San Francisco (MUNI) $2.504 FREE $2.00 from BART
Los Angeles (LACMTA) $1.75 FREE FREE from Metrolink
Boston (MBTA) $1.70 FREE Full fare from commuter rail

but free for pass holders

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 Riders using the pay-per-ride MetroCard also get an 11% fare bonus when putting $5.50 or more on the card, making the effective fare for riders who don’t have passes as low as $2.48.

4 SF MUNI fares are scheduled to rise from $2.25 to $2.50 on January 1, 2017.

By this computation, the cost to get on a Metrobus after riding rail is more expensive than on any other system in the eight cities where people ride transit the most. Five offer free transfers, and of the other three, Metro is by far the stingiest with its transfer discount. It’s definitely misleading to say the bus fare is lower in Washington than other US cities.

Free transfers for Metro?

WMATA could make free transfers part of a fare increase package. There’s precedent for that, most recently in Los Angeles. LACMTA used to charge full fare for a bus ride after a subway ride (and even switching from one bus to another), but instituted free transfers in 2014 as it raised the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

There are other good reasons to institute free transfers. Because there’s no free transfer, and because the base bus fare (to compensate somewhat) is lower than elsewhere, many poorer residents ride the bus long distances on the lines which don’t just end at a rail station. The trip from Southern Avenue to Foggy Bottom on the 32 local might be excruciatingly slow compared to a two-train trip, but it’s cheaper. This exacerbates a class disparity between rail and bus riders.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel confirmed via email that the current fare increase proposal “does not contemplate any changes to existing transfer discounts.” The region needs to work to find alternatives to fare increases that could trigger a “death spiral,” but if a fare increase does happen, the agency should reexamine its transfer policies.

Correction: The initial version of this post omitted Los Angeles’ Metrolink under the “other rail” column in the table, and omitted some free transfers for MARC and VRE. These errors have been corrected.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.