Image by Eric Fischer licensed under Creative Commons.

Over the two weeks since the WMATA systemwide fare increases went into effect, I have noticed the subtle effect they are having on my mode choice and travel behavior.  The fare hike may have been necessary to keep the transit system in the black, and the new fares are still low compared to other major US cities, but when it comes to daily decisions on how to get around, as the old adage goes, perception is reality.

June 25 started the major service changes that the WMATA Board approved to help close a $290 million budget gap.  Along with changes in Metrorail’s operating hours, reduced train frequencies and frequency adjustments to some bus routes, the base fare for most single trips went up 25 cents (10 cents on Metrorail during peak hours), and the prices of most weekly and monthly passes went up, except for the seven-day regional bus pass, which remained $17.50.

An extra 25 cents per ride seems trivial, but the psychological leap from less than two dollars to a full two dollars (or from $1.25 to $1.50 with rail-bus transfer) is significant. It’s the same principle that causes many products to be priced a penny less than a whole dollar amount — $19.99 just seems like a bargain compared to $20.00, though they are essentially the same. 

My daily travel decision making

I have found myself opting to walk, use my bike or Capital Bikeshare, or use ride hailing services for some trips for which I would have previously defaulted to the bus or Metro. I am wondering if others are making similar choices. Anecdotally, crowding levels on the buses and trains I use most often seem no different than they were more than two weeks ago. I do load value onto my SmarTrip manually at regular intervals; those who do auto-reload or have SmartBenefits from their employers are less likely to notice the higher fares.

I live in NoMa and choose not to own a car. I can easily walk or bike to my office two blocks west of Union Station. I am not about to go out and buy a car as maintenance, insurance and parking would still cost more on a monthly basis than transit plus the occasional use of ride hailing and car sharing to supplement walking and biking, not to mention the headache of dealing with DC traffic. I also philosophically support expanding and improving transit and increasing its use. 

I fit into a narrow demographic that falls somewhere between the two categories traditionally used by transit agencies, which are flawed, but have yet to be replaced with more helpful and adequate categories.  I’m neither a “captive rider” who cannot afford a car (and parking) or ride hailing and may not be able to walk or bike, nor a “choice rider” who has a car and will only use transit if the combination of cost, convenience, and travel time falls right into a sweet spot that is more attractive than driving. I’m still more likely to choose transit than a traditionally defined “choice rider,” but the availability of alternatives means that I only use transit for between 40 and 60 percent of trips in an average week. 

Ride hailing is a little more price-competitive with transit

Given the fare increase, the ride hailing service Via, in particular, is looking more attractive compared to transit. The all-shared-ride service (meaning you always have the chance of having another rider join you in the car, though in practice I’ve gotten a solo ride all but three out of dozens of rides) charges a flat fare of $2.95 within the core area of the District that it serves. This is now only 65 to 90 cents more than taking the bus or off-peak Metro within the zone, and only 35 cents more than the highest peak Metro fare within the zone.

Outside of the zone and hours within which Via operates (7:00 am to 9:00 pm Monday through Friday only), fares for UberPOOL and Lyft Line for shared rides of three miles or less are generally between $4 and $7, making for a maximum $3 premium over transit.  Uber and Lyft are both offering quarter- to half-off sales fairly regularly, making their fares even more attractive.

Commuter rail, DC Circulator and CaBi also come out ahead

With the fare increase, the difference between rush-hour Metrorail fares and MARC and VRE commuter rail fares between Union Station and Silver Spring, Rockville, New Carrollton, Crystal City,  Alexandria and Franconia/Springfield is even smaller. For only 40 cents to $1.50 more on MARC (no difference in fare between Union Station and Rockville) or $3.10 to $4.25 more on VRE than Metro, you get a more pleasant ride - usually less crowded, more comfortable seat, fewer stops, almost all above ground. I’m likely to opt for MARC or VRE when going from work near Union Station to an evening event in Crystal City or Silver Spring, and return on Metro.

DC Circulator’s fare is now exactly half that of Metrobus, and CaBi also comes out as more price-competitive with transit, with a single ride costing the same as base bus fare and an annual membership costing about what I (a relatively infrequent rider) will now be adding to my SmarTrip every five or so weeks.

Would a transit pass save me money?

Metro’s pass products only make sense if you use the bus and/or rail for at least two daily trips five or more days per week. Given that I take between eight and 14 Metrobus rides and roughly eight Metrorail rides each week, costing a minimum of $32 and a maximum of around $50, a pass would not save any money versus using stored value on my SmarTrip. If I could know in advance that I’ll be taking at least nine Metrobus rides in a week, then a 7-Day Regional Bus Pass (the only pass whose cost was unaffected by the fare hike) would save me a little, but I almost never have a full week of mode choices mapped out beforehand. 

If you or someone you know has been going through similar mental calculations since June 25, or if you’ve noticed a shift in ridership on your routine bus and Metro rides, please share in the comments.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.