A variety of unlimited passes for Gold Coast Transit (Ventura County, CA).

Do you use an unlimited transit pass? Has a friend or family member bought one when coming to the Washington region? What did you think? Metro is interested in feedback about how to make its passes better, and we'd like to hear your thoughts.

There are two kinds of customers for unlimited passes: commuters and visitors. Let's look at each one.

Commuter passes

Metro recently augmented its pass options with the Metro SelectPass, an idea that GGWash contributor Michael Perkins had been suggesting for many years. The MSP lets a rider pick their regular commute price, pay 36 times that price (18 round trips), and then get unlimited Metrorail rides at that price or less. For more expensive rides, you pay the difference.

There are also two levels of SelectPass that cover bus and rail. They cover $2.25 and $3.75 per rail trip, respectively, and cost $54 extra (36 rides with the stingy transfer discount or 27 rides without). This may be a good deal for a regular bus plus rail commuter, though there's also a big opportunity to get regular rail riders to ride the occasional bus, and the current SelectPass doesn't encourage it.

There is also a standalone seven-day bus pass for $17.50.

It's possible to get the SelectPass or another pass through SmartBenefits, but it's complicated. The benefits administrator has to allocate your SmartBenefits money to passes, which requires extra work on their part and not all will do it. Even if they do, you still don't automatically get the pass. Instead, you have to buy it once the money hits your SmarTrip account on the first day of the month (and potentially miss its benefits for one or two trips at the beginning of the month.)

Unlimited passes are a particularly big opportunity for Metro, because while rush-hour ridership has almost returned to 2015 levels, off-peak ridership has not. Metro rail and bus have ample extra space midday. A pass means a chance to get people who commute regularly to also take some off-peak transit. Also, a subscription model means that even in months where people don't work as many days, Metro can still earn a predictable revenue.

A growing number of Metro commuters just ride transit four days a week and telecommute or have the day off some or all Fridays. The SelectPass's 18 days still is lower than the typical 19 Mondays-Thursdays in a work month (23 days including Fridays), but it's not as good a deal.

What do you think of the commuter passes? What would you suggest?

  • Do you use one of these? Does it work for you?
  • Do you think the SelectPass's many levels are good or too confusing?
  • How about the bus integration? Should buses be included cheaper, or for free, with the rail pass?
  • Can you get your pass on SmartBenefits? Is it too complex?
  • Are there ways to make passes work for those who don't commute some or all Fridays?

Image by CTA.

Visitor passes

When I recently attended a conference in Chicago, the conference provided me with a three-day unlimited CTA pass. (It was a transit conference, though, so this would be expected. I'm not saying all Chicago events give free transit passes.) When I first arrived at the airport and didn't have the card yet, there was a simple option to buy a one-ride ticket that would get me anywhere.

CTA fares are simpler than WMATA's, and switching to a flat fare is not a good idea. However, it would be good to help tourists buy a card or let events give them one ahead of time. This would allow visitors to ride trains and buses without having to read complex fare charts, look up fares on the phone, and fiddle with money (which might not even be their home currency).

Pricing, though, is tricky. Most tourists aren't taking long trips to Wiehle or Shady Grove—they're going to DCA, the zoo, maybe Eastern Market, plus Smithsonian, Smithsonian, and Smithsonian again. If the pass's price were based on short-range trips but allowed long trips, it'd be too appealing for every commuter. If it were priced based on long-range trips, it would be a bad deal for most tourists.

Destination DC does offer a three-day pass for $30 a card, but they are only sold in blocks of 250 or more. (The CTA three-day pass is $20.) The CTA fare maxes out at $2.25 versus Metro's $6 maximum, but again most trips by most tourists aren't $6 Metro trips to the end of the line, but a lot of $2/$2.25 minimum distance trips.

Is there a way to make a pass that works for tourists but doesn't eat into commuter revenue? It could only work in a set zone, but sometimes tourists do want to venture beyond those boundaries, and elected officials representing whatever area is just beyond the boundaries will ask to be included.

It could work only after the morning rush (the one-day pass used to be invalid from 6 to 9 am), but tourists often want to get started earlier. It could require advance purchase in bulk like the Destination DC pass, but many tourists aren't part of groups of 250 and/or don't plan that far ahead.

What do you think Metro should do?

I'll be compiling these ideas and convening some meetings with stakeholder organizations. Then I'll take their ideas and recommendations and bring them for more discussion here, as well as potentially a test by Metro. Thanks!

This post is part of GGWash's community engagement program, where we contract with organizations (in this case, WMATA) to engage people in crowdsourcing or gathering information to aid in decision-making. Client organizations are never allowed to write or approve the specific copy, and our volunteer Editorial Board reviews all published materials to be sure they maintain GGWash's independence. Have questions? Contact us here.

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.