Old WMATA bus transfers. Image by købiā used with permission.

The Bus Transformation Project is a regional consensus-building exercise led by WMATA. We identified seven ways we hope the study team and regional partners will seek to improve buses in the Washington area, and will post about each. Here's #4, making transfer fares more fair.

Some people take a very long bus ride when rail can offer a faster trip. Or they even take two buses with a transfer. Why? Because Metro's fare structure penalizes people for taking a bus and a train.

This table compares fares for rail-and-bus 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; 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) $2.00 $1.50 FREE from VRE and for MARC or VRE pass holders
Philadelphia (SEPTA) $2.00 $1.00 $1.65 from PATCO2
Chicago (CTA) $2.00 25¢ Full fare from Metra
New York (NYCT) $2.753 FREE Full fare from LIRR, Metro-North, NJ Transit, and PATH
Atlanta (MARTA) $2.50 FREE No other rail
San Francisco (MUNI) $2.50 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.

By this computation, the cost to get on a Metrobus after riding rail is more expensive than any other city with high transit usage. Five offer free transfers, and of the other three, Metro is by far the stingiest with its transfer discount.

WMATA doesn't talk about this inequity

Messaging from the agency around bus fares usually ignores transfers. For instance, When announcing the latest fare hike proposal last October, 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.

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.

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.

New York may have the highest bus fare at $2.75, but a bus plus rail trip is also just $2.75. You can't ever take a Metrobus and Metrorail trip for only $2.75. It's definitely misleading to say Washington bus fares are lower than in other cities.

Image by Oran Viriyincy licensed under Creative Commons.

Old paper transfer slips from Sound Transit and King County (Seattle, Washington). Image by Oran Viriyincy licensed under Creative Commons.

Free transfers for Metro?

WMATA could have made 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.

Metro's variable rail fares should not be a problem. You already get a 50¢ discount if you ride rail after riding bus (and pay for both with the same SmarTrip). WMATA could simply increase that discount to $2.00, the full bus fare. If your rail trip is cheaper, it's free; if more, you pay the extra.

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.

In New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston, transferring from the subway to a bus run by the same agency. In Chicago, it's 25¢. Philadelphia charges $1.00, and Washington, $1.50.

Our fare structure is the worst in this regard. This discourages people with lower incomes from taking tre train, and it perpetuates a two-class system between rail and bus. It makes people take inefficient trips, wasting time.

Worst of all, when the rail system opened, WMATA cut back many bus lines to just feed rail while discouraging this with the fare structure. These cutbacks saved Metro money, since trains are cheaper to operate per-passenger than buses: it’s unfair that they also raised passengers’ fares.

WMATA's variable rail fares don't pose a problem. All that is needed is to let people transfer from rail to bus for free, and if transferring from bus to rail, charge only the higher fare.

Jurisdictional buses, too

Finally, this policy should include jurisdictional buses, like ART, DASH, Fairfax Connector, CUE, Ride On, TheBus, and Circulator. That may cost some revenue to jurisdictional bus operators, too. But, again, it would also encourage more people to ride the bus, and gain some revenue back.

Fortunately, all of these bus systems use SmarTrip, so we have a leg up on other cities with fractured fare payment systems.

This post as been updated with the correct fare with card for SEPTA.

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.

DW Rowlands is a human geography grad student and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website. They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.