SmarTrip on a bus farebox. by WMATA.

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 #5, encouraging more people to use passes and expanding them to cover the bus.

We pay a flat fee for unlimited talk and text on our phones, for unlimited Internet (mostly), for unlimited access to Netflix or Amazon Prime services. Subscription services are popular with consumers. Shouldn't transit be the same way?

In many cities, it is. Unlimited passes are popular with commuters in New York, Seattle, Chicago, and many other cities. You pay a fixed monthly amount (often deducted pre-tax from a paycheck or fully covered by an employer) and get unlimited transit. Most commuter railroads work this way, too.

Washington doesn't do this very much, at least for rail. For one thing, people don't all pay the same amount on Metro since the fares vary with distance. That's now solved with the SelectPass, which lets you prepay for 18 round-trips of your regular commute and get unlimited train rides up to that amount, or pay the difference for more expensive train rides.

Unfortunately, bus rides aren't covered, except for two levels of SelectPass, and even then you have to pay for 18 bus round trips to get it. For the typical train commuter, it'd be helpful to be able to take a free bus trip for the occasional non-commute transit need, and good for Metro to increase ridership. This is an important way to better integrate the bus and rail and create one seamless transit system.

Meanwhile, visitors to Washington have to tangle with a very complex fare system and, on rail, risk ending up just a few nickels short if they misread the very large fare table. When I went to Chicago last, there was a very handy machine at the airport L station with simple buttons to get a one-way ticket to downtown Chicago or buy a 3-day pass or other types. And my pass worked on the bus!

What we recommend for commuter passes

Greater Greater Washington conducted a process with readers as a contract project for WMATA to ask for input on how to improve passes. Here are the recommendations readers came up with:

  • Include buses in the SelectPass for the same price. If someone has a rail pass, let them ride the bus as well. It doesn't make sense to offer free off-peak rail trips for occasional transit use but not the bus at the same time. Even better, make bus-rail transfers free in general, as we covered in #4.

  • Make it easier to get SelectPass with SmartBenefits. To get a SelectPass on SmartBenefits, you can't just sign up for the pass price with your employer; instead, your employer's benefits administrator has to "assign" your benefits to passes. Then, you have to wait until it appears on your SmarTrip and buy the pass. You can also set up auto-reload to save that last step in future months. It's tricky, and some employers' administrators don't know how to assign to passes or won't do it.

  • Better market the SelectPass. A lof of people don't know about these passes. WMATA shouldn't have regular commuters who might benefit but don't know about it. Let them know, and then they can decide.

  • Explore a discount pass program for low-income riders. One challenge with passes is that people with low incomes can't afford to prepay for the entire month up front, but ought to be able to get the discount. WMATA could offer passes through government or nonprofit social service programs so people can get these passes for less. Not only would that address the up-front cost issue, but also can bring transit more within reach of people who can't afford to spend a lot for commuting.

We didn't talk about jurisdictional buses in the original project, but another item that should be part of this is to make passes with jurisdictional buses, like Ride On, DASH, Circulator, etc. You can pay for those buses with a SmarTrip card, and WMATA gives the money to the local operator. But if you take a train to an ART bus and your pass covers both, how much money does WMATA give to Arlington County? This is solvable, and should be solved, but it would take some cooperation.

Image by Gold Coast Transit (Ventura County, CA).

What we recommend for visitor passes

Visitors are probably less likely to ride the bus, unfortunately. So most of the discussion of visitor passes involves rail. Our project concluded that WMATA should offer a pass which gives you unlimited rides up to $3.85 (covering all off-peak rides and most peak rides except the longest ones) for $10 for a one-day, $20 for a 3-day, or $40 for a 7-day. Those prices would include the physical SmarTrip card itself.

To the extent visitors will ride buses (and they should), the passes ought to include free bus service.

In addition, the report recommended a discounted pass for families of four or more (who might be more likely to take Uber or Lyft where they can pay one fare for the whole family) and to offer more discount programs for conventions similar to the U-Pass, where everyone in a group (a university, or a convention) pays for transit and gets a pass but the cost per card is much lower since not everyone will use it.

Of course, jurisdictional buses should be included. Convention-goers may well try the Circulator, in particular.

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 an adjunct chemistry professor 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.