A metrobus in DC by Tony Webster licensed under Creative Commons.

Earlier this month, WMATA’s Board approved elimination of the transfer penalty for riders switching from rail to bus, amid a slew of service improvements and fare reductions.

The extra fare riders pay for combining bus and rail in the same journey has long been a target of transportation equity advocates, including GGWash. Its elimination was included in a list of recommendations from riders in a 2019 survey through WMATA’s Bus Transformation Project, which also recommended dedicated bus lanes. So this change is welcome.

The transfer penalty refers to the amount you pay when you change from Metro rail to bus in the same journey (or vice versa). A one-off Metrobus fair is $2.00. Right now you get a 50 cent “discount” off that fare if you transfer from a rail journey - but our peer metropolitan transit systems simply make it free.

Why is it a good idea to get rid of the transfer penalty? A public transit system’s job is to get people around as reliably, efficiently, and accessibly as possible, and charging full or near-full fares for two legs of one journey means that some people take very long bus rides (or even two) when changing to rail would get them there faster. Riders only do this because we charge more for combining two types of transit in the same journey, like a premium product instead of a staple public good.

That’s why we call it a penalty: the current system makes it harder to take the journey that the transit system ostensibly “wants” them to take (the efficient one), and that burden falls hardest on lower-income riders.

It’s no secret that wealthier residents are more likely to live near or work near Metro rail stations. So making riders on lower incomes pay more to physically get to where they can take a train from makes little sense if we want to incentivize transit use.

Any transit system might be loathe to lose the revenue from keeping the fares full, even if this skews ridership habits. But as our region gradually emerges from an acute crisis, riders will need to re-adopt WMATA to keep our transit system operating in the longer term. Having avoided the “doomsday budget” scenario through some well-timed federal aid, there’s no time like the present to respond to what riders have said they want to see to boost ridership. Combined with $64 million Mayor Muriel Bowser has planned for bus lanes in DC’s FY22 budget, these measures would address key rider requests in that 2019 survey.

That includes other service improvements WMATA has planned, such as a “frequent service” bus network that plans for all-day headways of 12 or 20 minutes. WMATA’s estimate that 60% of riders will benefit from shorter waits for those buses is welcome news to those of us hoping for an equitable economic recovery. So are the plans to extend rail hours to 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays starting in the fall, such that late-night workers can get home safely (though 1 am every night would be even better). It needs to not be hard for everyone, particularly lower-income riders, to get to and from opportunities.

All of these can go some way to re-establishing Metro rail and bus as the backbone they are of our regional economy and society. The measures also include fare reductions. There’s some debate around how much fare reductions that don’t specifically target low-income riders will boost ridership, especially when driving continues to be massively subsidized through cheap parking and allocation of road space. But the service changes and elimination of the transfer penalty come at a most welcome and important time for the regional recovery.

Caitlin Rogger is deputy executive director at Greater Greater Washington. Broadly interested in structural determinants of social, economic, and political outcomes in urban settings, she worked in public health prior to joining GGWash. She lives in Capitol Hill.