It’s frequently suggested that Metro should switch to a system of zones to simplify its complex system of fares. What would such a zone system look like, and would it be better for riders?

As it turns out, zones wouldn’t simplify things much, and the tradeoffs for Metro and for riders would be steep.

Diagram by Matt Johnson. Click to enlarge.

How it works

Under this system, you would pay based on how many zones you traverse. A trip in just one zone would cost a base fare; each additional zone would cost more.

Fares are based on the number of zones you pass through. You only pay for each zone once. So a trip from East Falls Church (zone 3) to New York Ave (zone 2) through the core would be a 3-zone trip. Zone 2 is counted only once for that trip.

Some stations are on the zone boundary, however. These stations can be counted in either zone, whichever is cheaper for the rider. So a trip from Court House (zone 2) to Rosslyn (zone 1/2) would be a 1-zone trip (all in zone 2).

Zones TraveledPeak FareOff-Peak Fare
1\$2.00\$1.50
2\$2.75\$1.50
3\$3.50\$1.75
4\$4.25\$2.15
5\$5.00\$2.50

Any serious proposal needs to be revenue-neutral or revenue-positive to be practical. We drew the zones so that if ridership stayed roughly the same, Metro would not lose any fare revenue over the current system. Different fare values or zone boundaries could produce a different result.

We’ve eliminated the “peak of the peak” fare. Fares would go back to being either “regular” (peak) or “reduced” (off-peak). But we’ve set the zone fares so that Metro would earn the same the overall revenue as they do today.

A key advantage is that tourists and others unfamiliar with the fare system would be able to buy tickets and passes more easily.

The complicated fare table on all vending machines could be replaced by a zone map and a chart showing the rates to travel in each zone. Passes also become simple. You can buy a one-zone pass for a certain price, a two-zone pass for more, and so on.

Converting to a zone system might simplify transfers between rail and bus. Metro could treat a bus trip as just an additional zone, making the system a little more integrated in terms of fare system. In this case, a bus trip and a one-zone rail trip would be \$2.75, and transferring from rail to bus would be an additional \$0.75 instead of an extra \$1.

For some trips, the fare is a great deal cheaper. For example, trips from the far edge of a zone, through the central core, and out to the far edge of a zone are much cheaper.

One such case is from Benning Road to Ballston, a trip that’s currently \$4.05. Here, it would be only \$2.75, a 30% drop, and the same price as a much shorter trip from Woodley Park to downtown.

For other trips, the fare increases significantly. A good example of this would be the relatively short trip from West Falls Church to Ballston. A trip that would be \$2.45 to Ballston becomes \$3.50 under the zone system, and even a trip to Rosslyn currently at \$3.05 becomes \$3.50.

West Falls Church is the terminal for many Fairfax Connector buses, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that a lot of those passengers are bound for office buildings in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

Customers living near these borders would object to any decision to put a zone boundary between them and downtown, and some of these customers facing large increases would abandon riding Metro. Remember that the analysis assumed the same mix of trips in the system as before, which becomes an unlikely assumption once large fare increases come into play.

The fact is, it would be impossible to draw a zone map that allows for a relatively low base fare around \$2.00, and a high max fare of \$5.00, without either having very expensive zone boundaries or too many zone boundaries. Expensive boundaries raise equity concerns, where a short geographic distance between riders at two adjacent stations turns into a big fare difference.

Large numbers of zone boundary, on the other hand, just mimic the current slow, steady gradient of fares that our current system uses. The former seems unfair, and would create groups of riders that lose out and would know it. The latter would be nearly as complicated as our current system.

Are there ways for Metro to simplify its fares without creating zones? Yes, and an upcoming post will explore some of these alternatives.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.