The Case For a Flat-Fee Metro Pricing System

I remember the moment I figured it out.

It was my first day in DC, and I was fresh off a plane from Chicago. Armed for a 10-day apartment hunting and job interview visit, I dragged a wheely-suitcase up the stairs of the U Street/Cardozo stop to meet my friend Sarah, whose hospitality limits I was about to challenge as a house guest. My winter coat was bunched up and flung over my other arm – it didn’t take long to realize that my Midwestern October outerwear was overkill for DC. I approached the exit turnstile with occupied limbs, so I opted for the time-tested “bop-the-thing-open-with-your-hip” routine. After years of rapid transit use in Chicago, Kyiv and Moscow, I’ve got that move down. But in DC? No dice.

My first thought was that I was trapped, and that someone would have to come and let me in through the little gate. There was a line forming behind me, and everyone else seemed to be flying through and up and out of the station. It was then that I figured it out. I had to bump my way out of line, drop my suitcase and clamp my coat between my quads to free up my hands. Then I rifled through my purse until I found the damned black and white panda card. I was a cool fifty cents away from needing the exit fare machine. What the hell, DC Metro? To top it all off, I exited at 10th Street despite Sarah’s explicit instructions to exit at 13th, but that may not have been entirely Metro’s fault.

Since then, my methods have acquired a bit more finesse. I have a SmarTrip, for one thing. I’ve also trained myself to put it in the same pocket of my purse each time to avoid a prolonged search session (although, despite my best efforts, these are sometimes unavoidable.) As of a few days ago, SmarTrip users can now re-up online. This is probably enough of a convenience boost to lead many observers to conclude that the DC Metrorail structured fee system is a good one. It allows riders to pay for the system based on how much they use it, right? A one-stop trip should cost less than riding downtown from the bowels of Maryland, right?

The answer is no. The DC Metro structured pricing system sucks. DC ought to emulate the majority of other cities and price its Metro rides with a single flat fee. Here are the major reasons why.

It would diminish confusion
I can’t be the only person who has no clue how much my metro rides cost. A system in which one price fits all is much more user friendly. As it stands now, the answer to how much a ride costs is dependent upon how far a rider is going and what time it is. This makes it difficult to weigh the wisdom of taking the metro against that of taking a bus or of walking or biking. For those of us without SmarTrips, this makes it difficult to decide how much money to load onto a card, thus increasing the likelihood of a pile of confused Nebraskans at the exit. From a marketing standpoint, advertising Metro prices as a flat rate (“Get to the National Mall for $2.50!”) would have a psychologically positive effect on potential users, and would minimize confusion at pay stations. At a base level, the answer of how much something costs ought to have an easy answer.

The incentives are off-kilter
By implementing a tiered pricing structure, Metro is essentially assigning value to a given trip as opposed to the service itself. If we can all agree that it is better for our cities and livelihood to have more people on public transit than in their cars, then it seems counter-intuitive to promote a system in which far-flung Virginians are incentivized against taking the Metro. A round-trip from Fairfax during rush hours (which Metro basically defines as ‘any time during which people with jobs are awake,’) costs a cool $10 a day. Why should a Fairfaxian ride the Metro instead of drive, especially if their round-trip commute could be covered with a gallon of gas and an office parking permit? Conversely, the pricing system encourages those traveling shorter distances to ride the Metro instead of busing or walking, which further clogs the system and exacerbates the issues detailed in the next section.

It would quell disorder at the exit
This is a biggie. My first experience exiting the Metro with my luggage was a result of my touristy befuddlement. There are bales full of former mes making their way through the Metro system each day. Have you ever exited the Metro on the heels of a family wearing sweatpants and cowboy hats? It is a very bad omen, indeed. If every user had to pay the same amount for a Metro ride, there would be no need for the re-swipe on the way out, and we could all move a bit more efficiently. This problem is hardly limited to families of drawling visitors. Stations in areas that have recently undergone demographic shifts, like Columbia Heights, are weighed down by long exit lines that overwhelm the number of exit turnstiles originally built to accommodate them. When I lived in Columbia Heights, it would take me a solid five minutes in line to even exit my Metro station. That is lunacy.

A well-developed transportation system is one of the most important features of a great city. Everyone who enjoys an urban space ought to embrace it. Those who ride regularly should recognize it as a great tool for getting around, and those who don’t should also appreciate the degree to which efficient transit improves public space. Metro passengers should pay to access the service in general, and not for the specific utility they have squeezed out of a single trip. As an urban societal benefit, the value of Metro use does not go up or down depending on distance. Don’t we all get something out of it if Virginia McFairfax keeps his SUV out of city limits? And does the slightly prolonged presence of Mr. McFairfax’s derriere in a Metro seat add a particular cost to the system? Then why should he be incentivized against using the very service partially designed to curtail automobile traffic?

Maybe a little part of me understands why those in Northern Virginia prefer to drive to work. In my mind, Fairfax County is indistinguishable from Christopher Columbus-era etchings of sea monsters at the edge of the world, waiting to gobble up potential explorers. Perhaps I’d want the safety of a massive all-terrain vehicle, too.

– A Sick of Looking for Stuff in Her Purse Natalie

About Natalie Shure

literature, life and latte lady

18 Responses to “The Case For a Flat-Fee Metro Pricing System”

  1. That sounds so confusing. Where I live even if I’d want to take public transport in the city, first I’d have to drive to the city. Mind you, the ‘city’ isn’t that big, not yet anyway. And the only public transport (right now) is the bus. Remind me never to take the Metro in DC if I ever get there, lol.

  2. I still vastly prefer the DC metro to what we’ve got here in Dallas. Instead of any turnstile at all, the train platforms are walk-on, and a fare inspector is meant to walk up and down the train to make sure you bought a ticket. The DART is bilked of hundreds a day because the likelihood of seeing a fare inspector is honestly less than 10 to 1, and you can easily see them coming in time to step off. Regular riders know rush hour is the best time to ride without paying—the train is too packed for the inspectors to come through.

    And people wonder why the system is an utter failure.

  3. The DC Metro, like BART, is a hybrid of commuter rail and local subway. On Metra in Chicago, for instance, you buy tickets based on distance; there’s no flat fare and really can’t be. Metra, and Metro, go much farther out into suburbs than the urban subways of most cities.

    Here’s more:

  4. I was going to say what David Alpert already said.

    (Whoa. David Alpert reads your blog.)

  5. So you’re argument is:
    1) I wish I didn’t have to take my SmarTrip out at exit
    2) When I ride from Union Station to Metro Center I should subsidize someone who rides from Fairfax to Metro Center. I actually do think that the 15 miles in from Fairfax is more valuable ride than one within downtown where I could bike, walk, bus or cab (this seems really obvious to me actually)

    And if you’d ever stood on a platform during rush hour, you’d very quickly realize that many Northern Virginians do take metro to work. The problem is not that people prefer their cars, its that both the highways and the trains are hopelessly packed. And why is part of a great city creating a system that helps people flee it daily? Certainly Metro was designed and built during a time when many weren’t lining up at those Columbia Heights fare gates

    Totally with you in adding faregate capacity, but definitely not in jacking up the pricing for people who live, work and play within the city rather than outside it.

  6. Thanks to everyone for your comments – we really appreciate any and all opinions and feedback.

    @David and Leslie – I have certainly heard this argument before, but in the case of a relatively small city like DC, these points are somewhat misleading. Yes, the Metro goes “much farther out into the suburbs than the urban subways of most cities,” but its total track mileage is actually less than the systems of both NYC and Chicago. The entire track length of the Orange Line, for example, is 26.4 miles from Vienna to New Carrollton. Chicago’s blue line, which extends from the suburb of Forest Park to O’Hare Airport, is 26.9 miles total and charges a flat rate. While it is true that the Chicago El spans only one state and the Metro doesn’t, bear in mind that over 40% of Metro revenue comes from local governments of all cities that it serves. The formula of how much each contributes is based partially on number of riders from each jurisdiction, and so a greater number of riders from VA and MD would equate to a higher share of funding responsibility – this at least partially offsets the concern that DC Metro users would be paying exorbitantly in a flat-fee system.

    @Andrew, for reasons partially explained above, I don’t believe that a shift in the system would lead to those of us riding from Metro Center to Union Station ‘subsidizing’ those who ride in from Fairfax or elsewhere. As for the concept of value, your argument might hold true if the only value created by the existence of systems like Metro was that enjoyed by the rider himself. This is definitely not the case – just ask any environmentalist, cyclist, city dweller, public health official, real estate agent, small business owner, pedestrian or driver. They’ll all be able to tell you how Metro has positive effects on many aspects of life. That boost in the collective quality of life is what makes efficient public transit great for a city – not the freedom to “flee [the city] daily.” The idea that Metro creates social value for riders and non-riders alike is reflected in the fact that only 53% or so of its funding comes from rider fares – the remaining portion comes from local government in MD, VA and DC. And you’re right – plenty of those outside of the District do indeed take the Metro to work. But if you stand at the side of the highway before or after working hours (which, for the record, I don’t recommend,) you’d see how many drive as well. I have several co-workers who take their cars to work instead of the Metro because the cost of Metro is the same or more than driving, and I see that in large part as a failure in Metro pricing. That leads to one more car, which in a small part offsets many of the positive effects of an effective transportation system.

    • Yes, but you’re missing a very important point that you addressed but then immediately dismissed: DC is a “relatively small city”. We are paying for a transportation system that is far larger and more extensive than what its population can otherwise support. Chicago and New York, for example, maintain two-thirds of their peak ridership on off-hours and weekends. Metro can barely get to half that on its best weekend days (even with off-peak fares lower than other transit systems), and the fare recovery ratios don’t even take into account the massive capital costs to maintain Metro, just run it.

      NYC and Chicago rely on their large urban populations to continuously use their rail systems off-peak to keep up revenues whereas fewer DC residents use the Metro for their off-peak errands and travel. If this weren’t the capital but the city was still roughly the same size, we would most likely have transit service that more closely resembles Baltimore or Seattle: buses, light rail, and maybe one or two underground lines.

      The other issue is that most of Metro’s peak riders are federal workers who have a transit subsidy, making demand extremely elastic. And if you haven’t noticed, the local jurisdictions in this area haven’t been too keen on ponying up money for extra transit subsidies either, but that’s a different post. The only effect a lower, single-rate fare would do is likely increase ridership at peak times, exactly when the number of people is already overwhelming the system.

  7. A flat fare would result in a significant drop in the $6 one way I pay to get downtown, but it would also contribute to the decline of the system. A $2 flat fare wouldn’t make me ride any more than I already do, so WMATA would lose 66% of the revenue generated from me.

    I already use Metro to commute and find lunch Mon-Fri and to go out to town during free time. A lower fare could not incentivise more travel by me, and I am not confused by the current system, so I don’t see the benefits of a flat fare.

  8. The fare I pay most often on Metro is $1.60 (off-peak, in the city, with SmarTrip). That’s a significantly better deal than the “flat fares” in NYC and Chicago.

    Metro has a steeper learning curve than other cities, that’s true; but switching to a flat fare isn’t the answer. I think the other commenters have covered the reasons more than sufficiently.

  9. So when are the Broads going to lend their caustic wit to an analysis of the OccupyDC grouplet?

    Still an enthusiastic follower and supporter of this lovely website,

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  11. If we can all agree that it is better for our cities and livelihood to have more people on public transit than in their cars, then it seems counter-intuitive to promote a system in which far-flung Virginians are incentivized against taking the Metro. A round-trip from Fairfax during rush hours (which Metro basically defines as ‘any time during which people with jobs are awake,’) costs a cool $10 a day. Why should a Fairfaxian ride the Metro instead of drive,

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