WMATA’s fare policy problems are deeper than just the lack of passes

Michael Perkins of Greater Greater Washington recently announced a proposal for unlimited passes for the Metrorail system which is derived from the PugetPass system used on the ORCA card. Under this proposal, riders can purchase a pass for a set monthly fare which entitles them to an unlimited number of trips under a certain dollar value. For trips which cost more than that, the excess is automatically debited from the cash balance on a rider’s card. To buy a pass, riders first determine how much their average trip costs, then buy the pass product closest in value.

I can’t take issue with the substance of the Smart Passes proposal, since as Mr. Perkins readily admits, the same concept has already been put into practice as the region-wide PugetPass for the ORCA card. However, the mere fact that the Smart Pass concept works in the Puget Sound region doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right choice for Metrorail. The complexity of Smart Passes comes from the fact that they are an attempt to fit monthly passes into a system in which trips are priced by dollar value. For the PugetPass, this is the case because there’s no integrated fare structure across the seven transit agencies which accept the ORCA card. However, passes for Metrorail are a much simpler case—WMATA’s the only agency involved. Yet the same problem remains: when trips are priced by dollar value, it’s hard to provide an unlimited pass.

What’s the alternative? The alternative is to price trips by zone, using a zonal fare structure. Zonal fare structures are used by many commuter rail agencies in the US, on rail services in London, and in other cities around the world. They result in a simplified fare structure which is easier for both regular commuters and infreqent users to understand, and which enables the development of new fare products.

If I am trying to determine what pass to buy if I commute from my residence to (for example) Metro Center, it’s far simpler to look at the map and see that my home station falls in the wide band marked ‘3’, than to have to find the correct fare from a table of 255 possible fares from any given station (and that doesn’t even account for the SmarTrip discount, bus transfers, and senior/disabled fares). By my count, there are a total of 87,720 possible fare combinations on the Metrorail system right now. Smart Passes address the immediate concern, by providing (mostly) unlimited monthly passes, but they do not address the root problem: the Metrorail fare structure is far too complex. This complexity makes the system harder to use, by making it difficult for riders (particularly infrequent riders) to pay their fare, and hampers the development of new fare products (like passes). By contrast, with a zonal fare structure, even an infrequent rider can look at a map and find the zones their origin and destination stations fall in. They then know precisely what fare product to buy, whether it’s a single ticket, weekly pass, or monthly pass.

A zonal fare structure whittles the 86 Metrorail stations down to a handful of zones—ten, at most, but ideally no more than five—substantially reducing the complexity of the fare structure from the 7,310 origin-destination pairs which exist presently to at most 100 (assuming a ten-zone system). It should then be possible for riders to add passes to their SmarTrip card for any combination of contiguous zones (such as 1–3, 2–6, etc.) for various periods of time. As in the Smart Passes proposal, travel outside zones covered by the current pass or passes should automatically draw from the cash value stored on the card (or incur a negative balance, if necessary). Because buses are priced with a flat fare, any pass (regardless of zones) suffices to board a bus. For express buses, this may still result in a surcharge being debited from the cash value on a rider’s SmarTrip card.

It’s perfectly acceptable to have fares that vary by time, but if that’s going to be the case, then there should only be two periods: peak, and off-peak. The present Metrorail fare structure doesn’t actually have a ‘peak’ fare; the fare periods are ‘reduced’, ‘regular’, and ‘peak-of-the-peak’. The ‘peak-of-the-peak’ surcharge should be eliminated, and the fare periods should be re-named ‘off-peak’ and ‘peak’, which are actually descriptive. Referring to a fare period as ‘reduced’ creates the possibility of confusion with reduced fares for seniors and the disabled, which is another thing entirely. In addition, the fare structure can be further simplified by pricing all cash fares at the peak price (as is done in London).

Requiring riders to look up the fare in a table (or on the WMATA website) increases complexity and leads (inevitably) to rider discontent and frustration. I often wonder if WMATA staff or Board members have ever actually watched a group of tourists or infrequent riders try to purchase fare media on Metrorail; it’s usually a disaster. The user research conducted by Elizabeth Shirey as part of her Master’s thesis at Virginia Tech is particularly telling; while it was conducted several years ago, the same problems still exist. If anything, they’ve been compounded by the introduction of “peak-of-the-peak” fares and the paper farecard surcharge. Moreover, it is unreasonable to expect that the introduction of contactless payment will alleviate this problem. I expect that many riders will still want to purchase fare media with cash, or a non-contactless bankcard, for which they will still have to use a ticket vending machine. The interaction can be made substantially simpler if the machine only has to ask the user which zones they’ll be traveling through, rather than sending the user to a table of hundreds of different fares. The same goes for pass purchases—at the monthly level, passes should automatically cover peak and off-peak travel, so the only decision riders have to make is the zonal boundaries for the pass.

Of course, there is a major problem here: the Metrorail system does not currently have a zonal fare structure. It is quite likely that the implementation of a zonal fare structure would cause some riders’ fares to go up, while others go down. Riders who are affected by these changes—particularly those who face a fare increase—will undoubtedly complain. But while rider feedback should absolutely be a part of the fare structure design process, we must not allow rider feedback—and a fear of change—to completely stall the process. There will undoubtedly be growing pains as such a structure is implemented, so WMATA must work closely with riders to communicate the benefits of the new fare structure, and mitigate rider concerns to the greatest extent possible. However, I am skeptical of arguments (as have been made before) that a zonal fare structure for Metrorail is ‘infeasible’ because of the fare changes that would be involved.