No trip = no fare; it’s only fair

On Friday, the Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock column featured a complaint from a Metrorail rider whose SmarTrip card was charged even though they’d entered and exited at the same station—in fact, they never went anywhere.

The rider entered the system at Foggy Bottom, intending to travel to Friendship Heights. With Metrorail delays mounting, due to both regularly-scheduled track work and a sick passenger, they decided to give up and seek alternate transportation, and that’s when they found that they were charged, even though they hadn’t actually gone anywhere.

Here’s what the Post’s Robert Thompson had to say about the rider’s plight:

For riders to get their money back when they give up in disgust and leave the same station, Metro officials would have to declare that extraordinary circumstances existed and authorize free exits at the affected stations. If free exits were routinely available, it would be easier for fare evaders to cheat the system.

Local bloggers and transit advocates routinely accuse Thompson (and the Post’s other transportation writers) of being shills for WMATA. I’d rather not use such strong language, but this is one case in which Dr. Gridlock should have stuck up for Metro riders.

There’s no need for WMATA to “authorize free exits”, or do anything that would encourage rampant fare evasion. On the contrary, all that is required is a simple change that ensures the fairness of the fare collection system for all: if a passenger enters and exits at the same station within a reasonable period of time, they should not be charged.

Riders should be free to change their mind and exit the system without being charged even if no “extraordinary circumstances” exist. There might be a major disruption, or there might not—either way, if a rider changes their mind, in a reasonable period of time, then let them out without charging them.

So, how long is a reasonable period of time? Obviously, there’s a risk here: if the time period is too long, some riders might be inclined to enter at a certain station, travel somewhere, go out the emergency exit gate, let themselves back in through the emergency exit gate, and return to their origin station.

They’d get a free round-trip, since from their SmarTrip card’s perspective, they entered and exited at the same station. A time limit helps to control fare evasion, while still allowing riders who haven’t actually gone anywhere to exit without being charged.

A 30-minute grace period is probably long enough to let riders change their mind without being charged, but not long enough for people to get a free ride out of it.

And what about riders who exit at their station of origin, after some extended period of time? BART’s solution is the “Excursion Fare”:

Also, BART’s Excursion Fare allows anyone to tour the BART system (all 44 stations) for up to three hours on a $5.20 fare, as long as you enter and exit at the same station.

WMATA could do the same, letting riders tour the system and enjoy its fabulous architecture without worrying that their SmarTrip card will pitch a fit when they try to exit.

At a time when most riders have already had it with WMATA, the least the agency can do is ensure that riders who exit without taking a trip aren’t be charged a fare; it’s only fair. As a purported advocate for riders, Dr. Gridlock should not excuse the agency’s egregious behavior, but rather champion the fair, sensible alternative: when a rider “[gives] up in disgust”, they shouldn’t have to pay.