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.
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Bus riders? Yes. Invisible? No, absolutely not.

Today’s New York Times covers impending service cuts to the bus network in Los Angeles. LACMTA (Metro) is trying to rationalize its bus network, and the result is that many routes will change. Routes which operated suburb-to-suburb will be replaced by a hub-and-spoke, grid-oriented system. While this sounds good in theory, there are implementation problems which will make the transition painful for some riders. Riders view the transit system as being unreliable, and when they have to transfer (and wait for a second, or third bus), the problems are compounded:

“The hardest part is when we have to transfer — you stand there waiting, and it can feel like forever,” said Silvia Canjura, who has taken the bus to work as a nanny in Santa Monica for the last 31 years. “Will I arrive at 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning? I never really know now, but changing will make it worse.”

There’s no reason, in today’s world, with today’s technology, for a bus rider to say that they ‘never really know’ when the bus will come. Metro uses NextBus, which they’ve re-branded ‘Nextrip’, for their buses—even the embattled Route 305 documented by the Times. Of course, not every rider will have a cell phone they can use to get information from Nextrip, but that’s the value of bus shelter displays.

Knowing when the next bus will come doesn’t help if it’s severely late, and schedule adherence is an entirely different problem. But poor schedule adherence can be fixed; with an AVL system in place, bus dispatchers can see where problems are developing, and correct them, before a route is badly disrupted. It’s a matter of the agency bringing the necessary resources to bear to fix the problem, whether it’s monitoring drivers more closely, or adjusting routes and schedules to respond to traffic conditions.

As the Times continues, though, schedule adherence isn’t Metro’s only problem:

Under the new system, the 3,000 passengers who board the 305 each day, paying $1.50 for each trip, will instead have to take a series of buses or trains that could take twice as long and cost three times as much. (Unlike other cities, the patchwork system in Los Angeles does not allow free transfers.)

It turns out that the situation in Los Angeles is not like it is here in DC; WMATA discontinued paper transfers two years ago, in favor of electronic transfers on SmarTrip. In Los Angeles, it does not matter how you pay your fare: whether you pay with cash or stored value on a TAP card, there are no transfers. When your trip goes from one bus to two, you end up having to pay double. This can be fixed, and easily: start giving out transfers.

The problems which the riders interviewed by the Times describe are not insurmountable; they can—and should—be fixed. Moving to a hub-and-spoke network improves overall connectivity, and, from a planning perspective, is a good move. As Jarret Walker describes in his informative analysis of the issue, “cuts are sometimes an opportunity to delete services that have passionate, well-connected defenders, but that simply don’t make sense if your goal is a complete network that people can use to go wherever they’re going”. It may look like the services which are left after these cuts will be worse for riders, but there are ways to mitigate that, like an improved fare policy which includes transfers, and better schedule adherence (plus timed transfers to minimize waiting).

It is good that the New York Times has highlighted the issues facing these bus riders, and the problems that the upcoming service changes will create for them, but they’ve done so in a backhanded way which denigrates those riders, calling them “an almost invisible commuter class — the millions of people, most of them poor, who depend on the sprawling bus system”. The Times also fails to recognize the benefits of a hub-and-spoke network to all transit users in Los Angeles, as Jarrett Walker discusses.

Characterizing the bus system (and, by extension, public transportation) as being the exclusive domain of ‘an invisible commuter class’ of the mostly poor creates untoward associations in readers’ minds: public transportation is for the poor, public transportation is slow and unreliable, public transportation is not an alternative to the car. These associations run directly counter to the notion of “public transportation as the path to an environmentally friendly future”, and in the end they are harmful to all of us. The New York Times could have highlighted the problems that Metro’s service changes will create for some riders without reinforcing the notion of “invisible class of bus commuters”, and they should have done so; they could have more clearly highlighted the benefits of good service planning (and hub-and-spoke networks) to all riders, and should have done so.

Fare policy≠fare collection equipment

There’s an unfortunate misconception shared by many (particularly those not well-versed in the innards of transit agencies) that the equipment you use to collect fares has some bearing on what type of fare you charge, or what types of passes you offer, etc. These are actually two entirely distinct issues. Fare policy is a political issue, ultimately addressed by political bodies like the WMATA Board of Directors or the MTA Board. On the other hand, the technical details of fare collection are addressed by technical staff. They do not set fare policy of their own accord, but rather implement the fare structure adopted by the agency, using whatever fare collection equipment the agency procures.

As a result, deploying a new fare collection system does not automatically lead to changes in fare policy; conversely, fare changes need not result in equipment changes (unless an agency is saddled with a legacy AFC system which cannot accomodate those changes). Regrettably, even those who should know better seem to be confused by the distinction, such as in this quote from Lisa Farbstein in a Washington Examiner article on the Smart Passes proposal:

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email that the agency is already seeking proposals to modify its electronic payment program. “We do not want to prejudge any one technology while we are currently in this competitive process,” she said.

The problem with that statement is that Smart Passes aren’t a technology; they’re an aspect of fare policy, and they can be implemented using whatever fare collection technology the agency chooses, assuming it’s sufficiently versatile.

Conversely, individuals looking for changes to fare policy should not address those concerns to staff members who are charged with the implementation of fare policy; instead, they should address their concerns to the individuals who set that fare policy (in this case, the WMATA Board of Directors). I mention this because there’s a special meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council scheduled for tonight, on the subject of WMATA’s New Electronic Payments Program. I certainly hope that individuals do not get the impression that the meeting is going to be a referendum on fares, because that will be unproductive. Price capping, smart passes, and other issues of fare policy must be left to the Board to be decided—what is important at this stage is to ensure that any future fare collection system is versatile enough to implement whatever fare policy the Board may enact. If individuals think that Metrorail or Metrobus fares are too high, or should be changed in some other way, then that’s valuable feedback that should be shared with the RAC or the Board, but it has nothing to do with the New Electronic Payments Program. Moreover, those types of issues are not ones that the staff presenting at tonight’s meeting will be able to respond to or act upon. On the other hand, issues like how the transition from the existing legacy AFC system will be managed, or how unbanked riders will be accommodated (among many issues with the NEPP), are ideal fodder for this evening’s discussion.

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.
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Fare collection for PATH/NJT cross-honoring

PATH and NJ TRANSIT routes overlap in several areas, which provides convenience for riders when either service experiences a major disruption. For example, if there’s a problem in the North River Tunnels, NJ TRANSIT passengers at Newark Penn Station can instead take PATH to 33rd Street. It’s faster and easier than waiting for NJ TRANSIT to arrange a rail replacement bus service. When PATH has to suspend service to 33rd Street (as happened this morning), passengers can take NJ TRANSIT rail services to Newark Penn Station, or bus services to Hoboken. To ease the process, both agencies have a cross-honoring arrangement in place which they put into effect in the event of a major disruption. Now, as I understand it, the concept behind cross-honoring is that passengers pay the same fare they would if their service were not disrupted. It’s not a free ride, but you don’t have to pay any more than you would ordinarily. But how does that work in practice?
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