Metrorail Fares Are Complicated, For Good

December 6th, 2013

Metrorail’s distance-based fare structure is the most equitable.


Excerpt of Metrorail distance-based fare table.

Metrorail is one of only three heavy rail systems in the United States with distance-based fares.  (BART and PATCO are the other two.)  And to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only one with peak and off-peak fares.  With 86 stations (soon to be 91) and two fare time-periods (it used to be three), the average rider has a large number of possible fare combinations.

The benefits of Metrorail’s existing fare structure are many-fold, but chief among them are equity, efficiency, and economics.

The fare structure is fair.   Distance-based and time-of-day fares allow transit riders to pay fares in proportion to the level of service they’re using.  Peak period riders pay more and have more frequent service.  Short distance travel is less expensive than long-distance.  With flat fares, those who take short trips subsidize those who take longer trips, and people who ride during times of reduced service subsidize those who ride during the peaks when trains are most frequent.  With zone-based fares, customers taking short trips that cross a zone boundary pay a larger fare than other customers taking longer trips entirely within a zone boundary.

The fare structure is equitable.  A switch from distance-based to flat-fare that was revenue neutral (not losing money) would raise a Title VI equity concern.  Planning staff have done a preliminary analysis, and such a switch would have a disproportionate burden on low-income riders.  A switch to flat fares that was not revenue neutral would result in higher subsidies from Metro’s funding partners

The fare structure promotes economic efficiency. People use resources more efficiently if they’re priced to reflect the value of the resource.  Economists love variably priced roads like the Intercounty Connector (MD-200) and the I-495 Express Lanes, as the per-mile prices are set to keep traffic flowing.  The same concept applies to Metrorail’s distance-based and peak/off-peak fares.

While Metro is seeking ways to improve the network to allow more passengers to ride the system, in the near term the pricing structure incentivizes users to travel the region’s transit and roadway systems efficiently. With all of these good reasons for distance-based fares, it’s not surprising that some are discussing the possibility for other heavy rail systems to switch from flat fares to distance-based.

The introduction of the SmarTrip smartcard-based fare medium has created more opportunities to ease the fare-payment process, including SmartBenefits and autoload.  Customers simply tap-and-go.  Now that SmarTrip cards cost only $2 — the same cost as two $1 surcharges for using paper farecards — choosing plastic over paper is cost-effective for everyone.

What do you think of Metrorail’s distance-based fares?  Can you think of other reasons to keep our distance-based fare?

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Categories: Metro 101 > Fares and Service Tags: ,
  1. December 6th, 2013 at 13:03 | #1

    Hear, hear. Almost any transit system that has the technology to charge a distance-based fare does. Of the new-build systems out there, the only one I’m aware of that doesn’t is Beijing.

    As it is, those of us who travel by Metrorail in the core — with the lowest marginal costs of any transit riders in the system — are already subsidizing suburban rail and buses. A flatter fare structure would only exacerbate this situation.

  2. December 6th, 2013 at 17:01 | #2

    Yes, these are all good reasons to support the principles behind the current fare structure.

    However, I do think the current structure could still be made more user-friendly without sacrificing these principles:

    Simplify the fare increments: instead of having some situations where going one more stop costs an extra five cents, what about rouding all fares to the nearest quarter?

    Simplify the single day use: consider a daily max fare, such as London’s daily max on an Oyster Card. You set the max high enough that regular commuters (two daily trips) won’t hit it, but those that have already paid for substantial fares will then be able to get additional rides at no extra charge, thereby encouraging off-peak ridership.

    Work towards offering passes at different price points: unlimited ride passes at reasonable price points would be a tremendous addition to Metro; offering such passes to riders must preserve the integrity of the distance based fare system, but the current pass products only are possibly useful to heavy users with max fare commutes. Expand the product at different price points (and with appropriate distance limits) and you’ll add a great deal of utility for a wide range of riders.

  3. Evan F.
    December 8th, 2013 at 15:05 | #3

    Hi Michael,

    Great, succinct analysis of the primary benefits behind distance-based fares. I’m currently writing a paper comparing flat and distance-based fares for U.S. heavy rail systems and the distributional questions that different fare strategies raise — would it be possible to gain access to that “preliminary analysis” you mentioned of a hypothetical switch to flat fares?

  4. Ryan
    December 9th, 2013 at 09:21 | #4

    The fare structure would be “fair” if WMATA actually worked. You clearly don’t use the red line at all.

  5. Matt Dickens
    December 9th, 2013 at 09:29 | #5

    Alex B’s last two suggestions – daily max like Oyster, smart passes like PugetPass in Seattle. Metro absolutely needs these things; if they are not implemented on SmarTrip then they should be part of any next-gen fare system Metro moves to.

  6. Bill
    December 9th, 2013 at 09:44 | #6

    My biggest frustration with WMATA’s fare structure is that it charges peak fares during times outside of “rush hour” service. Weekday rush hours service runs from 6:30 AM – 9:00 AM and 3:30 PM – 6 PM (per WMATA’s MetroRail map). Yet peak fares are charged from 5:00 AM – 9:30 AM and from 3:00 PM – 7 PM.

  7. Michael
    December 9th, 2013 at 10:16 | #7

    The Metrorail map’s legend denotes when the “rush-only” services operate. These are denoted on the map by broken yellow or orange lines to Greenbelt, Largo Town Center and Franconia-Springfield.

  8. December 9th, 2013 at 10:33 | #8

    If we’re really going with the dynamic pricing argument, then service should be free on nights and weekends when the system is undergoing massive track work. Less-than-normal service should cost a less-than-normal fare.

  9. steve strauss
    December 9th, 2013 at 11:18 | #9

    Alex B.

    You should take a look at the “Short Trip” unlimited ride pass and see if the numbers work for you. That pass is currently not available to Smart Benefit users but should become available to them next spring.

    Another reason for distance-based fares on Metrorail is the fact that the system is really a blend of an electric commuter rail system and an urban subway system. I think all of the commuter rail in North America has distance or zone-based fares.

    And yes, Michael you wrote an excellent defense/explanation for distance-based fares.

  10. Rik
    December 9th, 2013 at 11:48 | #10

    There is the unspoken assumption that all riders recieve the same benefits. If I travel during rush hour when masses of other people want to travel, I pay more and I have to stand and this morning I had to step off and on at two stops because the train was so overcrowded.

  11. Ryan
    December 9th, 2013 at 12:27 | #11

    This comment was removed for violating the blog’s terms of use.

  12. Ryan
    December 9th, 2013 at 13:00 | #12

    This comment was removed for violating the blog’s terms of use.

  13. Bill
    December 9th, 2013 at 13:56 | #13

    @Michael So are the same number of trains running at 5 AM than at 8 AM? Are the headways between trains the same? If not, aren’t you paying a higher price for non-peak service?

  14. Michael
    December 9th, 2013 at 14:14 | #14

    Train frequency is not the same at 5 AM as 8 AM but early morning frequency is much better than mid-day frequency.

    Metro had implemented the peak-of-the-peak surcharge during the times of most crowding and highest train frequency but it proved to be unpopular and didn’t shift a significant number of riders from the most crowded times. It was removed in July 2012.

  15. Ryan
    December 9th, 2013 at 16:16 | #15

    I would like to know why Metro figured that “peak of the peak” would dramatically shift commuters from riding at times of “most crowding.” Do you people not know that most people get in to work at set times and can’t deviate from their schedules? Did you take any polls? Peak-of-the-Peak appeared more like a desperate, temporary money-grab. Why should we trust WMATA now?

  16. Reuben
    December 9th, 2013 at 21:49 | #16

    I travel a long distance on the rush plus yellow line and while I do understand that I am being charged more because I am using the system for a longer distance, one end of my trip is against traffic. I am one of the few people on the trains. It would be difficult to do, but I think the fare should take into account riders using underutilized capacity. (Its easy to argue a lower fare for yourself.)

  17. December 10th, 2013 at 08:37 | #17

    You should take a look at the “Short Trip” unlimited ride pass and see if the numbers work for you.

    I have, and it does not.

    My daily commute is at the minimum peak fare – $2.10 each way. That’s $21 a week for commuting; well short of the $35 price point for the Short Trip pass.

    Metro has a range of potential fares you can pay for a trip, and it needs a range of potential pass products to offer as well (if those products are ever to be useful to those riders).

    The Short Trip pass is a good start, but I would offer a few ideas for how to improve it:

    – Offer the pass at multiple price points. The $35 pass covers trips up to $3.50, so why not offer a $25 pass that covers trips up to $2.50? Rail fares vary from $2.10 to $5.75; offering a range of pass prices to cover that range of fares would be useful.
    – Ensure that the pass is a system pass, and not just a rail pass – it should include Metrobus and not just Metrorail. The 7-day bus pass is a good price point for the daily bus rider, but if someone mixes and matches bus/rail trips, it isn’t as useful.

    I understand that there may be some technical limitations with the current SmarTrip system preventing such implementation, but I hope the next generation of the system will be able to accomodate a range of fare products.

  18. Douglas Stallworth
    December 10th, 2013 at 14:36 | #18

    One place where we can start looking at a useful pass product is the one day pass. The current price of $14.00 is overpriced for this product to be useful to tourists and others with large families wishing to travel within the core of the system. This has been shown by the significant decrease in sales after it was increased in price during the last round of fare changes. This pass could be developed into a system pass for use on Metrobus and Metrorail for the large number of riders who want to travel on both modes.

  19. December 10th, 2013 at 19:47 | #19

    Wow, someone advocating for Puget Pass that isn’t me. Thanks, Alex B.

    I’ll second the call for variable priced passes and note that with today’s snow day, Metro lost about half a million dollars in fares that they would have gotten if most Federal workers were pre-paid for the month with passes.

  20. MetroDerp
    December 11th, 2013 at 12:46 | #20

    I definitely have to take issue with the idea that more fares = better headways. You’re saying that the reason headways outside of rush hour (and let’s be honest, even those aren’t especially adequate) is because fares aren’t high enough? Frequency should be a top priority regardless of fare settings.

    The need for something that takes into account distance is by all means a good thing, agreed, especially as it’s often the outermost reaches of the system that are the excuse for unacceptable service levels in the core. But as it stands it’s needlessly complicated. Why not have a zone-based fare (say, once the silver line opens, six or seven zones)? Then when passes are sold (and as several have mentioned, it’s crazy that these aren’t universal across bus and rail), you can choose an unlimited pass based on zones. I commute from U Street to the Pentagon; I don’t need a pass that would allow me to ride as far as Shady Grove. But a pass good for zones 1 and 2 – and pay-as-you-go for trips beyond that – would be an ideal purchase.

    In general, the pass system needs a much wider variety of offerings and a complete relook at pricing and utility (as long as weekend headways remain abysmal, for instance, I’m not likely to buy an unlimited pass, as outside of commuting I’ll avoid Metrorail at all costs).

  21. James
    December 26th, 2013 at 18:57 | #21


    Equitable? Fair? Really? In a DMV region in which the center of the city is becoming gentrified — and overwhelmingly high-income — while the suburbs are becoming home to poorer residents who can’t afford high DC rents, some of our region’s most struggling individuals, many without personal vehicles, are forced to pay the highest fares. If WMATA is going to continue to charge fares based on distance, even as the economic geography of the region inverts, it is absolutely necessary to provide discounts to low-income individuals.

  22. Michael
    December 30th, 2013 at 09:52 | #22

    Hi, James:

    We did some research into the latest demographics of the Washington region and found that the biggest income disparity is still the east-west divide.

    As such, there are options for low income individuals to live near the core as well in further-out suburbs.

    This is not to say that a special transit fare/pass for low-income individuals isn’t a bad idea. How would it work? Would you give all low-income individuals a discount? A monthly pass? How would one qualify as “low income” for the purposes of this discount?

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