Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Transit fares (WMATA and MTA)

WMATA farecard
Virtually every transit system in the U.S. faces severe economic trials as the recession has reduced their revenues significantly. Most systems are considering both fare raises and service reductions. Because transit is seen mostly not a choice service but as a service of last resort for people who can't afford to own a car, there can be a fair amount of pushback on raising fares because of the negative impact on people of limited economic means.

See "Riders see inequity in higher bus fares" from the Post and "MTA faces legislative calls to raise rail, bus fares" and "Keeping fares fair" from the Baltimore Sun, about the situation in the Baltimore region.

There is a campaign, Fair Share for Metro in the DC region to get the funding jurisdictions (DC, MD, and VA) to pay more into the system to limit the need for fare increases or service cuts, while at the same time other jurisdictions such as New York City are considering a fare of $2.50 (note that NYC doesn't have distance-based fares unlike the Washington area, so fares are a flat price).

While it's important that such a campaign be pursued (when you advocate for the hardcore position, you don't get it but you get a lot more than if you hadn't campaigned in the first place), the likelihood is that most of the jurisdictions won't be able to pony up more money as they all face declining revenues, see "D.C., Md. struggle to boost Metro funding" from the Post, even though the article states that Virginia would be able to increase its proportional share.

Hearings have been and are continuing to be held in the DC region with regard to the proposed increases and service cuts ("Metro schedules public hearings" from the Post) and testimony can be submitted until April 6th at 5pm by e-mail to

A couple weeks ago, Dr. Gridlock in the Post had a good long feature on the various fare increase and service cut options. Sadly, because this feature is produced by the graphics department, it isn't easily findable through the Post's normal search engine, and I can't find my copy at the moment.

I didn't agree with all his points or all of those offered up by readers, but there was a lot in there.

Basically here is my general position:

1. It's better to charge more for fares than it is to cut service.

2. It's better to cut duplicated services at times when they aren't needed especially (such as running multiple escalators or multiple entrances) than it is to cut unduplicated services.

This matters for example with the "yellow line extension" to Fort Totten at off-peak times. This came about as a result of agitation in Columbia Heights for more service. But is it really needed in financially desperate times when the green line already serves this route? Whenever I ride this line during those times there is limited ridership.

But of course, residents there are agitating to keep the "yellow line extension" operational, and they will be abetted by WMATA Board Member Jim Graham, who represents that area on DC's City Council.

3. Cutting unduplicated service (and not running 8 car subway trains during peak service hours) should be the absolute last choice ever made, after fare increases.

4. It's okay to charge more for bus than currently, because indexed for inflation, the bus fare hasn't been increased since the mid-1980s. What I probably would do is charge a $1.75 peak fare, and a discounted fare at off-peak times.

5. Subway service especially should be seen and priced as a premium service--it certainly is perceived that way, at least it was before the recent massive degradation in service before and after last year's crash [last night I rode from Union Station to Takoma--the train stopped for a long time between Rhode Island and Brookland, and six times(!) each for significant lengths of time between Fort Totten and Takoma so that the train that at Union Station was at least 8-12 minutes behind us caught up to us after Fort Totten and the light of that train was easily visible from our last car], in the neighborhoods that are proximate to subway stations with frequent service.

Subway fares can be adjusted upwards for more periods of the day to raise more revenue. People would rather have more frequent service than less frequent service and they will pay more for it, rather than wait 20 minutes or more for a train.

6. I would keep the longer transfer time for bus rides. Most people who don't ride buses don't understand that often people ride multiple buses to complete a single trip, and this takes longer than one hour. (It really takes longer in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, because service frequency is reduced compared to DC.)

7. While equity is an issue in terms of transit fare pricing, how much does equity matter if you have no service at all? Deal with equity issues by providing other forms of transit subsidy to people who need it, but this shouldn't come at the expense of the transit system having enough money to operate.

What this means is that local jurisdictions ought to come up with a way of providing additional subsidies to people of limited means to ride transit, but this shouldn't be a WMATA responsibility.

8. Relatedly, deal with the skyrocketing costs of paratransit. One of the Dr. Gridlock commenters, Rebekah Sobel ("Dr. Gridlock: How do you solve a problem like Metro? Readers chime in") had a bunch of interesting points, I didn't agree with all the elements but they spark some interesting add-on ideas.

She thinks that WMATA should provide service beyond the 3/4 mile from a transit line (bus or subway) required by federal government regulations.

I say, sure, provide the service outside of the mandated areas, but at market rates. I guarantee that will begin to reduce the demand. In any event, subsidies for this kind of service should be seen as a social and human service function and funds for providing this kind of service should be provided by the local jurisdictions with monies from that financial stream, rather than from transit allocations.

And figure out jitney service and other options to reduce the cost of providing this important and needed service. E.g., yes, offering free fares on regular transit for people eligible for paratransit cab rides makes sense, because the cost of a fare is far less than the uncompensated portion of the cost of a special paratransit trip.

9. While this round of fare increases and service cuts isn't sparking deeper consideration of the need for a regional consensus on transit, its role, and its funding, it ought to. More on that in a later blog entry.

10. With regard to transit fare pricing in the Baltimore region, and read those Sun articles, they are very good, they too need to increase pricing and all the same arguments pertain as those above. Although I need to address the argumentation in a separate entry, as there are a number of misplaced comparisons between transit fares and gasoline tax rates.

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