The Metro fare increases floated on Thursday will not be instigated, at least not in their entirety. Some of the $116 million budget gap the hikes are designed to close will be eliminated by cost-cutting, and the most onerous provisions will yield to public outrage. Still, the proposal reveals the mindset of Metro’s current management: Riders are pests, and the more they use Metro the bigger nuisance they are.
To recap Metro’s proposal: It would penalize riders for using any form of payment other than SmarTrip, the embedded-chip card introduced in 1999. Rush-hour rail riders would pay from 50 cents to $1.30 extra for using a paper farecard, while bus riders would be docked 75 cents for paying in cash. In addition, riders using any of 19 stations in central D.C. and Arlington (even some that are never busy) would pay a 35-cent tariff for their effrontery.
Metro is unusual, if not unique, in maintaining a fare system that punishes riders for Metro’s own route structure. In particular, people who switch from bus to rail must pay two full fares. While passengers who use either rail or bus regularly benefit from passes that allow unlimited ridership, passes for those who use both were eliminated several years ago.
Essentially, Metro’s fares establish a class structure. Currently, people who accept that they are proles and promise to use only the bus can have unlimited rides for $11 a month. Rail-only passengers can ride as much as they like for $32.50 weekly, or restrict themselves to unlimited short trips during peak hours for $22 weekly. Those who use both bus and rail—as if Metro were a transportation system or something—can’t get a break.
Ironically, the answer to this inequity is right there in the chip that makes SmarTrip cards work. Metro was the second major transit system (after Hong Kong) to introduce a smartcard for fare payments, but it has yet to take full advantage of its technology.
London, for example, inaugurated its Oystercard in May 2003; by February 2005, it had programmed the card so it can function as a long-term or daily pass that rewards rather than deters frequent ridership. If someone uses a Oystercard repeatedly in a 24-hour period, the system will deduct only the cost of a paper one-day Travelcard or bus pass, minus 50 pence. Meanwhile, Metro’s SmarTrip still can’t offer a bus-to-rail transfer. But then London is trying to encourage transit use, while Metro just wants those pesky riders to go away.
That’s particularly clear from the idea of the 35-cent “congestion charge,” designed to depress Metro ridership in the area where it makes the most sense: downtown D.C. and a sliver of nearby Arlington. London also has a congestion charge, but it applies to private cars, the least efficient mode of travel, especially in urban areas. Incredibly, Metro’s scheme would encourage people to drive downtown. (As such, it is clearly an affront to the Clean Air Act and could be vulnerable to a lawsuit on those grounds.)
Although some passengers grouse, Metrorail is not that crowded for that long every rush hour. (Metro’s peak hours are a breeze compared to those of transit systems in any major Asian or European city.) The stations are quite roomy and much of the difficulty in boarding and debarking is the result of riders who block the doors. Besides, the fixes for peak-hour congestion—eight-car trains, a new crosstown line—were proposed years ago. It’s not the riders’ fault that the Metro board and the agency’s management failed to plan for increased patronage.
Perhaps the “congestion fare” proposal is just another example of the M.B.A. worldview, which sees everything in terms of “yield management” and other such formulations that exclude human nature and common sense. Washington’s planners have labored for years to create more office and condo buildings in the central city, where traveling by foot, bus, and rail is an attractive option. Now Metro wants to fine the people who took the city seriously and committed to downtown. Silly commuters—get back in your cars! It turns out that Metro isn’t running a transit system, just a fare-collection operation that happens to operate buses and trains on the side.