The New TriMet Day Pass: It’s Kind of a Big Deal

Disclaimer: Zef Wagner is currently a Service Planning and Scheduling Intern at TriMet. The views expressed on this website are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views, plans, or policies of TriMet.

Since TriMet’s decision to overhaul its fare system, most attention has understandably focused on the elimination of zones (including the Free Rail Zone) and the sizable increase in adult fares. Former 2-zone transit riders will be especially hard hit, as they will now pay $2.50 per trip or $100 for a monthly pass. While the overall fare hike deserves to be at the center of the discussion, one aspect of the fare overhaul that has not received much attention or analysis is TriMet’s decision to offer a day pass at twice the normal fare–something virtually unheard of in the public transit world. I think the new day pass is a very interesting experiment that could have substantial benefits, assuming enough people realize it exists.

So how is the new day pass an improvement from the old day pass? The old day pass was $5 for all riders, even youth and honored citizens. This means that for adults paying the 2-zone fare of $2.10, a $5 day pass only made sense for someone taking at least 3 separate trips in a single day. For youth and honored citizens, the $5 day pass made no sense whatsoever.

Another problem is that people rarely know at the beginning of the day whether or not they will make more than 2 trips. For a commuter, the first 2 trips are simply part of the commute, and are therefore predictable. Trips after that, like trips to the store or to an event, are less likely to be planned out ahead of time. This put riders in the tough position of predicting the likelihood that a day pass would be worth it ahead of time. Suffice to say, the old day pass never sold very well.

The new day pass is just twice the normal fare, for all fare groups. The adult day pass is $5, the youth day pass is $3.35, and the honored citizen day pass is $2. This is a huge change that makes the day pass much more attractive. Essentially, there is no reason for a regular 2-way transit commuter to not buy a day pass. There is no need to predict whether or not you are likely to take transit on your lunch break or in the evening, since all those extra trips will be free with the day pass. Youth and honored citizens will finally have a day pass that also makes sense for them, and will especially benefit for a couple reasons: they are more likely to be casual users of transit (so a monthly pass might not make sense), and they are more likely to use transit for multiple purposes besides just getting to and from work.

I am not aware of any other major transit agency that offers a day pass for twice the normal fare, so this qualifies as a major experiment that other agencies should watch closely. Many agencies don’t even offer a day pass at all. Of those who do, standard practice is to do what TriMet did previously and offer a day pass at slightly less than 3 times the normal fare. The thinking here is that anything less would undercut the sale of monthly passes and lead to a loss of potential fare revenue from those extra trips. There are a couple problems with this line of thinking:

  • Many people do not buy monthly passes for perfectly good reasons. Maybe they only work or go to school part-time, or maybe they are living paycheck to paycheck. TriMet has responded to the latter situation by offering 7-day and 14-day passes, but for the former there is really no substitute for the flexibility of a day pass. There are also a growing number of people who are multi-modal travelers–in other words, they want to have the flexibility to take transit or ride a bike or walk or use a car-share depending on the day. Again, day passes make more sense for this growing group of people.
  • There is a whole lot of excess capacity (meaning empty seats) on transit vehicles during off-peak hours, especially in the evening. This means the marginal cost of serving an additional rider during those hours is generally zero. In a situation like that, it makes sense to offer a product that essentially encourages people to use that excess capacity. TriMet may not see extra revenue from those trips, but it will most likely see a ridership increase during typically low-ridership hours.

TriMet is basically betting that the new day pass will not lead to a substantial loss in revenue, and that it will lead to greater use of the system for purposes other than a simple 2-way commute. It will be interesting to see how it works out when enough time has passed for a proper evaluation.

The day pass also offers another potential benefit in the form of faster passenger loading at stops. Who among us hasn’t sat in a bus and cursed the people paying cash as they get on? Anything that encourages the use of tickets and passes over cash can substantially decrease dwell times and speed up the bus system. If enough people choose to buy the new day passes it could speed up boarding by quite a bit, especially in the afternoon hours. Unvalidated day passes are available to buy in stores (although not from the ticket machines at MAX stations for some reason), but most people will probably just pay $5 in the morning to get a day pass from the driver. Even paying with a $5 bill should take less time than the current scrounging for change, and then in the afternoon and evening people will just have to show their pass.

A final point I think is worth mentioning is that with the new day pass, TriMet is virtually offering a pay-as-you-go alternative to the 30-day pass. The 30-day pass costs $100, which means that it pays for itself after 20 days of round-trip travel. Any extra days of travel are free. In a span of 30 days, there are 20-22 workdays. This means that buying day passes for each day is pretty much equivalent to buying a 30-day pass, as long as you don’t plan on traveling extra days (like weekends or holidays). This brings an unprecedented level of flexibility to a system that has long made life easier for heavy users as opposed to more casual users.

Let’s say you work or go to school part-time, but think you might want to use transit on some other days as well for other purposes. Or maybe you work full-time, and commute by bike in good weather, but want to have that transit option when the weather is nasty. Normally, you would have to go through an internal debate over whether a monthly pass is worth the cost, and you would probably end up choosing to pay with cash or tickets on a per-trip basis. Now, there is no need for that debate because the day pass is practically designed for you.

Now, the big question is whether anyone will actually use the thing. The day pass has been irrelevant (except for tourism) for so long that people may not realize it exists or that it may actually make sense now to use on a regular basis. I hope the day pass gets enough of a marketing push that people really know what it is and what it means. If enough people adopt the day pass, it could become a model system that no longer relies nearly so much on monthly passes, but instead allows the flexibility we need in an unpredictable world.

I have noticed a couple things I would change based on observing the new system over the last couple weeks. First, I’ve noticed that drivers end up pulling out a hole puncher and punching the transfer every time someone buys a day pass. Why not punch a whole bunch of them ahead of time? Then they could be handed out a lot more quickly. The cost of those tiny slips of paper has to be miniscule, so it’s not a big deal if some go unsold.

Second, it really doesn’t make sense to not sell unvalidated day passes from the ticket machines at MAX stations. If someone visits for a weekend, they should be able to buy all their day passes at once, not buy each one separately each day. Given that there is no 3-day or weekend pass offered, this would be the next best thing. This point is actually personal, since a friend of mine last weekend actually ended up wasting $5 by buying two day passes in this way. The machines do not make clear at all that the day passes are only good for the current day–this should be fixed.

What would really improve the day pass would be the long-awaited electronic fare system that TriMet still plans to implement one day. With an electronic fare card pre-loaded with money, TriMet could simply charge $2.50 for the first trip, another $2.50 for the second trip, then $0 for each trip thereafter in a single day. There would be no need to even predict ahead of time whether you need the day pass. This could even extend to monthly passes, so that you pay as you go until you reach the monthly limit, then the rest of the trips are free. The ORCA system in Seattle unfortunately still does not do this, although with their expensive day pass it hardly matters. Such a true pay-as-you-go system would be a true game-changer, and I hope TriMet would consider it in the future. The new day pass is an encouraging step in that direction, and I hope people take advantage of it.

26 responses to “The New TriMet Day Pass: It’s Kind of a Big Deal”

  1. Zef -You’ve made a good case for why the day pass is the Go Anywhere fare!

    So far Trimet has not realized the potential of passes in general (outside of employer situations), so let’s hope, as you say, they start promoting them.

    Sorry, I don’t buy your argument that machines don’t have to see unvalidated tickets. Very annoying for occasional users who want to stock up while waiting for the next train!

    Regarding your last point: why bother to implement an electronic fare collection for a no-zone system? I would think the logic at an agency would be to do it if you were charge by the mile or at least a whole lot of) zones) like the “big guys” do?

    I think going to a no zone system will make it HUGELY difficult (in the public world) to go back to a distance-based pricing system when (and if) they (ever) actually institute an electronic fare collection. People understand that riding to 10 stops should cost more than riding 1 stop – but not any more. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that eliminating the Free Rail Zone along with a period of stepped up enforcement would have generated as much revenue as they’re going to get from eliminating zones at the higher price.

    One thing you didn’t mention in this post is the ridiculous price for the Honored Citizen fare (unchanged). Come on Trimet- if you want to have a low-income fare just do it! Anyone with an Oregon Trail card, show it and you get it (not available at machines). How hard is that?

  2. I’ve noticed that drivers end up pulling out a hole puncher and punching the transfer every time someone buys a day pass.

    I remember reading somewhere at one point that there was going to be a slight improvement to how transfers are produced, before electronic fares ever roll out. I believe the fareboxes in the buses were going to be upgraded such that they could print a transfer out instead of having to be manually torn and punched. Am I crazy? Is that still happening?

  3. People understand that riding to 10 stops should cost more than riding 1 stop – but not any more.

    That was a big part of my problem with the old zone system. It cost more to go one stop (Sunset to Washington Park) than fifteen stops (Sunset to Hillsboro). Personally, I like the new system. It’s easy. And $5 for a day pass is a fantastic deal.

  4. If TriMet would save money by speeding up the boarding process with day tickets, then maybe it should go the extra mile by pricing them nominally lower than double the single fare price—say $4.95. Then even your basic round trip rider would have an advantage to go for the day pass unless the round trip would be under 2 hours.

    In general, if TriMet offers an extra good deal on something, it has to insist on a bad deal for something else. Base fares would probably be well under $2 if they applied to everyone. Everybody pays 45¢ for a stamp regardless of age, health status, etc. Yeah, the feds & Oregon legislators see differently, but why does TriMet have section 5307 fares lower than the required 50%, and the monthly pass at a 26-ride breakeven point?

  5. Color me as one of the few, then, who routinely bought day passes even before the fare change, and have for years. In fact, I would sometimes pay a full five dollars even when it was still 4.50 and 4.80(?). Why? Convenience. Not having to keep cash on me the rest of the day, not having to wait and pay a second fare on the way home whenever that would be, and the flexibility of being able to make trips in the middle of my day and not worry about additional fares. Even when it cost another $1 or so more, it was worth it to me to have flexibility and security.

    Even before the fare change, then, the potential of a day pass was high, if you knew how to use it. Now that it is exactly double the regular fare, there is no longer a reason for me to buy a single fare, unless I absolutely KNOW I can get to wherever I am getting to and back again in the short two hour window. Being in the suburbs, thats almost always a no.

  6. As for zones/distance vs. The new flat fare, I think the new flat fare is better. You are not buying distance, you are buying time. That makes way more sense and requires way less geographic mental math.

  7. The day pass is a *very* good idea, and the pricing for it is the right thing to do.

    That said, it’s been done already by a number of European cities (not just Munich).

  8. I didn’t know Munich did that, although as you mention they and most European cities have very complex zone systems. I prefer the no-zone system overall, although I think there should be a surcharge for peak hours and a surcharge for the few express lines that still exist. An electronic fare system would be useful for both of those, plus it would further cut down on the use of cash because it is so easy to load money on your fare card. Ask anyone in Seattle how often they see people pay with cash nowadays–it is very rare since ORCA has become widespread. You could even offer a discount for using the card, or a surcharge for using cash.

    Carsharing Dave, you misunderstood me. I am saying that they SHOULD sell unvalidated day passes from ticket machines. My friend wasted $5 because she wanted to stock up for the weekend. I’ll change the wording the get rid of the confusing double negative.

    I agree with the point about the honored citizen fare. It would make sense for food stamp cards and other proof-of-low-income to qualify for reduced fare. That would have more impact than distributing tickets to social service agencies.

  9. Does this mean we will now be able to get day passes in quantity at grocery stores?

    In the past grocery stores sold day passes only in singles, and typically did not have more than 7 or 8 on-hand at any given time.

    Some stores simply didn’t cary them at all.

  10. I can’t believe that they aren’t selling the day passes from TVMs. Is that true? Or is it just unvalidated day passes?

    Also, I was in Munich in May, and they do have a cheap day pass (it’s amazingly cheap, compared to the other options). However, it took us about 10 minutes to search the plethora of ticket options and find the right one.

  11. “Another problem is that people rarely know at the beginning of the day whether or not they will make more than 2 trips. For a commuter, the first 2 trips are simply part of the commute, and are therefore predictable. Trips after that, like trips to the store or to an event, are less likely to be planned out ahead of time. ”

    And this is why many people don’t want to rely upon mass transit in the first place.

  12. I remember the first time I took a look at the 85 Swan Island numbers thinking I could multiply the AM riders to the Island by 2 to get the day total. No, no, no! PM trips back to the Rose Quarter TC were about half of the AM trips! Same thing on the C-Tran bus to Swan Island in the late 90’s. A regular rider from the US Coast Guard base set me straight…lots of folks come in on transit and then get invited back over the bridge by a colleague who drove for the HOV option. Its a similar deal with the 85, co-workers are leaving now…the bus is in 20-30 minutes. So catch a lift. Sometimes a Day ticket is a bust.

  13. That report might have been prepared before the fare increases, in which case Portland would indeed miss the cut.

  14. Minneapolis has a $6 day pass (twice the highest/express fare).

    Phoenix has a $3.50 day pass (twice base fare), but it’s $5.75 (3x base) if bought onboard a bus!

    Cleveland has a $5 day pass (twice highest in-county fare).

    L.A. has a $5 day pass for local lines only.

    So, not unheard of, but I agree it’s a pretty significant change. It gets a little more complicated in systems with local & express service. It seems like the trend might be twice the highest system fare.

  15. “I am not aware of any other major transit agency that offers a day pass for twice the normal fare”

    Seattle’s Central Link sells day passes for twice the one-way fare. Most riders use ORCA or transfer to metro busses, so the day pass is of limited usefulness, but there it is.

  16. I always have gotten a day pass, because I choose transit over a car any-day. I now am a student at pcc and i get the 160 subsidized pass till january here in a couple weeks and it is a godsend. I have to use tri met everyday. This saves me so much money and encourages ridership among all students. Plus I think trimet is making a ton off of that since most folks at my school would have to miss classes since paying full price is a lot for us. I myself almost ran out of cash for passes this summer. For some reason they didn’t sell the term pass this summer. However, I know for a FACT if they push day passes they will increase ridership even more!

  17. The day pass on Link Light Rail in Portland is not at all equivalent because you can’t use it on the buses. With only a single line from downtown to the airport, not too many people can use light rail by itself to commute. While the ORCA card helps alleviate the problem, it is also nice to have a single integrated system for tickets here in Portland.

  18. As far as I can tell, Seattle’s King County Metro doesn’t offer a day pass, or any pass other than monthly. They used to offer a daily pass on weekends only, but apparently that’s been discontinued.

    It’s not exactly a visitor-friendly system.

  19. I’m in Boston at the moment and the day pass here is $11.00, not exactly cheap.
    Of course this system is HUGE compared to Trimet.

    A single ride in Boston down the street on a bus though is $1.50

    A single ride anywhere on the subways (and that is a HUGE service area, is $2.25)

    And people really ride MBTA, every single bus and train was packed

  20. I agree that the “2x the price” day pass is a great idea.

    The real test will be in a month or so when the weather starts to gets unpredicatble. Then we’ll see if the fair-weather bike commuters go for day passes. When the weather is consistently bad they’ll all be going for monthly passes, but in Fall & Spring when the weather is unpredictable the day passes may sell especially well.

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