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.