The Case for Distance-based Fares

A piece on Streetsblog makes the policy argument for distance-based transit fares.

They actually use Portland’s Fareless Square as part of their argument, apparently unaware of recent history.

I generally support this line of argument, at least from a pure policy policy point of view. TriMet has argued that one of the pragmatic reasons for a flat fare is easier electronic ticketing. That’s certainly a fair point, but I’m still not sure that it’s the right answer in the long run.

And of course I’d argue that the $1 Streetcar fare is in fact a form of distance-based fare policy, given the relatively short distance trips available on the Streetcar.


23 Responses to The Case for Distance-based Fares

  1. John Reinhold
    October 31, 2012 at 9:54 am Link

    Paying $5 per person to go from Lloyd Center to Downtown and back means we no longer take MAX when we go Downtown.

  2. Evan Manvel
    October 31, 2012 at 10:30 am Link

    Seattle also recently ended its downtown fareless area. Though there’s a free circulator.

  3. al m
    October 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm Link

    Distance based fares in the only fair methodology.

    I don’t remember Trimet subscribing to any philosophy of ‘equity’ or ‘fairness’.

    Trimet is all about propaganda and fooling people as to their real purpose.

    They operate strictly as a private for profit corporation.

    They use bullying and intimidation to achieve their goals against a hapless public.

  4. Lenny Anderson
    October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm Link

    My guess is some of the push to simplify fares here came from bus Ops who had to hand out different transfers, fuss about free riders going outside Fareless, etc, and still keep on schedule. Collecting fares is a huge hit on run times. Simple has its virtues, and when you compare the cost of 2 zone vs all zone in the old system ($2.10 vs $2.40), its really the residents of Portland, west of I-205, who took the hit with the new flat fare. More and more they are those who can afford it. Ridership numbers from this fall will tell. But for anyone who is younger than 17, older than 65 or disabled, or works for an enlightened employer, this discussion should be moot. Monthly passes are an incredible bargin and the simplist fare of all.

  5. Carter
    October 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm Link

    I think distance-based fares penalize the very people we most want to take the bus. Compared to driving, riding a bus a long distance is a headache. You have to go when the bus goes, regardless of when you want to. It is very slow, compared to driving. The seats are not the most comfortable. These are all things the car-centered suburbanite considers. What may tip the balance is the price of the trip. If he has to put up with the disadvantages of riding the bus and on top of it all has to pay a large fare, he may well opt to drive. If, on the other hand, he pays a fare that he considers low, he may well ride.

    When people drive from the suburbs, they use a lot of gas and road space. If an inner-city commuter drives, he doesn’t drive as far as a suburbanite. If we have to favor one person over another, I would give the price break to the long-distance bus rider and get him or her off the road.

  6. Douglas K.
    October 31, 2012 at 9:05 pm Link

    Personally, I’m a fan of flat fares. It’s simple, especially for those new to the system or just visiting town. And an all-day pass good on the entire system is even simpler. I think it’s good that Tri-Met finally abandoned the zone system.

    I’ve always appreciated the NY subway system — a single flat fare gets you anywhere in the system, including as many transfers as you need. I much prefer it to DC Metro or BART.

  7. ws
    October 31, 2012 at 9:16 pm Link

    I think it’s important to remember people who have been pushed far out due to higher housing costs, even though I believe a distance-based fare is the best overall.

    Dealing with people who don’t have enough money to buy a transit ticket should be done with subsidization through non-profits and other means.

    But it’s something to consider.

  8. Wells
    November 1, 2012 at 11:01 am Link

    Visiting San Francisco recently, I rode BART to Berkeley, $3.55 1-way. The dispensed ticket is passed through a computerized turnstile ‘entry’ and returned. In Berkeley, I passed the ticket through the turnstile ‘exit’ but my passage refused. I was directed to the ticket machine across the concourse which informed me another $1.70 was required. I paid grudgingly. This distance-based fare system was very complicated, no doubt incredibly expensive and obviously fallable.

    It’s good that Tri-Met kept its time-based fare system. I still favor a $1 “Reduced Fare Zone” to replace Free Rail Zone to serve downtown residents, visitors and those who drive downtown.
    Tri-Met should reform its […] fare evasion policy, […].

    [Moderator: Distracting and unnecessary Godwin’s Law violation redacted. – Bob R.]

  9. R A Fontes
    November 1, 2012 at 11:20 am Link


    I’ve never had a problem with ticketing on BART when visiting the Bay Area although others have.

    The system has a time element included included in its calculations. Did your trip have any unusual delays? Also, the $3.55 fare would be applicable to one from the last stop (Embarcadero) in the city to the first one (Ashby) in Berkeley. The fares would be higher using other stops.

  10. Allan
    November 1, 2012 at 11:40 am Link

    I know not everyone has smartphones, but software is really good at figuring out this sort of thing for you

  11. Andrew
    November 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm Link

    I did not like BART either. It took my husband and I fifteen minutes to figure out how to purchase tickets, as the information at the station was not very good. Mind you, I’d been riding transit extensively for some time by that point. I had never come across a distance based system, so I was quite confused. Then when we finally got the station we wanted, I put my ticket in the turnstile to let myself out, and it opened for me; but before I walked through, I was waiting for it to spit my ticket back out like it had when I first entered the system. It never came back, and the gates closed on me before I could cross. I had to jump the thing and run like hell out of the station so I would not risk getting a ticket for turnstile jumping. For a tourists, it was not a nice experience. I’m more savvy now, but I can vouch that a distance based system can be very confusion to someone who’s never used one before. I also must comment on the cost of the system! Oy gevalt! It’s not wonder BART has a relatively small ridership for an urban (well, mostly suburban) rail network. At those prices, I’m not surprised. If one has to have a distance based system, I think zones are much easier to understand than prices changing as stations are added to the trip.

  12. Bjorn
    November 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm Link

    to me the point of the flat fee system, and I think they said as much when they got rid of fareless square for buses, is to discourage people from riding the bus for shorter trips. For me it is certainly working as I now often choose car2go as a cheaper option for short to mid range trips especially when I am going with another person. Needing to transfer buses also typically makes it a no brainer.

  13. al m
    November 1, 2012 at 9:36 pm Link

    car2go-transportation of the future for sure

  14. John Reinhold
    November 2, 2012 at 10:31 am Link

    Even in my truck which gets 15mpg and adding in the cost of parking downtown, it is cheaper for my wife and I to drive downtown now. If I add in any other family members, Tri-met is easily double the cost of driving. If I use the car which gets 45mpg I can travel downtown several times for the price of one trip on Tri-met. If I use the electric car I can travel downtown for a month for the price of one trip on Tri-met.

    Of course it all changes a bit if you amortize the full cost of the vehicles into the equation – and I understand that. But I own the vehicles anyway, and I am not going car-free completely – and I am sure that is true of most people. When I add in the extra time it takes for Tri-met and the inflexibility, it is just not an appealing system to me anymore.

    I am a transit advocate. I have worked in many ways in this community to advance transit (and bike/ped) solutions. However, the system-wide flat fare is completely not worth it. Distance based fares make sense. It costs me pennies to drive my car across the river, but Tri-met wants $5 round trip per person. If I were taking Tri-Met from Estacada or Forest Grove, then it might work out cheaper than driving. Anywhere in the city and not a chance…

  15. Allan
    November 2, 2012 at 10:37 am Link

    John- you’re pointing out that carpooling and using EVs are cheaper than transit. These are 2 things we want to promote anyhow, so I’m not seeing any problems :) It would be nicer if transit was way cheaper, but I don’t see that happening w/o a transformational technology like Autonomous Transit Vehicles

  16. david vartanoff
    November 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm Link

    count me as in favor of a flat fare (until we just go fareless) Individual fare collection is the biggest time sink in bus/rail operations. If we want transit to work well, we need to make it easy, convenient and efficient.

  17. Douglas K.
    November 2, 2012 at 8:05 pm Link

    Yes, there are some cost advantages to driving a car. The trip downtown is cheaper than the bus as long as you have access to free/validated parking and/or don’t park very long. Even with parking costs, it’s probably still cheaper when there are two or more people in the car.

    But the short trip downtown might not be $5.00. If you’re spending less than two hours there and back, your round trip costs $2.50.

    On the other hand, for those of us who have transit passes the marginal cost of each transit ride is $0. And me, I like to read when I’m in transit someplace. Haven’t yet figured out how to do that safely from behind the wheel of a car. Yeah, I know there are books on tape, but I don’t much like them. Speech is far too slow, for one thing.

  18. Bob R.
    November 2, 2012 at 11:03 pm Link

    Douglas touches on something I think hasn’t been adequately discussed…

    As we see more benefits from (or become increasingly attached to) network-connected devices such as iPhones, iPads, Android/Kindle tablets, etc., wasted time in transit that used to be tolerated by listening to talk radio is increasingly devalued by contact with interactive devices.

    This phenomenon is also a generational one.

    The single-occupancy automobile for most people is a time-saver in its own right, at least when true costs are excluded, but increasingly people value time online over time-in-transit. A journey which takes longer on a bus or train may actually be more productive if it is a “connected” journey than one in a car, which until the widespread autonomous vehicles, requires attention to the present situation and not to the Internet. (Your assessment of which is more valuable may vary! :-) )

    And speaking of autonomous vehicles… A wise software developer once informed me that 90% of a development project takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% also takes 90% of the time! I get the impression that autonomous vehicles, after decades of efforts, have passed the 90%-ready threshold. But to reach 100% or even 98% may take decades more! (Has Google operated their successful vehicles in snow, ice, heavy rain, parades, Critical Mass, Burning Man, or Manhattan?)

  19. Wells
    November 3, 2012 at 10:02 am Link

    Speaking of autonomous vehicles, they ain’t gonna happen. General Motors, the corporate media, et al pretend it’s a solution to protect the status quo of automaton motorists driving everywhere like chickens with their heads cut off, squawk squawk!

    A $5 round trip fare from as close in as Hollywood is still comparable to the cost of driving/parking for an individual. When a car with two or more people drive downtown, a reduced fare zone of $1 would be affordable and useful especially for Portland’s big events.

    Tri-Met’s fare evasion policy is too much like a police state and the fine is exhorbitant (rhymes with extortion).

  20. Jason McHuff
    November 6, 2012 at 10:45 pm Link

    As I’ve argued before, what I would like to see are time-based fares. It’s something that could be done easier than pure distance-based fares, both for the agency implementing it and for the riders. No calculations or electronics needed. Yet it would approximate distances.

    a flat fare is easier electronic ticketing.

    Only because they don’t want to require tapping off, which would allow even better data to be collected and any number of fare schemes to be implemented.

  21. Erik H.
    November 8, 2012 at 10:26 pm Link

    It’s something that could be done easier than pure distance-based fares

    Distance based fares is far easier to implement than time based fares, and with modern (as in, what every other rail based transit agency EXCEPT Portland uses) ticket vending machine equipment it’s absolutely simple to buy a ticket.

    Considering that a bus rider is forced to pay the same fare as a WES or MAX rider, but receive a far lower quality of service, there’s no reason why TriMet cannot immediately institute distance-based fares for MAX and WES (with WES commanding an even higher premium fare given the “free” Wireless Internet and premium seating), while lowering the cost of bus fares to off-set the lower quality (older buses, unimproved bus stops, lack of Transit Tracker signs, shelters, schedule data at stops, lighted/landscaped stops, parking amenities…)

  22. al m
    November 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm Link

    WES customers should definitely be paying more than the other riders.

    Trimet basically gives away WES luxury service

  23. david vartanoff
    November 10, 2012 at 2:03 pm Link

    Of course, distance based fares are trivial w/exit dip/swipe gates, but why would you want to queue for them when you could just exit? On low ridership systems it is not much of a problem, but the exit lines at BART in the SF CBD are ugly.

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