Metro Taking a Look at New Fare Models

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Editor’s note: I emailed a group of transit advocates to get their reactions to this story.  Only Kymberleigh Richards responded.  She’s quoted below, and her full statement can be read here.

Finally, Metro’s fascination with installing fare gates at rail stations, despite near universal ridicule for the project, is starting to make sense.

Tomorrow, another four Metro Board Committees will meet, the Management and Audit Committee, the Operations Committee, the Construction Committee and the Ad-Hoc Sustainability Committee.  While all of these committees have something interesting on the agenda, what could have the greatest impact on transit rider’s future is an initial report on options to change Metro’s fare collection system to a “distance based” or “time based” system instead of the current one.  A change could be coming sooner than we think.  Staff is promising a potential fare structure for the October/November Board Meeting cycle.

You can read the full report here, or the abbreviated handout here.

It should be noted that this report is just a look at other “distance” and “time” based systems around the country and does not contain details on what some of the costs would be for Metro to install the hardware to make such a change or what the new fare structure might look like.

Before we even get into the details, there are already some political road blocks to such a change.  Kymberleigh Ricards, of the Southern California Transit Advocates and a Member of the San Fernando Valley Governance Council, notes a major issue with a “distance based fare” structure:

Page 8 of the staff report has everything you need to see to know that Metro cannot create distance-based fares.  We know that there are a lot of passengers who are caught in the economic crunch.  These passengers will use the lowest-cost option because their budget doesn’t allow the extra expense.  Trying to create distance-based fares on rail will result in a higher use of parallel bus services that do not carry the distance-based premium, and that will mean whatever additional revenue the rail system brought in would be eaten up by the cost of increasing the parallel service to handle the higher ridership forced onto it.

Time based fares would face another major political problem.  Because most time-based fares allow people to ride any service for an hour before needing to reload, it would eliminate the cost of transfers.  In other words, people making short trips would actually end up paying more, as the base fare increased to meet the lost revenue from the transfers.  I can’t imagine that sitting well with a lot of activists, including the Bus Riders Union.

Of course, Metro will also bring on increased costs to make distance based fares a reality.  Unless the benefits would only be available to TAP Card holders, which is an option their examining, new machinery would have to be made available at rail stations and on buses.  Given the debacle, and cost over-runs, with the installation of the fare gates at Metro rail stations it’s hard to see staff getting too excited about another retrofit to the rail stations.

Or, as Richards put it:

An “add fare” machine in the paid area is, in effect, a second set of TVMs at each station.  The gating already has cost more (and will continue to cost more) than the additional revenue it brings in; the “add fare” will carry an additional infrastructure cost that will not pay for itself in a reasonable amount of time.

For more on what the report actually says, read on after the jump.

From the handout
From the handout.

You can see there are three different models for distance based pricing with three different “pro’s” and “cons.”  There are issues that would have to be addressed for any of the plans, including the ones listed above.

However, for Example A there’s another major issue.  If Distance-Based Pricing becomes the standard for the Rapid Bus System, then all of a sudden Metro is charging different rates to go the same distance on a rapid versus a regular bus along the same route.  Also, fare checks in the middle of a ride could end up negating any time saving benefit of the Rapid.  Either way, you’re going to end up with unhappy transit riders.

In Example C, a major issue would be the existing light rail stations that “aren’t secure.”  For this to work, a major redesign would be in the works.

Also from the handout.
Also from the handout.

Each of these examples list the higher base fare, which would in effect be a fare hike for a lot of Metro users and would be considered a poisonous provision to groups that are already fighting traditional fare increases.  You can also see that two of the three examples also call for major increases in infrastructure.  I can’t imagine how a Board Meeting would go where there’s a direct relationship between increased base fares and costly new infrastructure for the stations.

Unlike the other previews, this time there will be follow-up either tomorrow or Friday to let you know how the discussions went.  If this moves forward, it could be a game-changer for the way millions of people commute.

  • I think the BRU should be supportive of this. In general, moving towards variable pricing schemes that move fares closer to marginal costs will benefit the urban poor and transit dependent. A lot of urban planning is not intuitive, which is why it’s helpful to have research from people who spend their lives studying urban planning and policy.

    From Brian Taylor’s chapter “The Geography of Urban Transportation Finance” in The Geography of Urban Transportation:

    “Poor and central-city users can subsidize affluent in suburban users in many ways…Central-city residents and the poor make short trips, whereas affluent and suburban users make long trips. Because transit agencies often charge a flat fare and almost never charge a fare exactly proportional to distance, those who make short trips subsidize those who make long trips. The significance of not charging a distance-based fare is enormous from the social justice point of view. For a particular transit system, Wachs (1989) noted that a user who travels 1 mile pays more than twice the true cost of the trip, whereas a user who travels 20 miles pays only 10% of the cost.”

    Also available at:

  • Eric B

    Or they can use TAP to charge a reduced price for subsequent rides (tranfers). There’s no need to make the second trip free, just reduce the price to what it was when you could still get a paper transfer. No infrastructure cost, no base fare increase for short-trip riders. Once TAP enables the cash purse, any fare structure is possible.

  • Chris

    Very true, Juan. Up in the Bay Area, the urban (subway) areas of BART hugely subsidize the suburban BART riders, both in fare per mile and in the free parking offered to suburban commuters but not at urban station parking lots.

  • BOB2

    I think that this is not going very far very fast? This has to be looked at because of the growth in rail and the fact that rail users have about 3 times longer trips, accounting for significant ridership growth, but not significant revenue growth.

    These people using rail are not, however, “rich white” people as the BRU likes to asert, they are the same people who ride the buses and the same people who pay taxes and fares to support it. They come in all colors, languages, cothing styles, and wallet sizes, like Southern California. And, like the buses, they use it when goes where they need to go, it is convenient, safe, and run reliably, at a reasonable cost. Fares need to cover more of operating costs and need to be reasonable and fair. Thus, we should look at all reasonable fare structure options, if we want to see a transit system that provides frequent and reliable service.

    The faregates were and are a complete fiasco, unsafe, confusing, and will never capture the small losses from fare evasion used to justify this stupid wasteful project. The assertion that this is a “conspiracy” in that department at MTA to do distance pricing may just be the misperception of some lingering leftover hubris? That perception could be caused by what appears to be a continued mindset that lead to the faregate boondoggle, and keeps trying to justify it?

    An off-peak discounted fare might make more sense. This might help to better distribute the passenger load, helping to reduce peak overcrowding, improving on-time performance, encouraging off peak use when service is underutilized, and encouraging more efficient TAP pass usage. An approach like that would serve those of very low incomes who need transit for non-work health or education transportation most during non rush hour periods. It might even add some revenue producing discretionary trips off-peak during those underutilized periods?

  • I don’t see what the big deal is. Compare pricing systems with London or Tokyo.

    First, hand out TAP cards to everyone in Los Angeles County who doesn’t already have one. Then, allow for the cash purse and all of the nifty extra features that Bay Area riders already have (such as better online services, direct card reloading from bank or credit accounts).

    People who ride transit frequently would buy passes, same as now.

    Make “paper TAPs” available for the tourists.

    Start with a low base fare, like 50 cents or so. Faster buses cost more. Longer train rides cost more.


  • Ridership jumped a few years ago and it seems like to MTA has acted quickly and effectively to squash it with fares that keep going up.

    Why so many “free” parking lots at these stations? Why so many grants to localcities to “improve bus service” that are really designed to speed up only private cars?

    The banter about fares is futile with no focus on the larger issues at play in LA.

  • Tobias

    I must say, making people pay to get TAP cards has never made much sense to me. I can’t yet load cash on it without lugging my way to Culver City every couple of months, AND I have to pay to get one? That’s not particularly incentivising me to get one. You’d think that doing away with all the paper tickets would at least partly cover the costs.

  • Joseph E

    Talk about false choices.

    In Hong Kong and Singapore (perhaps London as well), you can use a “TAP” style card to pay for any bus, jitney, train or metro trip. I believe Singapore now uses distance-based fares for buses, as well.

    Here’s how it can work. Everyone taps their card as they walk aboard the bus. Both the front and rear doors will open, to make boarding faster. Occasional fare inspections (like on metro rail) will keep fare evasion down to 5% or so, not that much higher than it is on the buses right now. When you get off the bus, you also tap the card on a reader, on the way out. Alternately, if you transfer, you only have to tap out after the last stop.

    Fares would be based on distance for all bus and rail trips, so a trip from Santa Monica to El Monte by bus, metro rail, metrolink or a combination, would cost the same. The reader can flash the fare when you get off, and you can check your balance online, by app, by text or phone call. Your balance could auto-refill by debit/bank card, if you want, or you can add cash at a rail station or major bus stops. Perhaps some buses could also let you add cash using modifications of the current pay stations.

    My trips from Long Beach to Hollywood might go up in cost to $5 each way, but short trips could go back to $1. And the proof-of-payment system and all-doors boarding would speed up the buses, further saving money. Even a 5% savings in operations (which cost $1 billion per year) would save 10’s of millions of dollars each year, easily paying for a second or third TAP reader on buses, and occasional on-bus fare enforcement.

    Many European and Asian systems run this way, at least in part. Yeah, the fare gates are silly, but TAP could work, if Metro changes the goal.

  • Protip, you can have time and distance based fares and NOT have gates.

    You can do it with paper tickets as well, but it also works with smart cards.

    Gates have NOTHING to do with fares. NOTHING. Any type of fare system can exist with or without gates. The gates are just an extra cost.

    Even in London, people in the suburbs enter the system without gates, and pay based on distance. You just tap in and tap out, withOUT the expensive mechanical gate system, or the problematic turnstile system (for the disabled)

  • Carter R

    Seattle has a pretty good system.

    Off peak fair = $1.75, peak = $2

    Each comes with one free transfer that expires two hours after the initial boarding. They offer but don’t require TAP like cards. And the light rail, iirc, is charged by distance.

  • Joseph, how do you have people board buses when they don’t have fare cards? Not only does such a system discourage occasional ridership, it also may violate Title VI and ADA.

    What I could see here is an option of a premium fare being charged that offers unlimited rides for a certain time period, and would be a simplified fare structure. Say $3 for three hours of riding on any Metro-operated service, including the silver Line and express buses – this would work great for folks running errands, going to doctor’s appointments, etc.

    Distance based fares are a logistical nightmare when there isn’t mandatory tapping out. Ask the people in the Golden Gate Transit call center, who field tons of calls when someone who tapped in San Francisco got off the bus in Marin County and got charged a fare double than what they should have paid because the machine at the rear door didn’t switch to the proper location, or was broken. Normally they give one time credit but the next time you are supposed to exit out of the front to verify that it was tapped out – which decreases boarding time. A tap in-tap out system can work on ungated rail because there are multiple validators in case something goes wrong. On commuter buses there is only one validator, at the exit.

    Overall, though, distance based fares encourage confusion, especially for local bus-type trips that often vary in location and purpose. Metrolink’s fare matrix has literally hundreds of thousands of fares, but at least the vast majority of riders are doing the exact same trip every weekday. A transit dependent bus rider makes dozens of trips, and to calculate the fare for each one could be confusion. It also makes monthly passes impossible to sell. Even the Seattle light rail system tops out at $2.50, which is the equivalent fare on the Sound Transit bus system for the same distance.

  • Distanced-based fares do make sense on rail. They make less sense on buses, although you can make distance-based buses work.

    Tokyo, which has the best smart card system I’ve ever seen, has a flat rate for its buses (except for senior and student discounts, of course). Its commuter trains and subways are all distance-based.

    And with monthly pass holders, it shouldn’t make a difference one way or the other.


  • Marcotico

    Calwatch, the London system does it by using zones. The distances are based on travel within versus between zones. One problem with that is that we are a plycentric city, so zones wouldn’t necessarily be circular bands around a central core.

  • Chris

    It seems as though transit systems are moving away from a distance based model, and Metro is looking to get into it. I believe London buses have scrapped the distance based fares and now have a flat fare anywhere you want to go; this has significantly, along with additional enforcement on bus lanes, increased bus ridership. Problems with distance based fares, especially on buses, are well known and a lot of them are mentioned above.

    Time based fares, on the other hand, are an excellent idea and would benefit a lot of the Bus Riders Union constituency who use the bus for short trips to the grocery store and other things.

  • M

    Maybe I need to do more research, but I have some questions:

    -Why does distance based fare make sense on a train, but not a bus? If I ride a train to get to work, I have to go extremely out of my way, but it is sadly the most convenient way for me to get to to work from my home. LAMTA has no plans to make any sort of route that seems to go parallel to the 134 in my working lifetime, so on the train I travel about 25 miles each way when I could start and end in the same places using the freeway in about 15 miles.

    -How does a time based fare work when traffic or emergencies (I’ve been trapped on the subway for an extra 1+ hour before) slows things down so you miss your “free” transfer?

    -LADOT commuter express buses currently work on zones and frankly, I get irritated that to go an extra mile costs me an extra 50 cents since I’m crossing into a new zone (don’t forget, exact change needed, so you can’t always spontaneously decide to change your mind unless you carry a large amount of extra change). Maybe I’m cheap, but that’s an extra $5 a week or $20 a month. So I get off early and walk the extra mile home. I don’t think I’d be the only person doing this if things happened.

    Not to say there isn’t anything to this idea. Since I no longer have a metro monthly pass, I don’t ride the orange line anymore. Why? Because I live near Universal and have to catch a bus or the subway to go one stop from Universal to NOHO, making any trip at least $3 each way. I’d rather just eliminate the transfers and extra cost and just jump on a bus and take it to my end destination.

  • I don’t have any scientific studies, but from my surveys and from my experience it seems that the less economically privileged take public transit farther than the those more economically well off.

    What makes me think this is that in general people who are less well off economically don’t live in places where there are jobs, so often they take the bus or train far distances to get to work. People better off economically (and use transit) usually live in the Metro area of Los Angeles (Hollywood, downtown LA, Koreatown, Wilshire…etc…) and take the bus or train shorter distances.

    Also if you live in the Metro area of Los Angeles a grocery store trip can be a short trip, but anywhere else, that’s not going to happen even in some Metro sections of LA that are not along a Red or Purple Line.

    If you live in the Valley, East Los Angeles area, South LA area there isn’t many short trips, even to the grocery store. You can easily end up taking two or more local busses to simply shop or go to the doctor just because of how LA is set up.

    The short trip thing usually comes into play when someone lives in Hollywood or downtown LA and wants to go to a leisure event like a bar or a restaurant. Ask people who live in the Valley, the Eastside of Los Angeles and South LA about these so called short trips, they don’t exist. Grocery store trips can be long distances away, doctors can be long distances away and tend to be done in combination with other activities, no one takes lots of short trips on public transit in Los Angeles it just is something that unless you live along the Red Line does not happen with people who have jobs.

    I’d be curious to see this short trip survey and how people think that even exists in Los Angeles for people who take public transit exclusively.

    The less economically well off you are the farther it seems you have to go on Metro LA’s public transit, so I think distance based fare will probably impact those with less resources the most.

    I was actually thinking that I would love distance based fare then I remembered the only reason I’d love it is because it would be cheaper for me to just go down three or four stops to go to a bar and then I thought is that something that would benefit the majority of public transit users and would it actually get more people to take the train or bus. I mean if you have the resources a 1.50 is nothing, but if you don’t have the extra resources then making it cost even more money to go from the Eastside to Beverly Hills to clean a building or from the Valley to the Hollywood to work as an LVN seems unfair for the average public transit user especially considering how horrible public transit is already.

    If Metro’s idea is to attract more “choice” riders they should work on getting their busses to work and follow a schedule in the Metro area of Los Angeles and having bus stops that are not disgusting. I don’t care if Metro isn’t in charge of the bus stop they need to hold the people who are accountable since it’s part of the public transit experience.


  • Distance based fares don’t make sense on buses because of the logistical nightmare of all riders remembering to tap out on one validator upon exit. It barely works on Golden Gate Transit, the only transit agency to implement tap-on tap-out in any major form. At least GGT is a relatively small agency, and can afford to give the one time fare credits for individuals who forget to tap off. Imagine how swamped the TAP call center would be when someone gets charged double fare for not tapping out.

  • wanderer

    Low income people generally make shorter trips on average. Their commutes are shorter–they don’t live in high income, far flung suburbs (think Malibu or the Palos Verdes Peninsula). Having access to fewer cars, they use transit more for trips besides commuting, trips which are typically shorter.

    Distance-based fares would be relatively better for the poor, but they really don’t seem practical on buses other than express buses (which is a large portion of what Golden Gate Transit operates). Time-based fares, which allowed a passenger to make one or more transfers within a given time period, would also be beneficial to the poor. They might be able to complete two or three errands on a single fare. It would take a little analysis to see how that compared to the current day pass system.

  • Kevin

    A distance based fare for rail is ideal when considering how people make transportation decisions. The alternatives to rail can be driving, taking the Metrolink, bus, etc. The farther one travels, the higher the cost and time of alternatives are. The reverse is true as well.

    This type of pricing system is market-driven, which would be more effective at serving the needs of all people, regardless of their status and purpose. Subsidized TAP cards are then offered to low income groups, which offer rates closer to what they can afford.

    Examples, include workers decide to drop by Union Station to shop on their way home, tourists taking the leisurely Expo Line to Santa Monica instead of the Purple line due to a better view, and marketability for a high-priced LAX Express service that would otherwise be unattractive if the fare is only $3 with a transfer. Family/Group passes, night/weekend discounted tickets pack, child/student fare, etc. can be offered to entice users that are turned away by the flat-fare pricing, increasing overall revenue.

  • I prefer distance-based fares to time-based fares. Though, I think a lower base than $1.50 is called for, with a maximum fare around $2.50/$3.

  • Erik G.

    Here’s an map of a multi-zone fare system that charges for distance, but allows more time to make a longer trip:

    Here’s a similar system explained in the Netherlands.

  • Singapore Guy

    Singapore uses distance based fare on buses and they run perfectly fine. Distance based fares also require a “tap-out” which adds another data point for transit agencies to utilize when coordinating things like transfers and real ridership data on how people travel about the city. 

    It’s much more fair to have a “pay for only what you need” system rather than a flat rate structure. Shorter rides cost less, longer trips costs more. I say, do it.