Should Metro Adopt Distance-Based Fares?

From the east San Gabriel Valley, it's a lot cheaper to ride the Gold Line than to ride the parallel San Bernardino Metrolink Line. Distance-based fares could narrow this disparity. Image via Metro staff report
From the east San Gabriel Valley, it's a lot cheaper to ride the Gold Line than to ride the parallel San Bernardino Metrolink Line. Distance-based fares could narrow this disparity. Image via Metro staff report

During last week’s Metro board deliberations on how to make the Foothill Gold Line and the Metrolink San Bernardino Line complement each other, one issue at stake was the large fare differential between the two systems. The Metro staff report details that Metro Gold Line riders pay $1.75 fare for similar service that Metrolink riders pay $7.75 for.

In discussions on this matter last week (item 21 – starting at minute 1:31), Metro boardmember John Fasana raised the broader issue of overall fare disparities:

…I could make a case for you right now – a factual case – that if you ride along the Harbor Transitway to Los Angeles, or if you ride from El Monte to Los Angeles, you’re paying more today than if you rode the Blue Line from Long Beach or the Gold Line from Azusa.

Fasana is referring to Metro’s “Express Freeway Premium Charge” – an oddball legacy $0.75 extra fare that undermines Silver Line BRT. Metro rail extends further, and often travels faster, than freeway buses, but costs no extra premium charge. (One pet peeve of this author: the extra $0.75 cannot come from TAP stored value and must be paid at the farebox, which greatly undermines the efficiency of the Silver Line’s all-door boarding.)

Fasana continued:

We have wider fare issues in this county: how they interact with other agencies, and other services that we provide. I’m a little concerned that with everything else that’s been happening with the Gold Line and with Metrolink that bringing that fare discussion within that project might make things more difficult to move forward. As a board, I think we need to up our game or recognize the challenges to equitable fare policy the way we have here today in this county.

Why, for instance, should it cost the same to ride a bus two blocks or three blocks in Los Angeles as it does again to ride the Gold Line from Azusa to Los Angeles? I think we need to look at fare policy in an overarching manner…

Fasana’s remarks were shared on Twitter by L.A. Times reporter Laura Nelson, touching off some online discussions. Nelson’s tweet was shared at Metro’s The Source blog.

Fasana did not name it, but the solution it sounds like he is hinting at is distance-based fares. The longer the transit trip, the higher the fare.

Distance-based fares were recommended in Metro’s 2015 American Public Transportation Association review. From SBLA coverage at the time:

The [APTA] review also recommended that Metro adopt distance-based fares. Generally, a single fare for all trips regardless of distance tends to benefit higher-income riders, who, on average, tend to take longer transit trips than lower-income riders. Having to pay more for longer trips thus can remedy inequities currently experienced where, to an extent, lower-income riders are subsidizing higher-income riders. Metro CEO Art Leahy noted that Metro’s average bus trip is three miles long, while its average rail trip is twelve miles – and that this disparity is expected to become greater with the opening of the Regional Connector, which will make longer no-transfer rail rides even easier. Historically this has been difficult to administer, but, especially with all rail/BRT trips requiring electronic fare via TAP card, distance-based fares on Metro rail appear to be feasible and fair.

As Leahy alluded to, fare disparities will become even greater when the under-construction Regional Connector subway opens, expected in 2021. If current fare structures hold, riders will pay $1.75 to travel from Long Beach to Azusa, and from East L.A. to Santa Monica.

Distance-based fares can get complicated quickly. Transit expert Jarrett Walker writes:

The more precisely equitable a fare system tries to be, the more complicated it becomes. For example, cities that charge for very small units of distance have much more complicated fares than cities that charge a flat fare of have just a few fare zones. Our “perfectly equitable fare” achieve the extreme of complexity: It is so intricate that nobody can know, when they set out, what their fare will turn out to be.

Theoretically, the complexity should be a matter of Metro doing a calculation in the background and just subtracting the right amount from the rider’s TAP card. This can mean more fairness overall, but that presents some confusion for riders who may not know up front what their ride will cost.

Distance-based fares could apply to certain parts of the Metro system and not others. As Fasana alluded to, what makes sense for a local bus may not make sense for cross-town rail.

SBLA readers, what do you think about Metro transitioning to distance-based fares? This broad question include lots of sub-questions:

  • What other cities/regions do distance based fares work well?
  • How could distance-based fares be implemented to advance equity? How can they not further burden Metro’s low income riders, many of whom do have long distance commutes?
  • Would it make sense to charge distance fares on some Metro transit and not others: rail vs. BRT vs. Rapid vs. local?
  • How can distance-based fares be done in a way that is not too confusing for Metro riders?
  • Technically, how difficult would it be to charge distance-based fares?
  • Metro should be able to pursue fare changes independently, but what are the implications for other transit service providers – from Metrolink to municipal bus operators?
  • Should Metro just get rid of that funky old Express Freeway Premium Charge? Perhaps the expense could be back-filled using Express Lanes revenue?

Streetsblog L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley coverage is supported by Foothill Transit, offering car-free travel throughout the San Gabriel Valley with connections to the new Gold Line Stations across the Foothills and Commuter Express lines traveling into the heart of downtown L.A. To plan your trip, visit Foothill Transit. “Foothill Transit. Going Good Places.”

  • Lorenzo Mutia

    If they could use the GPS on buses and somehow connect the distance based information to fare readers, I could see it working. People could be charged per 1/4 mile or some other distance. Maybe there would be variation between Rapid and Local buses. People would just have to tap on and tap off. If they forget to do either, they get charged a flat rate that will most likely be higher than what they should be paying if they tapped properly (similar to Caltrain in SF). The rail system could work similarly. Fares overall could be capped at a certain amount. If Metro really does go for it though, the capped amount will likely be higher than the current $1.75.

  • James Fujita

    I hate to invoke the “it works in other countries” rule, but it really does make sense. Start with the rail system, which has fare gates and fare readers which can be tapped in and out.

  • Matt

    A lot of the rail stations have no fare gates.

  • James Fujita

    Even the ones with no gates have TAP pylons at the entrance. We can set the system so if you don’t TAP out at a gate or a pylon or [insert semantics here], you get charged full price.

  • Richard

    WMATA(DC) uses a distance based fare for rail and a flat fee for buses. It’s very complicated and there is a even more complicated transfer discount. It also charges more for rail during peak hours. It’s byzantine.

    Beijing charges a flat fare for buses and rail and distance surcharges as you go further. The 2 systems are entirely different and there is no transfer discount. It’s relatively easy to understand, but it isn’t fare to people who transfer.

    Seoul charges a flat starting rate and then a distance surcharge as you go above a few miles. Most bus trips never go beyond initial fare. Transfers are free. It’s pretty painless.

    Copenhagen uses zones. Bus, rail, water. It doesnt mater how you travel or how far you travel, it is how many zones you cross. It makes sense for people coming into and out of downtown from the suburbs, but it makes inter-suburb trips confusing and sometimes unfair.

  • BART uses distance-based fares but you have to be able to insert your fare card at the beginning and at the end of every trip. I like having a simple fare structure. People who ride a lot can get monthly passes. I also hate the surcharge on the Silver Line, not so much for the cost as for the confusion and inconvenience. It might make sense to charge more for rail rides than for bus rides since on average rail rides are probably longer. This could also help boost bus ridership.

  • Derek Hofmann

    It isn’t hard to tell riders how much the fare will be. At each station, post a list of stops and fares. It’s a simple 2-column list.

  • “As Leahy alluded to, fare disparities will become even greater when the under-construction Regional Connector subway opens, expected in 2021. If current fare structures hold, riders will pay $1.75 to travel from Long Beach to Azusa, and from East L.A. to Santa Monica.”

    One can, and I already have, traveled from Azusa to Long Beach, Santa Monica and Chatsworth (and/or v.v.) for $1.75 since Gold Line Phase 2A and Expo Phase 2 opened.

    As long as the last connection “Tap” is made within 2 hours of the first “Tap” this is legal.

  • Examples from other countries cannot be used in the USA. Trust me on this one.

  • James Fujita

    I am suddenly reminded of those ads where the guy says, “Our prices are INSANE!”

    “I hope there’s a bus to the cemetery because… You’re killing me, Metro!”

  • calwatch

    Actually Joe the fareboxes were reprogrammed to take the surcharge out now. You may try the pole-mounted validators next time as they deduct automatically, if not follow the instructions in Tariff Notice 16-012:

  • infinitebuffalo

    The WMATA transfer discount hasn’t seemed that arcane to me: you transfer between bus and rail, you get 50c off your second fare. Having the farebox display the gate charged and balance remaining make it real easy to check this—for example, last night I rode the train into town from a class in Arlington, and when I got on the bus afterward, it charged $1.50 rather than $2.

    Of course, I’d rather it be free like transferring from bus to bus, but—unlike the distance based fares for rail that requires enormous charts with the fares to every other station in the system on every farecard vending machine in every station—it doesn’t seem that complicated to me. (On the other hand, I just moved here six weeks ago, so maybe there’s more nuance to the system I haven’t figured out yet….)

    (As an aside, Pittsburgh, after progressively simplifying a once-horrendously-complicated zone map over the last couple decades, finally eliminated them entirely and went to a flat rate system-wide last winter, simultaneously eliminating paying on exit from outbound bus trips. No more back-door boarding or free rides across Downtown, though.)

  • infinitebuffalo

    I would be interested to know how other bus systems handle zone-based fares; Pittsburgh, as I noted above, used to have you pay as you got off if you were heading away from town, so that if you ended up in zone 2, you’d pay for it then, whereas if you got on in the Downtown free zone and got off before the bus left it you didn’t have to pay at all. It made almost everything else super complicated, however, so they finally got rid of it (and zones in general) at the beginning of this year.

  • Joe Linton

    Are you thinking just the rail system?

  • Derek Hofmann

    It can be done for buses if you have a tap-on tap-off payment system in place.

  • Tony Johnson

    In Japan, they have a display at the front of the bus showing the current fares for people traveling from each stop on the line and it updates as the bust passes each stop along its route. While this may not be fully practical on the LA system (far longer routes, so the sign wouldn’t be able to show all stops), if they use a zone system, the display could show the current fare from each zone that a rider could have gotten on at. ie. if you got on in Zone 1 and the bus is now in Zone 3, the display would show the current fare. Same with riders who got on in Zone 2, etc.

  • Derek Hofmann

    That electronic sign inside the bus is a nice feature to tell you how much the ride has cost you so far. When I was in Japan in the 1990s, I think that sign only updated once every few stops. You would take a ticket when you get on the bus which would tell you which stop or zone you got on, then you would pay as you leave the bus. Do they have tap-on tap-off now?

  • Tony Johnson

    Yeah, you tap-on when you enter the bus using the rear door, and then tap-off when you pass by the driver on your way out the front door. If you forgot to tap-on I believe they charge maximum displayed fare. Some busses still have the paper ticket you can grab if you don’t have an IC card, but I believe there’s a slight discount if you use the card.

  • Ron

    Just like Caltrain.

  • Adrian Jacob Alejo

    First of all the amount of the upcharge is deducted from your TAP! Second you need to leave this topic alone. We already pay the cheapest fare in the country. Unfortunately metro needs to get people out of their cars, you don’t get that with what your proposing. You gain equality with the subsidy, and incentive with the flat fare. Otherwise we have an expensive system no one wants to use while the poor (who can’t drive) end up with higher fares to offset the cost.

  • Joe Commuter

    Metro has a lot of problems, raising fares (“distance based fares”) should not be a priority IMO. I don’t know why there are so many cheerleaders for this, we don’t even have a strong enough transit grid network or ridership to justify this. Let’s say Metro switches to distance based fares tomorrow and a trip form Azusa to DTLA becomes $3 or $5- what do we gain? Ridership will go down and that’s about it. People already ditch Metro because driving is competitive in cost, this will make things worse.

  • Vancouver, BC (yes, I know, its Canada and we must not use them furrin’ cities as examples) faced an issue last year when it decided to install faregates on its electric rail transit SkyTrain and passenger ferry SeaBus. They decided, after much study, to make their buses a flat fare that is exempt from the zone system that the SkyTrain and SeaBus use. They do offer a single transfer to another bus when paying cash upon boarding and users of their RFID card (“compass”) can transfer to rail or bus for free.

  • What a bit of Kafka-ism that is!

  • com63

    yep. This exactly. Metro is designed to get people out of their cars and ridership should be the main goal. Fare collection should be secondary. They should make the fares flatter.

  • Yep.

  • A better idea would be to just add $0.75 to all rail trips and call it a day. With the bus cheaper, people will have a bit of an incentive to perhaps use it instead of the train.

  • P.

    Thank you so much for the Tariff notice. I’d been banging my head against a wall every time I came up to a driver who didn’t know how to deal with complicated TAP transactions like zone fares. For me, this goes back to before Metro took the 439 Express out of service. Funny thing is, I just stopped buying the EZPass because I’ve been biking much more these days, but I’ll keep the notice on my phone.

  • mittim80

    I can’t overstate how bad of an idea this is. The purpose of a transit network is to act as just that- a network. It’s efficiency is a direct function of how seamless and unified it is, and whether rapid transit can work together with local bus transit in the hierarchy of service. To create a separate fare regime for different modes not only blows this dynamic apart but virtually forces the poor into the predicament of exclusively using bus, even when a train service exists that could speed up their journey- a double whammy of underutilization and economic caste division as the result of nothing but ill-informed policy.

  • Fine, then lower the price of the Silver Line. People have choices to make: time or money. If they’re short on the latter, then the former becomes their friend. As it is, we’re talking about the same agency that is charging double the normal fare to use a bike for half an hour, so $2.50 for a train ride that is almost certainly far more useful shouldn’t be a big problem.

  • Walt

    Pitches for increased system complexity usually entail a greater and much more costly need to purchase, install and maintain costly equipment. Who benefits? Manufacturers and suppliers who in turn make political contributions to elected officials who vote to implement such systems. Simple, less costly and less cumbersome systems are thus viewed with horror.

  • mittim80

    this whole line of argumentation is symptomatic of a toxic way of thinking that’s infected the discourse of transit in this country since the mid-20th century. The purpose of having different grades of service, what you call a level of “usefulness,” isn’t to provide a customer amenity in the business sense that demands a higher premium- its there to serve a transport need, so that people may get around the city at 60 miles per hour. Looking at the issue of transit from an auto-centric and market-based perspective, in which transit is like a different brand of cereal that competes with automobiles by offering amenities which must be priced accordingly, is what leads to skewed conclusions like the former, policy decisions like price tiering that wreak havoc on the lives of city dwellers, and is just generally antithetical to the principles of good transit and urban mobility.

    And the best way to “compete” with cars is to provide transit that works.

  • mittim80

    Bike shares are a component of mobility, but not necessarily transit per se. I’m guessing the logic behind their pricing is the people its targeted at are high-income urban transplants rather than the population at large. I don’t necessarily agree with it.

  • Jason Grant

    But weren’t you the one who advocated that “no gates works in Europe” rule back then, so that’s ok but no this one? Fine, we can simply say San Francisco Bay Area, BART and Caltrain using Clipper Card. Gee, it’s a different city in the same state who uses TAP in and TAP out. Awww. LOL

  • Jason Grant

    Just move to distance based fares. No one gives a crap about how much the fare is gonna be when using Uber or Lyft anyway, it’s gonna be just like that for Metro, especially if it’s cheap. Just make it so that the cheapest fare is $0.50 the most expensive one is $5.00 and people will just TAP in and out. Who travels from Pasadena to Long Beach anyway? Very few people do, and most people just do short trips and they’re not going to care if the fares are going to be cheap at $0.50 or $0.75, just tap tap tap and deduct deduct deduct. It works elsewhere.

  • Jason Grant

    If flat rate fares is gonna cost me in the future $2.00 just to go to the neighborhood dentist, I’ll just drive there so it’s not really helping anyone get out of their cars. Now if they move to distance based fares where trips like going to the neighborhood debtist was only $0.50, I will. And that will help many low income riders who ride public transit more frequently over shorter distances.

  • Jason Grant

    How do you know isnt gaining ridership because no one wants to pay a jacked up fare just for shorter trips? Do you know what’s people use Uber and Lyft for? It ain’t to use it to go from Azusa to DTLA, it’s trips like the neighborhood bar in Azusa to their home in Azusa.


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