D.C. Metro's tech-driven fare system is easy to spoof

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Imagine a conversation among bureaucrats in New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority: "We've got a big budget deficit, we've gotta raise the fares again. What should we do?"

"I've got an idea. Instead of the single fare on buses and the subway, with free transfers, why don't we switch to the system they have in Washington?

"First, we'll charge for subways by distance traveled. Why should the passenger who travels from Coney Island to Midtown Manhattan pay the same as the passenger from Harlem to Midtown? Then we'll charge different rates for the time of day. We'll have a low fare real early in the morning, then a peak fare for rush hour, then a peak-of-the-peak fare for the middle of rush hour, then the peak fare, the midday fare, then the peak fare again, then the peak-of-the-peak fare, and finally the evening fare. Oh, I forgot the late-night surcharge."

"Yeah, that's a great idea. But here's what you forgot: a congestion fare for riders who stop at or pass through Midtown Manhattan!"

"Great! Now we have a fare structure that New Yorkers deserve, and tourists will love! People will write big books on how to ride the subways!"

"Wait a minute -- we haven't figured out the buses yet. Let's start over, okay?"

I can't believe that this conversation would happen in New York, but one like it must have taken place in Washington in the Metro board's finance committee. Why do we have lunatic proposals for the most complicated fare structure ever, when we know that in New York these proposals would bring immediate ridicule and instant rejection?

Because we are used to Farecard machines that can be programmed to have any nonsensical scheme for fares, and the Metro board will take advantage of that. After all, someone will come up with an app for your phone that calculates the fare if you input the boarding station, the deboarding station and the time of day, so you will be on top of things again.

-- Martin Feldman, Silver Spring

When I was growing up in New York, anything about a subway fare increase was greeted with immediate ridicule and instant rejection. It's part of what made us New Yorkers. We didn't have your fancy Farecards and vending machines. We handed money to a cashier and said how many tokens we wanted. Our breakthrough in fare technology came early in the 20th century, when the subway system abandoned paper tickets and installed turnstiles that riders could unlock by putting a nickel in a slot.

If the New York system had the technology available when Washington's Metro opened in the 1970s, it might have gone for a more complicated fare structure, dependent on time of day and distance traveled. California's Bay Area Rapid Transit, a train system of Metro's generation, went in the same direction as Washington, using distance traveled in calculating fares. Like Metro, BART expects that some riders will miscalculate and provides add-fare machines similar to Metro's.

As transit systems age, they become locked into their ways of setting fares and fare increases. In New York fare history, the big question about any increase was whether the transit authority would change the size or style of the tokens on the day the fares went up. (The threat of a change prevented token hording.)

Our younger-generation transit system is as resistant to change as New York's. We won't reverse course and go to a New York-style flat fare. Such proposals launch political wars between long-distance suburban riders who pay more and urbanites who travel two or three stations and pay less. No, we're more likely to go our own way and add more complexity, because we've already crossed that threshold.

Going with this flow on fares isn't necessarily right, as Feldman points out.

Can technology accommodate the peak-of-the-peak charge, congestion pricing or a late-night rate? Sure. We can deal with complexity. The real question for the Metro board is an old fashioned one: Is it fair?

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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