Commuters leave a Metro train at McPherson Square. (Rick Bowmer/The Washington Post)

The transit authority periodically offers the D.C. region a course in political geography. The classrooms for the course are the six public hearings that precede approval of fare and fee increases.

This year’s hearings start Wednesday in Greenbelt, then continue into the first week of February at locations in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

In recent years, Metro’s financial proposals have confronted riders with somewhat varied challenges. One year, Metro even got riders to say they favored fare increases — if the alternative was severe service cuts. The menu of fare options can be baffling in its variety. This was the case when the peak-of-the-peak surcharge slipped through with hardly any debate.

But the basic idea doesn’t vary. To raise money from riders, the transit authority can increase the train fare, the bus fare and the parking fee.

That’s where political geography becomes apparent. Most people who come to the hearings will pick the one closest to where they live, and there, they will find like-minded souls.

How transit benefit cut may affect you

Residents in the region’s core communities are more likely to ride buses and to take shorter trips on trains. They can walk to the train or bus stop, so they’re more likely to leave their cars at home or to live in car-free households.

At the hearings, they will lobby for keeping the bus trips and the short rail rides as inexpensive as possible. They don’t care much about parking fees.

People who live in the outer suburbs served by Metro are more likely to live farther from a transit stop. They tend to use rail rather than the bus, and they get to the stations by driving and parking.

They will argue for keeping a lid on the charges for parking and long-distance rail rides. Though nobody wants the cost to go up, they generally don’t care as much about bus fares.

Metro board members offer up a set of fare and fee proposals that represent the outer limits of what they could wind up approving after the hearings are done. This provides maneuvering room for their internal debates. Some will argue for holding down bus fares while getting the most out of the parking fee increases; others will be more flexible on the bus fares if they can limit the rise in parking fees and long-distance rail fares.

There’s nothing unprincipled about this process. In fact, it’s a healthy exercise in local control of transit. The biggest problem is that relatively few users will choose to participate.

Public meetings about changes in our transportation system draw out people who think they’re going to get hurt. The more people think they’re going to get hurt, the more likely they are to show up.

This year’s Metro proposals are relatively mild. Also, there are no service cuts on the table. So attendance is likely to be on the light side.

Those who don’t want to attend one of the six hearings have the option of filling out an online survey on Metro’s Web site. The Web address is

But it’s a bit unsatisfying. At a public hearing, you can tell at least one Metro board member what you think of the service on your rail line or bus route. In the online survey, you answer multiple-choice questions teed up by the transit authority.

Some questions encourage respondents toward a certain view of the transit authority: “Metro’s six-year Metro Forward rebuilding program has reached its halfway point. Riders are already seeing improvements in overall reliability of trains and buses, as well as escalator availability, continued investments over the next three years will build on those improvements.”

Then it goes on to ask, “How important would you say each of the following initiatives are for Metro?”

Riders could answer that set of questions without the preamble telling them that they’re already seeing improvements.

Hearing schedule

Each public hearing will be preceded by an informal information session at 6 p.m. This is a chance to talk with Metro officials about any transit topic, whether or not it’s part of the fare-increase agenda. The formal public hearings will begin at 6:30 p.m. This is the chance to offer testimony on the proposed budget and the fare increases.

Dates and locations:

●Wednesday: Greenbelt Marriott, 6400 Ivy Lane, Greenbelt. A free shuttle will operate to and from the Greenbelt station.

●Thursday: Hilton Springfield, 6550 Loisdale Rd., Springfield. A free shuttle will operate to Franconia-Springfield station after 7:30 p.m.

●Feb. 3: Matthews Memorial Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, 2616 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE in the District.

●Feb. 4: Montgomery County Executive Office Building cafeteria, 101 Monroe St., Rockville.

●Feb. 5: Arlington Central Library, 1015 North Quincy St., Arlington.

●Feb. 6: Metro headquarters, 600 Fifth St. NW in the District.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursdays in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@ .