Flat fare falls flat

“Metro should have a flat fare.” I’ve seen this mind-boggling argument all over the place, much to my consternation. This scheme prizes mind-numbing simplicity over all else — economy, equity, efficiency, environment, everything.

Such a move would penalize DC & Arlington residents who take transit, rather than road-clogging and pollution-spewing cars, to make their trips around town — while giving a huge and highly regressive gift to some of the country’s wealthiest, sprawliest suburbs. Within DC & Arlington, Metro charges a $1.70 base fare: actually one of the cheapest for a subway in North America. Bus fares here are even lower: $1 for Circulator, $1.60 for Metrobus. You’ll pay almost twice our subway fare (C$3) just for a mile-long bus ride in poorer Toronto. The vast majority of people paying that short-distance fare are indeed actually residents, not tourists, and many of those people are transit-dependent and lower-income. The suburban commuters who would overwhelmingly benefit from a flat fare are people who can easily just drive to the grocery store or to visit grandma three miles away; that’s not an option for the transit-dependent.

Distance-based and time-based pricing recognizes that:
- it’s more expensive to provide longer trips in lower-density suburban areas.
- conversely, that trips within the core present a low marginal cost (so much so that cities like Pittsburgh, Portland, and Seattle have “fareless squares” where all downtown service is free): besides their short distance, the trains have to run through the core anyways just to distribute their suburban passengers. (If Alice is going 1-2-3 and Brenda is going 2-3-4, the marginal cost for the train to carry Charlie from 2-3 is $0, as no additional trains or drivers are needed.)