Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Let's eliminate transfers (or, the $1 fare plan)

Transfers are killing transit revenue in the Twin Cities.

Metro Transit's local bus routes and the Hiawatha Line only generate about $0.87 per passenger trip, out of standard fares of $2.25 (peak) and $1.75 (off-peak). You might think that heavily-discounted passes are the root of this problem, but this appears to be wrong. If transfers didn't exist, even passengers with deep discounts up to 2/3rds would have to be in the vast majority in order to drag the average fare down to $0.87—a 5:1 ratio or higher—but they are in the minority today. Most riders only get discounts of around 10%, if any.

On the other hand, a single transfer effectively cuts a fare in half, and anyone can do it.

I also feel that the current fare structure discourages short trips. Nationwide, the average full linked trip distance is about five miles. Applied to a $2.25 peak fare, that would result in an average cost of $0.45 per mile. However, passengers going shorter distances get gouged. My own commute is about 2.5 miles or so and only about 1.5 miles of that is on the bus, so I'm paying nearly $1.50 per mile (er, not quite since I have a Go-To card, but you get the drift). By many or most per-mile measures out there, it would appear to be more expensive to ride the bus than to own a car and drive it that short distance (even though in reality it isn't).

I propose that Metro Transit eliminate transfers and instead reduce the individual trip cost to $1.25 or $1.00, which would still be greater than the $0.87 generated today (and would still have a small increase even with a 10% discount). The drastically reduced face value would attract many more riders, since most people only think of the initial cost rather than the full cost when making decisions about whether to purchase something. It would also encourage shorter trips, at least along routes with decent frequency (though it's hard to say if any of those will exist much longer).

With passengers increasingly switching to electronic fare cards, it seems that the value of transfers to both transit riders and transit operators is fading anyway.  They could be considered a cost-saving measure, but since every tap of an electronic pass requires a computer transaction, I would think that the backend cost is about the same whether you're looking at a transfer or a new charge to the card.  It could be that a transfer is less computationally-intensive somehow, but I can't imagine it's enough to be worth it.

I'd also like to see fares change to a flat rate throughout the day. Currently, about 60% of the transit fleet in the Twin Cities is devoted to the rush hour, and that's a disparity which is probably encouraged by the higher fares that can be charged during peak periods. It doesn't make sense to charge more when a resource is relatively plentiful. (Viewed the other way, it does make sense to discount fares when buses are few and far between, which leads to distress among users. However, I think most people view rush-hour fares as costing extra, rather than looking at non-rush fares and considering them discounted.)

And just FYI:

In 2008, the average Metro Transit local bus cost $112 to operate per revenue hour and carried 36 passengers in that amount of time. Hiawatha light-rail trains cost $176 to operate per hour, and carried 76 passengers/hour. (Those services had operating ratios of 0.28 and 0.38, respectively.)


  1. Interesting idea - while it might be worth reducing the generous fare validity time (2.5 hours is one of the longest in the country, I think) and compensatorily reducing fares a bit, it seems like eliminating free transfers is a step in the wrong direction. One important reason is that perceived ease and cost of riding that you mentioned as already being higher than actual. If people have to pay every time they transfer, they will perceive the service as being more expensive than it really is.

    But looking to the future, it is important to retain free transfers because a gridded, polycentric city like ours needs a grid-based transit system with lots of required transfers. In addition, I'd like to see Metro Transit move to off-board fare collection with proof of purchase, and it's hard to see how that would work without free transfers.

    But keep up these ideas for improving the system...

  2. Yeah, I'd also like to see either off-board fare collection or positioning the farebox to the back of the bus like in Germany. With this idea, machines would give out "tickets" rather than "transfers".

    I agree that this screws things up for a gridded system, but it sounds like Metro Transit is eyeing larger cuts to crosstown services as opposed to ones that go downtown.

    But, even people who do make single transfers would only be paying $2 or $2.50 for a full trip, roughly in line with the $0.25 to $0.50 increases Metro Transit is currently looking at. People who typically make two or more transfers in 2.5 hours would get dinged, but I figure they would be the riders going the longest distances. The Twin Cities is probably overdue for creating fare zones, but doing anything remotely fair would be extremely complicated. Making people pay extra for a third bus is much, much simpler, in my mind.

    I've also toyed with the idea of keeping current fares but only allowing a single transfer, or reducing the transfer period. But, I keep looking at the free University of Minnesota buses and their extremely good cost per passenger ($1.28), and I figure that decreasing the apparent cost is going to be really important as the level of service declines. It's a trick that can only be done once, but hopefully once will be enough.

    You might be right that people will balk at paying for each individual link in a trip. I tried searching around for some studies on the subject, but didn't come across anything. I don't know what has the greatest effect, though obviously I'm betting that lower up-front costs would make people happier.

  3. Re: off-board fare collection - imagine arriving at your transfer point, seeing your connection there, and having to run to the machine and buy another ticket before your connection leaves the stop. If you are able to buy multiple tickets at once, then you still need to have punch machines on the bus, which is a boarding impediment and a maintenance burden. Or am I missing something?

  4. Hmm. Yeah, that would be an issue. I had thought maybe a person could just buy two tickets at the first machine, but there'd still have to be something on the bus to eat it, or the ticket machine would have to be complex enough to allow the user to say which route they'd take on the second leg of the trip (which many people won't know, particularly if there's more than one route available for that leg).

    I had still imagined using my Go-To card onboard even in a nominally off-board payment system, so I guess I wasn't thinking it through entirely.

    The problems would mostly go away by putting fareboxes in the rear of buses, though I'm sure they're hard to access when vehicles are busy. Still, it's probably easier to deal with onboard fareboxes than off-board ones anyway, since there are fewer buses than stops, and they wouldn't be subject to the weather.

    But that's all hypothetical anyway, since the only bus lines approaching that method of operation are the express buses using the Marq2 project, and only in the afternoons. (They fake it by making people pay as they exit.)

    I suppose the Hiawatha Line would pose a more imminent problem, since the stations are designed for a proof-of-payment system and don't have turnstiles or other barriers. Rail tickets are visually different, however, and it wouldn't be a big deal to allow them to be valid for ~45 minutes in contrast with bus riders who would be assumed to have paid if they've gotten on board (which isn't always strictly true, but close enough).

    Frustrating how some of my ideas run at cross purposes to others I've had.