LA Metro: It's Time For a More Convenient and Equitable Fare Structure

It's time to abandon the daily, weekly, and monthly pass system and adopt a fare structure built around spending caps. Transit users in Los Angeles would continue to pay $1.75 per ride, with a daily spending cap of $7, weekly cap of $25, and monthly cap of $100—but the possibility of overpaying for transit use would be completely eliminated. It's all the benefits of pay-as-you-go and none of the drawbacks of daily, weekly, and monthly passes.

LA Metro TAP cards.

Most of us have been there: We need to get around the city for the day, so we load some money onto our TAP card for our bus or train fare. We don't know how many transit trips we're going to take for the day, so we play it conservative and buy a fare or two, saving a few dollars off the all-day pass. Come the end of the day, we've taken half a dozen transit trips and spent twice as much as if we'd just bought the day pass in the first place.

Or maybe you're more familiar with the reverse: You expect to use transit quite a bit over the next week, so rather than pay a few bucks for each ride you decide to spring for a weekly pass at a cost of $25. Things come up, plans change, and suddenly you realize you've spent 25 bucks for 7 dollars worth of bus rides. It's the gym membership of transportation spending.

In most cities, LA included, we're expected to make a prediction about how we'll use transit for the next day, week, or month (or even year), and make our fare purchase based on that prediction. If we overestimate our transit usage, we overpay; if we underestimate our transit usage, we overpay. 

For infrequent transit users these situations are bearable, though inconvenient and frustrating. The worry that you might make the wrong choice is an annoyance, but little more. If you're a low income worker, a student, or an elderly resident on a fixed income, however—someone who can't afford even minor financial mistakes, or who doesn't always have the cash flow to put up $100 at the same time each month for a 30-day transit pass—this is a serious problem. 

It doesn't have to be this way, and it's time the LA Metro and other regional and municipal transit agencies adopt a more equitable, fault-tolerant payment structure. For an example of what it should look like, we can look to Christchurch, New Zealand. (Hat tip to Darren Davis for the example.)


Pay-per-trip, with daily, weekly, and monthly caps

In Christchurch, there are daily and weekly spending caps that eliminate the possibility of overpaying for transit service. This has allowed them to do away with daily and weekly passes entirely.

Instead of purchasing daily or weekly passes, you simply use your fare card as an e-wallet and pay for each trip directly. When you reach the spending cap for the day, any additional trips you take that day are free, exactly as if you'd purchased a day pass—but without the requirement that you pay for all your rides up front. The weekly caps work in exactly the same way.

Per the table below, Christchurch's daily cap is set at $5, and the weekly cap is $25.

Fare structure for the Metrocard in Christchurch, New Zealand.

What this means in Christchurch is that if you take transit to work and back throughout the week, you hit the cap by Friday evening and transit is effectively free for the weekend—not very different from buying a weekly pass on Monday and using it throughout the week. But if you fall ill on Thursday and miss work for a couple days, you end up paying just $15 for the week, saving yourself $10 on bus or train rides you aren't able to take that week.

LA Metro fare prices. Image source: The Travel Guru.

Daily and Weekly passes in Los Angeles are currently $7 and $25, respectively, so the weekly spending cap would be reached earlier here, but the message is the same. With this structure in place no one with a TAP card would ever pay more than $7 in a day, $25 in a week, or $100 in a month using normal service—a claim we definitely cannot make today. It could even capture the additional cost of out-of-zone and premium services such as the Metro Silver Line, without the need to purchase a special pass in advance. We've currently got a lot of people unwittingly donating their money to Metro, an organization that absolutely should not be in the business of over-charging its patrons—particularly when the median household income for those patrons is less than one-third the median income of County households overall

Even beyond concerns for social and economic justice, this fare structure is also just smart policy for those interested in growing the appeal of public transit. It's yet another step toward more user-friendly transit, eliminating the minor stress of forecasting one's daily and weekly travel and allowing people to just... go. There's something indescribably freeing about a transit system that doesn't require its users to be experts, and the ability to "pick up and go" without any preoccupation is one of the greatest appeals of driving. Transit will need to continually evolve in that direction to compete.

Prior innovations, especially real-time tracking, have dramatically improved the experience of trip-planning and transit use. This evolution in fare policy is by no means so great a leap forward, but it's an obvious and sensible step forward, and the technology is already in place to implement it. What are we waiting for?