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Time-Based Versus Distance-Based Fares
An image of Paris' transit map.

An image of Paris' transit map.

What are the options with payment schemes for public transportation? There are two tiers of strategies that a Los Angeles Metro study recently outlined.

Time-based systems allow passengers to ride a transit system and make free transfers for a set amount of time.  This scheme can be anything from an unlimited weekly pass to an unlimited monthly pass, to even shorter periods of time, such as a free transfer within a one- to two-hour time period. This pricing system requires some sort of card (paper, magnetic or smart card) to issue the transfer.

Distance-based systems charge higher fares for rides that cover greater distances. The fares could either be on a route-by-route basis, as we have in Washington, D.C., where the price between two points varies (here’s a nice run-down of the District’s pricing options), or a set of fare zones that could establish incremental fares based on certain regions of the city. For example, Paris has concentric circles that ring the city and form zone boundaries for its commuter rail system, RER (Réseau Express Régional) or “Regional Express Network.”  Travel to the outer zones is more expensive than inner areas.  Los Angeles’ Metrolink is much different—the system offers a daily pass for $6 and a preboard flat fare. The thought behind the distance-based scheme is that riders who use more service should pay for the service.

There are drawbacks to both systems.  Distance-based fares often end up being more complicated to develop and enforce, as they require a card to be re- swiped, tapped or punched for bus or rail, or they require a barrier that enforces additional payment.

The Los Angeles Metro system reviewed the pricing strategies of 244 North American transit services from data collected by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). According to the findings, “some form of time-based pricing is offered on 32 of 244 systems with the most common form allowing unlimited transfers within the available time window (19 properties allow transfers within a 1 to 2 hour window).”

For distance-based pricing, the report finds that this practice is uncommon for non-express routes and rail and more common for express routes and systems that radiate from a central area. LA Metro further analyzed distance-based systems and made a few interesting points. Time-based services incentivize the use of the fastest possible transit service, which often “are the most efficient for the transit provider to operate,” says the report.  This means the rider can use as many services as possible within the window of time that the fare card allots.  However, this type of fare scheme often leads to a higher base fare than the lowest pay-per-distance option (i.e. the shortest distance.)

And distance-based fares, as we said above, generally don’t occur for services like local buses and could encourage the use of cheaper, slower parallel services, which means a service provider is operating duplicate services. But in the case where distance-based fare is used for buses (examples include BRT systems in Ahmedabad and Bangkok), it can slow down service, as customers swipe in and out. Plus, this fare scheme can be particularly cumbersome for low-income users.

What do you think? Which system works in your city?

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  • One of the major issues for transit agencies relating to how fares should be charged is trying to balance two opposing concepts: having users pay for what they use, and having to encourage longer-distance users to use public transit.

    Perhaps this second idea may not be totally universal. I live in the Greater Toronto Area and Toronto is, for lack of a better term, “half” a city. Jokes aside, Toronto sits with its CBD on a large body of water and therefore does not have commuters coming in from all directions, but only from a 180 degree arc. Thus, there is perhaps a greater spread of the population.

    Compound this with separate municipalities having their own transit agencies with little fare integration, and where there is integration with the City of Toronto, it is not exactly symmetrical. This leaves certain commutes more convenient by private vehicle, perhaps more than should be in my opinion.

    I won’t go into the details here about what exists now and ideas of how this could be made more equitable as well as ballance the opposing concepts above, as one can read about it here.

  • Hi Joey,
    Thanks for the information. This is good fodder for a future post.

  • Joey Connick

    My hometown’s Vancouver, BC… there are three zones plus 90-minute time-based transfers. I’m now in Toronto, ON… no zone, but basically no transfers, either… you can go from bus/streetcar to subway or vice-versa but no return trips–the transfers are unidirectional. Actually, Vancouver used to do unidirectional transfers like… 20 years ago or something.

    Anyway… the Toronto system is appalling… if you want to make a quick trip, you pay $6 for the roundtrip. This is why I almost ALWAYS buy a monthly unlimited pass (a Metropass) or a weekly pass… because even if financially it ends up being more than paying per trip, you have so much more freedom.

    In Vancouver, there’s less incentive to buy a pass (and strangely while Toronto does have a weekly pass, Vancouver only has daily and monthly) because for the price of a single fare you get 90 minutes of travel in any direction. This hugely increases casual transit use, whereas in Toronto I’ve often heard of people forsaking transit despite the far harsher weather because it’s so bloody expensive.

    I like the zone system but I do have to agree with the people who live quite close to the zone boundary and get hit because of its arbitrary nature–if I remember correctly, in London they have stations/stops that are dual-zone. I think this would be a nice addition to Vancouver’s zones to blunt the impact of crossing zones for people who live near boundaries.

    Toronto doesn’t have zones and people from the suburbs seem to think it’s their right to travel miles into the city for the same fare I pay for going 2 subway stations. As a result, a monthly pass here is about the same cost as a 2-zone pass in Vancouver, which is tough to swallow if you’re a student and generally stay within the city core or even within a relatively small area.

  • Ambrose

    It is illogical to say that “when distance-based fare is used for buses (examples include BRT systems in Ahmedabad and Bangkok), it can slow down service, as customers swipe in and out.” Whether your fare is time- or distance-based, you still need to swipe your card, deposit your token, or deposit your change, unless you use an honour system with people who do random fare checks. Both should take the same time. A good card design might make a distance-based system faster (as in Hong Kong’s MTR). And a bad time-based system can make a time-based system slower (as in Toronto’s TTC).

  • SpyOne

    Since you asked what works in our cities:
    My city (or rather region) has tried all of the above.

    I live in Virginia Beach, which is part of Hampton Roads. Seven cities share a single transit network, and have since the one that served two merged with the one that served five a few years ago.

    Fifteen years ago or so, they used “zones”. Along a given route, at specific points the driver would stop the bus and verify that everyone aboard had paid for an additional zone (which could be purchased when boarding, or could be purchased at the Zone border if you forgot). I found this a bit frustrating: my home was about a thousand feet from a zone boundary, as was the point on an evening bus route closest to where I worked: the full zone fare seemed unreasonable for such a short distance, and many’s the day I would walk into the next zone instead of waiting for the bus at the stop just to save the quarter (or whatever, but I think it was a quarter). Also, frequently you could avoid a zone charge by riding a different route to the same destination: the most direct route between two retail centers 15 minutes apart crossed a zone, but a longer route with a transfer (which were free) did not.

    Then they started offering a new service: transfers were only good on the next bus (of a given route) to pass a given stop: they had the time you got off the first bus right on them so the next driver could check. But for part of the cost of a fare ($.075 vs $1.00 if memory serves), you could wait up to 2 hours and board any bus you wanted. EXCEPT the original route in the opposite direction, for some reason.

    The next step was to raise the fares, but get rid of the zones. Now $1.25 got you onto a bus with unlimited transfers, and you could still pay $0.75 to get that 2 hour pass.

    The next step was to raise the fare to $1.50, and to stop giving free transfers, but instead make every pass one of those 2-hour passes. Which was good if you happened to need the bus for 2 hours or less, or if within 2 hours of first boarding a bus you would board a bus you intended to remain on for a long time, but pretty bad for someone who needed to change buses several times and was going to end up getting on that last bus about 2 hours and ten minutes after the first.

    The most recent change has been to do away with the 2-hour pass entirely: it is now $1.50, no transfers, but there is a full day pass for $3.50, so if you are going to board more than two buses today, just go for the pass.

    Almost every one of these changes has made it harder or more expensive for someone to use the bus the way I want to use the bus. In most cases, I found a way to “game the system”. For example, I could take the bus to a mall, shop, then take another bus to a point on the first route beyond my house, so I was boarding the original bus in the same direction to get home, not the opposite (which for some reason was always prohibited). And boarding the last bus for my trip with 5 minutes to go on my 2 hour pass and a 20 minute ride ahead of me. Those 2 combined to let me go to the mall and back for the price of a single fare.

    I have no idea how they are/were working for the transit agency, save to say that they keep changing (raising) the fare, so I guess not very well.
    I always assumed the zones were less about charging proportional to use and more about keeping the homeless from paying a single fare to ride all day, back and forth on the busy main line (often asleep in the back).

    Our monthly fare cards have changed over the same period. I believe they used to allow a person to ride for a quarter (plus zone charges), so they were really a discount card. At some point they switched to ride for free, but were still priced so the month card only made sense if you rode the bus at least 10 times a week. The current monthly card costs about the same as 33 fares or 14 one-day-passes.

  • Hi All,

    Thanks for good data on what you experience in your city.

    Christopher, good information on Cincinnati. For Paris, John, thanks for the additional detail on Paris Metro – the post was meant to be a short run down of each pricing scheme but the info on Paris Metro and RER is useful. What do you consider to be a “short distance” because the DC metro runs from the suburbs to the center of the city, the actual distance travelled is relatively short. For example from the farthest stop, Shady Grove, (based on the metro map, which, I know is not representative to scale) to the center of the city, the distance is only 22 miles; to the other end of the line, going diagonally across the city, that distance is 32 miles or so. Thanks for the info on LA too. And I think you’re right. The distinction between urban transit systems and commuter rails would be more useful in analyzing different components of these systems, such as fare schemes.

    Edward, interesting point. Perhaps you’re right: imitating pricing based on car usage would encourage more public transit users. I think New York’s system of relatively cheap monthly passes encourages people to ride the buses and subway in situations where they would normal drive because they have already paid into the monthly pricing scheme and it’s not an additional burden to travel far on the system. Just a thought.

  • Edward Re

    I think that time based is best. It is simpler, fairer, and provided that the base fare is cheap, it encourages public transport use. A paper ticket torn off with the time, as per SF MUNI, is cheap to implement and works well (I think).

    When it comes to pricing, the transport authorities need to consider that the competition is the car. You don’t have to pay again, as per swapping between the bus and train. Travelling 2 stops on the train here, for me and my wife, is about $10 return, whereas fuel is about $2. In the car, you can get there in less time than it takes to walk to the train station, and parking is free at both ends.

    Usually the “user pays” principle is applied, leading to pricing being as expensive as possible. The end result is that very few people use public transit. Compare with postage, which is about 50 cents to anywhere in the country. This is correctly treated as a public service, and not as an opportunity to charge as much as possible.

  • Peter

    Melbourne uses a hybrid: time fares (2 hr/daily/weekly and up) and coencentric zones. Tickets are available in all zone combinations either pre-purchased or from the driver.

    There used to be 3 zones, with boundaries about 15, 25 and 50km from the city, but the outer 2 were amalgamated, so there’s now only inner and outer suburban zones. Fares are all zones travelled through (so if you needed to go from Zone 2 to Zone 2 via Zone 1 you pay Zone 1+2).

    The inner zone has the entire tram network and its most frequent train services. The fare for this is higher than for travel in the outer zone only. This does make a single trip within the city (for example) relatively expensive, but all-day unlimited use tickets are only double that fare and excellent value. All tickets have unlimited free transfers within the expiry time.

    Having two zones is good in that there aren’t so many zone boundaries and ticket combinations needed. But it does mean that fares jump, even for quite short trips across zone boundaries. Zone overlaps can help (some stops are in both zones, so a ticket for either one will work), but even so some 8km trips are dearer than some 30+ km trips. Long trips in the outer zone (eg 80+km) are also cheap but very few would make them, as most trips are either locally or to the city.

    Overall it works well and delivers fair value for most trips.

  • John Tran

    Distance-based fare systems work best when systems are designed primarily to serve the city proper. To be more accurate about Paris, there is a distinction between the Paris Metro and RER (equivalent to traditional commuter rail systems in the Northeast USA and Chicago). The Paris Metro is not on a distance-based fare system since it serves the city, while the RER is since it transports suburbanites through the city from various outlying areas.

    DC’s Metro is distance-based, similarly to the BART system of the San Francisco Bay Area, because it is a hybrid subway/commuter rail that transports people from the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. Since it traverses quite large distances, Metro should stick with distance-based fares.

    LA is much more spread out and should be charging by distance as well, but with the slower light rail system they’ve chosen to adopt (with exception of the Red and Orange Lines), they should keep the fare one set price since. Metrolink is a traditional commuter rail system and therefore charges based on distance, as you’ve noted.

    I think you should distinguish between urban transit systems and commuter rails, because it makes a difference in determining what the proper way to charge customers would be. Most commuter rail systems I’ve ridden on, including Boston’s MBTA, NJ Transit, Metro North, Chicago’s Metra, the Bay Area’s CalTrain, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, all charge based on distance, since the trains serve suburbs of varying distances. Notice those cities have usually one set fare for their urban rail systems. Cities with newer systems such as LA and DC have to face these pricing issues more because of the differences in their transit systems versus older, more established subway systems.

  • In my home town, Cincinnati, the public transit agency uses a hybrid of both time and distance-based systems.

    When the bus arrives, you must purchase a flat fare of $1.75 from the driver (within Zone 1); if you are traveling to a different zone (the city is divided into 3) then the fare could cost up to $3.00. If you need to transfer to a different bus line, then you must also purchase this upon boarding too- each transfer costs 50 cents, and is represented with a time-stamped fare ticket which is good for 2 hours.

    Both aspects of this fare system create big problems, in my view.

    The first problem is time efficiency. Each transaction described above (fare calculation, transfer purchase, etc.) must be completed by the passenger with the driver before boarding, and the driver is unable to continue along his route until the transaction is complete. If there is a long line of people boarding the bus who must also complete their transactions, then a bus driver might have to spend upwards of 5 minutes at a single stop. This may be an acceptable dwell time for a long-distance rail line, but not in an effective urban transit system.

    The even bigger problem is equity. With any zone-based fare system, the fare structure is totally arbitrary- each passenger is not paying based on the distance they actually travel, but rather only the relationship of their origin and destination to a series of lines drawn on a map. One passenger who is traveling 5 miles (within Zone 1) will pay only $1.75, while another traveling 5 blocks (from Zone 1 to 2) will have to pay $2.65!

    It seems to me that modern technology could overcome all of these shortcomings. For instance, a Smart Card fare system, using RFID scanners at entry and exit points on each bus, could allow passengers to pay only for the actual distance that they ride- regardless of the amount of time or transfers required.

    Any transit agency looking to boost ridership should examine very carefully the quality of the passenger experience. A truly efficient and equitable fare system would go a long way towards improving that experience.