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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?