Is it fair to have to pay more if your trip requires a transfer or connection? I’ve argued that it isn’t, but I also have an appreciation of the difficulty of eliminating these penalties. So when complaining about a fare penalty, try to understand the situation from the transit agency’s point of view. Not because they’re right and you’re wrong, but because you many need to help them solve the problem that it presents for them.
Definitions first. A connection penalty is any element of a fare policy whose effect is to charge people more for a trip that requires two or more transit vehicles than for a trip using only one, even when the trip is of exactly the same distance and when there’s no evident difference in class, amenity, or inefficiency to justify a surcharge.
For example, in the Sydney Morning Herald’s inquiry on Sydney’s public transit, I prepared this table showing the difference between rail fares and rail+bus fares for trips of exactly the same distance:
My basic view of connection penalities has always been this: The connection is not an added convenience for which the customer should pay extra. It’s an inconvenience required by the geometry of any efficient, legible, and frequent transit system. Transit systems must therefore do what they can to minimize this inconvenience and encourage people to make connections. Connection fare penalties are exactly contrary to this imperative.
As near as I can tell, most fare penalties for connecting arise from some mixture of four basic issues:
- Practical security problems around the physical tools used to record connections, such as the opportunities for fare evasion created by abundant transfer slips. If this is the primary reason for a connection penalty, smartcard systems will eliminate the problem and should lead to removal of the connection penalty.
- Laws and funding arrangements that refer explicitly to the cash single-ride fare. A key funding formula that governs Los Angeles County transit agencies gives these agencies more subsidy if they push their base fare downward. The formula is actually trying to reward ridership, but because ridership is hard to measure across multiple agencies, it estimates ridership as the fare revenue divided by cash single-ride fare. This penalizes agencies for raising their cash single-ride fares; it instead encourages them to invent other fees and fare penalties for reasons that have nothing to do with the real intentions of the formula. Again, smartcards, which will provide a more accurate and direct measure of ridership, should eliminate the need for such approximations and the perverse incentives that follow from them.
- A journalistic obsession with single-ride cash fare as the key measure of fare cost. The single-ride cash fare is easy to talk about, and journalists and other non-transit-experts tend to focus on it, producing soundbites such as “Los Angeles fares are cheaper than San Francisco’s.” Prevalence of these soundbites motivates agencies to try, for reasons of appearance, to keep their cash single-ride fares down. Again, this is just like airlines: If you become obsessed with reducing your base ticket price at all costs, you’ll have to invent more and more fees. Connection penalties are one fee of that type.
- Conflicts between the self-interests of geographically entangled agencies or operators. In multi-agency or multi-operator environments, the introduction of a free connection can come at the expense of the bottom lines of multiple operators, and tends to affect different operators differently. These problems are sometimes overcome through heroic negotiation, in which the operators agree to shift money among themselves in complex ways in order to present a simple integrated fare system to the customer. In other cases (as in Brisbane) the solution is to create a new meta-agency that sits over all the operators, pays them for operations, receives their fare revenue, and takes responsibility for a single region-wide or city-wide bottom line.
So it’s hard. It’s important. Good transit agencies are at least thinking about the problem, but it’s still hard. In multi-agency cases, for example, the problem may be impossible to solve without creating a meta-agency, with all the attendant anxiety about “adding another layer of government.”
What can a citizen do? One thing is to confront journalists and others who try to make simplistic comparisons based on cash single-ride fares. Journalists: if you want to do quick pieces about fares, look for average fares (fare revenue divided by ridership) rather than published base fares. Yes, this is harder because not all agencies can calculate ridership reliably, or (as in Los Angeles) they may actually be relying on fare revenue to get to a ridership estimate. Again, though, smartcards should eliminate that problem.
Finally, since I’ve now referred twice to smartcards solving the problem, let me be clear: Technology can solve information problems, but not ethical ones. Connection penalties based on the inadequacy of information-tracking tools should fade away once smartcards provide the necessary tool. But technology won’t change the political problem: to eliminate fare penalties without losing revenue, you will probably have to raise the single-ride cash fare to compensate. Effectively you’ll be admitting that you’ve been subsidizing some riders at the expense of others. You should expect all the blow back that we see anywhere when we tell people that we’re removing a subsidy on which they’ve come to rely.
That’s the real problem. Courageous leadership is the only solution for it.