Connections, or transfers as North Americans depressingly call them, are the foundation of a simple, frequent transit network that’s there whenever you need it. I laid out the basic argument here, but in brief, a transit system that tries to run direct service from everywhere else (so that nobody has to make a connection) ends up as a confusing tangle of hundreds of overlapping lines, few of which are frequent enough to rely on or simple enough to remember.
But once you decide to offer free connections, you face challenges. Rail rapid transit systems usually let you change trains behind the faregates without paying another fare, but surface transit systems (bus, rail, or ferry) struggle with how to encourage transfers without encouraging fare evasion. If you give paying passengers a transfer slip providing a free ride on a connecting service, you get all kinds of abuse: people who don’t need the transfer slip sometimes sell it, or give it away, or simply drop it where someone else can find it, and ride free.
The blog of Vancouver’s transit agency TransLink, called The Buzzer, recently featured this 1974 explanation of “transfer regulations” in that city, as printed on the route map. It’s a nice example of the kind of regulation that was common at that time.
Note how much complexity follows from trying to insist that transfer slips must be used only for connections and that you must not do anything else while connecting. The authors have thought of everything you could conceivably do that isn’t exactly what they intend, and are resolved to prohibit all of it in meticulous detail.
Fortunately, not many transit agencies take this tone with their customers anymore.
There seem to be three defensible approaches to connection-pricing, at least in the North American and Australasian contexts where I work:
- One is to stop giving transfer slips, but instead sell a reasonably priced day pass. This is now common in parts of the US, especially in the sunbelt. With a day pass, you charge a bit more and in return you give up trying to control how the slip is used. Of course, this is still unfair to people making spontaneous one-time trips, which are, in my view, a pretty foundational element of healthy urban life.
- An intermediate approach, modeled by AC Transit in Oakland, is to provide a transfer slip for a nominal extra charge, such as 25 cents. This is supposed to deter people who don’t need one from taking them, thus reducing the number that are discarded where others can pick them up and use them.
- The third approach, which I have to say I prefer, is to take a deep breath and just not worry about it. Give out free transfer slips because the design of your system is based on encouraging connections. Treat the transfer slip as a 90-minute or two-hour pass, good for unlimited rides within that short period. Do what you can to discourage them from being sold or transferred, but don’t try to control how they’re used by the person to whom they’re issued. If someone can make a quick round trip in that time, or do a stopover, then that’s fine. Portland’s TriMet, Vancouver’s TransLink, and San Francisco Muni all do this, as do the integrated networks in Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia. In all these places, and many more, a base fare buys you unlimited use for 90-120 minutes with the fare zones specified.
Of course, there are lots of other kinds of connection-pricing policy out there, including a range of partial policies and non-policies. It all gets much more complicated where there are multiple entangled transit operators watching their own balance sheets and no citywide agency with the power to coordinate them.
Many of the security problems around transfer slips should disappear in the new era of smartcards. A good GPS-based smartcard system will know that you got off another transit vehicle nine minutes ago, so it will be able to determine whether you should be charged a new fare when you board the next one. It will be interesting to see whether agencies that still have fare penalties for connections take the opportunity to eliminate them. It will still be politically hard: if you eliminate your connection penalty without raising the base fare, your revenue will tick downward. If you raise the base fare to compensate, lazy journalists will do stories about your evil fare increase, ignoring the larger fairness of the change.
But one thing is true everywhere, because it’s a matter of geometry: if you want frequency and simplicity in your network, you have to encourage connections. So any pricing scheme that penalizes connections, or that shrouds them with punitive rules like this 1974 policy, is in conflict with those basic goals.