Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus tried using transit recently, and what drove him crazy was not the waiting, the crowding, the delays. What drove him crazy were the fares:
For example, transfers. Switching from one transit provider to another is often a necessity in an area this vast. Some, such as Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, make it relatively easy. Others do not.
The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the leading provider of bus and rail service in Southern California, charges $1.25 per trip (it’ll go up to $1.50 in July). You can pay an extra 30 cents to transfer to another provider.
But you can’t get a transfer to switch from one Metro route to another, or from a bus to a subway. Switching from a Metro rapid bus line, say, to a Metro local line will require you to pay the full fare twice.
You can buy a daily Metro pass for $5 or a weekly pass for $17, but that won’t let you switch providers. Nor will you be allowed to use the Commuter Express buses that are often the quickest way to get across town during rush hour.
I’ve always been adamant about the crucial role of connections (or transfers, as Americans depressingly call them) in any multi-destinational transit system. Traditionally, these were provided using paper transfer slips, which were issued by one driver and accepted by the next one. Unfortunately, many cities found these slips to be easy tools for fare evasion. People who didn’t need them sold them to other riders, and drivers got tired of having to guard their transfer books as though they were cash.
So a couple of decades ago the idea began spreading in the American industry that we should get rid of transfers, and instead sell a cheap day pass, priced at around twice the base fare. The idea was that people who were transferring, and making a round trip, would come out ahead with the day pass. People who were making a one way trip, or just spontaneously trying to move around their city — they were out of luck. This idea seemed to spread around the southwest, reaching San Jose but not San Francisco. Fortunately it never became the industry standard. Some agencies do charge a nominal fee for transfers, to try to limit the abuse.
(I do recall an uninformed San Francisco Board of Supervisors decision that abolished transfers in the early 1990s. “Fiasco” is too mild a word, and transfers were back within a couple of weeks.)
Once smartcards become standard, the last justification for charging for transfers will be gone. Good smartcards can identify, when you board, that you’ve gotten off another service within a specified interval, so free transfers will be easy to identify and provide. Transit in the business of selling complete passenger trips, not individual rides. It can make sense to charge more for long trips or for longer blocks of time. But the need to get off one vehicle and onto another is not a deluxe feature that the customer should pay extra for; it’s an inconvenience imposed by the design of the system. Charging for transfers has never made sense.