Los Angeles Times Columnist Slams Transfer Penalties

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.

28 Responses to Los Angeles Times Columnist Slams Transfer Penalties

  1. Kevin March 25, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    LA’s current fare and payment system is disjointed and odd.
    A simple commute to work and home again -– two one-way trips in my mind — requires at least four one-way purchases for most riders.
    (That’s assuming one transfer each direction, which is not uncommon in LA’s grid system).
    At the current $1.25 full fare, that’s $5 a day (the same price as an all-day pass).
    Weekly and monthly passes only seem economical for more hard-core users, not occasional riders like myself.
    But to get a day pass on a bus, one now must already own a reloadable plastic Tap Card. Driver don’t sell them, or paper day passes. So tourists and first-timers are out of luck.
    The subway vending machines will still sell a paper day pass, valid on both rail and bus.
    But the subway is installing turnstiles and Tap Card readers (that don’t read paper passes) at its stations.
    So Tap users are supposed to tap. Those who buy a paper pass at the station are supposed to just ignore the gates, and walk around them!
    And tourists stand at the gate, tapping their paper passes in frustration.
    It’s a mess. And I say that as a fan of the system. I know we’re in transition here. It’s just hard to see what the end-game is, and what type of logical and cohesive fare system we’re evolving toward.

  2. anonymouse March 25, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    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.
    This is important enough that it deserves to be emphasized again. Charging for transfers makes no sense at all.

  3. francis March 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    A few thoughts on San Francisco…
    – There actually is a day pass, but it’s priced for tourists who want to ride the cable cars. ($11 for the day pass, $5 for a one-way cable car ride, $2 for a regular fare)
    – On some street corners one can get a backdoor day pass (a Late Night Special transfer slip) for $1.
    – The transfer system, in a rather imperfect way, allows for pricing long and short trips differently. Most commuters will need to pay once in the morning and once in the evening. But a short midday trip (such as from work to lunch) only requires one fare, since the transfer is valid for 90 minutes even on the same line in the opposite direction.

  4. Pedestrianist March 25, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    Thanks to the current SFMTA doomsday spiral, the idea of charging for transfers is again ostensibly on the table. In this latest round it’s some transit advocates who have been suggesting the day pass alternative.
    I agree that smart cards are the solution (if you build the system to account for transfers… not exactly a given, unfortunately). Muni is stepping up the push to get us all on Translink Clipper within a year or so.

  5. Paul C March 26, 2010 at 1:46 am #

    This is the biggest reason why I feel only one company should provide the transit service in a metro city. The fact that I would have to pay extra to switch from one mode of transit to another is ridiculous.

  6. Jarrett March 26, 2010 at 1:54 am #

    Paul. This is not a problem about the number of companies. The problem is the lack of a single-trip transfer within Metro itself.

  7. Paul C March 26, 2010 at 2:34 am #

    Of course if there was only only one company or organization. Then you wouldn’t have the problem of transferring with a single transfer slip.
    Unless of course I’m reading this wrong. And a single company is making its riders pay again to switch from one transit mode to another. Or they are making their riders pay more to switch from one route to another. Both of which I feel is not good. In both cases it would be easier to just raise the fare slightly and provide a time limited transfer. That is good amongst the whole system. Of course this is assuming only one company is running transit.

  8. Andy in Germany March 26, 2010 at 3:26 am #

    What a strage system.
    Here we pay by zone and time: you can get a three zone ticket and change five times if it makes you happy, then get a three zone ticket back- except that you can buy tickets good for four journeys, in effect two returns. You can take different routes out and back as well, as long as you stay withing three zones.
    If you’re travelling a lot in a day you can get a 2 zone or all zone day pass as an individual or for a group. It’s quick and easy and we take it for granted.

  9. dejv March 26, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    This sounds ridiculous – companies seem not to limit time or distance on single seat rides and tries to get its money back from transferring passengers.
    German-style system described by Andy works great. Traveling with such Verkehsverbund (is there any widely accepted english term for that?) is really seamless, it doesn’t matter if one catches regional bus, city bus, tram or train. Contrary to Paul C’s belief, such system can be run by multiple companies. Over here, it’s exactly 19, including one central-government owned running heavy rail services.

  10. Dave Miller March 26, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Language often says a lot about a society. The fact that there isn’t a widely accepted english (or american) term for an organization coordinating many transit companies within a region speaks to what americans are used to and what they value. Often, there isn’t even an organization other than city council! Most other countries enforce coordination by companies serving a public infrastructure such as transit. That is less common here where it is considered inappropriate for government to place restrictions on how companies operate even for the public good. We see this again (and pay for it again) in healthcare, education, some utilities, etc.

  11. Paul C March 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    While I don’t know the german system exactly. In your city. Is there one over power organization that I guess you could say regulates the other 19 companies. Gets them all on the same page as it were.
    My biggest problem with multiple companies. When each company wants to do its own thing. They don’t agree on a standard system. So you end up with a situation in LA. Where each one is doing their own thing.

  12. dejv March 26, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    Yes, there’s one power organization that coordinates, regulates and subsidizes actual operators with one big exception: central city’s transit agency, that’s being paid by city itself. Passenger doesn’t recognize the difference, though.
    Network effects like common seamless fare system and service in “unprofitable” times of day are strong enough that operators don’t even seek to run their services outside such systems.

  13. Stuart J March 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    @paulc – not necessarily one company is a good thing. Competition within the market can be a healthy, and bring about better outcomes and innovation for passengers.
    That said, the contracting model of how organisations are engaged to operate the system is the key. The model I like best, personally, is one where revenue flows to the relevant transport authority, who franchises the system to private enterprise to operate, with a contract model that rewards good performance (for example, achieve x% patronage growth above population growth, and you’ll receive a bonus). Poor performance is conversely penalised to the point where there’s no profit in the contract.
    Linking fare revenue to operator revenue in my opinion, can produce two opposing objectives – get more revenue for the operator, versus an integrated and seamless system for the passenger. Retaining a bonus for attracting new patrons retains the incentive for the operator to deliver an improved passenger experience, and hence increase patronage.

  14. anonymouse March 26, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    The situation in LA is even more complicated and annoying than you think. There are NO transfers between MTA routes. This includes rail routes, which is actually fairly uncommon globally. However, you CAN get a transfer between MTA and non-MTA services for, I believe, 50 cents. It used to be that you could actually get on an MTA bus for less than full fare, if you bought a single ride on a cheap muni such as Pasadena’s ARTS and a muni-to-Metro transfer. On top of this, freeway express buses have an express surcharge. There are also monthly passes for Metro, each muni operator, and a joint monthly pass that covers both Metro and the Munis and can be upgraded with extra freeway zones as well. Ideally, I’d like to see all the munis adopt TAP and set up a uniform fare system, or at least more uniform than it currently is. In the long term, perhaps Metro could divest more of its bus operations to the municipal operators and leave itself with the rail network and express buses, and serve more as a coordinating agency between the various muni operators.

  15. Justin N March 26, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    Honestly, I’ve always found transfer-slip systems disadvantageous, and for one simple reason- the single ride is priced differently when transfers aren’t included. For example, the prevailing fare in the Los Angeles area, at least for the major countywide operators (Metro, Foothill, OCTA, Omni, RTA) is around $1.25-$1.50. The fare I pay when I travel up north to the Bay Area is closer to the $2-$2.25 range. If I’m making a short trip around town, it’s much cheaper for me to do it on the Metro than on the Muni- and the longer trips cost more. (Though, to be honest, I hold a bus pass here at home, and usually buy a pass when I travel.)
    Smart cards should provide a whole suite of useful ways of pricing transit rides, and I look forward to it.

  16. calwatch March 26, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    The low fares actually have a political reason to them. For funding purposes, “ridership” is defined as revenue collected divided by the base fare, which dictates the percent of state and local funding is allocated to the system. Funding shares are based on “riders” as defined above and vehicle service miles (rather than cost, vehicle service hours, passenger miles, or some other method).
    Thus, this results in the lame situation where you encourage day passes, high express charges, and high pass prices while keeping your base fare as low as possible. On the service end, the vehicle service mile criteria encourages express service like Metro Rapid and commuter buses over local service, since those buses have more service miles per revenue hour. To maximize “ridership”, MTA dropped its base fare from $1.35 to $1.25 in 2004 when they created the then $3 day pass. In the last fare increase, rather than rationally increasing the fare to, say, $2, and charging a $5 day pass, they chose to keep the base fare the same and charge a higher amount for the day pass. This boosts “ridership” while not actually increasing butts in the seats. This was discovered fairly serendipitously by Torrance Transit’s late general manager, who realized in 2003 by reconfiguring the fare structure, he could get more money to the agency. Back then, Torrance was charging 75 cents for a ride and 15 cents for a transfer. He changed that to 50 cents a ride and 40 cents for a transfer. The money collected in the box would only be slightly less, but your “ridership” goes up by 50%. Base fare only applies to regular service, so Foothill Transit, in creating the Silver Streak BRT, charged a much higher fare than existing service ($2.50, with limited senior discounts). This increased revenue, but didn’t affect the “ridership” calculation since it is based on their $1.00 local fare.
    Past attempts to change this have been unsuccessful because there are always winners and losers. If they went to a pure vehicle service mile calculation, it benefits agencies that run express service and suburban local service over agencies that run local stop service in congested areas. If they went to revenue service hours, it advantages urban agencies over suburban ones. The only modification they made recently was to fix “ridership” if a fare increase was implemented by an agency, and close the loophole that allowed agencies to lower the fare to game the system (which Foothill Transit was considering – dropping the fare to 75 cents and eliminating transfers completely). This formula hasn’t changed since MTA’s creation, and it is highly unlikely it will change any time soon.

  17. cph March 27, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Why so many agencies in LA County in the first place?
    From the late 1800s onward, horsecar, cable car, steam, and (eventually) electric railways were built, radiating from Downtown LA to
    In 1911, the “Great Consolidation” took place. The streetcar lines serving the area about six or seven miles away from Downtown LA became the Los Angeles Railway; longer distance lines (to Santa Monica, Long Beach, etc.) became the Pacific Electric.
    However, there were still many streets without rail service. Buses began to appear on these streets from the 1920s. Although the railway companies operated some of these buses, others were provided by private companies or cities other than Los Angeles. (Santa Monica and Culver City, I believe, operated the earliest municipal buses in Southern California, starting in 1928.)
    To make a long story short, transit became a public service, instead of a private enterprise, in the 1960s. LAMTA (and later RTD) buses, which had replaced the PE and LARY operations, began to take over most of the money-losing private suburban bus companies. However, the cities which operated municipal lines (by then, Santa Monica, Culver City, Gardena, Torrance and Montebello) decided to keep their local services. Others local buses sprung up later–Commerce, Norwalk, etc. Most of these RTD didn’t mind much, but there was a nasty political battle over the formation of Foothill Transit (San Gabriel Valley) in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
    As to transfers: For the most part, each of these operators didn’t exchange transfers until the mid 70’s, when the Interagency Transfer was developed. This transfer is still available for the most part, although the cost can be ridiculously high (50c or more) for the reasons mentioned in earlier posts.
    More recently, the EZpass (valid on almost all systems in LA County) became available. But it is only available on a monthly basis. There has been talk of an EZ Day Pass, but no action (yet).
    Most of the non-LA County operators (Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino) now use day passes, not transfers. Transferring outside of LA County can get interesting. The other operators *may* accept an LA county operator’s fare media for a single trip, but if you need to transfer again, prepare to pay another base fare….

  18. Gavin Seipelt March 29, 2010 at 7:01 am #

    It’s funny you should specifically focus on LACMTAs fare policies. I’m more accustomed to the fare structure of Brisbane, so the system in LA just seemed illogical in many aspects.
    In particular, you mentioned how smart cards remove justification for transfer penalties, though this hasn’t been the case at all. At present “TAP” cards only allow you to store Day, Weekly and Monthly passes, but there is no “pay as you go” style option (And even if there was, I can still imagine it being $1.25 each time).
    Furthermore, if you want to use the Weekly and Monthly option, it has to run from Sunday through Saturday (Which was annoying as a vistior…I arrived on a Thursday, and was told to buy day passes up until Sunday, when I could then activate the weekly. Surley an electronic system should be able to start the pass on any day.
    Overall, it just seemed to be a really odd implementation, to have spent money installing the infrastructure (Which ran to things like turnstiles on the Subway that were permanently unlocked and unmanned), but using none of the features of smart cards to the users advantage.
    But paying $1.25 each time was frustrating, for starters it slows down bus boarding times, plus it takes away the flexibility of how you can travel, (Eg When I’m traveling on the Busways I’ll often take the first one that arrives, and then tranfer (or not) depending on the final destination of that vehicle.

  19. Alon Levy March 29, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    Gavin, it’s interesting that Brisbane tap cards are only unlimited. In Singapore and Shanghai, the situation is the opposite: tap cards give you a discount, but there are no unlimited travel cards. I believe the same is true for the tap cards of Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London, three of the other major tap card cities of the world.

  20. Gavin Seipelt March 30, 2010 at 4:14 am #

    ^Brisbane is a ‘pay as you go’ style system not unlimited. Go Cards fares are are least a 20% discount compared to paper tickets, and the fare is based on a zonal system (22 concentric zones across all of S.E Queensland…Though the Brisbane metropolitan area only really goes as far as Zone 7 or so) So you just have to keep enough money stored on the card, and the system deducts fares based upon the number of zones travelled through.
    In Melbourne however the new Myki card will offer both pay as you go, as well as a stored unlimited’pass’ option. But the cool thing about it is that you can not only nominate the zones covered, but can nominate the length of the pass anywhere from 7 to 356 days, and naturally it can be activated on any day…Surley TAP should be able to offer this degree of functionality?

  21. bzcat March 31, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    As a resident of LA county, let me get a few things off my chest…
    1. MTA added gates to the train system but failed to also implement a distance based fare. We are required to TAP in but not TAP out… a huge missed opportunity to improve the service by allowing people to transfer within the system for free.
    2. Bus to bus transfer or even rail to bus transfer for a fee is not necessarily illogical as Jarrett says. If you believe fare should be distanced based, then transfers merely reflects the true cost of your transit trip (assuming of course that transfers corresponds to distance… which obviously is not always the case).
    3. The single biggest problem with TAP card in LA right now is lack of access… you can’t buy TAP cards anywhere other than subway stations.
    4. Second biggest problem with TAP card is that the one sold by MTA is not enabled for stored value… the most basic function of a RFID card! You can buy TAP card from Culver City and it works just like RFID cards in any other city – value is deducted when you TAP in.
    5. MTA as a public agency lacks vision and professional expertise in implementing such system (this is my opinion). In Tokyo, there are 2 RFID card systems: JR East Suica and Tokyo Metro PASSMO. Both systems work seamlessly with each other and a third public transit agency (Tokyo City Dept of Transportation), as well as 14 other privately owned bus and rail operators. It’s a much more complicated and sophisticated system and both JR East and Tokyo Metro have an entire dedicated division of people within the company working on nothing but the RFID cards.
    Now look at MTA… it has 1 employee assigned part time as the spokes person for TAP. The systems and operation is actually outsourced to TAP. MTA has no in-house IT staff to solve problems and refers any passenger to TAP if there is a fare dispute. Fare payment system is at the heart of a transit agency and MTA treats it like it is something someone else should care about.

  22. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org March 31, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    @ bzcat
    You write:  "2. Bus to bus transfer or even rail to bus transfer for a fee is not
    necessarily illogical as Jarrett says. If you believe fare should be
    distanced based, then transfers merely reflects the true cost of your
    transit trip (assuming of course that transfers corresponds to
    distance… which obviously is not always the case)"
    The need to transfer has very little to do with distance in a grid system like LA.  Any trip that is diagonal to the main grid requires a transfer, regardless of its distance.

  23. dejv March 31, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    I agree with Jarrett. In here, it’s done by combined time and zone fare. Basic tickets are for two zones so passenger who catches the vehicle just one stop before zone border isn’t in disadvantage compared to another passenger going the opposite way.

  24. Ted King March 31, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    @ dejv – Re : Verkehsverbund
    I believe you are referring to the German compound word “Verkehrsverbund” which breaks down to transport + combine (Verkehr + Verbund). I know of a similar, somewhat hamstrung, organization namely S.F.Bay’s MTC (see link below). They have been trying to get a smart card fare system rolled out over the last decade with some success. There may be other umbrella groups out there.

  25. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org April 1, 2010 at 2:53 am #

    The Bay Area MTC is nothing like a Verkehrsverbund.  The MTC is a club of governments, charged with hammering out the flow of state and federal funding into the region.  It has no role in transit operations to speak of, and has never been able to do much to make the region's transit operators co-ordinate their services better.  A German Verkehrsverbund presents an entire urban region's network as a single integrated system, centralizing things that need to be centralized such as most planning, public information, branding etc., while multiple operating companies may run services under its umbrella.

  26. dejv April 1, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Ted: I’ve found that stub on Wikipedia, but googling for “transport association” didn’t return any relevant results, so I didn’t take WP’s terminology seriously.
    Jarrett: thanks for clearing it.

  27. Mikeymichelle April 3, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    How timely- I am making a power point about Germany and Italy’s policy this very weekend!! (using information from Stuttgart, Milan and Turin). It is my pet peeve about the SF Bay Area transit (well, one of them).
    Jarret is correct, I live in the SF Bay Area- the MTC area. MTC has little to do with transit, and their contribution to “transit coordination” is the “Translink” card, oops to be called “clipper” which has been in the works for over ten years, (and still isn’t everywhere). It does nothing to make transit affordable; it is a glorified debit card that all agencies would accept at their same fare structure. In my case, I would still pay $2 to take AC transit, (the local bus in Oakland) to BART (unless I had taken BART the day before in which case i would get a 25 cent discount with my BART transfer- whoopee!!!), then I would pay $3.60 (plus or minus) to take BART to San Francisco, then I would have to pay the SF MUNI fare – $1.50 I think. Or if I take BART to Santa Clara County, I would have to pay their full fare. (FYI _their policy is no transfers period between light rail and bus or between bus and bus. Instead they have a day pass which costs 3 times the single fare. Sucks for the single ride person.
    Back to Europe:
    Germany has had integrated fares since the 1960’s; Stuttgart’s transit people (SSB) told me that there are 65 different Tariff & Transit Organizations in Germany, the one for Stuttgart and the surrounding four counties is called VVS (http://www.vvs.de/en/ is their English page)(I don’t think they are all called VVS but I don’t know for sure).
    They are in charge of setting common fares, advertising, demand analysis, collecting and distributing revenues, coordination of operations.
    Milan in Lombardy started in 1978 and Turin in Piedmont in 1996. Both work that you can ride within the city within 90minutes on a single ticket, If you are coming from outside the city and, for example arrived by train or intercity bus, somehow it works too, your train ticket also gets you on the city’s trams and buses.
    Both Germans and Italians agreed the number of companies/agencies wasn’t the problem, they thing local knowledge is essential. It is just that coordinating the fare structures- an Integrated Tariff Structure- is essential.
    My view is that the rider is already being penalized timewise by having to transfer; paying twice or three times is just rubbing salt into the wound.

  28. Edward Re October 31, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    You want transfer craziness, the winner is Sydney! You have to pay the full fare transferring between any bus, even with the same carrier, and needless to say between ferry or train. You can get day tickets, or weeklies etc, but for casual users, and unless you’re going to the CBD, it is not good!