Charging for connections is insane

Congratulations to Los Angeles Metro, the latest transit agency to make connections (also called transfers) free.  There are footnotes: you have to be using a smartcard, but if you're in Los Angeles for more than a day or two you should already have one.  The big point is this:  The core of the Los Angeles transit network is the liberating high-frequency grid, which relies on the assumption that passengers can be asked to change buses once.  Until now, the agency's policy of charging passengers extra to change buses was in direct conflict with the foundational principle of its network design.

Once more with feeling;  Charging passengers extra for the inconvenience of connections is insanely self-destructive.  It discourages exactly the customer behavior that efficient and liberating networks depend on.  It undermines the whole notion of a transit network.   It also gives customers a reason to object to network redesigns that deliver both greater efficiency and greater liberty, because by imposing a connection on their trip it has also raised their fare.

For that reason, actual businesses don't do it.  When supposedly business minded bureaucrats tell us we should charge for connections, they are revealing that they have never stopped to think about how the transit product is different from soap or restaurants.   The difference is that your success relies on products working together, the so-called network effect.   So tell them to think about airlines:   Fares that require a connection are frequently cheaper than nonstops.   That's because the connection is something you endure for the sake of an efficient and broadly useful airline network, not an added service that you should pay extra for.  

There was, for a while, an argument against free transfers that arose from the ease of abusing paper transfer slips.  These slips, issued in return for a cash fare and to be presented on your second bus or train, were easy to give away or sell.  Many US systems eliminated transfers and offered day passes instead, which improved security but at the high cost of discouraging spontaneous trips.

In any case, as soon as a transit agency has a working smartcard, there's no excuse for connection charges.  They sometimes linger because managers and elected officials are desperate for revenue but are afraid to raise the base cash fare.  In some cities, local journalists are too lazy to understand fare structures and just write quick scare stories whenever the base fare goes up.  This motivates transit agencies to do desperate and devious-looking things to raise other charges, just as a simplistic obsession with low fares has caused  airlines to invent endless fees. 

But what matters is not just that the fare be low.  It needs to be fair, and it needs to encourage people to use the system in more efficient ways.  An efficient and liberating network requires connections, so penalizing connections is an attack on your network's efficiency.  

34 Responses to Charging for connections is insane

  1. anonymouse August 12, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

    The day pass was not a security measure: there was at least as much abuse and reselling of those as there would have been with transfers, and they’re generally more valuable too, thus more worth selling. The day pass system in LA was mostly an artifact of a county funding allocation scheme that allocated funding to the various transit operators based on “ridership”, where “ridership” was defined as total fare revenue divided by base fare. This meant that the agencies wanted a base fare as low as possible, but charging for every connection was obviously a non-starter, so a day pass of about 3x the base was the obvious solution. Still, it’s pretty ridiculous that LA was the only metro system with no free transfers between lines.

  2. Rob August 12, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    But – it gets more complicated with the transfer is between agencies (especially multiple agencies in the same service area). Then it seems the accountants rule the day, and getting accurate interagency reconciliations for transfers takes priority over common sense policies and service objectives – this despite most people making round trips where each agency gets its fair share regardless. The question is how to make sure policies support business objectives rather than bureaucratic dictates.

  3. Dexter Wong August 13, 2014 at 12:40 am #

    Yes, it does seem that accountants rule at many transit agencies. AC Transit recently gave up paper transfers in favor of a day pass, SamTrans has not had transfers in years (the more connections you make, the more it costs) and Honolulu’s TheBus made transfers only good for two connections so more revenue could be raised without actually raising fares.

  4. Zoltána Dosztál-Connell August 13, 2014 at 3:27 am #

    “Gloria Molina offered the most pointed criticism of Metro, as she has in the past. Molina said that Metro has far more low-income riders than in other metro areas with vast transit systems… Instead, Molina offered a motion asking the agency to trim its operating budget by 1.5 percent”
    This is a really ill thought out reaction, one that could do a lot more harm than good.
    I suspect Lower income riders are most likely make suburb-to-suburb trips and accept transfers between routes that operate less frequently than ideal. So not only will many pay less with free transfers, but a 1.5% service cut would do a great deal of harm – more long waits and more missed transfers, harming the ability of low income riders to get to work and make other necessary trips.
    Keeping fares low and cutting service is a symptom of a politically engineered death spiral in which transit provides minimal service to the poorest demographic, which well-meaning politicians call the “transit dependent”. As Jarrett points out, even the “transit dependent” have an option of quitting their job across town or taking out a loan on a second hand car if things get bad. That means reduced frequency, meaning more and more losses of those on the margin of transit being practicable. For those people, the fact transit *would* be $1.50 if it were useful isn’t helpful.
    Finally, if an agency can improve farebox recovery, if it can demonstrate that the agency is working efficiently and each dollar is going to go further than the last, that’s likely to be helpful in lobbying for improved funding as well as avoiding some dramatic deficit-driven service cut down the line.

  5. Ke August 13, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    Buses in the UK have always done a “one (distance-based) fare per vehicle”, which is essentially a pay-for-transfer. UK trains not, though: you pay a (somewhat distance-based) fare for the whole journey, no matter how many vehicles it uses.

  6. calwatch August 13, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    Molina’s 1.5% cut was not adopted, of course. The only serious way of cutting spending without cutting service would be contracting out, which is anathema to the politicians that control Los Angeles.
    While the increased fare is not going to translate to added bus service (bus service hours are basically flat over the next ten years, as service restructuring due to rail openings are reinvested back into the system but no more) it should help improve reliability and supervision, especially on a sprawling Metro system. A reliable, on time service is much more important to low income people with shift jobs and classes that start at a fixed time than professional people who just need to accomplish tasks during the day. In this regard, moving people to more reliable rail service is a lot better. The times that the track is fouled are a lot less frequent than regular congestion from a crash or construction gumming up the works.

  7. Michael August 13, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    The Great Lakes region starting with Rochester has seemed to gone anti-free transfer.
    Rochester RTS started the whole trend with the idea that people should pay each time they board a bus, or buy a day pass (which is pretty cheap). But now other cities in the region like Buffalo and others have followed.
    Buy a day pass, or pay each time you board. Not a fan of that and it sets the wrong message about connections.

  8. david vartanoff August 13, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    Well said, Jarrett. In a history of transit in Winnipeg it was pointed out that streetcars were implemented to make it easier to get from homes to businesses thus enabling increased economic activity. Surcharging riders who don’t live on the same route as their jobs, medical providers, preferred vendors works to constrain economic activity.

  9. Naomi August 13, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    Alameda County Transit has taken a step way back by eliminating transfers completely and doing the day pass thing (like Rochester above). What do you think of this?
    It’s been completely quietly rolled out. Only one newspaper article about the change.

  10. calwatch August 13, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    In some instances, it might be better to make the day pass the default fare.
    Part of AC Transit’s change may have been how the Clipper fare system works. I know that the Clipper administrators have to pay Cubic every time some programming change is made or some logic change is added. For Golden Gate Transit they once submitted a list of all eligible transfers to Cubic for programming, until they gave up. Perhaps combining day passes and transfers was too much for the engineers.

  11. david vartanoff August 13, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    quoting what I wrote at Streetsblog,
    One can counter that unless one’s entire day’s travels are 1) a single seat ride each way, and 2) short enough that under the old 90 minute 1 transfer rule it could be done on a single fare + transfer surcharge–not likely in most cases–a two and 1/2 fare unlimited day pass is far more rider friendly as it facilitates stopping off for errands on the way without any further expense. Those of us who “rent the system by the month” have that luxury, now one can do it day by day.

  12. jack horner August 13, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    For the info of anyone interested:
    Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have public transport smartcards valid over all modes(train, bus tram, ferry) within the service area.
    In Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth there are timing rules to allow transfers without penalty (one fare deducted allows unlimited touch-ons within X hours). X is 2 for Melbourne, 3.5 for Brisbane (a much bigger service area) and 2 or 3 for Perth depending on length of trip.
    In Adelaide there is a flat fare per boarding (but changing trains within the paid area does not count as a new boarding).
    In Sydney the recently introduced smart card automates, but does *not* simplify, the insanely complicated fare system inherited from the separate train, bus and ferry operators. Break of journey (whether to make a transfer or for any other purpose) is without penalty only if it is between vehicles of the same type (bus, train or ferry) and the break between touch off and the next touch on is under 60 minutes.**
    ** Note that ‘break of a single journey’ is not the same as ‘unlimited touchons’. It’s unclear to me whether this rule would allow for a *return* trip within 60 minutes.

  13. Nathanael August 13, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

    TAP Cards in Los Angeles cannot be purchased in the Metro stations, which is COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS.
    So yes, bouquets to LA for finally eliminating the transfer penalty, but brickbats to LA for creating an inconveniently difficult-to-acquire smartcard.
    For some reason, the idiots in LA and Chicago have decided to make it difficult and inconvenient to actually get their smartcards.
    Seriously, in London you can buy an Oyster card at ANY tube station and most railway stations.

  14. Nathanael August 13, 2014 at 5:03 pm #

    Regarding day passes, San Diego simply set the price of the day pass at the price of two rides. Basically, everyone buys a day pass.
    I don’t know the fare structures for Rochester, Buffalo, Alameda County, etc. off the top of my head, but if they’ve set the day pass price similarly, there’s absolutely no reason to mess around with transfers.

  15. MisterTT August 13, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    ^ you actually can, ive done it before. Then again this was more than a year ago, maybe its changed now.

  16. Adrian August 13, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    I’m not in LA often, but last time I was there I had no trouble buying a TAP card from the TVMs at the Aviation/LAX station on the Green Line. I’d be surprised if all rail stations didn’t have TVMs that sell TAP cards.

  17. calwatch August 13, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    Since they started gating the system, all stations now sell TAP cards, and have for the last three years now.

  18. Ben Smith August 13, 2014 at 9:00 pm #

    Just wondering, what are your thoughts on timed transfers which allow for stopovers and in some cases, even a return trip?

  19. Ben Smith August 13, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    @Michael do bus drivers sell day passes? If they are easy enough to purchase, it could work for an occasional rider. It even has some benefits: Someone who expects to make a return trip can now also make a stopover or take a spontaneous trip without being charged extra, assuming they had the foresight to buy the day pass.
    Also how does it work with prepaid fares or weekly and monthly passes?

  20. Jim D. August 14, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    Both Rochester and Buffalo sell day passes from the farebox (Buffalo’s NFTA also makes passes available from TVM’s along the Metro Rail line).
    TCAT in Ithaca has also gone the day pass route (and also offers smart cards which the various passes can be loaded onto) but still continues to offer free transfers for cash riders. Centro in the Syracuse-Utica area has a $2 base fare with free transfers, but reduces the fare to $1.50 for riders using 10-ride tickets or passes.

  21. Matthew August 14, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    I noticed the AC Transit change while in Oakland recently. I prefer it. The Clipper Card automatically maxes out at 2.5 fares each day. I guess if you take 2 two-vehicle trips per day then it’s slightly more expensive than free transfers. But if you take a third trip, then you win.
    I think the bigger issue is that when you need to mix it up between AC Transit, BART, SamTrans, Caltrain and whoever else, the cost really adds up very fast.

  22. Zoltána Dosztál-Connell August 16, 2014 at 7:53 am #

    Sounds like AC transit’s system is similar to London buses, though London is a bit less generous. Paying for single rides with a smartcard, you pay £1.45 for the first three rides, then 5p for the fourth, at which point you hit a £4.40 all-day cap. It’s still irksome in that if you happen to have a convenient one-seat ride you pay less, though if you do make multiple round trips on some days it works out.
    The insanity in London comes in where you have to pay for rail-to-bus and bus-to-rail transfers without any discount. When you’re using rail, a day pass is more; that doesn’t kick in until between £7 and £8.50. So if you’re taking the bus to the train, which again is a characteristic of an efficient system, then you’re badly penalised.

  23. Joseph E August 16, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    Re: AC Transit. This East-Bay transit agency never had free transfers. Previously there was a charge of $0.25 for a transfer slip. This is both complicated, inconvenient (you need quarter dollar coins) and still penalized connections over 1-seat rides. The new day pass at 2.5 times the cost of a single ride is a partial improvement.
    But it is not as fair as a day pass at 2 times the cost of a ride, plus free connections.

  24. Joseph E August 16, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    Metro in Los Angeles is improving things with the deal for free connections, but on the other hand they are illogically raising the cost of a day pass. Previously a day pass cost a little over 3 times the single-ride fare, or slightly less than the cost of a round trip with 1 connection each way. For most people, with the exception of those who could get a 1-seat ride, a day pass was a good deal. But now the new $7 day pass will cost as much as 4 single rides… even though a single ticket now pays for free connections. It is hard to imagine who would benefit from buying this day pass versus buying individual rides.

  25. Peter Felstead August 17, 2014 at 1:28 am #

    As a tourist in Los Angeles I found the practice of cash fares really slowed down the buses (even the express buses allowed you to pay with cash) If Metro wants to speed things up I would make the cash bus fare 30% more expensive than the Tap Card fare and make the express buses Tap Card only. It was truly painful watching 10 people getting on a bus and paying with cash….

  26. Eric August 17, 2014 at 5:33 am #

    “If Metro wants to speed things up I would make the cash bus fare 30% more expensive than the Tap Card fare ”
    Great idea. Many cities need this.

  27. Aaron Priven August 17, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    Some comments.
    (Disclaimer: I’m AC Transit staff, but had little input on the fare policy; this does not represent AC Transit’s position, etc.)
    First of all, AC stands for “Alameda-Contra Costa.”
    Transfers at AC Transit were free for many years, but then (I believe beginning in the early ’90s, but it was before my time) a 25¢ fee was charged to deter fraud. The opinion among my coworkers seems to be that day passes are less likely to be purchased and then given away than transfers, but I wouldn’t know. I do think the “accumulator” feature (where somebody pays full fares up until the day pass price, and then everything up from there is free) is, while not the easiest thing to explain or understand, beneficial to someone who wants to use the transit system freely, without even needing to know beforehand whether one will want to use the system all day or not.
    I agree with Jarrett that connections shouldn’t be charged for, for all the reasons stated. But I’m actually more interested in the balance between passes and single-ride fares. If frequency (or span of service, which I think is equally important…) is freedom, then the passenger is benefiting not only from the single vehicle the passenger actually takes, but all the other vehicles that the passenger doesn’t actually take but which provide that frequency. The passenger benefits from the entire system that operates, not just the one vehicle the passenger actually rides. The “single ride” fare is thus a bit misleading. If the passenger is expected to pay for the whole system, then the best way of asking the passenger to pay is via a longer time pass (weekly, monthly).
    Fulfilling this in practical terms would mean lowering the ratio between the monthly pass and the single-ride fare, so that the monthly pass is (say) 20 or 30 times the single-ride fare, rather than 35 or 40 times. This would encourage more people to buy the monthly pass. It gives the passenger more freedom to ride and the agency smoother revenues.

  28. Alon Levy August 18, 2014 at 6:43 am #

    Aaron: yes! There are interesting variations in the ratio of the monthly fare to the pay-per-ride fare. US commuter rail, which tends to assume everyone is a regular peak-hour commuter, tends to favor monthly fares heavily – the ratios I’ve seen are about 28. German cities tend to also have low rates (I think 32 in Berlin), in order to encourage people to get season passes, which have lower per-ride processing costs and make it less likely that people will decide to beat the fare. In Tokyo, the ratio is about 30, but the season passes are between specific pairs of stations, which allows less spontaneity than travel within an entire zone. Subway-only systems in the US are a lot worse at it – in New York the ratio is about 46.

  29. Pete August 19, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    A couple of examples from the UK – Cardiff Bus (the municipal operator for the Welsh capital) has a single adult flat fare of £1.80 and a day ticket at £3.60:
    In contrast First Group in Bristol have distance based fares within zones! I always thought of zonal fares as being charged at a flat rate for each zone you travel through. But First have decided to charge within each zone based on the distance travelled. So in the inner zone the fares are – 3 stop hop = £1, up to three miles = £1.50, three to six miles = £2.50, over six miles (within the inner zone)= ‘from £3.50’ so it could be more! Return fares were abolished when this system was introduced. Return fares are the norm in most of the UK, they give a significant discount on the cost of two single journeys. These fares do not allow transfer. A day ticket costs £4.
    Here is the Bristol Fare Zone Map:
    Here is the network map:
    Now work out your fare!

  30. david vartanoff August 21, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    @Mathew&Joseph E, As Aaron affirms AC Transit DID issue free transfers until the early 90’s when they were hit by serious financial issues (s0mething for a different discussion).
    The “fear” of transfer abuse misses the point of public transit.
    This lack of understanding of the ultimate goal of operating public transit is painfully exemplified in the SF Bay area by the lack of fare integration and duplication of services by competing agencies seeking turf. BART only honors local monthly passes in SF because of a deal brokered by a former Director then an SF Supervisor. (and one of BART’s current Directors want to eliminate this rider friendly deal)
    Forcing the taxpaying riders to pay double fares in order to use bus and rail to commute easily within a single city just cheats them IMHO.

  31. Josh August 23, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    Seattle does not officially charge for transfers. Officially you get a 2hr window with your fare, however they do have a peak fare during rush hour which is 25¢ more ($2.50 vs $2.25 off peak), and an interesting thing happens when you transfer during what has just become peak period: it charges you the extra 25¢ even though you could stay on the same bus and pass a fare check inspection since it’s still within your 2hr window. I’ve mentioned this to a few people who don’t think it’s that big of a deal, however there is no mention of this practice in the transit agency’s publications and those quarters add up. I imagine the transit agency is quite happy to take them.

  32. Matt Robertson May 17, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    So I am commenting on this article 10 months later to show some real shortcomings with Metro’s concept of the smart card: it is well suited for the light rail lines or in areas where they have the machines to add funds to the card, but for the users who rely almost exclusively on the buses the card has some serious shortcomings, largely because it takes time to process deductions and add funds paid online from being wireless. About 95% of my transit is bus, so I go online and pay $20 or $50 at at time. So my problems:
    1. I can’t track online my useage. It might say I have $10 remaining on the card, but that data is never up to date and I might check before getting on the bus that I have enough money, but in reality I may not have enough to cover the fare even though online says I do.
    2. I can’t see what transactions have occurred. It only shows what is on the card. If I take 3 buses in an hour, did I get charged once or 3 times? I have no way of knowing and since I trust not Metro… it’s frustrating.
    3. Online, the official time for funds to be added to a card used on a bus is 48 hours. In practice it is more.For some reason using rail’s dedicated machines is much faster. So I never know if I have enough money to cover a fare unless I keep $40 sitting there. Not a real problem for me, but for the majority of riders who are low-income but do not need to pay for a monthly card, it is a hardship.
    4. Hong Kong’s card allows automatic fund transfers- when you go below a designated amount, the card automatically reups the card pursuant to your settings (and you can limit the number of automatic reups for security). You can also use the card in transit areas for purchases- like our 7-11s that are next to the exit/entries, or large bus stations. It takes me serious time to enter in $20. It needs the same info every time and you can’t save it. And doing it on a smart phone is impossible as the format is so small you can’t tell what you are doing.
    5. You also can’t just add $35. You can add $5, $10, $20, or $50. Want to add $35 (What I need every pay period on average), I need to add a $20. Redo the whole thing, add a $10. then add a $5. Each time entering my credit card, my address, my transit card info… 3 times twice a month.
    this is so long I think I’ll be putting this into an email and linking this article… thanks!

  33. Matt R. May 28, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

    Here is Metro’s response to the above comment:
    Dear Mr. Robertson:
    Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to provide feedback in your recent e-mail message and I appreciate your patience while your complaint was investigated. Feedback from our riders is always welcome and appreciated. While many improvements have been made over the years, we also understand there are always opportunities to improve the experience for our customers.
    For the last several months we have been actively working on many of the items you addressed in your message. As you know, today’s technology is ever changing; what is state-of-the art today may be outdated in a matter of weeks or months. As the agency explores options for new technology, it’s important that the solutions we purchase today will also work in the future. While change may not happen as quickly as we want, it’s critical that all options are considered before a great deal of money has been spent to purchase a solution that is short term.
    At the time fare boxes and Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) were installed, they were considered to be what was needed to serve our customers. As technology improved, many upgrades were made to the equipment to improve their performance and continue to serve our customers. At this time Metro is considering a cellular solution that will improve the time it takes fares to reach your card, which should enhance the experience for our riders.
    Many of the items you mentioned in your feedback are work in progress and many of these improvements are going to be available as soon as July 2015. Noted below is a brief summary of improvements, that are in direct response from feedback we received from customers like yourself:
    · A new web site with a new look and feel will be available in July of 2015 and will improve the way product and fares are ordered, provide more educational feedback and fewer screens to view before a fare product can be added to the card. In your bullet #5, you mentioned the need just to add $35, the new web site will allow this to happen, in one transaction, instead of three.
    · Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) are being upgraded to make it easier for a customer to purchase cards, add fare product and check the balance on a TAP card, just to name a few enhancements. The TVMs at Union Station have been upgraded and others will be completed in phases with a final end date of Summer, 2015. We just received our new brochures yesterday, I’ll be glad to send you a few, if you have any comments or suggestions please feel free to let me know.
    · By the end of August 2015 a new Customer Management System will be installed to better support the agents that handle customer inquiries on a daily basis, resulting in greater ability to enhance timely customer responses.
    In your message you mentioned that the Hong Kong’s card allows for automatic fund transfers. We also have that as an option, should you be interested. Thresholds can be set up you described, when you reach a certain designated amount, the card will re-load per your instructions. If you’re interested in this option please let me know. We also have hundreds of Third Party Vendors in the area that you can use to load fare product and you can find the vendors on our web site:
    At this time the majority of our buses are not equipped with the technology to report in real time. When buses leave and arrive at the garage there is a process where data is exchanged, this normally happens at the end of the day and data is available to view the following business day. As you’ve noticed buses take longer for information to be received and added to your card, while rails have a quicker response as there is no need to wait for an update.
    In September of 2014, Metro implemented a new fare change that include the first time a two-hour period of free transfers on Metro’s bus and rail system when using stored value on your TAP card.
    I hope you find this information helpful and that your questions have been addressed. Thanks again for your insight and taking the time to provide your feedback and feel free to send any future concerns to our email [email protected] and we’ll be pleased to assist you.
    Anthony Roman
    Customer Communications Manager
    “To Provide Excellence in Service and Support.”

  34. Simon S. December 12, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    I’m lucky to live in region where virtually all transport is integrated. With any ticket I buy I can use any company’s buses, trams, metros or trains (with the exception of high-speed trains) on all routes and whereever the ticket is valid. My local integrated fare organisation has sadly excluded the very-short-trip tickets (up to four stops) from this, since this year you cannot change vehicles with them anymore. In a neighbouring region, passengers protested against this, and they reversed the change there.