Unfair fares

I have to admit, this story from the Washington Post

Bus riders see inequities in proposed Metro fare increases – washingtonpost.com

has my blood up. Bus riders have a median income of $70K–which is very high for bus riders in general–but rail passengers have a median income of over $100K. Now, it takes real differences in distribution to produce those kinds of differences in medians, but what makes me angry is this comment:

Metro Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington County played down the importance of the relative increase in bus vs. rail fares, calling it “a distraction.” “To minimize the impact on the lower-income, we need to not cut service and get the jurisdictions to mitigate the impact of the fare increases,” he said.

Um, yeah, I bet you see this as a mere distraction, buddy, because your constituents are the more affluent rail riders. So of course a smaller percentage increase to them seems fair to you.

The first rule of poverty: never listen when somebody who has money tells you not worry about money.

That said, I’m not actually sure what would be fair here in terms of percentages, but I have the following thoughts:

1) I suspect that transit companies are way more likely to pull buses off the road to lower costs than they are to cut rail service, on the longstanding argument that rail operating costs are lower per passenger than on the bus (supposedly; this only works if you have riders on your trains). This works out well because I also suspect that most transit companies, having had to fight like the devil to spend the millions they have on capital investment on the rail side, thus have no intention of scaling back the rail service they’ve fought so hard to put out there.

That means the bus riders would be more likely to be subject to service cuts; I also think that many, many transit companies would be happy to lose bus passengers via higher fares but would dread losing any rail passenger because low ridership on rail looks infinitely worse under public scrutiny due to the higher project costs associated with rail.

2) I also suspect that bus riders are more transfer-dependent passengers. That is, I suspect that most of them use the rail services in DC, too, but also rely on bus feeders while rail-only passengers are park-and-ride or kiss-and-riders. This means that bus riders are charged for lower quality service, up front, and that when the bus side is cut they lose even more value in the network. In addition, the across-the-board fare increases on both sides are going hurt here, too.

In any case, I had to do some talking to convince some of my colleagues that transit affordability is a real issue. Just because something is cheaper than keeping a car doesn’t mean it’s objectively affordable. Yes, hamburger is cheaper than sushi but if you have no money, the price difference between the two is irrelevant.

Not happy news for DC area commuters, in any case.