Penalties for Paying Cash for Transit Fare Fails the Equity Test

In an effort to speed up bus trips, WMATA has proposed a $0.25 fee for actions which slow down boarding, including paying with cash and reloading SmarTrip cards onboard. While speeding up bus service would be a boon for all riders, this proposal shifts the responsibility for dealing with a systemic issue onto individual clients—the poorest ones.

Last week, WMATA unveiled its proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget and Capital Improvement Plan to the public. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld proposed some items that have long been on GGWash’s transit wish list, such as an end to the transfer penalty and an inch towards restoring late-night Metrorail service. However, its emphasis on SmarTrip cards for payment could financially burden the same riders it seeks to help with faster service.

The process of picking up and loading passengers is referred to as “dwell time.” A study from McGill University suggests that dwell time can take up to 26% of buses’ total travel time, so WMATA is trying to cut this part of trip time down.

Speeding up buses is a worthy goal, but it’s reasonable to ask who should bear the burden of making it happen. Single-occupancy drivers create congestion which significantly slows buses, but they’re not being charged for the delays they create. Yet rather than focusing on the root causes of the issue, the agency is passing the buck to its most vulnerable—and most faithful—riders.

There is considerable overlap between those who are poor and those who are unbanked or underbanked, as journalist Josh Kramer recently noted. Opponents of the fare hike and surcharge, including me, see the extra quarter as an undue tax on the poor, who are more likely to be cash users. If the board approves the fare hike and cash surcharge, it will likely validate its most underserved users’ sense that some riders matter more than others.

High transit costs hurt the most disadvantaged

Access to affordable and reliable transportation is one of the biggest challenges people experiencing poverty face. Many of them take the bus: the Bus Transformation Project study concluded 52% of Metrobus riders are low-income, defined here as someone who earns $30,000 or less a year.

Poor people are more reliant on cash-based transactions than their more affluent counterparts. With no amendments to this policy, the poor will pay more. They will pay more in one of three ways: $0.25 more for each bus ride; $0.25 every time they reload a SmarTrip onboard a bus; or $2.00 each time they need to buy a SmarTrip at a Metro station plus the nominal fare.

I was once a rider who occasionally couldn’t afford the 92 to school. Knowing that I could be denied a ride or even arrested, I once walked for more than an hour from my home to Stuart-Hobson Middle School. I told myself I’d never do that again. Even if I couldn’t afford to get on the bus, I’d just walk on. Sometimes I accepted being scolded by Metrobus operators for walking on without paying the fare, but it could have been much worse—I could’ve been arrested.

Thanks to last year’s decriminalization, today no one can be put in handcuffs for fare evasion. Nonetheless, there’s an indignity that comes with not being able to pay fare. A price hike focused solely on cash users risks sending the message that poor people have no place on public transportation.

There’s strong evidence showing fare evasion is typically a crime of poverty, and those skipping fare probably don’t have it in the first place. Ensuring that a public transit system is well run and financed is vital, but valuing riders should be more important. Metro’s continued focus on penalizing its most marginalized clients won’t help the agency build goodwill and win riders.

SmarTrip reliance hurts service providers too

Another overlooked aspect of this SmarTrip-first policy is its high cost to direct service providers. Low-income riders could lose out on transit help provided by direct service organizations that find the rising costs daunting.

Nechama Masliansky, advocacy director for So Others Might Eat (SOME), told me that the prospect of providing SmarTrips to people experiencing homelessness is cost prohibitive under current conditions. The possibility of a transient client frequently losing their SmarTrip card is extremely high, particularly for those living in encampments or on the streets. Ensuring that cards are procured, registered, and properly loaded requires staff effort and ultimately, more money.

For an organization like SOME, which provides permanent supportive housing for 900 individual adults, it would cost $9,000 to purchase a SmarTrip with $8 of starter fare for all of their residents. If SOME wanted to provide its residents with a bus pass, it currently only has the option of the 7-Day Regional Bus pass which costs $15. A 7-day pass for 900 adults would cost $54,000 a month.

Assuming all clients are able-bodied, under the age of 65, and will never lose their SmarTrips, SOME would spend $648,000 on transportation benefits every year, not including the price of administering such a benefit. The organization’s Behavioral Health Services division about $1,200 a month on bus tokens, but they often run out. SOME does a wide range of work for the poor, and Masliansky told me, “Very few social service organizations for homeless persons — perhaps two — can afford to purchase SmarTrip cards for their own clients.”

One problem is that WMATA currently offers no reduced fare for low-income riders. It falls upon direct service organizations and charitable donors to provide our most vulnerable residents with access to public transit. Given the number of people seeking relief, it is unrealistic to assume that service organizations would be able to or ought to be able to consistently subsidize their trips. Happily, two members of the DC Council are closer to proposing a low-income fare.

What are other solutions?

If we accept the premise that we need to cut dwell times by reducing cash usage, there are better (albeit expensive) ways to speed up buses. For example, the Greater Richmond Transit Company and Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Maryland, as well as many systems around the nation and world, give riders the opportunity to purchase fares and passes at a number of bus stops.

WMATA could explore placing similar kiosks at bus stops. This could not only decrease dwell time, but also allow riders who are unbanked or underbanked access to WMATA’s online-only pass products.

The agency and regional governments could also continue to prioritize more structural fixes, like bus-only lanes and more frequent buses, to provide riders with the frequent and convenient bus service they want. The WMATA board decides what is a priority, what they value in the system, and area governments decide what to put in the ground like bus lanes or kiosks.

There are indeed challenges to writing a more equitable budget, and we ought to acknowledge the limitations WMATA faces. Since the release of the budget, officials have presented a disappointing vision of what our public transit system could be. During the board’s Finance and Capital Committee meeting, agency officials continued their focus on fare evasion, confirming that it is increasing the policing of school children, expending finite resources on an offense that no longer carries a criminal punishment. The agency has also paid Lyft $1 million to provide a $3 discount for late-night commuters (if they have registered SmarTrips).

Our transportation system currently privileges almost everyone but bus riders. Bus riders today are made to suffer slow speeds and infrequent service, most of which by every piece of evidence we have is largely caused by everything but riders. The burden of speeding up buses should not fall on riders, especially the poorest riders, and if it does WMATA should do everything it can do to ensure that its most dedicated riders aren’t left out in the cold.