December 17, 2008

Anticipating the loss of bus transfer tickets

Come January 4th, paper transfer tickets will be a thing of the past. To move between Metro and/or bus, all riders will need a SmarTrip card. The move will save WMATA a bit of change -- and as the City Paper reports, it will also tamp down a culture of free-riding enabled by the paper slips.

But for whatever reasons the policy change is going through, and setting aside the problem of free-riding, this policy change is going to have an adverse affect upon thousands of the Metro system's poorest riders who do take legitimate advantage of the paper transfer tickets. It will put a screw to the many people for whom a $1.35 bus ride is not insignificant, and for whom a $5 SmarTrip card would be outright spendy.

Last week, Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations sent a letter to WMATA outlining these and other concerns (including the problems that SmarTrip cards will present for persons with disabilities). "The City cannot afford to impose additional obstacles, inadvertent as they may be, to our residents’ obtaining employment, health, mental health and other social services," wrote COHHO.

WMATA responded with a letter that basically reiterated their intention to move right on ahead.

So, assuming that the change in policy does in fact go through, there are a couple of possible solutions that would help minimize the disruption for the most vulnerable passengers. One option would be to create a disposable one way fare card to carry transfers; other metro systems evidently have this in place, and it's a solution that was apparently originally suggested by WMATA itself. However, this would create more ticket-waste and would also entail additional technological cost.

The other more likely option would be to indefinitely extend WMATA's offer (currently, good only through December) for service providers like Bread for the City to purchase SmarTrip cards with the value of a token on them. Given that the expense of a SmarTrip card is significant for our clients, and that the cards themselves will become tempting targets for theft, this is the best way for WMATA to make up for a policy that will surely put many of its riders at a disadvantage.

The public still does have an opportunity to comment on this policy change. The WMATA Board meeting is tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 18, 11 am, at 600 5th St. NW (across from the Verizon Center). To make a public comment, you just need to sign up before the start of the meeting. For more information about making public comments, go to this WMATA page.


Dharm said...

I liked your article because it summed up the issues. I'd like to respond:

1) Other cities do have "disposable" smart cards. However, these disposable cards are not free. So if you implement them, those using the durable smartcards will be cross subsidizing those who use the disposable ones. Is that what we want to encourage? Don't we want to encourage those who are saving the environment? When I was on detail at the US House of Representatives, they used Freedom Pay at their vending machines and cafeterias. You even got a 10% bonus because it was greener (paper money and coins take energy and materials to produce and distribute). What you propose would be to perversely reward those doing the WRONG thing. What we want to be doing is promoting through financial policies people who do the RIGHT thing.

2) Metro as part of the transition, agreed to give away 50,000 SmartTrip cards. Those cards are not free, because Metro pays to buy them and then again to process them so they are ready for distribution. Again, if they continue to distribute them then people who are riding Metro will be cross subsidizing those who can't afford the $5. That's noble goal, but it should be done by taxpayers in general and not those already doing the right thing by using public transportatin.

Greg Bloom said...

Hi Dharm - thanks for joining in the discussion. It does seem that additional technological implementation for disposable cards isn't an optimal solution (though, while your point is well taken, I'm not sure that paper bus stubs really have a meaningful environmental impact - given the whole scheme of things).

As for the SmarTrip cards, I can't really speak to whether the taxpayer or the busrider would or should be technically subsidizing their accessibility by the poor; but as it stands, the first and foremost loser of this policy change will be people for whom SmarTrip cards are an unanticipated and costly expense. I am guessing that, on the whole, busriders would prefer to participate in a system that operates within the means of all DC residents.

V-Cubed said...

How unfortunate that a generally intelligent article about a very real problem for the impoverished citizens of DC was marred by two references to "free-riding," neatly contrasted with "legitimate" riders before we're even two paragraphs in.

As an employee of an organization that provides vital services to DC's poor, I have given out scores of tokens over the years. Giving out a free token seems a small thing, but the fact that someone may not keep a medical or social work or legal appointment, or pick up food because they cannot afford the bus fare is a disgrace. It bothers me not a whit if any of these people somehow secure a paper transfer to get themselves to life's necessities. It bothers me enormously that they have to make those kind of choices, at least in part because of society's and the District's neglect.

Thus, I found it sad and even offensive that the author thought it necessary to first separate out the "bad" poor people from the "good" (i.e., "legitimate") poor people before it was safe to make the simple point that this is yet another way that the District is trying to save a buck on the shoulders of its already overburdened poor.

John said...

Well put, v-cubed.

DC is acting just like nearly every other moderately-well-off city right now, which is to say adopting trendy means of being "green" and efficient. It's okay that these things cost more, since we want to put all the poor people out in PG county anyway. I'm all for sustainability, but the term "green" has become nothing more than an advertising gimmick. If these gimmicks actually protect the environment, that's great, but we'll never be remotely sustainable without making the technology for change available to everyone.

And as for the free smart card being subsidized by those who can afford one, we already have a system like that. It's called taxes. See, the people who make more money (so can afford to spend more) pay more taxes, but everyone (ideally) gets the same advantage from them. I know this probably sounds a little commie, but hey, that's America.

S. said...

What I think is unfortunate is that this change is affecting bus riders who may never have need to go into a Metro station. Yet now they will be saddled with a SmartTrip card that can only be refilled (as far as I know) inside a Metro station. These are already people with limited transit options. Forcing them to repeatedly visit a station that may or may not be easy to get to in order to refill the cards seems inconsiderate and impractical.

Greg Bloom said...

At one point, Mr. V acknowledges that we’re all more or less on the same side of the ring here – speaking out against a policy change that will present the poor with an additional barrier to entry for mass transportation.

That said, I suppose one might object to the term “free-riders,” although really, in this case this particular term isn’t even applied metaphorically – so I think an objection would likely be overruled by a jury of cool heads. I can’t imagine that the guys and gals sticking two expired tickets together would take much offense.

But as it were, Mr. V’s forceful objection leaves us in a tough spot. The original post suggests that we call upon Authority to make sure that this (likely inevitable) change is enacted in such a way that minimizes the disadvantage incurred by those who are just barely able to purchase bus fare in the first place; alternatively, we can try in vain to defend one of the few gaps in a system through which some sad scrap of advantage can be (illegitimately, if almost-but-not-quite safely) wrested back. But by advocating for a system that the poor can easily skip their way through, wouldn’t we be forfeiting the notion that the poor might someday be simply allowed on the bus?

V-Cubed said...

I am not advocating that we oppose the elimination of paper transfers by using the argument that people should be able to ride free if they're clever enough. There are plenty of very solid arguments against the District's intended actions. We are not in a tough spot at all. We are advocating for a system that does not further burden poor people who use the metro. Period.

My point is that there is no reason to denigrate the people who we are trying to help when advocating on their behalf. You see, I can actually imagine that the "guys and gals sticking two expired tickets together" would take offense. Because they are doing it because they're forced to, because they are generally ignored and disrespected by society, because they feel it's better to compromise some of their own dignity in cheating the system than it is to not be able to go where they need to go. So they would and should take offense.

Greg Bloom said...

In life, there are many things arguably worth taking offense at, like the late-capitalist quirk by which the English language is mangled and mutated upon the conveyor belt of product (i.e. "SmarTrip"). And yet, come January, a whole lot of people are going to need SmarTrip cards to get where they need to go.

Dharm said...

Responding to "S", you can recharge your Smartrip card on any Metrobus using a bill up to $20. You can even add to it using change. When I didn't have transit benefits provided by my employer, I used to add my spare change to my Smartrip every now and then. In addition, Metro is making changes to the Smartrip system that allow you to link your card to a checking account or credit card so it can be topped off once it reaches a certain level.

Dharm said...

In responding to Greg's comment, I think it makes absolute sense to talk about who subsidizes who. For example, the line in WMATA's budget that has shown the biggest proportional growth over the last five years is paratransit service. It has grwon at a faster rate than subsidies from the local governments so other Metro riders have been cross subsidizing paratransit riders over time through fare increases. I believe that is not good public policy. Local governments should be picking up this expense as it is a unfunded mandate from the federal government NOT other transit riders. On your issue, local governments including the Distric should purchase Smartrip cards from WMATA and distribute them to social service agencies. That's no different than what DC Public Schools relationship with WMATA. They subsidize the lost revenue to WMATA on those using DC school passes. That's good public policy and the same should apply to free Smartrip card registration.

kathrynbaer said...

Greg, I agree with your viewpoint, though also with commenters' concerns about the negative tone of the City Paper article you linked to. In fact, I'm linking to your posting from my own on (Wish you had a trackback feature!)

What I think bears emphasis is that the new WMATA policy will involve additional costs—not only for poor people and the nonprofits that serve them, but also local governments. People who cannot get to medical clinics will wind up in emergency rooms. People who cannot get to job interviews will remain dependent on publicly-funded benefits. Etc.

So far as I can see, the solutions you suggest would not involve "cross-subsidizing" by Metro riders who buy SmarTrip cards. They would only if WMATA jacked up the price of the cards to pay for the transportation needs of our poor neighbors.

Greg Bloom said...

Kathryn - thanks for your comment, and for your post. (I'm looking forward to reading your blog!) And in regards to the tone of the City Paper article, I certainly agree that its tone was inappropriately negative -- focusing on the free-riding instead of the actual cost of SmarTrip cards. And after some consideration, I think VVV was partly on point w/ his comment, in that the frame of the City Paper's article should have been rejected rather than merely dismissed. (Although that said, free-riding definitely appears to be a problem in the current system, in that it gives rise to occasional altercations between bus drivers and riders who are trying to slip on w/ void paper transfers.) Anyhow... all feedback on this blog is appreciated, of course.