Your recommendation for a better Metro pass is…

Image by the author.

You think Metro should keep its flexible commuter SelectPass but add free bus, and in fact make rail-bus transfers free in general. For visitors, you think Metro should sell a 1-day pass for $10 and a 3-day pass for $20 which offers access to most trips except the longest-distance ones.

You also suggest Metro make it easier to get a commuter pass with SmartBenefits and just generally do a better job telling people about it. For visitor passes, you'd like a discount for families of four to all take transit together.

These were the results of the survey I set up to collect riders' thoughts on WMATA's current and potential pass products. Let's dig in.

Commuter passes

Metro's best current pass is called the SelectPass. You pick a price based on your usual commuting cost. Your monthly pass costs as much as 18 round-trips. You get all extra trips, including off-peak trips, up to that fare level for free. For more expensive trips, you just pay the difference.

However, it could be more widely used and more widely known. 23 percent of respondents in the survey used the SelectPass, while 62 percent used no pass at all. Several readers said they hadn't even been aware it existed.

Bus riders can buy a pass at $17.50 a week. SelectPass users of just two of the price points ($2.25 and $3.75) can add on bus for $54 (18 round trips), but that's not a great deal, especially for riders who don't ride the bus every day. They still might want to take the occasional off-peak trip, where Metro has extra capacity, and the whole idea of the pass is to encourage these extra trips. 

You agree this should be changed. When I asked you about a number of potential changes, your second most recommended change was to include bus rides automatically in the SelectPass. 79 percent of you said that was either extremely important or very important.

Scoring even higher, actually, was the idea of offering essentially free transfers between bus and rail for everyone — not just pass users. Most other cities do it this way. With WMATA's variable fares, what that would mean is a transfer from rail to bus would be free, and from bus to rail, you just pay the extra. (Or, in more technical terminology, make the bus-rail transfer discount equal to $2.) 82 percent of respondents rated this extremely or very important.

Also scoring very highly were recommendations to make it easier to get SelectPass with SmartBenefits (76 percent extremely/very important), market the SelectPass better so people know about it (76 percent), and offer a discount pass program for low-income riders who have trouble affording the whole month's pass up front (72 percent)

The one change you weren't so enthusiastic about was a flat or zone fare. Only 39 percent of people who responded to the survey rated that extremely or very important.

That leaves a pretty clear set of recommendations I'll pass on to WMATA:

  • Make buses included in the SelectPass for the same price
  • Look into making bus-rail transfers free in general
  • Make it easier to get SelectPass with SmartBenefits
  • Better market the SelectPass
  • Explore a discount pass program for low-income riders

Other suggestions people made, which weren't in the survey, included making the passes work on all regional buses as well as Metrobus, and making it possible to buy the SelectPass at the fare machines (right now, it's just online).

Image by the author.

Visitor passes

We also discussed passes for visitors. The complex fare chart can be very confusing for visitors (and residents). 

Previously, we talked about how a pass that covers the whole system at rush hour would have to be fairly expensive to be fair to long-distance riders, but then it would be too expensive for tourists who mostly aren't going to Franconia-Springfield and Shady Grove.

You thought a "short trip" pass good for rides up to a certain amount made sense. Metro has an existing 7-day "short trip" pass for $38.50, but no similar passes for briefer visits.

What's the amount? I suggested $3.85, the same as the off-peak rail fare, and 26 percent of you agreed, but 33 percent thought it should be $3.50 (which would definitely be easier to remember) while 26 percent thought it should be $4. The question was a bit confusing for some people, so maybe some of you who put a lower number meant the pass should be cheaper rather than good for fewer trips (and vice versa).

A few people, in the comments, also suggested calling this something other than "short trip." As one person said, "'Short trip' pass is meaningless to a tourist. It's probably meaningless to locals too."

Two other pass ideas also scored well on the survey: 62 percent of people liked the idea of a discount for families of four or more enough to rate it extremely or very important. Families find ride-hailing or taxis to be more financially competitive compared to riding Metro, but it's in the region's interest to help them use transit.

49 percent gave those ratings to the idea of a deeper convention discount, similar to the U-Pass, where everyone in a group gets the free pass but knowing that not everyone will use it, Metro discounts it to make it worthwhile for the university (or, here, the convention operator) to buy.

How much should visitor passes cost?

We then talked about the appropriate cost for such a pass. For a day pass, the recommendation was clear: a majority of you thought it should cost $8. That's good for two $3.85 trips, rounded up to an even $8. 

The great thing about $8 is that if you add the $2 SmarTrip card cost, then the day pass with a card (for tourists who have none, which is most of them) is a nice round $10. 49 percent of you liked that approach, while 32 percent suggested just throwing in the card for free and 15 percent suggested it be $10 with and without a card. 

How about 3-day passes? 57 percent of you overwhelmingly recommended it cost approximately 2.5 times the 1-day. If the 1-day is $8, times 2.5 is $20. 

It also seems that most of you liked the idea of round numbers. So $10 and $20 inclusive of SmarTrip cards makes for a very appealing set of round numbers.

Metro also should look at 7-day passes, but I didn't include that in the survey. If a 1-day pass is $10 and a 3-day pass is $20, then a 7-day pass could logically be $40.

Therefore, based on your responses and a little extrapolation, I'd suggest this is the best pass structure:

  Pass on existing
SmarTrip card
Pass plus new
SmarTrip card
1-day $8 $10
3-day $18 $20
7-day $38 $40

The extra benefit of this is that the 7-day "short trip" pass is already almost exactly $38 — it's $38.50, so it needs the tiniest tweak to fit this pattern perfectly.

It could also look something like this, which is a stricter adherence to the multiples you recommended:

  Pass on existing
SmarTrip card
Pass plus new
SmarTrip card
1-day $8 $10
3-day $20 $22
7-day $40 $42

However, this is harder to remember and loses the round numbers, Also, now the 7-day short trip pass gets more expensive, and there isn't a good reason to do that. (You could do $8/$20/$38, but that's even less intuitive.)

I therefore recommend these visitor pass initiatives:

  • Offer a short trip pass plus SmarTrip card for $10 (1-day), $20 (3-day), or $40 (7-day). If you already have a SmarTrip, it's $2 less.
  • Come up with a better name than "short trip pass."
  • Develop a discounted pass for families of four or more.
  • Offer a U-Pass-style discount program for conventions.

What do you think about all of these?