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Metro reconsiders transfer time

The small turnout for Metro's first hearing on fares and service shouldn't suggest that riders lack interest in the proposals.

An example: After I endorsed the money-saving idea of cutting back on the three-hour window for SmarTrip card transfers, one rider responded with the best argument I've seen in defense of the current limit. She bases it on the difficulties of getting around the region by bus. Notice the long waits for buses and the near misses on connections.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Cutting the "transfer window" using SmarTrip cards back to two hours is not fair to suburban bus users, who usually have longer distances to cover by bus and sometimes only hourly service on a given route. It would double the fare for many round trips, in addition to any base fare increase.

Example: I leave my home in Arlington at 10 a.m. to run an errand in Falls Church. A bus shows up around 10:10, but when it reaches the intersection of Columbia Pike and Route 7 (or Carlin Springs Road), it just misses connecting with the 28A toward Falls Church. So I have a long wait at the transfer point, and eventually get a 28A or the new 28X -- elapsed time since getting on the 16 bus: over 45 minutes. And I haven't gotten anywhere yet. By the time I reach Falls Church I have been traveling for a full hour or a little more.

Coming back, the same thing happens. I may have to wait 20 minutes or so for a connection at Route 7 and Carlin Springs Road, meaning I have spent almost two full hours just waiting for or riding buses. If I am to be allowed more than a 10 to 15 minute window to run my errand, I will miss the [proposed] two-hour transfer window. So I get to pay double fare for a simple trip.

Another example, without a transfer: I want to go to the post office and also the big Safeway at Crossroads Center in Bailey's Crossroads. To avoid a long walk (plus time waiting for a second 16 bus), I forgo the nearest post office on Glebe Road and instead ride the 16J out to Culmore (25 minutes). Sometimes I can get the returning 16J in 10 to 15 minutes; other times, I miss that one and have to wait an additional half hour. Elapsed time: either an hour or an hour and 30 minutes.

Then I ride the short distance back to Crossroads Centre, where it takes five minutes walking just to get to the Safeway; allow half an hour for shopping and five minutes back to the bus stop. I will have just missed one 16J and have to wait 25 minutes for another. Elapsed time: either one hour and 40 minutes -- or (if I missed that first 16J at the post office) two hours and 10 minutes.

So again I am forced to pay double the bus fare. [The three-hour transfer] is too generous only if you have a five-minute errand right at the bus stop, or if you're dealing with a D.C. bus route that runs every 10 minutes!!!!

Doubling the fare this way is not fair. The three-hour window, or even a 2-1/2 hour window, would allow me to pay the increased one-trip fare and do my business without having to pay double. The two-hour window is absolutely unreasonable given the badly scheduled connections between bus routes and the normal length of time needed to run an errand.
Lynda Meyers

By Robert Thomson  |  March 23, 2010; 10:22 AM ET
 | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metro budget, Metrobus, Metrorail  
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Maybe I'm missing something here but a round trip ride should be require paying for both ways shouldn't it? You should pay for the trip to the store (with the transfers being free) and you should also pay for the trip home (with those transfers being free). Why should your trip to the store and the trip home all be covered under one fare?

Posted by: archers44 | March 23, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

If you're taking two bus rides, you should pay two fares. If you're taking four bus rides, you should pay four fares.

Metro is already losing money on your fares, but you expect them to be free?

The Safeway example is even worse.

Even paying an honest fare is probably still cheaper than driving.

Posted by: corrections | March 23, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I take the bus sometimes when I know I'm going to be able to make a free roundtrip.

Posted by: wpjunk | March 23, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Metro riders have to pay "double fare" every time. We don't get to hop on the metro, hop off, do our errands, and then get back on without having to pay for both trips.

Posted by: RedBirdie | March 23, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

The trains also are more expensive one-way, aren't subject to surface road traffic, they aren't ALWAYS running behind when it's raining, and their stations get dug out from snow and crappy weather a heck of a lot faster than the bus stops as the bus stops are dependent upon good neighbors whereas the stations have dedicated staff (and further, passing traffic isn't likely to hit a puddle from the indent made by stopping buses at a train stop and soak the people waiting for the trains like they do at the bus stops). The train SHOULD be more expensive, honestly, as the conditions are still nicer. Trying to price-structure the buses exactly like the trains, as other commenters seem to be suggesting, would be ludicrous given the disparity between the level of service granted by each mode of transport.

Posted by: | March 23, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I'm with archers44 - Lynda Myers is upset that she will have to start paying for both legs of a 2-way trip? She's admitting to gaming the system, and complaining that a TWO HOUR transfer window will prevent her from gaming the system? Nice!

Cut it to 2 hours - I've heard no reason yet for staying at 3. Most other systems use 2.

Posted by: OstHoo | March 23, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I agree with archers44 here and disagree with corrections. I'll refer to "inbound" and "outbound" trips for my examples. I believe transfers within a one-way trip should be free. So if it takes me three buses to reach my "inbound" destination (not uncommon in the suburbs, for those who can only afford the bus, and/or since many bus lines keep getting cut), I should only have to pay one fare. I believe this is fair and inline with metro trains as well. You don't pay a new fare when you transfer to another line.

Now with the return trip (outbound), I believe it is fair to have to pay the fare again. It wasn't that long ago transfers were only good for 2 hours and while the increase to 3 hours is nice, too much revenue is lost when people use the system as described above. I ride buses often and have definately taken advantage of the 3 hour transfer, but I think this would be an easy way for WMATA to generate additional revenue without being a huge burden to riders. Bus fares hvae stayed historically low as it is.

That being said, it would be interesting to see testimony from people where their "inbound" trip takes over 2 hours. I am concerned that people who can least afford transportation may be affected by a decreased transfer time by increasing their one-way fare cost.

My suggestions:
Change bus fares to $2, keep the 3 hour transfers

Change bus fares to $1.50, scale back to 2 hour transfers

Reduce the bus-to-rail and rail-to-bus transfers to 25 cents. I personally benefit from this everyday, but I think this could be a good revenue generator without a lot of burden on riders.

Honestly, I just really don't want to see bus routes cut and would be happy to pay a little more for the bus for continued service. Additionally, I do not want to see an increase in metrorail fares. When fares were significantly increased in 2008, what did we get? Poorer service, major safety issues, constant track work and trains that barely function. I think a lot of people are under the assumption that if we pay more, we will get better service. It didn't happen after 2008, why would 2010 be any different?

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | March 23, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Lynda Meyers should borrow a car or rent a zipcar.

Posted by: signof4 | March 23, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I am a bus rider and do not agree that the transfer time should be sufficient to fit a roundtrip ride. I will admit that I do not take the bus to run errands, usually just to and from the Silver Spring station for my work commute. But, the point of a free transfer is to get to your destination by only paying one fare. So, if it takes you 2 or even 3 buses to get where you are going, you should be able to make it within 2 hours. The point is not to also get home without paying again. Unfortunately, Ms. Meyers is making the exact argument for why the transfer time should be shorter. Metro would make a lot more money if people like her were required to pay for both the departure and return bus rides.

Posted by: SweetieJ | March 23, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Either pay for 2 full fares, or buy an ALL DAY PASS. A 2 hour window, to catch a bus to make 1 trip, is more than enough time.

People like you were the type to give your transfer to the people who were waiting to board the bus you were alighting from, and I would NEVER honor those transfers I see being passed from person to person.

Either pay the fare, with the 2 hour window, pay a fare going & comming if it takes more than 2 hours, our buy an ALL Day Pass.

Posted by: Robbnitafl | March 23, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I don't ride the bus often, if at all, so let me see if I understand this:

I want to go to Target, so I hop the bus at the end of my street, go to the College Park station, change free of charge to the bus that takes me to Target -- my destination. Let's be generous and say it takes me an hour.

I take a half hour at Target, go outside, grab another bus back to CP station, free of charge because it's less than three hours, change at CP free of charge (still less than three hours) to bus that gets me home.

I've paid one price for what are essentially two separate trips simply because I managed to take care of my errand and get back in less than three hours?

From my house to Target and then Target to my house: 4 buses and approx. $2.

Scamming the system: priceless.

Posted by: IndolentCin | March 23, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I think this demonstrates exactly why the system should be changed. But I disagree with the methodology.

I think the system should be: transfers within 3 hours (or 2 hours or whatever the decided window is), but you have to transfer to a different line each time.

So try this. You take bus A from your house to a transfer point, paying the fare. You transfer to bus B for free to get to your destination. Then when you are done, you get on bus B again. The system recognizes that even though you are within the 3 hour limit, you are getting back onto bus B, so obviously it is a different trip. So it charges the fare. Then you transfer to bus A, and it gives you the free transfer.

If there is some road work or marathon that breaks a bus route into 2 pieces, then the algorithm can be turned off to allow someone to transfer from one segment of bus B to the other segment of bus B while not paying twice. This happened this past weekend when the marathon broke the Circulator into 2 segments, and people were told to walk between the two segments.

Now this system isn't perfect...if you can take 1 bus line to your destination and take another bus line home, then you'll still get the "free" transfer. But that is the case no matter how they program the transfers.

Posted by: thetan | March 23, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

"forget" is completely missing the point. Of course the rail should be more expensive. If you take the bus on a round trip jouney, there and back, you should pay two fares. If you can do that within a couple hours, well, good for you. But that is absolutely no reason not to narrow the 3 hour window. In fact, the more I think about this, why not an hour and a half, or an hour?

Posted by: OstHoo | March 23, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

agreed, she's gaming the system. she should be paying full fares for each leg.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | March 23, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

This is not gaming the system!

Read Metro's own website @

Metrobus to Metrobus: Bus-to-bus transfers with a SmarTrip® card are valid for free, unlimited Metrobus connections (including round trips) within a three-hour period.

They advertise it themselves!!!

Posted by: wpjunk | March 23, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Cripes. My apologies Ms. Meyers.

Not so surprising WMATA has a budget problem.

Posted by: IndolentCin | March 23, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

This is an example of someone who wants Metro to be their personal bus. Two hours to catch another bus and you can't make it? Maybe you should consider renting a car and not expecting Metro to adapt to your 'requirements'. You can check out the route you want to take on Metro's web site to see if you can make the connections.

Posted by: Jimof1913 | March 23, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse


So obviously she's not doing anything wrong in the current system.

That being said I still think that they need to change it so that you pay per trip and round trip equals 2 trip not one. A trip is one way.

Posted by: archers44 | March 23, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

The arguments above ARE COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT if you use SmarTrip. Each day, when you board nearly *any* regional bus, you pay your fare (usually $1.35) with SmarTrip and start a 3-hour clock. Every time you board another regional bus with an equal fare, regardless of which system it belongs to, within that 3 hours, you ride free PLUS your 3-hour clock starts from zero again. It is entirely possible to ride around Fairfax, DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County all day long for a single $1.35 fare. (I know because I've done it many times.) If you board a bus with a higher fare (Metrobus 5A, express buses), you only pay the difference over whatever you've already paid during your continuous stretch.

The first time you hop a bus more than 3 hours after the last, you start a new fare cycle. Each new day starts a new cycle as well (although buses operating past midnight still count as part of the previous day until "closing"). But any time you pay a bus fare, if you then travel on Metrorail, go shopping, work, go home, whatever, so long as you hit the next bus within 180 minutes, you ride free AND get another 3 hours.

If you don't believe me, try it yourself. Check your SmarTrip balance every time you board a bus, and note the time. No matter what you do between bus rides, you won't pay another fare -- even the rail-to-bus transfer fee -- if you catch your next bus under 3 hours from your previous bus boarding. (NOTE: I haven't tested this with Loudoun County Transit or PRTC/Omnilink, and Virginia Regional Transit -- Loudoun's intracounty bus service -- doesn't use SmarTrip at all.)

I didn't realize this myself until last October's Metro HQ power outage scrambled some bus fare boxes for a day. I noticed that even after everything was working again, SmarTrip wasn't charging me for fares all day long. Since I always look a gift horse in the mouth, I called SmarTrip to ask if there were lingering problems. They insisted that this is the way SmarTrip was set up. No one I've spoken to about this at WMATA or Fairfax County so far has seen a problem with this.

I've saved quite a bit because of this quirk, but my concern has been that this is one reason WMATA et al. don't collect as much bus revenue as they ought to. (Assuming a standard bus trip costs the bus system $7, I've gotten as much as $70 of bus travel for $1.25.) I'm currently arguing elsewhere that the regional systems ought to make SmarTrip fares work more like paper transfers used to, lest we continue to lose bus service and routes because they're underfunded.

Posted by: jeffq | March 23, 2010 11:37 PM | Report abuse

To go along with transfers of buses, how about transfer of trains.

I hate it when I am riding in the off-peak (especially on the weekends and late at night) when I get off one train and get to the platform to transfer to the next train to see the train just leaving the station and seeing that I have to wait at least 12 to 15 minutes for the next train. How come Metro can't implement a policy of timed transfers on the rail system?

The additional time having to wait for the train could mean the difference of making or missing a bus when I leave the system. Owning to the fact that buses run every 30 minutes or more late at night is more of an inconvenience to me.

Also, with the 10 cent fare increase that was put in effect a couple of weeks ago, those who are using the train and bus and using a SmarTrip card are getting hit twice with a fare increase. For example, your rail fare is now $1.45 instead of $1.35, an extra 10 cents, then when you transfer to the bus, the bus transfer fare is 85 cents instead of 75 cents, an increase of 10 cents. So the increase is 20 cents, and if you do it twice a day is 40 cents. 40 cents might not seem like a lot but it adds up.

Posted by: dhlunar | March 24, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

jeffq - that is not true. The 3 hour window starts when the first fare is paid. If the next fare is a transfer the 3 hour window does not reset. Tried and verified myself.

Posted by: wpjunk | March 24, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I saw the subject of this piece and initially assumed I'd be supporting the letter-writer. I appreciate the problems with just-missed buses in Arlington and Fairfax because I experience them too. And I figured there'd be the usual problem commenters down here... the person who suggested renting a car -- come on. Please be serious.

I also don't think you can say this person is gaming the system if WMATA clearly states that this is allowed.

But I do think WMATA should change the rule. Unlimited transfers for a trip one way in a certain period, unlimited transfers for a trip the other way in a certain period... not transfers that apply to both inbound and outbound.

Seems to me that this would allow for a two-hour window instead of a three-hour window. As long as Metro accompanies this announcement with one that explains what transfers are for... it shouldn't be a problem. I suppose you could still have someone sneak in four trips -- two inbound, two outbound -- in two hours (per the example), but the person would have no room to complain about it.

Posted by: MosesCleaveland | March 24, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

wpjunk, it *is* true. I've been meticulously recording my SmarTrip balance every time I've used it since 29 October 2009, and I have found not a single exception to the charging method I described above. When I catch a bus whose fare box isn't showing the balance, or the sun angle prevents me from reading the box quickly (I try not to hold up departure), I make sure to check the balance by other means ASAP and record a note to myself to verify what the actual charge, if any, was.)

I don't know why there would be such a discrepancy between accounts, but my experience and the statements of a customer-service rep and a manager at SmarTrip have backed this up. (When I talked to them, I was convinced it worked the way people think it is, and they had to spend considerable time convincing me that that it doesn't.)

Posted by: jeffq | March 24, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Never heard of zipcar, Moses?

Posted by: corrections | March 24, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the people who say that what this lady is doing obviously doesn't violate the rules as written but that the rules need to be re-written to eliminate the loophole. The purpose of public transport is to get you to a destination. In the case of the grocery-shopping trip, for example, public transport has two purposes--(1) to get you to the store and (2) to get you back home afterwards. That's two separate purposes and two distinct trips. I agree with the people who have said that roundtrip travel shouldn't be given away free.

"thetan" gives a good analysis, but I would expand on his point in one manner. Some bus lines run in paired loops. For example, I live in Kingstowne and one of the Fairfax Connector bus lines that runs from here to the Van Dorn Street Metro operates as the 321 bus (anti-clockwise loop running north up Van Dorn to the Metro, west on Edsall out to Backlick, down through Springfield to the Metro stop there, then east through Kingstowne). There is an equivalent 322 bus that runs the same route but in a clockwise direction. This makes eminent sense from a rider's standpoint--the full loop takes an hour 10 minutes, so if I'm at the Van Dorn Metro in the evening, I don't want to ride all the way around the loop for an hour to get home. Instead, I'd take the other bus that takes 10 minutes to my stop.

Using this example as the basis, I think the idea "thetan" raises of not giving the free-transfer credit if you board the same bus line should be expanded to include the equivalent line running in the other direction where such routes exist. Suppose I were to ride the bus to Springfield to do some shopping. I'd take the 322 clockwise loop. In my mind, that bus has then gotten me to my destination. I spend an hour at the store. I'd then take the 321 anti-clockwise loop home. In my view, that's a separate trip and should be charged separately. Under the system "thetan" suggests, however, I'd ride the 321 bus for free because it's a separate route. I think paired routes of this sort ought to be treated as the same line for fare-calculation purposes to eliminate the abuse of the round-trip scenario.

Posted by: 1995hoo | March 24, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

BTW, I should have said one other thing in my previous comment. There is no rational reason in most cases for someone to need to change to the bus running in the opposite direction on the same loop other than in situations where maybe you realize you left something at home and you have to go back and get it. That's a further reason for treating paired lines as separate fares.

Posted by: 1995hoo | March 24, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock, saying that you think this rider provides "the best argument I've seen in defense of the current limit" is ridiculous. Perhaps you meant "the best argument for changing the current limit"? As many other commenters have pointed out, Ms. Meyers is gaming the system. Yes, it is handy to be able to hop on and off buses in the course of running errands - but at some point, the rider must accept that with multiple buses and entries/exits to run a long sequence of errands it is only fair to pay two fares. Ms. Meyers is not going on "a simple trip" when she uses the buses to take care of multiple errands - and she should be willing to pay her fair share for extensive use of the bus system.

I am sure that Metrorail riders would like to be able to take advantage of the same type of on/off capability, but we can't (unless going between bus/rail). I certainly would like to be able to use Metrorail to run errands - perhaps riding past my stop to Virginia Square and the Arlington Central Library after work to return books and pick out a few new ones, then getting back on Metrorail to head home. Usually if I do go to the library after work, I just walk home afterward (~ 1 mile), since I don't want to pay $1.45-$1.75 just to go one or two stops. If there was a reduced fare, I might be persuaded to use Metrorail more often in such situations, which would result in an overall increase in Metro's income.

Posted by: sciencegrrl | March 24, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

The 3 hour clock definitely restarts with each tap of the card, I haven't been charged quite a few times when I should have been if the rules were enforced as written.

Posted by: FHMetro | March 24, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

By the way, one of the reasons for the confusion on how the 3-hour window works is how WMATA states it. From :

"Bus-to-bus transfers with a SmarTrip card are valid for free, unlimited Metrobus connections (including round trips) within a three-hour period."

You can read this either as "three-hour period that starts with your first (paid) bus", or "three-hour period that restarts every time you make a connection". To me (and I think to most people), the first interpretation is the most obvious. But it's the second that is actually implemented at SmarTrip.

Admittedly, this won't help regular commutes, which usually have much more than 3 hours in-between, but *does* help errand-runners like Lynda Meyers and myself. But anyone can take advantage of it on days off, or whenever they go to work for less than 3 hours.

Posted by: jeffq | March 27, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

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