How Fare-Capping Could Make Transit More Equitable

Jul 17, 2018

People with low or moderate incomes are often the most transit-dependent—they rely on public transportation to access critical daily needs—but the least able to bear the cost

While cities such as Chicago and Denver have created reduced fare structures for low-income riders, other transit authorities use a policy called fare-capping to make sure people don’t overpay for transportation.

Fare-capping is sometimes described as "earn as you ride," where individual trip purchases accrue on a rider’s smart card and automatically convert to a weekly or monthly pass once the equivalent amount is paid.

A lot of people can’t shell out the cash up front for a pass, and often end up paying more than it’s worth, said Emily Cleath of Just Harvest, a nonprofit organization which addresses hunger through economic disparity. Cleath spoke at a recent meeting of transit riders in Rankin.

“Instead of having to ration their rides or pay more than other people for the same service, a fare-capping system would ensure that our lowest income riders are not paying more for the system, simply because they can’t afford a pass.”

With a ConnectCard, the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s smart card technology, a weekly pass costs $25, a monthly pass costs $97.50 and an annual pass costs $1,072.50.

TriMet, the regional transit authority in Portland, Ore., adopted fare-capping in 2017, said public information officer Tia York.

“It really does increase access to the transit system, and makes it much more affordable for people on a budget,” she said. “Transit provides vital access to jobs, education, healthcare and social services.”

It’s a simple, no-brainer way to create equity in a transit system, said Hayley Richardson of a transportation foundation, TransitCenter.

“Fare capping is not an exotic technology,” she said. “Once you have the infrastructure to process tap cards, which most transit agencies do at this point, they can perform the calculation necessary to cap cares.”

Richardson added making it quick and simple to pay for and use transit can help agencies increase ridership and compete with the easy experience offered by ride-sharing companies.

While the Port Authority is exploring fare-capping, spokesperson Adam Brandolph said it’s more likely that a mobile pay app would come first.

“We are pursuing a lot of different options,” he said.

Transport for London adopted fare-capping in 2013; Houston Metro caps the cost of its day passes, and DART, the rapid transit system in Dallas, Texas, will phase in fare-capping this year. Advocates in New York City are urging MTA to adopt the policy as it rolls out its payment modernization.