» Washington Metro considers charging customers more to use system’s most congested stations, increasing peak-hour commute costs.
Downtowns play a primary role in organizing the daily lives of millions of Americans. Despite increasing suburban sprawl and the more recent comeback of inner-city housing, downtowns remain the single largest work centers of virtually every U.S. metropolitan area.
In the biggest of those center cities, rail rapid transit plays a vital supporting role; by hauling in tens of thousands of people to a limited number of downtown stations every morning, these systems allow the creation of dense urban cores that would not be possible were everyone to rely on private automobiles. Just as importantly, most urban rail systems would make little sense if they didn’t serve highly attractive destinations; it’s not a coincidence that almost every American urban rail line reaches the job center of its respective region. Downtowns and rapid transit are mutually reinforcing.
Why make this seemingly obvious point? Because private interests and the public sector have spent the last century working together to build these jobs centers, and the congestion now experienced daily on major rapid transit systems from New York to San Francisco is not unexpected: It was planned.
There’s nothing sinister about this fact: From a social equity perspective, there are good reasons to concentrate employment growth downtown and there are positive effects of economic accumulation that result from dense downtown cores. But that clustering — in addition to the standardized work hours enforced by most employers — ensures that rail lines and especially their downtown stations are packed in the morning and full in the evening, only to be frequently empty at midday. It’s not a particularly efficient distribution of ridership, but it’s what happens when thousands of people are working in close quarters downtown.
Facing a tough budget year and little hope of significantly more money from local, state, or federal sources, the managers of Washington, D.C.’s Metro system are considering adding a 50¢ surcharge for customers using or passing through the network’s busiest stations in the center city during peak hours. It’s an approach that has been promoted by a coalition of transit advocates and smart growth proponents who argue that some combination of additional fees would aid in the budget crisis, affect mostly wealthy riders, and reduce congestion by encouraging people to go to work during off-peak hours.
Similar schemes have been proposed over the years for a number of American transit agencies suffering from congestion at downtown stations.
Washington’s Metro already charges varying fares based on distance and hour traveled; a trip between suburban Bethesda and Union Station, for instance, varies between $3.00 at peak times and $1.95 other times. Metro requires customers to pay more for the train than the bus, likely resulting at least partially in the very different demographics of the city’s rail and bus systems. This is quite different from New York’s Subway and city buses, for instance, which charge a single, set fare at all times and for any journey, no matter the distance.
The “congested core” surcharge now under study for implementation for Washington could go into effect at the “peak-of-the-peak,” between 7:30 and 9:00 AM, and between 4:30 and 6:00 PM, when Metro is packed with riders. The mode of implementation has not yet been determined — nor has the funding device been approved at all — so I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of specifics.
Though this fee would likely reduce congestion at some stations and perhaps induce several thousand employees to change their work hours, its primary effect will be simply increasing the fares of most system users. This would provide immediate financial benefits to the cash-strapped transit agency, but it seems unlikely to solve long-term capacity problems with the Washington Metro or substantially increase the number of off-peak commuters. Most people, it turns out, still need to get home to their families at a reasonable hour, which means that most people will choose to pay the extra fare instead of changing their work schedules.
Thus the fee won’t reduce congestion dramatically — especially since the system continues to see ridership growth.
But more fundamentally, one should ask whether it makes sense for a transit system to charge extra for exactly the service it is supposed to provide best: journeys to and from the downtown core at peak hours. Should the District of Columbia push for years to increase the number of office jobs downtown if it decides to reverse the game later on and disincentivize the use of the region’s primary transit service to get there? Why penalize the people who are using the system in exactly the way that the system was designed to work?
Unlike automobile congestion zones, which are meant to increase the number of people using public transportation and other alternatives to driving (and, in turn, encourage the further densification of core land use), a transit congestion zone serves the opposite role. By increasing the cost of getting downtown by train, it degrades the value of the transit system’s primary use, which is to get from the outskirts to downtown during rush hour. It encourages car use and the build-up of areas outside of the core instead of within it.
Washington’s proposed fee is relatively minor and its global effects would be minimal, but there remains a conceptual gap between the idea of charging more to use center-city stations and the way in which American cities are currently designed. If we’re going to continue the concentration of center-city offices, we need to provide transit that reinforces it, not that works against it. Transit systems play an essential part in organizing regional developmental geography; their fare policies must reflect broader land use goals, not defeat them.