I said something on my Patreon page about fare integration between buses and trains, in the context of an article I wrote for the DC Policy Center about improving bus service, and got pushback of the most annoying kind, that is, the kind that requires me to revise my assumptions and think more carefully about the subject. The controversy is over whether fare integration is the correct policy. I still think it is, but there’s a serious drawback, which the positive features have to counterbalance.
First, some background: fare integration means that all modes of public transit charge the same fare within the same zone, or between the same pair of stations. Moreover, it means transfers are free, even between modes. Fare integration between city buses and urban rail seems nearly universal; big exceptions include Washington (the original case study) and London, and to a lesser extent Chicago. Fare integration between urban rail and regional rail is ubiquitous in Europe – London doesn’t quite have it, but it’s actually closer than fare integration between buses and the Underground – but does not exist in North America. In Singapore there is fare integration. In Tokyo, there are about twelve different rail operators, with discounted-but-not-free transfers between two (Tokyo Metro and Toei) and full-fare transfers between any other pair.
The reason North American commuter rail has no fare integration with other forms of transit is pure tradition: railroaders think of themselves as special, standing apart from mere urban transit. We can dispense with the idea that it is a seriously thought-out fare system. However, lack of integration between buses and trains in general does have some thought behind it. In London, the stated reason is that the Underground is at capacity, so its fares are jacked up to avoid overcrowding, while the buses remain cheap. In Washington, it’s that Metro is a better product than the buses, so it should cost more, in the same way first-class seats cost more than second-class seats on trains. Cap’n Transit made a similar point about this in the context of express buses.
There are really three different questions about fare integration: demand, supply, and network effects. The first one, as noted by Patreon supporters, favors disintegrated fares. The other two favor fare integration, for different reasons.
Demand just means charging more for a product that has higher demand. This is about revenue maximization, assuming fixed service provision: people will pay more for the higher speed of rapid transit, so it’s better to charge each mode of transportation the maximum it can bear before people stop taking trips altogether, or choose to drive instead. It’s related to yield management, which maximizes revenue by using a fare bucket system, using time of booking as a form of price discrimination; SNCF uses it on the TGV, and in its writeups for American high-speed rail from 2009, it said it boosted revenue by 4%. In either case, you extract from each passenger the maximum they can pay by making features like “don’t get stuck in traffic” cost extra.
Supply means giving riders incentives to ride the mode of transportation that’s cheaper to provide. In other words, here we don’t assume fixed (or relatively fixed) service provision, but variable service provision and relatively fixed ridership. Trains nearly universally have lower marginal operating costs than buses per passenger-km; in Washington the buses cost 40% more per vehicle-km, and perhaps 2.5 times as much per unit of capacity (Washington Metro cars are long). Using the fare system to incentivize passengers to take the train rather than the bus allows the transit agency to shift resources away from expensive buses, or perhaps to redeploy these resources to serve more areas. If anything, the bus should cost more. There are shades of this line in incentives some transit agencies give for passengers to switch from older fare media to smart cards: the smart card is more convenient and thus in higher demand, but it also involves lower transaction costs, and thus the agency incentivizes its use by charging less.
The network effect means avoiding segmenting the market in any way, to let passengers use all available options. The fastest way to get between two points may be a bus in some cases and a train in others, or a combined trip. This fastest way is often also the most direct, which both minimizes provision cost to the agency and maximizes passenger utility. This point argues in favor of free transfers especially, more so than fare integration. Tokyo fares are integrated in the sense that the different railroads charge approximately the same for the same distance; but transfers are not free, and monthly passes are station to station, with no flexibility for passengers who live between two parallel (usually competing) lines.
The dominant reason to offer integrated fares is network effects, more so than supply. Evidently, I am not aware of transit agencies that charge more for buses than for trains, only in the other direction. That fare integration allows transit agencies to reduce operating costs mitigates the loss of revenue coming from ending price discrimination; it is not the primary reason to integrate fares.
The issue at hand is partly frequency, and partly granularity. A typical transit corridor, supporting a reasonably frequent bus or a medium-size subway station, doesn’t really have the travel demand for multiple competing lines, even if it’s a parallel bus and a rail line. Fare disintegration ends up reducing the frequency on each option, sometimes beyond the point where it starts hurting ridership.
In Washington it’s especially bad, because of reverse-branching. The street network makes it hard for the same bus to serve multiple downtown destinations (or offer transfers to other buses for downtown service). Normally, riders would be able to just take a bus to the subway station and get to their destination, but Washington plans buses and trains separately, so two of the trunk routes, running on 14th an 16th Streets, reverse-branch. The hit to frequency (16-18 minutes per destination off-peak) is so great that even without fare integration it’s worthwhile to prune the branches. But such situations are not unique to Washington, and can occur anywhere.
The required ingredients are a city center that is large enough, or oriented around a long axis, with a street network that isn’t a strict grid and isn’t oriented around the axis of city center. New York is such a city: if it didn’t have fare integration, buses would need to reverse-branch from the north to serve the East Side and West Side, and from anywhere to serve Midtown and Lower Manhattan.
The granularity issue is that there isn’t actually a large menu of options for riders with different abilities to pay. This is especially a problem in American suburbs, with nothing between commuter rail (expensive, infrequent off- and reverse-peak, assumes car ownership) and the bus (in the suburbs, a last-ditch option for people below the poverty line). I wrote about this for Streetsblog in the context of Long Island; there’s also a supply angle – different classes of riders travel in opposite directions, so it’s more efficient to put them on one vehicle going back and forth – but this is fundamentally a problem of excessive market segmentation.
This also explains how Tokyo manages without fare integration between different rail operators. Its commuter rail lines are not the typical transit corridor. With more than a million riders per day (not weekday) on many lines, there is enough demand for very high frequency even with disintegrated fares. A passenger between two competing lines can only get a monthly pass on one, but it’s fine because the one line is frequent and the trains run on time.
The rest of the world is not Tokyo. Branches in Outer London and the Paris suburbs aren’t terribly frequent, and only hit one of the city centers, necessitating free transfers to distribute passengers throughout the city. They also need to collect all possible traffic, without breaking demand between different modes. If RER fares were higher than Metro fares, some areas would need to have a Metro line (or bus line) paralleling the RER, just to collect low-income riders, and the frequency on either line would be weaker.
The demand issue is still real. Fare integration is a service, and it costs money, in terms of lost revenue. But it’s a service with real value for passengers, independently of the fact that it also reduces operating costs. The 99.5% of the world that does not live in Tokyo needs this for flexible, frequent transit choices.