When are transit fares fair? Deconstructing the distance-based fare debate

The recent debate over possible distance-based transit fares for Translink caught me by surprise, partly because the three-zone system is already a move in that direction and partly because I have not heard a Translink official say more changes are coming.

Yet even the zone system is not exactly distance-based. A three-zone ride costs twice as much as a one-zone cash fare, not three times as much, which makes sense if you’re trying to build ridership in the sprawling suburbs where lower-income families have moved to cut housing costs.

But what does make fares fair? Should you pay by distance? Or have a single flat fare system-wide?

As always in such matters, transit policy expert Jarrett Walker is my go-to guy and once again he ably summarizes the issues in this short analysis. My conclusion: the fairest fares are the ones that maximize the chance for all income groups to get to where they need to go at the lowest possible cost necessary to provide quality service, meaning an element of “unfairness” is likely to produce the most equity.

Right now, though, this is not a problem in Metro. What we really need to focus on is winning sustainable system expansion in the upcoming referendum on transit funding.