CTA to charge more without providing more

November 21, 2012 at 7:02 pm

If you live in Chicago, you’ve probably heard about the CTA’s fare increases by now, or as the CTA calls them, “modest reductions in discounts” (an Orwellian way of saying “fare increase”).

What affects Chicagoans the most is probably the $14 increase in a 30-day pass from $86 to $100 (a 16% increase). That doesn’t seem like much, but over a twelve-month period, that is $168 more out of our pockets – or just about two months’ worth of $86 monthly passes. Tourists will pay more, too – the $5.75 1-day pass will now be $10.00. I don’t have (and never want to have) a car, and I know I’m not the only person in Chicago that feels that way. So, when friends and family members visit from elsewhere in the Chicagoland/southeastern Wisconsin region, it will be (a lot) more expensive for them to get around as well. Base fares – $2.00 for bus ($2.25 if paying cash) and $2.25 for rail, with a $0.25 transfer – are staying the same.

The budget is a reflection of deals between the CTA and the Amalgamated Transit Union Locals #241 and #308, which represent CTA bus and rail operators (see the press release). The CTA says it was able to maintain current levels of bus and rail service while paying rail and bus operators more. You can download an Excel file of every CTA employee’s salary – the average bus operator working 40 hours a week makes roughly $56,000 before taxes (a benefit is a free CTA pass – so add that on as well). You can decide if that’s too much or too little.

The CTA also says that the increase in fares will help it continue to upgrade its service. While the CTA has made improvements in what it offers riders, that’s kind of like my grandfather saying that he’s upgrading by moving from cassettes to CDs. It’s an upgrade, but it’s still outdated in an age where technology can offer us more. We got BRT (kind of), we have some minor improvements in knowing where our buses are, and we have some new rail cars years in the making (and they’re really not that impressive).

So let’s talk briefly about labor. Several major cities have already shown us that we can render train conductors obsolete if we fully automate train lines. I wrote about this a while ago: automating busy train lines makes headways faster, moves more people on less crowded trains, and are much cheaper to operate since the most expensive part of the service – the conductor – is removed. Anyone with a head on their shoulders knows that this would probably not happen in an American city without major backfire from unions. A better approach might be to make any future heavy rails lines (circle line?) automated and see what happens from there.

This blog is beyond the topic of labor relations, but I am always happy to engage in some offline political discourse.

Every few years (or several times a year, if you’re a Metra rider), we get less and less for our transit dollars. Fares go up but other sources of revenue – like the gas tax – stay the same. You don’t have to be great at math to see that an unchanging per-gallon gas tax in an age of more fuel-efficient cars means lower revenues. Unfortunately, the gas tax is a very contentious political problem. The price of gas came up at one of the recent Presidential debates, but it wasn’t related to taxation, it was related to energy policy. Politicians really don’t have any control over the market price of gas, but they do control the gas tax – and any raise in the gas tax is inevitably a raise in the price of gas. Good luck raising it.

I made a table showing the price of a single ride, 1-day pass, and 30-day pass in several major cities around the world. The outliers seem to be London when it comes to single rides, and London and Tokyo when it comes to 30-day passes (although the fare structure of Tokyo’s system is quite difficult to dissect):

City Per ride 1 day 1 month Geographic restrictions
Chicago, USA $2.25 $10.00 $100.00 Systemwide
New York, USA $2.50 N/A $104.00 Systemwide
Washington, D.C., USA $2.10** $14.00 N/A Depends
Los Angeles, USA $1.50 $5.00 $75.00 Systemwide
San Francisco, USA $2.00 $14.00 $64.00 Systemwide
Toronto, Canada $3.00 $10.75 $128.50 Systemwide
Paris, France $2.17 $8.20 $80.00 Zones 1-2, including RER
London, UK $4.30 $13.30 $178.79 Zones 1-2, including Overground
Berlin, Germany $3.07 $8.30 $98.68 Zones AB
Amsterdam, Netherlands $1.62*** $9.61 $94.06 2 zones
Madrid, Spain $2.56 $6.66 $66.68 Zone 1
Mexico City, Mexico $0.24 N/A N/A Systemwide
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil $1.09 N/A N/A Systemwide
Moscow, Russia $0.89 N/A $54.88 Systemwide
Shanghai, China $0.45 $2.88 $11 + 10% discount on fare Systemwide
Tokyo, Japan $2.78**** $8.60 $203.00 Depends
Hong Kong, Hong Kong $0.38 – $6.15 $7.09 Depends
Sydney, Australia $3.62 $9.30 N/A Light rail network

All prices are in USD as of Wednesday, November 21, 2012.

**Washington, D.C. Metro fares are based on distance traveled. Sample fare is from Metro Center to Foggy Bottom

***Fares in Amsterdam are based on kilometres traveled. Sample fare is from Centraal Station to Rijksmuseum Station

****Fares in Tokyo are based on kilometres traveled. Sample fare is for 12-19km traveled

There really seems to be no correlation between the size of a city and how much its passes cost. But there is definitely a difference in the quality of transportation and the cost of a pass:

  • Paris, France: 30-day Navigo passes are $80 monthly, yet allow riders to use both the Métro (whole system within zones 1-2) and RER (commuter rail system in zones 1-6) within zones 1 and 2. That would be like allowing Chicagoans to travel on the Metra within Chicago/Evanston as well as the CTA.
    Paris also has a much, much better transportation system (although much of its efficiency is due to the region’s geography and government investment). You’d have to ride it to believe it, but some trains come every 90 seconds at rush periods. There is very little crowding.
  • Berlin, Germany: Like Paris, allows 30-day pass users to use the S-Bahn (above-ground regional trains) as well as the U-Bahn (subterranean subway trains).
  • Not shown, but all other systems allow free transfers. There is in fact no reason the CTA should be justified in charging $0.25 for a transfer the way the system is designed. To get many places, a transfer is required (bus>;bus, bus>;train, or train>;bus). In Paris and Berlin, riders can transfer between the regional and local networks without a surcharge as well.

Many cities in other countries do not, however, have 24-hour trains like Chicago’s Red and Blue lines (they do offer night buses that cover popular, central areas).

I am curious as to why the CTA did not try a more innovative approach with cash bus fares. In London, the cash bus fare is £0.95 ($1.50) more than if paying with the contactless Oyster card. Since paying by cash slows down everyone on the bus, a penalty of sorts would make paying with cash less attractive. Right now, only $0.25 is added to the fare if paying by cash instead of card. It could be $2 more – rounding out to $4 per ride if paying with cash. Without any information, I can assume that the majority of people paying with cash are tourists or those that don’t ride often, so this doesn’t really hurt frequent riders (and good businesses don’t hurt their frequent customers), but it also wouldn’t raise revenues that much.

Not featured in the table above but something I looked into nonetheless is annual passes. These passes are purchased for 12 months upfront and offer a discount over monthly passes. None of the American cities I looked at offered them. Paris does: instead of paying $80 monthly, an annual pass is $841 – a $119 savings (14%) if the passes where purchased monthly. Berlin does too: instead of paying nearly $100 monthly, an annual pass costs $909 – a savings of about $275 (32%). Maybe the CTA could offer a similar discount to riders that purchase an entire year upfront.

I would like to see a future approach to these fares, which will go up again (even if not until 2015), also include the Metra. It is an existing, “express” service in Chicago that could alleviate some of the crowding on existing CTA lines. There must be some commuters that would take the Metra to work because it’s faster, but buy a CTA pass instead because the CTA offers greater coverage and timing for other periods. And think about the Purple line express from Evanston. It bypasses a great majority of stations on the North side, but takes up the same amount of track space as the entire portion of the Red line from Belmont to Howard. That’s a lot of maintenance and space for a line that operates only on weekday peak periods. I’m not saying the Purple line isn’t important or should be eliminated, but the express service is a luxury and should cost more than taking the Purple line in Evanston and switching to the Red line at Howard.

Obviously we don’t want any fare increases – not for commuters, not for tourists, not for people on the Purple line. Taking public transportation is still much cheaper than driving, and the City is investing in alternatives like bike share. What we need is for politicians to recognize that transportation is extremely important to the City and its residents. Foreign countries and even other parts of the US fund transit more heavily than we do in Chicago, meaning that there is not only room to maintain service without raising fares, but also room to make great improvements in service and to be pioneers in new technologies. Transportation shouldn’t be more expensive without a noticeable improvement in the quality of service, which is woefully inadequate (coming from a weekday Red line rider who is used to waiting up to 10 minutes for a train – at rush hour!). So write your local politicians and stay in the loop with local advocacy organizations like the Active Transportation Alliance. We can’t afford to let our transportation system stay inadequate and pay more for it. The CTA could be innovative and forward-thinking as a transportation agency – but instead, it falls back on what’s already been done elsewhere.

Let’s get involved in fixing it!