Portland Debuts a Fairer Way to Pay for Transit Fares

With Trimet's new fare capping program, poor people no longer have to pay more for transit than the rich.

Photo via TransitCenter
Photo via TransitCenter

They say it’s expensive to be poor. And that certainly applies to the way American transit fares are structured. That’s because people who purchase monthly or daily passes get bulk discounts, while people who pay for each ride do not.

It makes perfect sense to provide bulk passes, which often lead to higher ridership. But these fare structures pose a problem for people who aren’t in a position to scrape together the cash for a pass and have to pay for a whole month of transit rides one fare at a time. They may end up paying more than wealthier riders for the same amount of service, even though they can least afford it.

Now Portland’s transit agencies — Trimet, C-Tran, and the city’s streetcars — are showing the way to a fairer system.

The agencies have introduced “fare capping,” reports TransitCenter. That means riders who pay per trip do not incur further charges once they reach a certain threshold.

For example, a single Trimet bus trip costs $2.50, while a daily pass costs $5. Fare capping means a person who rides the bus three times in a day won’t pay for the third trip, even if she purchased each ride separately.

Portland is the first major American city to enact a fare capping policy, according to TransitCenter. Trimet was responding to grassroots pressure for a fairer system, and international transit agencies in cities including London and Dublin have shown that fare capping works.

Portland’s system relies on new fare media — reloadable “Fastpass” cards — that track the number of trips the cardholder makes. The cards were introduced in June and are available at retailers around the city.

Trimet estimates the change could reduce fare revenue between 1 and 1.5 percent, but could be partially offset by lower rates of fare evasion under the capping system, TransitCenter reports.

Fare capping is an idea that all transit agencies offering daily and monthly bulk discounts should embrace. TransitCenter specifically urges New York’s MTA, which is currently looking to upgrade its fare technology, to adopt fare capping in its next-generation system.

“It’s heartening to see a technology innovation in transportation that solves a problem like the poor paying more for transit than the rich,” said TransitCenter’s Jon Orcutt.

64 thoughts on Portland Debuts a Fairer Way to Pay for Transit Fares

  1. But aren’t the costs of owning and using your car much more than paying a $3 a day fare? as I wrote in another post: The value of your car goes down the higher the mileage. Then you have fuel, more maintenance, parking and spending TIME on your commute, often because there are too many people driving into town at the same time.

  2. I think they should have said pay less in fares per month instead of “bulk discounts”! Employers who subsidize passes probably get bulk discounts. They may pass those savings on to their employees, which would be great. Those savings could really make a huge difference for lower wage employees!

  3. Don’t they do that for utilities, like electricity, gas and water. I remember getting letters from at least the electric and water companies, whose newer meters kept track of the time you used the utilities, and adjusting the unit cost accordingly. Plus, it reduced brownouts and blackouts for the electricity companies.

  4. Too many of the poor need to use transit to do their grocery and other shopping, conduct personal business, because there aren’t any grocery stores, banks, department stores or malls in really poor neighborhoods, or they just want to visit friends. Yeah, a lot of them could take transit to where the stores are, shop, and get back on the bus/subway to get home. That could save them some money if you can get a transfer-type pass, like they give you when you have to change buses.

  5. It just occurred to me. What if they treated transit like a toll road? That way you could pay by distance. People with passes can use an express lane, the way people using EZ pass for cars do. They’d swipe at their start point and again at the end point, and the cost could be charged to their pass (they would have to pay the monthly fee to keep the pass activated) and they would have to have the pass connected to a bank account or pre-pay where you’d go to buy a pass. The cost could be capped, depending on the average distance they travel. If they use less money than they pre-paid, the card is credited. If they use it more, the card would be deactivated until the overage is paid for. And they’d have to use an ID to buy the passes, so they can’t just buy another pass if the overage is more than the cost of a pass.

    I’m sure there are problems with this kind of system, but it seems like it might work. I’m still in favor of a flat cost for the passes but a plan like this might make me reconsider.

  6. “Those employers won’t increase pay enough for the working poor to live closer to work.”

    Then who do you suppose will clean their toilets? The CEOs? Ha ha?

  7. “Why would you want to disincentivize long commutes?”

    To minimize economic and environmental harm.

    “How would a distance-based fare work, in practical terms?”

    Tap on tap off.

  8. Aah! I thought you meant long commutes on the train/ subway/bus.
    Thanks for clearing that up!
    I don’t understand Tap On Tap Off? Do you guys use a pass you just tap on a reader? We still have swipe cards.


  9. If employers won’t increase pay enough for the working poor to live closer to work, then who will clean their toilets?

  10. I need regards to “tap on tap off” you would tap in at the start of a journey and tap off at the end.
    Here in London we say tap in and tap out. On the Tube it’s then worked out based on the time you tapped in and how many zones were used to get to your destination.
    If they don’t tap out a higher amount is charged to the cardholder.
    Passengers can also use the same card for bus journeys. What’s slightly different there is all journeys across London are the same price (£1.50) regardless of time of day etc. However, we have just introduced the bus hopper fare. This means that if a second bus journey is taken within an hour of the first journey you only pay the one price. This was because areas south of the river Thames didn’t have great Tube access.

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