D.C.’s Metrorail Fares in Context

After completing my recent analysis of WMATA’s Metrorail fare increase, I decided to do some more research to better put the fares in a national context.

First, a took a look at how Metrorail compares with the nation’s other subway systems. As you can see, every subway except Philadelphia’s PATCO, San Francisco’s BART, and the D.C. Metro operate with a flat fare for all riders. BART and the D.C. Metro are the most expensive of all by far.

Metro Fares Compared

Next, I added the total system lengths as a rough measure of the distance and choices offered by each system. The big outlier here is the huge New York City Subway. Chicago’s CTA is roughly the same size as Metro, but generally cheaper at $2.00. (However it should be noted the CTA is in a financial crisis.) L.A.’s new subway is the cheapest of the group at $1.25.

Metro System Fares and Size

The D.C. Metro and San Francisco’s BART are often described as sister systems. They serve similar sized cities, were built at a similar time, and provide a similar type of service to their riders. They both also use a graduated fare system rather than a fixed fare. Like Metrorail, BART has recently adopted fare increases.

Metro System MapBART System Map

To complete the following analysis, for BART I used the 16th Street Mission station. For the Washington, D.C. fares I used the Shaw station. Both are residential neighborhoods located near the center of the systems, resulting in a good variety of destinations among the sample trips.

On the BART system, trips under 6 miles are fixed at $1.50, and longer trips vary according to length and where they run thanks to a variety of surcharges. (Airport trips are more expensive, for example.) Children, seniors, and the disabled receive a fixed 62.5% discount.

BART Fares

Here’s the result if you plot the regular fares from BART and Metrorail. For shorter trips, the two systems are roughly analogous, and for longer trips Metrorail is more expensive.

Metrorail and BART Regular Fares

However, as the most interesting result comes by graphing the per mile cost of each fare. It seems the new BART and Metrorail fares are nearly identical per mile, and like Metrorail the longest trips on BART are quite cheap per mile.

Metrorail and BART Per Mile Cost

Thanks to fellow Maryland community planning graduate student Matt Johnson, who helped me track down other system’s fares and calculated the BART station distances by hand.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I live in the bay area, and I ride BART everyday. When I visited Washington a couple years ago, the subway system was nearly identical, as you mentioned, and I felt very comfortable with the process as a result.

    I think you made a good point with Chicago, and I wonder how the other municipalities, besides New York, are doing financially with a flat-fee system. It makes sense to me to pay more per distance, but I’ve been exclusively using BART for some time now, and am used to it.

    For systems like New York, where the number of stations and riders is too plentiful for the logistics to work, it makes sense for a flat-rate. But I wonder how Boston, etc., makes it’s financials pan-out, although, to my knowledge, the SF system (and DC) is much larger in area. (The longest ride on BART is over an hour.)

    Your chart also shows an off-peak rate for DC, which BART does not have, but I’d be interested in BART using that method too. Maybe they’d get more night-time riders and off-set that cost.

  2. How about convenience of the system factored in somehow, perhaps something like frequency of trains, average distance to nearest Metro or bus stops, speed of a typical trip? Fares aren’t everything; Chicago’s system is in massive decline so your $2 won’t get you where you’re going nearly as reliably as your $2 in DC will–not to mention that even a solvent CTA serves a smaller proportion of Chicagoans than a well-funded Metro serves District residents.

  3. There are other differences between systems to consider as well.

    I don’t doubt that other Metro systems would like to adopt distance based fares like BART and Metro, but the necessary capital improvements to do so (essentially replacing every turnstile in the entire system) make it difficult to do. Some, like LA’s metro, don’t even use turnstiles (though this is changing).

    BART and Metro have that advantage because they are new. Likewise, while the CTA is in a fiscal crisis, most of that burden is due to the system’s age, both for capital expenses (the oldest sections of the El are from 1892!) and for other legacy costs, namely pension benefits. Comparing fare structures is interesting on the surface, but there’s a lot of history lurking below the surface.

    Another interesting divergence between Metro and BART is the presence of the Muni in SF. Metro is largely commuter oriented in the suburbs but quite urban within the core. BART is not, as it only really has the Market St. tunnel, which it shares with Muni – the rest of the system is far more commuter-oriented.

  4. I wouldn’t say Chicago’s system is in a massive decline. The transit deal looks like it has steadied the regional transit authority’s footing (not without some hiccups). Still one of the best and cheapest in the country and they’re continuing to upgrade (taking care of the admittedly annoying slow zones and derelict stations). And that doesn’t even address the buses, which have great marginal benefit for system users.

  5. To build off of Alex B’s point, not only does the SF Bay Area have MUNI within SF’s city limits, but many of the other regions shown here have additional regional transit systems extending into the suburbs – New York has Metro North, The Long Island RR, and Jersey Transit, Boston has multiple commuter rail lines, and Philly has SEPTA and NJ Transit commuter trains- all of which use distance based pricing. Although BART does, to an extent, serve as subway in limited parts of SF, Oakland, and Berkeley, Alex’s identification of BART as a commuter service is very accurate. I would argue that BART is therefore a better comparison for these regional rail services than it is for a true subway system. The DC Metro is almost unique among the systems analyzed here in that, at least as I understand it, it fills both the role of city subway and commuter rail system – which is why finding a system to compare it to is so difficult.

  6. Very interesting analysis. One other factor to consider would be fares as a source of total funding. I know one thing Metro has always complained about is not having a dedicated system of funding, so it might be worth seeing how much of the total costs are the system are being paid through fares.

  7. hello, i am a New Yorker who relocated moved to DC last year. in my decades of riding the NYC subway, at $70/month unlimited rides, I have probably experienced a handful of delays and/or major issues with the tracks. in my one year of having lived in DC, there has been an average of one major delay per week due to track or other issues —- and I pay over $4.00 per one-way trip.

    can you offer some thought or explanation as to why this is, in the context of the two train systems?

    thank you

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  9. @demetrohater –

    I think the major issue with delays and the like is that the system was never built with multiple tracks, as in NY. This also prevents having express service. I love the metro, but this early decision was a stinker.

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