Flat fare or not flat fare

Adelaide public transport  runs services across an area of about 3000 square kilometres with buses, tramways and trains. One could imagine that over such an area, fares would depend upon distance travelled.
In fact no, Adelaide public transport moved from a 3 zone arrangement (late 90’s) to a flat fare structure years ago without significant revenue impact. During planning stages of the new Metrocard system, about to enter into service, this topic generated number of discussions and finally simplicity, continuity and social component won the deal. Flat fare was kept and capabilities of the new system make it possible to go one step further. Adelaide flat fare is in fact an authorisation to use the network for two hours, whether you use it two hours or half an hour is the same price.
Introduction of a stored value contact-less card to replace current Multitrip tickets contributes improving passenger comfort by removing need to carry two tickets (peak & interpeak), fosters quicker boarding times, offers many ways of recharging and provides better reliability. Fares are deducted automatically when validating Metrocard according to time and passenger category.  Passenger are informed via audio and visual messages for better understanding of what is happening. Other fare modulation possibilities are also included into the new system like applying discounts on selected routes to encourage usage of public transport in selected areas or when introducing new services.

Each passenger category has its own card, namely Regular, Student or Concession which are of different colors. Seniors have not been forgotten and will receive a new Senior card into which a “Metrocard” is embedded to provide free travel during free travel periods  and also authorise use of concession fare stored value when travelling outside free travel periods. Of course, selection of which fare product shall be used at any time is done automatically by the system.

 Main reasons leading to the choice of a flat fare structure are its ability to provide a “natural” social fare scaling and to avoid complexity for the user as much as possible. The concept is very easy to understand and does not affect ticketing revenue compared to other networks using more complex fare structures. However, very short trips that do not require transferring between services might be perceived a bit expensive by users. For this reason, Adelaide public transport proposes a “2 SECTION” fare which, as it name self explains, caters for one trip along two sections without transfer. This fare is available both with Metrocards and cashfare tickets.

Adelaide casual users have not been forgotten and they can still buy tickets from bus drivers or on board trains and tramways on automatic vending machines. There are cashfare tickets for each passenger category unlike in other networks where only one for all  “expensive” ticket is available for sale on board. Cashfare tickets still allow you to transfer between services automatically: thanks to magnetic tickets usage.

The classic alternative to flat fare is distance based fare structure for which fares depend upon distance travelled. After being seduced by the idea of just paying for what is used one may find out that it is not as efficient as one may believe. A number of other factors have to be taken into account to satisfy community needs which should remain the main element leading to the final choice.

When computing fares based on distance it is common practice to say that farther you go and less you pay per kilometre. While this does not present any difficulty implementing it with modern ticketing system, it begins making it difficult for passengers to understand fares. If on top of this you introduce tariff modulation based on the period of the day, how frequently you use the service, and a social component, understanding tariffs becomes next to impossible. I know a few places in the world where obviously passengers have renounced understanding fares and only try to workout their monthly expense cumulating recharges. Even if we are not talking big money here, I do not like the feeling of not knowing how much I am charged compared to how much I should be charged.

In most developed countries, real estate value is generally proportional to the distance from city centres: the closer you are from the centre the dearer it becomes. This contributes sending low revenue users farther and farther from city centres where offices generally are: public transport tariff shall take this into account and ensure that distant suburbs do not pay premium fares to go to work. Another public transport target is to diminish number of cars on the street. While fare structure is never a first criteria to measure public transport attractiveness it may quickly become an excuse not to use it for users who still have a choice.
Deciding which fare structure is best suited for a network requires considering significant number of criteria: financial, existing fare structure, simplicity/complexity, network characteristics, social components, attractiveness, multi-modality, multi operability, fraud level, public perception, politics….. and most certainly others that I have forgot to list here.

The solution is always a compromise, keeping it simple is the key to success but it is not an easy endeavour. Authorities have to make decisions early in the project and stick to it during the project: permanent strategy variations are damaging and generally cause lots of problems inducing unwanted complexity. Making it complex is often an easier way but may prove itself extremely difficult to implement and to maintain.

About Dominique BIEVRE

I am a consultant specialised in ticketing systems. I have a good 25 years of experience in this field, a detailed story of my career can be found on my website: www.dtb-consult.com. This blog is to propose a mean to talk about ticketing your comments or suggestions are most welcome.
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