DC’s Low-Income Fare Program: Experimenting with Fairness

  • Author: A Conrick
  • Date: January 7, 2020

Escalator into Metro Station


Later this year, Washington D.C. will launch a pilot program providing free & reduced price SmarTrip transit passes for a portion of low-income residents. But is this the right move?

Experimenting with Mobility

Starting in the summer of 2020, a research pilot headed by the Lab @ DC will track up to 2,500 low-income D.C. residents as they are randomly assigned to groups receiving free, reduced-price, or regularly priced fares. The aim is to collect data on these groups to determine the impact of subsidized transportation on the well-being & mobility of residents with limited incomes. Of the 2,500 residents taking part, all will receive some manner of social assistance, giving them initial access to the program. The WMATA board approved the full pilot in December.

Current Low-Income Fare Programs

Similarly-sized transit agencies have fully-fledged programs in operation, benefiting people of limited incomes through free or discounted fares. Multiple larger transit agencies, as this 2018 Streetsblog compilation shows, offer discounted fare programs for very low-income riders. Within other transit agencies, a number of programs exist:

  • Metro Transit of Madison, Wisconsin offers a Low Income Pass program, providing lower-cost passes to a limited number of low-income people. Riders self-certify they are at or below 150% of the Federal Poverty Level and get unlimited access to Metro Transit’s system for less than a dollar a day.
  • SunTran of Pima County, Arizona offers a reduced price SunGo card for low-income residents. In order to qualify for the $1 off the $1.75 fare, residents must prove household income using the Department of Labor’s Lower Living Standard Income Level, proof of address, and provide a photo ID.
  • ABQ Ride in Albuquerque, New Mexico offers an Indigent Ride pass at 1/3 the price of the unlimited monthly pass. Riders looking for an Indigent pass can only purchase it at qualifying charitable agencies, with the agency determining eligibility. The pass is only available on a first-come, first served-basis.
    • As the pass is discussed briefly on ABQ Ride’s website, I called to inquire about the program. The customer service representative didn’t know the program existed. However, mobility management practitioners may be aware of programs that aren’t publicized well but are beneficial to their clients. Discussing with transit providers better ways of offering their products, benefits all parties involved.

These programs have different eligibility requirements, certification processes and subsidization levels, yet all give some financial relief to those often hit hardest by the high cost of transportation in the United States: those with limited incomes.

Recent Findings

While D.C. plans to experiment with the cost of transit for low-income residents (with quality of life & mobility as the dependent variable), a recent study in Boston by MIT shows programs like these to already be a success. When given half-priced CharlieCard transit passes, low-income riders used transit more and transferred between rail & bus lines more often than those in the study paying full price. Simply, mobility increased for the most vulnerable when the cost of movement was lessened. When transit agencies experiment with programs to help people with limited incomes, mobility management practitioners have an opportunity to advocate for implementation of programs that will benefit their clients. Some transit agencies, such as those listed above, already have fairer fares programs in operation, understanding that lessened mobility cost leads to greater mobility.  Advancing economic vitality and self-sufficiency is a key part of mobility management. Fairer fares is a strategy that will do just that.

"Approaching the Future; Happy New Year!" by AGrinberg


We’d love to hear from you!

Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Sage Kashner (kashner@ctaa.org).

Skip to toolbar