Story at a glance

  • The pilot program will give thousands of D.C., residents access to the Metrorail for free or at subsidized costs.
  • D.C. hopes to address the inequality in access to public transportation based on income.
  • If the program is successful, the city hopes to expand it.

Public transportation can be good for the environment, economy and traffic. But it also costs money, and for low-income households with no access to private modes of transportation, paying for public transit is an inescapable burden. 

In Washington, D.C., low-income residents take approximately 31 million Metrobus trips a year, compared to 11 million Metrorail trips a year, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Part of the reason, WMATA says, is likely the higher cost of taking Metrorail. And while more than 65 percent of highest-income rail customers receive an additional transit subsidy through their employers, only 10 percent of Metro’s lowest-income rail customers do. 

Now the Lab @ DC, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s research and innovation division, is proposing a pilot program for subsidized Metro fares. Up to 2,500 low-income D.C. residents will be randomly chosen to participate and given either free transit, subsidized fares or no benefits for at least three months — after which the program will be reassessed based on cost. 

“Through innovative investments and initiatives, we can make our public transportation system more equitable and affordable for our residents,” says Mayor Bowser in a statement. “A strong, sustainable, and reliable public transit system keeps our city growing and thriving. This study will guide best practices on how we can effectively use transit subsidies to give more Washingtonians a fair shot.”

D.C. is allocating up to $500,000 to help WMATA make up losses from the pilot program, which is estimated to cost almost $1 million. Additional funding will come from grants from the District Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). 

Studies have found that access to public transportation can dramatically influence economic opportunity for residents. D.C. has also decriminalized fare evasion in an attempt to address the inequality. 

“I'm certainly glad that they’re doing [the pilot], but I’m also not sure what we need to study,” D.C. Council member Charles Allen says to the Washington Post. “I think we need to do more about affordability for everybody.”

Similar programs have been attempted in other cities, including Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; St. Paul, Minnesota; and New York City. D.C. is hoping to learn from their mistakes with this test run, citing the example of New York City, which enacted a subsidy for all residents below the federal poverty at an annual cost of more than $100 million.

The WMATA board will vote on approval for the pilot program on Dec. 12. 

“A reduced fare product for low-income District residents would make transit more accessible and complement Metro’s existing discounts for students, seniors and people with disabilities,” says Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro General Manager and CEO in a statement. “From the earliest stages, Metro has supported The Lab @ DC’s grant application to get this program off the ground and, pending Board approval, we stand ready to help expand access to more members of our community.”

Published on Dec 10, 2019