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Starting today, a single trip on RTA’s buses and rapid trains costs $2.25. There is no denying that transit systems across the country are hurting for revenue, and RTA isn’t the only system that has had to make service cuts and fare hikes.

Nevertheless, the Plain Dealer writes:

The new cash fare of $2.25 is in line with other transit agencies nationwide, RTA officials said…

Not so fast… this statement is debatable, and it’s worth analyzing. Comparing transit fares is a difficult task. Some transit systems charge different prices for peak and non-peak hours (RTA does not). Some systems charge varying amounts based on how far you travel (RTA has some small park-and-ride surcharges, but that’s about it). And some systems offer discounts for riders who buy tokens or multiple-trip farecards (RTA farecards offer no discounts).

The question I’m concerned with is how RTA’s simplest fares line up with comparable fares in other systems. Consider this: if you wanted to get from the West Side Market to Public Square today, regardless of whether you hopped on the Red Line or the 20A, 22, of 79, the ride will cost $2.25, even though the trip is less than two miles. Comparable cash fares in other transit systems stack up like this*:

Single Ride Comparison

(click to enlarge)

To claim that RTA’s fares are “in line” with other transit agencies is accurate only if you ignore all but few cities including New York, Washington and Chicago, which frankly, have much more comprehensive and useful transit systems and a significantly higher expected cost-of-living. RTA’s fares are now above the median price of $2.00 and in the top quartile of this sample.

But it gets even worse when you compare RTA’s new $85 monthly pass with other transit systems**:

Monthly Pass Comparison

(click to enlarge)

RTA’s monthly pass isn’t just well above the sample’s median price of $60, it is one of the most expensive monthly passes in the country.

Honestly, I am one of the biggest proponents of public transit. I sympathize with the plight of transit agencies in tough economic times, but I’m frustrated by RTA’s spin machine trying to convince me that their fares aren’t among the highest in the country. It’s a tough issue, but it’s important for Cleveland; and I fear that some unforgivable damage has taken place to RTA over the past year or so.

*Some cities were more difficult to determine fares than others. For systems that used fare zones or peak and off-peak fares, I tried my best to take an honest average. For all cities, I use cash fares, rather than discounted fares; for example, in Philadelphia, cash fare is $2.00, but the fare if paying with a token is only $1.45. For Washington Metrorail, Michael Perkins from Greater Greater Washington points me to this WMATA report that assumes a $2.30 average fare for budgetary purposes. I took the average BART fare of $3.18 from this article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

**Not all cities offer monthly passes. As far as I can tell, Washington, the Bay Area, Houston, Providence, and Minneapolis do not offer anything comparable to RTA’s monthly pass. Please let me know if this is not correct.

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7 Responses to “RTA’s New Fares Are Not “In Line” With Other Transit Systems”

  1. Jenita Says:

    Great post! I am a frequent RTA rider and overall like the system. However, RTA does not offer transfers like other cities do. That means, if I take the RTA redline from Ohio City to Tower City, then hop on the healthline to Midtown, I pay $4.50 to go a couple of miles. If you take this into account, RTA may end up being even more expensive on that chart!

  2. John Polk Says:

    Roldo has taken a close look at RTA’s budget and spending, and has made some good points. I would imagine that personnel costs and other overhead items are larger expense items than fuel costs. Ridership is down. Vehicles on the street are down. Have layoffs of excess personnel even been contemplated? Wouldn’t rightsizing personnel be at least as big a money saver as fare hikes and service cuts? Other than protest meetings regarding elimination of community circulators, has there been any public discussion regarding RTA’s priorities? Is the public being set up for yet another sales tax hike to increase RTA’s subsidy?

    For me, the RTA vs. driving equation has always balanced transit use vs. the cost of parking downtown.
    The 55 stops at the corner of my street. But with the increasing cost and inconvenience of RTA transportation vs. the increasingly available and inexpensive parking downtown, it just makes less and less sense to ride public transportation.

    As the post points out, the only cities with more expensive average fares than RTA are cities with awesome and well-connected transit systems.

    So much, I guess, for the Health Line being The Answer To Our Public Transit Prayers. Is it doomed to expensive irrelevance like the Waterfront Line?..

  3. hacool Says:

    I think RTA is caught in something of a Catch-22. The main problem seems to be low ridership. Obviously all of us would like to increase that. But as more and more routes have been cut in the past few years, riding RTA has become a less popular option. I used to be able to get to University Circle on one bus in 20 minutes. Now I can get there in just over an hour if I take the Green line rapid to Tower City and the Health Line back out.

    People ask me why I would go downtown first instead of just taking buses from Cleveland Heights. I’ve chosen that route instead of buses because of the timing. With most buses running less frequently, the trip to Tower City means I can avoid standing about on Mayfield in the sun or snow waiting for my transfer. For me getting to Shaker Square, downtown or the airport is quite easy via RTA, but anywhere else becomes more complicated and can turn a 20-30 minute trip by car into one that takes 1-2 hours by bus/rail.

    I think more of us would use RTA more often if it were more convenient, but if RTA can’t afford to add new routes I don’t see how that’s possible. So instead we drive, and those who must use RTA have longer commute times. I frankly can’t see how to break out of this cycle, but surely there must be a way, and I don’t think increased fares are the answer.

    When stores see decreases in sales they don’t raise prices to compensate…they lower them or offer other incentives for people to come in and buy. So I wonder what incentive RTA could come up with to get people back on the system.

    As an aside, the Health Line is great. I was skeptical but I’ve ridden it several times and only had to wait once – during afternoon rush hour heading West. Otherwise it seems popular and runs on time.

  4. paulbreitzmann Says:

    I can’t argue with where RTA ranks in terms of its fares, but you might want to consider the total cost of transit. I attended a RTA Citizens Advisory Board meeting last year, and they pointed out that Ohio has an abysmal level of public funding dedicated to transit. The figure they provided (which I don’t have the time to substantiate) is that Ohio spends $1.42 per capita per year on public transit, whereas neighboring states spend $41.39. If that’s even close to being accurate, then it paints their fare hikes in an entirely different light. Doesn’t make the hikes any less unfortunate for RTA riders (or RTA’s image), but it makes it harder to blame management.

    I’d love to see those graphs adjusted for subsidy levels…

  5. Rob Pitingolo Says:

    paulbreitzmann, I’ve seen similar figures that show the state of Ohio provides a dismal level of support to its cities’ transit systems. That said, Columbus and Cincinnati should theoretically be in similarly dire straits. Granted, I think Cleveland has (or at least had) the best transit system in Ohio, but Columbus and Cincinnati have been able to at least keep their fare somewhat in check.

  6. TimFerris Says:

    Rob, how can we begin to think about other ways to fund public transit, so this niggling over rider costs just goes away, or becomes one of taxpayer cost overall?

    I have been riding the bus for the past few years to see if living without a car is possible, and it is, but it’s difficult and time-consuming. People who have to rely on the bus to make money are at a disadvantage.

    Is there any reason we can’t make public transit cost the same as public education? How do we begin to compel the bureaucrats to treat public transit as an economic driver?

    How do we commandeer the funds already taken and earmarked, supposedly, for the narrow interests of the MedicalMart conspirators? How do we seize funds for the benefit of a broader and more immediate public interest?

  7. Rob Pitingolo Says:

    Tim, to some extent I think the issue is the stigma problem. Unlike public education or public libraries or other public services, there is a belief that RTA isn’t designed to serve the public; there is a belief that it’s a welfare system designed to serve the poor. Until more citizens believe that it can be a tool of economic growth and a selling point for the city, it will be difficult to compel bureaucrats to believe it, either.