Our ‘Just the Ticket’ series looks at various international ticketing practices for public transport. In this instalment Transform policy forum member David Giles reports on his experiences with public transport across the the United States.
- The average price of a one way bus ticket across the US cities was $1.79 (£1.42) and included transfers to other buses (typically covering a period of up to two hours).
- In comparison, a one way bus or tram ticket in Edinburgh costs £2.00 for a single journey (with no transfers).
- All six US cities offered day tickets (up to $11.00) covering all public transport for a period of 24 hours.
- In contrast, Scotland does not typically offer interchangeability of tickets between different operators and modes.
- Some US cities operate schemes which provide heavily discounted or free public transportation to residents living on low incomes.
- Almost all public transport in the US is publicly owned.
- The Federal Tax Code allows employers to encourage employees to use public transport by providing subsidies to its use that are non-taxable benefits.
Public transport fares in US cities
A family wedding in Texas last autumn provided the opportunity to enjoy the coast to coast rail trip across America I have always wanted to make. Along the way I had the chance to sample public transport in six of America’s largest cities. I was impressed by its quality and value for money. This brief note shares some of my observations.
I planned to start with a short visit to my brother, who lives just outside Lowell, in northern Massachusetts, so I flew first to Boston. Boston Logan International Airport is less than two miles as the crow flies from downtown Boston, but it is notoriously badly served by public transportation. I agreed with my brother that he would pick me up at a bus station in Woburn, about 15 miles north of Boston, and booked myself a ticket on the Logan Express. This is an express coach shuttle, operated by a private company under some kind of franchise arrangement with the airport, which runs twice an hour, took about 45 minutes (in bad weather, and rush hour traffic) and cost $12.00.
By Pi.1415926535 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42358040
Most public transportation in the greater Boston area is provided by the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, commonly known as the T) which operates five subway and light rail lines, a comprehensive range of bus services and a few ferry services. These don’t extend as far north as Lowell, but MBTA also operates commuter rail services that do. These run to Boston North Station, which is a mile away from Boston South Station, the terminus for Amtrak trains to the south and west. The subway connection involves a long walk, a good many steps and an intermediate change of line.
A one way commuter rail fare from Lowell into Boston is $10.50. Within greater Boston, a one way fare on subway and bus including 2 transfers is $2.40 (bus only is $1.70). A 24 hour pass is $11.00 and a monthly pass is $90.
I left Boston on the Lake Shore Limited for the 22 hour journey to Chicago (at an average speed of about 45mph). At about 4am we passed through Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland is the centre of a metropolitan area with a population of about two million, and must have one of the worst rail services in the world for a city of its size. It has only four services, two to Chicago, one to Washington DC and one to New York/Boston. And they all depart between 2am and 5.30am!
The CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) operates four elevated light rail lines (known as the “L”), two conventional subway lines and a network of bus services within a radius of about 15 miles of the city centre. There are also commuter heavy rail services out to a distance of about 60 miles, but these are run by different organisations.
The elevated lines, known as the ‘L’, run on girders 20 to 25 feet above the city streets. They have sharp bends at street intersections, more akin to those on a tram line than a conventional railway line.
By Douglas Rahden, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20021110
In order to explore the network, I bought a 24 hour pass which covered all CTA services. This cost $5.00. A one way fare (including transfers within a period of two hours) would have cost $2.50, or $2.25 if it only bus services were covered.
Next came a 50 hour journey on the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville. The scenery was spectacular, but the rough ride in places, and the sedate pace rather reminded me of the Ffestiniog Railway!
Distances in the West are much greater than in the East: the San Francisco Bay Area is 70 miles north to south. The SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, known as the ‘Muni’) operates light rail, bus and trolley bus services within San Francisco but the wider Bay Area has a broad range of services provided by other operators including heavy rail, light rail, bus and extensive ferry services.
On arrival at Emeryville, I took advantage of a free Amtrak bus transfer across the bridge to downtown San Francisco.
On my first full day I used the ferry to Sausolito (takes about 30 minutes and provides a good view of Alcatraz on the way past) and a Marin Transit bus to Bolinas to visit Muir Woods. Paid for with my Clipper Card app, the ferry cost $15 (it would have been $28 without). The bus ride turned out to be free because of the ferry ticket already on my app, but I didn’t discover this until I scanned my Clipper Card app on leaving the bus.
On my second day I bought an SFMTA 24 hour pass for $5.00 and used it to explore the city (including walking across the Golden Gate Bridge) using a combination of bus and light rail. A one way fare, including transfers within two hours, would have been $2.50.
On leaving the next morning I used BART to travel to Lake Merritt (Oakland) to catch the Coast Starlight from Amtrak’s Jack London Station. This is another Amtrak station with poor public transport links. It’s a half mile walk. My ticket cost $4.05.
Longer journeys around the Bay Area are obviously more expensive, but compare favourably with those in the UK. San Francisco to San Jose one way (about 50 miles) is $9.95 by Caltrain and $8.50 by BART.
By Steve Wilson – Flickr: The Southbound Coast Starlight at horseshoe curve, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22274508
The Coast Starlight takes about 12 hours to get to Los Angeles (it starts at about 10.00am the previous day from Seattle). Highlights include a spectacular steep descent from 1380 feet to nearly sea level in San Luis Obispo and stunning views of the Pacific along the coast to the south.
The Coast Starlight arrives into Los Angeles Union Station. This is a hub of the Los Angeles Metro which comprises seven subway lines and is operated by the LACMTA (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority). It also operates bus services within Los Angeles County. A separate organisation, Metrolink, runs commuter rail services out to a distance of about 50 miles.
By Pi.1415926535 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69260089
I was staying in Santa Monica and was able to use the relatively recently opened E line to travel there. This cost $1.75 for a ticket which covered the metro and transfers onto any bus operator within two hours. On the subsequent day I used a day pass which cost $3.50. Local bus operators were cheaper. When I left for Los Angeles Airport on the next day I used the Santa Monica based Big Blue Bus service. This cost $1.10 one way, and would have covered me for transfer onto another Big Blue Bus service.
By this point I had run out of time and needed to get to the wedding. I flew from LAX to San Antonio, and was struck by the contrast in public transport accessibility of these two airports. LAX is crowded, extremely busy and hard to get to by public transport. There are plans to extend the Metro there, but these are being constantly postponed. San Antonio is a much smaller airport and has regular, relatively fast bus services to downtown.
San Antonio & Austin
VIA Metropolitan Transit operates bus services within most of Bexar County. A one way fare (including transfers within two hours) is $1.30. A 1 day pass is $2.75. I only used their services once, on arrival from the airport to downtown.
I was scheduled to fly home from Austin and had considered taking the train there from San Antonio. But a cousin offered me a lift, giving me a day to explore Austin. Public transport in Austin is provided by CapMetro, who operate bus services and a single commuter rail route. I bought myself a 1 day pass for $2.50 and made a couple of trips on it. The last one was out to the airport. One way tickets (including bus transfers within two hours) are $1.25.
Across the six cities, the average price of a one way bus ticket is $1.79 (maximum $2.50 in San Francisco). Everywhere except San Antonio (where the fare is only $1.25) this includes transfers to other buses and usually covers a period of up to two hours. And everywhere except San Francisco, it includes (rather slow) travel to the local airport.
Four of the cities (Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles) have a significant subway or light rail network, and in each case these are managed by the same organisation that manages the bus services. One way tickets include transfer to or from bus, usually within a timeframe of about two hours. The average price of a one way bus/subway ticket is $2.29 (maximum $2.50 in Chicago and San Francisco). Only in Chicago can the subway be used to reach the airport (though San Francisco Airport can be reached using BART, a heavier rail, rapid transit system covering the whole Bay Area, for a one way fare of $9.90).
All six cities offer day tickets covering all public transportation for a period of 24 hours. The cost of these varies significantly from $2.50 in Austin (excluding its single heavy rail commuter line) to $5.00 in Chicago and San Francisco. Boston is an outlier, with a day ticket costing $11.00.
In Edinburgh, a one way bus or tram ticket costs £2.00 for a single journey (no transfers). A one way ticket to the airport costs £5.50 (by bus) or £7.50 (by tram). A day ticket for buses or trams costs £5.00 (within the city) or £12.00 (including the airport).
In Glasgow, there are many competing bus operators, and it is hard to establish what fares are. First Glasgow seems to have the best documented. A one way ticket within its City Zone costs £2.85 for a single journey (no transfers, £1.70, if the journey is less than about ¾ mile). A day ticket is available for £5.40, but it only covers First Glasgow services. First Glasgow also operates an express service to Glasgow Airport (which lies outside the City Zone) for a one way fare of £10.00.
By Ralf Roletschek – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64120533
Glasgow has a small, circular subway system serving the inner city. Tickets on this are £1.75 (one way) or £4.20 (day ticket). There is also an extensive heavy rail suburban network. Fares on this depend on the distance travelled, and include any transfers required by the journey. For example, a one way ticket from Glasgow Queen Street to Charing Cross (¾ mile) costs £1.80, from Glasgow Central to Paisley Gilmour Street (6½ miles), £4.00 and from Dalreoch to Caldercruix (31¼ miles), £9.20. A day ticket is available covering both subway and suburban rail. This costs £7.40.
There is no interchangeability of tickets between different bus operators, or between bus and subway/suburban rail.
In Edinburgh, a single journey by bus or tram costs about the same as in San Francisco (the most expensive of the six US cities), but as soon as a transfer is needed, it becomes more expensive. The cost of a day ticket is about the same as in the more expensive US cities and it provides good access to all areas of the city (The City of Edinburgh is about 40 times smaller than Los Angeles County).
In Glasgow, a single journey by bus is more expensive than in any US city, and as soon as a transfer is required, it becomes much more expensive. Day tickets are available, but they are of limited value because they are restricted to single operators.
Concessionary fares for seniors
All six cities offer concessionary fares for seniors, and eligibility seems to be based on age alone, rather than residency. Over 65s (over 62s in San Antonio) can sign up for a card that typically gives them a 50% discount on the full range of standard tickets (including day tickets) for both bus and subway. Occasionally there is a higher discount (for example, 62.5% on BART). Some cities also offer low cost one way off peak tickets for seniors ($0.35 in Los Angeles and $0.25 in San Antonio).
In Scotland, resident over 60’s travel free on buses, but not on trams, subway or suburban rail.
Concessionary fares for children and young people
In all six cities, under 5s travel free. In Los Angeles this is extended to under 6s and in Chicago to under 7s. Boston provides free travel for all children up to the age of 12 while in Austin and on Muni services in San Francisco it is provided for all under 18s.
Many middle and high school students seem to be eligible for a 50% discount, using ID cards that are issued by their schools. This seems to be part of a pattern of collaboration between transportation authorities and educational institutions, that leaves the schools administering the system and the transport authorities tracking its use through automation.
In Scotland, under 5s travel free on bus, tram and subway. Children under 16 get a 50% discount on tram, subway and suburban rail. Young people under 22 and resident in Scotland, get free bus travel.
Concessionary fares for students
University and college students seem often to benefit from local public transportation discount schemes (or even free travel) that are organised and administered through partnerships (often branded as U-Pass) between the institutions in which they are studying and the local transportation authority. For example, all students (and staff) in universities and colleges that are part of the University of Texas system can use their ID cards on local public transportation to travel free.
Other concessionary fares
All cities appear to offer free travel to uniformed police, firemen and military personnel. Many include categories of disability (particularly blindness) and some (at least Chicago, and San Francisco) operate schemes which provide heavily discounted or free public transportation to residents living on low incomes.
Subjectively, the quality of infrastructure and vehicles appears to be roughly the same as in UK cities (perhaps a little ageing in Boston and Chicago, but perfectly adequate).
Public transportation access to the two major international airports I visited (Boston and Los Angeles) was very poor, and much worse than anywhere in the UK or Europe. By contrast, access to the two much smaller airports in Texas (San Antonio and Austin) was much better. I was especially impressed by the well organised busway route from downtown Austin to the airport.
Almost all public transportation operators seem to be publicly owned. The only exception I was aware of was the operator of the Logan Express, Paul Revere Transportation which was a private coach company working under a franchise agreement with the airport.
I understand that the Federal Tax Code allows employers to encourage employees to use public transportation by providing subsidies to its use that are non-taxable benefits. There seems to be growing interest in partnerships between public transportation operators and employers to facilitate this. There is also growing interest in the idea of free local public transportation across the USA.