Diverging Approach: The New NEXT

Earlier this year, I posted a screed detailing NEXT, a Near-Term Equitable eXpress Ticketing proposal that’d consolidate Metra’s current 10-zone fare structure into a three-zone fare system, with an additional three-level overlay of sorts that would require higher fares for express trains, with longer-distance express segments priced at a higher premium rate. At a high level, the approach I took for this proposal was trying to assign something of a value capture mechanism that’d allow Metra to offer lower fares during off-peak periods and for suburb-to-suburb trips by increasing fares on long-distance express train riders, a demographic that heavily skews towards white-collar suburbanites, who not only would be more financially able to pay higher fares, but who also receive a higher standard of service.

While I still think the fundamentals of the proposal have merits — thus the reason why this is a new Diverging Approach post rather than just updating the original post — I did receive a lot of good comments from friends, fellow riders, and my favorite group of all: randoms on Twitter who I don’t really know at all, but who share a common bond in wanting a better, fairer, more efficient and effective Chicagoland transit network. Specifically, a common comment I heard was that NEXT’s system, while offering fewer fare products and fewer “zone pairs” than the current system, was too complicated and hard to easily understand. Furthermore, the fare zones themselves were a bit complicated as well, with two “flex zones” that allowed adjacent zones to overlap that would extend the reach of single- or two-zone tickets, but left many stations (intentionally including the busiest suburban stations for reverse commuters) in something of a limbo that’d require a bit of explanation for new or infrequent riders. Additionally, in recent schedule updates from Metra that have been implemented since the first draft of NEXT was published earlier this year, new express patterns have been added on some lines that now no longer fit as cleanly in with the three levels of express fares originally proposed.

Practicing what I preach in terms of continuous improvement, I took these comments to heart and went back to the drawing board to see what I could do to improve the proposal while maintaining the core tenets of assigning some sort of premium for express fares and providing something closer to fare parity with CTA and Pace fares in the suburbs and non-downtown parts of Chicago. As a reminder, this proposal does have some assumed constraints: as a Near-Term effort, full fare integration with the CTA and Pace — which, of course, should be a priority — was considered out-of-scope; likewise, this proposal makes no official recommendations regarding things like a proof-of-payment fare control system or a “tap-in-tap-out” structure with full Ventra card integration. (To be clear: those things should still be strongly considered and assessed for implementation, but that has less to do with the fare structure itself.) Likewise, fare capping is also recommended, but not explicitly included in the updated proposal.

NEXT 2.0

Click here for a PDF version.

Fare Zones

The updated NEXT proposal still consolidates the current 10-zone fare structure, but officially the proposal only cuts the number of zones in half, down to five zones. However, outside of downtown, all stations are only located in Zones 3, 4, and 5, so no intermediate trip requires more than a three-zone ticket. Additionally, there’s a “transit-only” Zone 2 that buffers Zone 1 (the downtown terminals) from all of the outlying stations. While this at first seems counterintuitive, Zone 2 allows for one of NEXT’s original goals: allowing Metra to charge a premium fare for trips heading into and out of downtown, since Metra service to the urban core is Metra’s strongest strength, providing a higher quality transit alternative to CTA trains and buses during the peak, even for city commuters in many parts of CTA territory.

However, to compensate for this structure, the shortest-trip ticket available is a two-zone ticket, price-indexed to CTA ‘L’ fares. While a two-zone ticket is not enough to get downtown due to Zone 2’s presence, a two-zone ticket allows for intermediate trips throughout most of the region at a comparable price point to CTA and Pace service, a priority since Metra does not “compete” with CTA and Pace in the outer neighborhoods and the suburbs the way some trips closer to the urban core are duplicated. Additionally, a three-zone fare — which covers the entire city as well as many inner suburbs — is only $4.00, which still represents a discount over every current zone pair (except Zone A-A tickets, which also cost $4.00). Additionally, three-zone monthly passes would be indexed to the CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass cost of $75.00, which even brings trips to and from downtown into parity with CTA fares for local residents and frequent commuters. (A $75 price-point for Metra 3-Zone monthly tickets also allows for CTA/Pace to provide reciprocal $30 Regional Connect Passes for Zone 1-3 Metra trips, providing a $105 three-system monthly pass that can have a point-of-sale at any of the three service boards.)

Each additional zone would cost an incremental $1.50 per trip, which could also be purchased as-needed for riders with shorter-zone multi-ride tickets. To provide savings for longer-distance riders, multi-ride discounts start earlier for 4-Zone and 5-Zone tickets. Ticket products would include one-way tickets (valid for three hours, including transfers), daily passes (valid until 3am following first use, generally priced as two one-ways), 10-Ride tickets (ten single-use one-ways), and monthly passes. 10-Ride tickets offer a flat $5 discount; monthly passes are generally priced at ten daily passes.

Superexpress Fares

Express trains would still require a premium fare; however, since express trains generally skip Zone 3 stops, the distance-based zones will somewhat capture the premium during the peak period. Instead, the premium tier of fares would only be required for superexpress trains, the fastest, longest-distance express trains operated during the peak. (Premium pricing for these trains would likely also help to push discretionary travelers to lower-speed local trains, allowing service to be more efficiently operated throughout the day with less need for expensive-to-operate peak-only trips.) Since riders may only be able to take a superexpress train in one direction, multi-ride Superexpress tickets include steeper discounts. Since Superexpress trains only operate between Zones 1 and 5, most riders will not need to purchase the premium fare. For instance, a $15 Superexpress Daily Pass is still cheaper than a one-way Superexpress ($8.50) and a return one-way 5-zone ticket ($7.00); similarly, a 10-Ride Superexpress ticket also has an additional discount, which effectively only adds a 50-cent premium to ten 5-Zone tickets priced at $7.00 each.

Since all fares end in either 50 cents or a full dollar, half-price reduced-fare tickets at all levels would also be readily available for qualifying riders.

Nights and Weekends Pass

In exchange for raising fares on peak riders, and especially for superexpress riders, off-peak fares would be greatly simplified by the creation of a new Nights & Weekends Pass. To encourage more discretionary leisure trips, and to help provide discounted fares for workers with non-traditional commutes, the Nights & Weekends Pass would be valid on inbound trains after 4pm and on outbound trains after 7pm, for a flat $4.00 one-way or $7.00 “daily” pass regardless of fare zones. The Nights & Weekends Pass would also be valid all day Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, and — given recent ridership trends that are unlikely to change in the face of the “new normal” of remote and hybrid work — Fridays. (For shorter trips, 2-Zone tickets would also be valid during Nights & Weekends.)

Fare Table

ValidityOne-WayDaily PassDaily Savings10-Ride10-Ride SavingsMonthly Pass
2-Zone, all times$2.50$5.00none$20.00$5.00n/a
3-Zone, peak$4.00$8.00none$35.00$5.00$75.00
4-Zone, peak$5.50$10.00$1.00$50.00$5.00$100.00
5-Zone, peak$7.00$12.00$2.00$65.00$5.00$120.00
Superexpress, peak$8.50$15.00$2.00$75.00$10.00$140.00
Nights & Weekends, any zones, off-peak$4.00$7.00$1.00-$5.00n/an/an/a
Nights & Weekends fares are valid on all inbound trains after 4pm, all outbound trains after 7pm, and all day Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.

Fare policy can be wonky, and for most people, a fare design “crayon” is not as much fun to sketch out as a new service design plan for new service patterns or new routes. (But then again, I am not most people.) However, with a looming $730 million regional transit budget gap looming a few years out, now’s the time to not only experiment with new fare structures and ideas to try to better maximize fare revenue without sacrificing ridership, but also to innovate with more equitable fares that may attract more riders to the service to begin with.

What are your thoughts? What did I miss? What would you change? You know where to find me.