Low-Income Transit Fare Pilot Program Evaluation

Project Description

To learn whether and to what extent cost is a key barrier to transit equity, the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) is partnering with The Lab @ DC, WMATA, the Department of Human Services
(DHS), and the World Bank to conduct a randomized evaluation of a fully and partially subsidized Metro transit program. Can a subsidized fare program for low-income residents increase (1) mobility through greater usage of public transit and (2) other measures of social and economic well-being?

Project Need

Low-income households are the most likely to be burdened by the costs of using public transit, the most likely to forego using transit due to cost, and the least likely to have alternative travel options. In DC, low-income households not only face a higher cost burden from transportation, but also receive fewer benefits compared to higher-income households. Over 65% of WMATA’s highest income rail customers receive an additional transit subsidy through employer-sponsored programs, while only 10% of DC’s lowest income rail customers and 5% of bus customers (who tend to be lower income) receive similar subsidies. Additionally, WMATA has identified a link between ability-to-pay and potential non-optimal patterns of transit use in low-income neighborhoods. For example, WMATA observes low-income riders who spend more per month by purchasing per ride instead of paying upfront for a discounted monthly pass, as well as a higher likelihood of fare evasion among low-income riders. Ridership is also different across transit modes with low-income riders comprising 52% percent of DC’s bus ridership, compared with 13% of rail ridership, which could be due in part to the higher average cost of rail. Though some government programs and nonprofits provide transit subsidies, there is no universally-available fare product for low-income residents in DC.

Desired Outcome & Expected Benefits

Our primary outcome of interest is mobility, measured by number of trips. We will also look at changes in trip length, total travel time, average travel time per trip, number of transfers, and mode
used to explore the kinds of tradeoffs people are making to cost, travel time, and trip efficiency. In addition to mobility, we want to understand what else is affected when transit trips become less
expensive. Measures of social and economic well-being would include job search activity, number of hours worked, job retention, trip purpose, engagement with DHS, and fare compliance.

At scale, the subsidy would represent a multimillion dollar annual investment from the District. While the number of trips taken will be an important outcome captured in administrative data, the additional data collection will capture a full picture of how lives change (or do not) when barriers to transit are lessened. The accuracy and completeness of the data collected will be vital to determining if a free or subsidized fare is worthwhile for the District. Measuring a wider scope outcomes during a pilot will also allow us to respond to inquiries from Council and the community at large about the potential benefits of improved transit equity.


The pilot will create a type of transit pass that could be added to a SmarTrip card for eligible low-income individuals. WMATA’s fare card technology, the SmarTrip card, is registered to individual riders and provides a variety of fare payment options and tracks travel within the system. Existing subsidies already exist for specific groups, like free travel for students and a 50% discount for senior citizens.

In the study, participants will be randomly assigned to one of three conditions: no transit subsidy, a partially subsidized fare, and a fully subsidized fare, i.e. free unlimited trips. WMATA will create a discounted fare product that could be added to a SmarTrip card for eligible low-income individuals. DHS has committed to enroll participants from public assistance programs that already verify income and distribute income-based benefits as part of their standard business process. The project will rely partly on administrative data, which will capture the high-level impacts on the number of trips taken, jobs applied to, and job trainings completed, and employment status.

Data Collection: The project will rely on both existing administrative data and primary data collection. The administrative data will capture the high-level impacts on the number of trips taken, jobs applied to, and job trainings completed, and employment status.  From those data, we expect that we will be able to know with certainty if either the free or partially-subsidized fares caused 6 or more monthly trips on Metro.

In addition, we will collect vital data on outcomes not captured accurately or entirely by administrative data. First, we plan to conduct a simple, low-cost baseline and endline survey for all groups. We would also collect detailed data on travel behavior and social and economic outcomes. This will allow us to more fully capture the impacts on mobility and on other social and economic factors, as described in the following section. We are reviewing the feasibility of collecting this data through a mobile app that includes both a travel log component and a survey component, through a text message chatbot, or through more frequent surveys via text message or at DHS service centers.

The DDOT SPR funds in particular support rigorous evaluation through (1) primary data collection on mobility and well-being outcomes and (2) data quality assurance for SmarTrip administrative data.

  1. The primary data collection will provide vital data on outcomes not captured accurately or entirely by administrative data, allowing us to examine the effect of additional trips have on the quality of
    life of participants.
  2. The accuracy of our administrative data relies on participants using the SmarTrip card registered to them in the study. To incentivize participants to keep and continue using those cards, we plan to regularly deposit a small amount of value onto the cards.

Project Oversight

DDOT Stakeholders

Former user (Deleted) 

Former user (Deleted) 

Former user (Deleted) 

Peer Reviewers

Quarterly updates

QuarterProgress this quarterIssues Encountered
FY21 Q4

Stood project back up to pre-pandemic progress. Interagency meetings resumed, and we’ve spent time reevaluating some project assumptions that may have changed since pre-COVID.

The DDOT-OCA data use agreement (DUA) is close to being finalized, WMATA-OCA DUA is with general counsels. WMATA-DDOT MOU will be ready for review Nov 1.

Enrollment planned for early 2022.

FY22 Q1
  • DDOT-OCA MOU was fully executed and the funds are in the process of being loaded into the OCA budget.
  • DOEE and OCA developed an enrollment plan for utility assistance customers.
  • WMATA-DDOT MOU was significantly revised to reflect the current plans for the program.

Before the public health emergency, The Lab @ DC and DHS planned to enroll LIFT participants from SNAP and TANF. However, DHS can’t meet the project’s post-covid timeline at its current workload and staffing levels. The project team has engaged DOEE to fill this role instead. DOEE is willing and ready to support this transition quickly and is interested in the synergies this project has with its equity and clean transportation goals. DHS will continue to be a thought partner to the project team, based on their availability.

Project Materials

Any relevant materials, including problem statement, scope of work, interim deliverables, reports, data can be uploaded below.

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