The unfairness of zone fares

Unlike most bus systems in the county, NJ Transit riders pay a distance-based fare.  Bus routes are broken up into zones.  A one-zone ride costs $1.50, a two-zone ride 2.35, a three-zone ride $2.90, etc.

This has its advantages.  The amount that the passenger pays is supposed to correspond to the distance they travel, which is fair.  Riders who occupy their seat for a long time pay more,  and short-distance riders pay less.  Zone fares also help raise additional revenue for NJ Transit without raising fares for everyone.

While zone fares are supposed to correspond to distance traveled, they don’t always. This depends on where the fare zone boundary is.  A trip of as little of a few blocks can count as a two-zone fare, but you can travel miles and miles and pay for just one zone.

Between Jersey City and Bayonne, the fare boundary is at the city line. All of Bayonne lies within one fare zone, and all of Jersey City lies within another.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.16.57 PM Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.16.01 PMAny trip that’s entirely within Jersey City costs $1.50, the one-zone fare.  This can be up to four miles.  Yet at the same time, any trip that crosses the city line will incur a 2-zone fare.  A trip of one mile from Bayonne to Jersey City, or even half a mile, will cost $2.35.

A one-mile trip shouldn’t cost more than a four-mile trip.  It actually costs NJ Transit more to provide the four-mile trip in this case.  The seat is occupied for longer, and the bus spends more time on the road.

In some cases, zone boundaries are geographic obstacles, like rivers, bridges, or mountains. But In a contiguous urban area like Bayonne and Jersey City, the zone boundary has to be somewhere arbitrary.lightrailmap-2014

The solution is to create some overlap between the fare zones.  In Denver, the light rail system is divided into concentric fare zones.

Any trip within 1 or 2 fare zones requires a local fare.  Trips through 3 or more fare zones incur a distance-based charge.

This way, no short station-to-station trips require an interzone fare.

This has been done before in New Jersey. In 1915, the Bloomfield Avenue trolley car line from Caldwell to Newark was divided into two fare zones, one from Montclair to Newark, and another from Montclair to Caldwell.  The two zones overlapped in Montclair, so riders from Montclair could go in either direction on a one-zone fare, but riders passing through Montclair had to pay for two zones.

While this got rid of arbitrary premiums for some short trips, it was a complicated system.  Upon boarding, passengers received at two different kinds of slips to identify which zone they boarded in, to help the conductor collect additional fares at the Montclair town line.

This is no longer practical since we do not have conductors on our buses anymore.  But the principle remains the same:

If NJ transit can improve its fare structure by dividing its fare zones into new, smaller zones, and charging the same rate for a trip within 1 or 2 zones.  That way, a trip from Bayonne to the southern part of Jersey City could cost $1.50, but Bayonne to Journal Square would still be $2.35.

Despite its imperfections, be glad we have distance-based fares. In New York, the bus costs $2.75, no matter whether you’re going from Brooklyn to the Bronx, or just around the corner.

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