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Mayor Bowser to Launch Study on Impact of Income-Based Transit Subsidies on Equity

Monday, December 9, 2019
The Mayor announced a new project to study the impact of low-income transit subsidies

Today, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a new research project within The Lab @ DC to study the impact of low-income transit subsidies on transportation equity in the District. The study, which includes collaboration with the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), will help determine if subsidies for low-income residents increase the use of transit and overall well-being. The study will go before the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Board at its December 12 meeting for approval.
“Through innovative investments and initiatives, we can make our public transportation system more equitable and affordable for our residents,” said Mayor Bowser. “A strong, sustainable, and reliable public transit system keeps our city growing and thriving. This study will guide best practices on how we can effectively use transit subsidies to give more Washingtonians a fair shot.”

In the District, low-income riders comprise 48% percent of bus ridership, compared with 18% of rail ridership. Much of this discrepancy is likely caused by the higher cost of rail. Low-income riders are also less likely to receive a subsidy from their employer or be able to afford other transit options.

“We are excited to partner with The Lab @ DC, WMATA, and DDOT to explore the impact of discounted public transit fares on the lives of our vulnerable households as they pursue connections to achieve stability and meet their families’ goals,” said DHS Director Laura Zeilinger. “Public-private partnerships afford incredible opportunities to test and study innovative and creative solutions to poverty and other human services issues and we are grateful to be a part of this effort.”

The study, facilitated by The Lab @ DC, includes a randomized evaluation of discounted transit fares for residents receiving public assistance. Up to 2,500 eligible, interested adults will randomly be assigned to receive one of three fares for six to nine months:

1.    No discount on transit;
2.    Partially-discounted fare; or
3.    Free, unlimited trips.
“This pilot is an important next step in our efforts to make transit in the District reliable and affordable for residents of all eight wards,” said DDOT Director Jeff Marootian. “The data we collect will inform how we keep Washingtonians moving for years to come.”

The pilot has been made possible through funding from The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and through local budget resources representing a nearly $1 million total investment. While the study is still in its organizational stages, tentative timelines slate official testing to begin in Summer 2020, with final recommendations submitted to the Bowser Administration by late 2021.

“A reduced fare product for low-income District residents would make transit more accessible and complement Metro’s existing discounts for students, seniors, and people with disabilities,” said Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro General Manager and CEO. “From the earliest stages, Metro has supported The Lab @ DC’s grant application to get this program off the ground and, pending Board approval, we stand ready to help expand access to more members of our community.”

Additional information on the project is available here.

The Lab @ DC is a scientific team based in the Office of the City Administrator that works to design policy and program interventions that are tailored to the District, based on theory and evidence from academic and industrial research, as well as analyses of available administrative data; conduct high-quality evaluations—including randomized evaluations and rapid, iterative experimentation—to learn how well things work and how to improve; and foster a scientific community of practice, engaging and collaborating with experts and stakeholders across agencies, universities, and community groups.