If the MTA truly wants to reinvent itself into a more aggressive, efficient agency, it should start with the most basic building-block of its budget: the fare.

In every city in the country—but particularly in those with heavy transit dependence—hiking the transit fare has long been a third rail of electoral politics (bad pun intended). Half a decade later, for example, many New Yorkers are still up in arms over the 2009 fare hike and service cuts.

Still, it’s clear that any setup in which riders would pay more would improve the MTA’s financial health. But rather than dramatically raise the cost of a ride wholesale, as some have proposed, the MTA should think more creatively about which riders should be charged more: those who aren’t dependent on the system, and who have no recourse at the New York ballot box.

Call it the “tourist fare”—though any infrequent rider, whether tourist or local, would have to pay it. By charging people who only ride the subway a few times a year a significantly higher price—say, $4.00—the MTA could use the additional revenue to subsidize the commutes of people who use the subway every day.

The Tourist Fare

To a certain extent, the MTA does this already through its monthly and weekly passes. As the chart below shows, however, the difference between what a daily commuter and a one-time user end up paying per ride in the NYC system is much smaller than for other transit systems.

Scandinavian countries seem to have embraced the idea of making infrequent users subsidize the daily riders. In Copenhagen, a basic metro ticket costs 24 krone—about $4.33—while a frequent commuter traveling the same route pays about $1.25 with a monthly pass.

Central to this fare structure is the assumption that the demand for transit with respect to price is less elastic among tourists and others infrequent users than among commuters. If Charlie from Iowa wants to go back to Dubuque and tell his friends he rode the subway, he is less likely to be put off by a $4.00 fare than his cousin who commutes from Queens twice a day, five days a week. Conversely, if Charlie wasn’t planning on riding the subway during his visit, a low fare isn’t likely to entice him.

It’s a sensible plan for those on Staten Island with tricky interborough commutes (though it does nothing to steer people toward more efficient or environmentally friendly forms of transportation). Applied to the subway, however, such a system would possibly allow the MTA to reduce the cost of monthly passes. That would lessen the financial burden on New Yorkers who depend on transit, and possibly increase public-transit usage as well.

Zone Fares: A Study in Unintended Consequences

Unfortunately, many transit agencies around the world rely on a quite different sort of system: a zone-based fare structure. While in certain respects logical, a zone system with no incentives for frequent travel can also have the adverse effect of convincing middle- and long-distance commuters that they’re better off driving to work.

This is a key question behind the new Silver Line in Northern Virginia, which as of last Saturday is providing rapid-transit service to one of the fastest-growing suburban regions of the country. As Chris Klimek wrote last month in CityLab, there is a great deal of pressure on the Silver Line to transform parts of Fairfax County into interesting, walkable urban environments.

That would be the ideal outcome, if only because it is prohibitively expensive to ride the Silver Line anywhere else. A trip from the new terminus to downtown D.C. costs $5.90, plus a $1 surcharge for riders using a paper ticket.

To be sure, it’s not the D.C. Metro’s fault that they have to charge long-distance riders so much—the agency’s convoluted funding system means they rely heavily on fares to stay solvent. But at that rate, many Northern Virginia commuters might decide to stick with their cars.

A Little Payback

Here in New York, though, the idea of every New Yorker having affordable, single-fare access to mass transit is one of the basic tenets of the subway system. A more aggressive MTA could reinforce its commitment to this principle by having tourists pay a little more.

For all those times that they block the left side of the escalator, it’s the very least they can do.