Dutch OV-chipkaart. Does it make transit more or less equitable?

Post by Steven Dale

A bus-based OV-chipkaart reader in the Netherlands promises to make transportation easier for millions of Dutch strap-hangers. But is it an equitable solution?

A Thought Experiment: You live downtown and you’ve got to travel a distance of 1.5 km, drop off a package and return home. If you lived in Toronto (as I do), the trip would cost you $6.00 round trip by subway.

Would you pay it?

A great many people would probably say answer ‘no’ to the above question – I know I wouldn’t. Six bucks, after all, is a lot of money for what is nothing more than a 40 minute trip.

Most public transport fare schemes are tilted in favour of the long-distance commuter. All-in or even zone-based travel means the further you travel, the more you save. Short-distance commuters, on the other hand, are often left with the choice of either walking, biking or paying high prices for little distances travelled.

But a new Dutch transit fare scheme seeks to change that.

With little fanfare from the rest of the world, the Netherlands has been slowly moving towards a unique system of integrating all public transport options around a single national fare card and pricing scheme.

That system, the OV-chipkaart, has admittedly met with its share of bumps along its way towards full implementation, but the single-trip pricing scheme is what should interest people here most.

Generally speaking there are three dominant fare structures within public transportation:

  • Zone-based fare structures (such as in Hong Kong or London) set a specific price to travel within zones and between zones. For example: If you originate in Zone A and terminate in Zone A, you’ll pay $1.00. If you originate in Zone B and terminate in Zone A, you’ll pay $2.00.
  • Unlimited one-way fare structures (such as in New York City or Toronto) set a one-way price to travel from Point A to Point B using an unlimited number of transfers and vehicles with stop-overs typically not allowed.
  • Time-based fare structures (such as in Rome) allow a rider to travel to an unlimited number of destinations, using an unlimited number of transfers and vehicles within a given time window. In Rome’s situation, for example, one pays €1.00 for 75 minutes of unlimited travel time anywhere within the network.

Granted, all of the above are subject to things like monthly passes, day passes, etc., but for the sake of simplicity, we’re talking only about single-trip fares.

The OV-chipkaart is a hybrid of all three. The system works like this:

Every year a base rate per trip is set nationally for all public transport agencies. In 2012, that base rate is €0.83.

Each transport agency within its own defined area is then allowed to set their own per kilometre fare. In the case of Amsterdam’s GVB, for example, the per km fare is €0.142.

Traveller’s must use their OV-chipkaart to “check-in” using an electronic reader or turnstile when they begin their journey, make transfers between vehicles and “check-out” when they finish their journey. The OV-chipkaart calculates the fare and deducts it from the user’s electronic “purse.”

Interestingly, riders are allowed a 35 minute window between transfers. That is, if a user “checks-out” of one transit vehicle but then boards another within 35 minutes, the base rate is waived and the journey is considered ongoing.

That allows for a huge number of errands and stop-overs to occur that most other systems would strictly forbid.

Ultimately, what this system does is drive up transport prices for long-distance commuters while driving down the price for short-distance travellers.

Applying Amsterdam’s fare structure, extrapolating it to a place like Toronto and using the 1.5 km example given earlier, the total round-trip would cost ~ $1.60, not $6.00.

Were there to be a stopover longer than 35 minutes (say, for a work day), the price would still only be ~ $2.60

Conversely, someone travelling 20 km to work would see their round-trip price increase from $6.00 to ~ $9.25.

Current practice in transport planning does tend to disincentive public transportation for those that live, work and play within central, geographically small areas. Paradoxically, these urban dwellers are the most likely to ride public transport but are penalized with the highest per km fares.

On the flip side, those long-distance commuters within inner-suburban and suburban areas are the least likely to use public transportation and any increase in fares will only exacerbate the situation. Furthermore, large swaths of inner suburban areas are dominated by the economically disadvantaged who are already living paycheque-to-paycheque. A more than 50% increase in their public transportation costs would be devastating.

Our basic understanding of economics tells us two contradictory things here: One the one hand, we understand the idea that people should pay a proportional amount for a specific good or service. But at the same time, we also understand that the more of a good or service you buy, the less you should have to pay per unit.

So the question is easy to state, but difficult to answer: Which fare structure is more fair?

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  1. Thing is, as you state: the fare is different for each transport agency and agencies thar serve long distance tansportation offer lower fares per kilometer. Within urban areas it is very rare to make a trip of more than 10 kilometers (bus, tram, lightrail) . Between urban areas a whole different mode is usrd: traind. These offer a lower fare per kilometer. So in fact, if you travel over longer dinstances and you use more of a product it does get cheaper. Over all, the fares are pretty much the same as was the case with the old ticket system.
  2. In Cracow (Poland) they've also got the 1h tickets (next to all the other sort of tickets). So for 60min you can use the whole system. Used it a lot for delivering and picking-things-up trips. The price is a bit higher than then the common ticket (approx. 20-30%).
  3. The sillier thing here is that in an age where it should be possible to design bespoke fare structures (and routes, for that matter) at the terminal, we aren't really doing that. Instead we're imagining average riders, average locations, and average trip durations, and extrapolating from there. In short, if we assume that calculations can determine equity, and we're not using computers and personal trip data to make those calculations, then no, it's not equitable.
  4. Matt the Engineer
    Here are my thoughts on the issue, at least as it applies to Seattle. Let's take a step back and take a look at the world we'd like to see. We want everyone that wants to live in the city to be able to, since suburban sprawl is very expensive for society (cost of bus service being one of these expenses). How do we get there? For one, stop subsidizing the suburbs. With respect to transit, this means distance-based pricing. This removes one of the incentives to living far away from their jobs. But what about the poor, forced to live in the suburbs because of high prices in the city? This is a sign that there isn't enough housing supply in the city. This can be solved by upzoning, subsidize urban housing, etc. In the end, life in the city is cheaper than life in the suburbs. Subsidizing a long commute is not a long-term solution to poverty.