In preparation for tomorrow’s Ride Free Area forum, I thought it would be a good time to discuss distance based fares. One of the real problems I’ve had with ending the RFA is that King County Metro’s fare system is nearly flat.
Flat fares are a bit like having a single price for ice cream, where someone buying a small cone pays as much as the next guy with his family-size banana split. Of course this is a great deal for the hungry ice cream eater, but a terrible deal for the small cone customers and over time they just stop coming in.
Hopping back to the real world, let’s look at typical trip inside the current RFA. Walking from 5th and Union to 3rd and Cherry, according to Google Maps, takes 11 minutes. A bus trip, however, takes only 9 minutes. Not a big difference, but if it’s cold outside it would be worth a little money and if you’re in a hurry every minute counts. But how much is this trip worth to you? My guess is that $4.50 round trip per person, is high for 4 minutes of time saved (that’s almost $70/hr!). $5 a way could get you a taxi, which would be faster, involve less walking, and you could take friends for free.
Now compare that to a banana split trip on KC Metro. Maybe a #15 from Blue Ridge. That’s a 46 minute ride off-peak, shaving countless minutes off a walk or a large number of dollars off a taxi. Yet the price is the same. And that’s just within the city – go to a small additional fare for a 2-zone ride and you can go all the way across the county.
The market figured out a good solution to this problem a long time ago – charge a small enough amount for the small cones that people keep coming in for ice cream. In the transit world, that’s distance-based fares. Sound Transit’s Link light rail has done exactly this – charging based on distance*. Link uses ORCA cards and requiring a tap-on and a tap-off. If you forget to tap-off you’re charged the maximum fare.
Metro can and should copy Link’s strategy. ORCA, combined with GPS, would allow this functionality. All we’d really need are rear door ORCA readers – an upgrade that Metro failed to invest in last year because it wouldn’t work with their fare system (sigh).
An added benefit of this strategy is that it doesn’t just focus on downtown Seattle. You would be able to get across any neighborhood at a reasonable price.
* I still think they should go further – the minimum fare of $2 is likely not going to attract many short trip riders. Make it $0.50 and more people will use it.