UNOFFICIAL Link Fare Chart courtesy of Oran in the STB Flickr Pool
UNOFFICIAL Link Fare Chart courtesy of Oran in the STB Flickr Pool

I’d like to address four issues associated with proposed fare structure: one offers new information, the second discusses drawbacks of different fare approaches, the third addresses the ride-free zone, and the fourth affects South Seattle specifically.

First, I’d like to highly recommend Oran’s very informative comment:

There is a document discussing fare policies for Link light rail in the ST Board meeting.

From the document we find out that:
• ST is aiming for a “52% farebox recovery goal defined in Sound Move” for Link by 2017
• Regional fare policy dictates that fares be in 25¢ increments, so there will be rounding the nickel per mile.
• Present to the public for comment the two distance-based options (today’s news). Includes a table of fare ranges for 2009 and 2017.
• ST will collect $2.2M to $2.4M more revenue than budgeted for 2009 for a total of around $5M
• There could be a 25¢ fare increase when U Link opens
• “No transfer value is carried forward between partner agency services if payment is made by single-agency pass or ticket (smart card or other media), token or cash.” ORCA is the only way to transfer between systems without double paying, confirming eddiew’s statement.
• ST “assumes that fares will be charged on Link for the entire system once buses are removed from the downtown Seattle transit tunnel (assumed to be 2016 with the opening of U Link for this analysis)” regardless of option selected in 2009.

Second, there’s been a lot of discussion of flat fares vs. fare zones vs. directly proportional distance pricing vs. the proposed system.  I’d like to point out drawbacks of each of these approaches:

  1. Flat fares don’t make users pay for the resources they consume.  On the demand side, the attractiveness of taking transit partially depends on the gas you’ll save, so a longer trip is worth more to a rider than a shorter one.
  2. Fare zones are a simple corrective, but one gets odd corner cases.  For instance, a one-stop trip from Rainier Beach to Tukwila is a two-zone trip.  This is less of a problem with buses that are oriented towards Downtown Seattle, but with the train there ought to be more trips between random stations.
  3. A purely proportional system makes long trips really expensive.  For instance, assume ST wants a farebox recovery of $2.25 per rider and that each possible trip is equally likely.  It can simply charge each rider $2.25 regardless of distance.  Alternatively it can charge short hops a quarter and longer trips $4.00-$4.50.  Imagine the howls from Rainier Beach and from 194 users if that were the case!
  4. The proposed system has its own faults; it’s relatively complex and there’s question whether the relatively slight scaling achieves any of the goals of adding that complexity.

The third thing I’d like to add is just a brief comment that having different fare structures inside the tunnel is going to make things difficult.  Suppose I want to travel 2 stops in the tunnel.  Do I have to wait and see if a bus or train comes, and then rush the “tap in” machine if it’s a train?  Conversely, if we abolish the RFZ for buses in the tunnel, that means you’ll have on-board payment in the tunnel, which is of course is a recipe for disaster in a heavily trafficked — and narrow — corridor.

Finally, I predict the fare proposals are really going to smooth over LINK’s acceptance in the Rainier Valley.  A lot of the foreboding associated with cutting bus service there was associated with the fear that LINK was going to cost $4 or so.  While there are certain trips (eg, Rainier Beach-Westlake) that are going to be 25 cents more expensive than the 2010 Metro fare, in general those fears have proven to be unfounded.

28 Replies to “Fare Comments”

  1. I work downtown and have a year long flexpass… does anyone know if those will cover light rail rides as well? Those (at least not yet) do not have the ORCAS system integrated, so they are the swipe method… and the magnetic strips ALWAYS wear out on mine before the flexpass expires (and tend to work worse in the cold)… I wonder if that will cause problems.

    1. If your pass is valid on Sound Transit then you should be fine. I don’t see why ST would make an exception. Metro says FlexPasses are going to be replaced with ORCAs this year. If you still have the magnetic card, I think it will be accepted as a flash pass while the transition to ORCA is under way.

  2. If the “transit junkies” are confused about how the system works, and what Orcas will and won’t do, then pity the poor slob that just wants to take the bus or train from A to B. Visitors, and first timers are just SOL.
    I took the Orcas driver training course a couple of years ago for beta testing, and it was an all day affair. Anything that takes a whole day to explain is going to be very compicated, and lead to frustration for operators, fare checkers, and riders alike.
    You can’t turn back the decision to go to Orcas, or that your Metro stuff isn’t worth anything on Link, but you can try to soften the blow, with a system that is as easy to understand as humanly possible.

    1. I don’t understand why ORCA training would take an entire day but it’s not surprising. When I interned at KCDOT, CPR/First Aid training took a whole day, and same with flagger training, too. This is supposed to simplify not complicate. I thought all the driver needs to know is:

      1. Log in the terminal properly to set the route and run number for proper fare collection. This should already be done when the driver begins a run. The system should handle the rest automatically, especially if GPS tracking is going to be part of the new system.

      2. Know how to adjust the reader when someone is only traveling one-zone when the reader is set for two-zones. I talked to a driver and he said he just pushes a button to do that. Or to adjust it when someone makes a mistake and tags their card at the wrong fare.

      Care to elaborate what did you spend most of your time on during training?

  3. I think the purely proportional approach deserves more scrutiny. If you add up all of the downtown trips that are now free and will then be charged $0.50, I think that adds up to quite a bit of fare recovery. But bump that up to $1.75 and you may lose a large amount of this ridership. My guess is the average rider will ride a good 8 of the 14 miles, setting the average fare there ($2.25). Yes, this puts the airport at a higher price.

    Why am I such an advocate for proportional pricing? Because the ideal city is built around short trips. We should encourage density, not charge full fare for a 1 mile ride.

  4. The on-board payment for buses wouldn’t be an issue if they just required everyone using the tunnel to get a ticket. And you would just swipe your ORCA card when you got in the tunnel; no need to do that when you get on the bus.

  5. 1. All day for ORCA driver training is nuts (even if for beta training, when the kinks are getting worked out). Either the drivers are incredibly stupid (which I have NOT found to be true, at least with Metro bus drivers… they are great!), the design/implementation of the ORCA system is incredibly poor, or management is not connecting the dots between the drivers and the system. My guess is somewhere between item 2 and item 3. But all day training is a red flag, and some aspect of the system (ORCA training or implementation) needs to be reworked. Murphy will have a field day if the final ORCA system requires that kind of training to use/manage from a driver and end-user perspective.

    2. Proportional pricing is the way to go. As consumers we should know the relative cost of the transportation. Using fares to implicitly promote higher density (and shape consumption) is a Good Thing.

    3. Conversely, the Free Ride Zone is a great idea, and should be continued with Light Rail. Someone outside the city is far more likely to visit if parking at the edge of the zone and easily moving throughout the zone is an option. Or just take the bus/light rail into the zone…. It simplifies consumption, and makes public transportation (within the zone) a far more attractive option.

    4. Has there been any thought to allow Washington state driver’s licenses or ID cards as ORCA cards? That is, allow the ORCA system to use the license cards as an alternate card? While it smacks of Big Brother (and Total Awareness), it would be simplify use of public transportation (a little anyway) for those folks you want “off the streets”: car drivers.

  6. I strongly agree with MTE’s point. I live on Capitol Hill, and I find it a bit odd that I should pay the same fare to get to downtown as someone who lives in shoreline. It costs Metro much, much less to service my trip, yet I pay the same.

    I am the one who has made the choice, and yes it is a choice, to live in a dense, energy efficient community. I have sacrificed open space. I endure traffic noise. I produce far less than my fair share of pollution, but I suffer greater than my fair share of the consequences of pollution, and on top of that, you make me pay 10 times as much per mile to ride the bus.

    Martin points out how much Rainier Beach would howl if we implemented truly proportional pricing, but imagine the reverse, hypothetically. Imagine an alternate universe in which all transit in Puget Sound is already priced proportionally. I pay my 50¢, Rainier Beach and Shoreline pay $4, Everett and Tacoma pay $8, each way. Now imagine the howls of center city residents, and their non-profit advocates, if someone where to propose a flat fare structure. What everyone here think of such a proposal.

    Humans have a tendency to suffer from what psychologists call “status quo bias”, that is they prefer the way things are not matter what they are. We have an unjust system, which unfairly taxes center city residents today. Changing to a just system will ruffle the feathers of people who have been benefiting from injustice. This is always the case. Start spending public money on transit instead of roads and you screw the people who bought houses in the exurbs. Ban CFCs to save the ozone layer and you screw the people who manufacture CFCs. And, at the risk of making an overly extreme analogy, ban slavery and you screw slave owners. At the end of the day, you have to do the right thing, on issues big and small, even if it pisses of the people who bought into the old system.

  7. One other thing: we should be changing for park-and-rides and counting that revenue toward our 50% farebox recovery goal. The person who drives to a park-and-ride uses more resources than the person who walks to the train station. The total cost they pay should reflect that. Park-and-ride fees could easily be integrated into Orca as well.

    The key to getting such a proposal passed would be to present it as an either-or idea:

    Senario 1: Park-and-ride = $5 per day, Average Fare: $1 each way
    Senario 2: Park-and-ride = Free, Average Fare: $2 each way

    Then see what the public thinks. If you frame it as Park-and-ride free vs. park-and-ride not free, without tying the new revenue to a fare reduction, then of course people will oppose it, but present it as above, and you might find a lot more support.

    1. I am not opposed to the thought of paying to park at P&R facilities, I however do not think that all of that income should be going towards farebox recovery.
      I think at least 1/2 of the fees colected for P&R parking should go to P&R maintenance and expansion, the remainder can go to farebox recovery.

      What method would you use to collect P&R payments, each of the several options has benefits and drawbacks.

      Lor Scara

  8. I think variable pricing is typically used to reduce the over-consumption that stems from over-subsidizing a good. It probably works best when consumers have substitutes readily available, as well as the choice to simply not consume.

    With out ST fare…

    1) What’s the problem we’re trying to solve: Not only is the Link system not congested, it’s not even built yet. And won’t be for some time. For that matter, what’s wrong with a long commute via rail? Highways have big enviromental costs; Link is via hydro-generated electricity. Highways have considerable maintenance costs, as greater use of long commuting routes means more re-striping, more potholes to fill, etc; is there really a high maintenance cost to long commutes via rail? Especially when you consider that a road commute from one burb to the next can be possible via 10 different routes (translating to a broader burden of road maintenance) while rail by definition is channeled…

    2) Working against ourselves: While Link ridership is subsized, that subsidy is dwarfed by what is given to the primary alternate mode of travel: roads and highways. So how are we encouraging transition from cars to Link, if we maintain the subsidy for cars, but partially remove it for Link?

    3) Branding: Think of the message you are communicating with this fare plan. You’ve just introduced a new service, and in your initial handoff to your new customer, you tell them to “try not to over-do it”. That is very odd messaging, and it is the one thing that will get through to people, drowning out the benefits of the usage model. The few services out there that do have such pricing, such as cell minutes or rental cars…both of these examples tend to have a substantial threshold of use before you incur extra charges…but the last time you had a rental, weren’t you thinking about it in the back of your mind the whole time, even when you knew it was unlikely you would run over the limit? And ST is not even proposing to have a threshold. Again, this is not the thought process that is going to win and keep new customers.

    4) Removes an important benefit of Link: As Julie Patterson herself stated, one of the real benefits of Link is that middle and working class citizens who are being priced out of Seattle (and increasingly, out of King County) would have an affordable way of commuting between home and work. How does this fare plan help in that regard? Hopefully developers will start to focus on affordable housing for everyone, not just the capstone of the economic pyramid, but that change will not happen for some years. How is Link, under this fare plan, helping in the mean time?

    We don’t seem to have a strong connection between our current objectives (winning ridership; keeping ridership) and the proposed solution (this fare plan). Variable pricing certainly has its place, but I think it’s obvious that ST should only use it when the primary objective is to rationalize usage. And that will not be the goal until North, South, & East link are all in place, several major burbs have their own streetcar systems, and the housing market is such that people actually have a real choice as to where they live.

    OK, so that’s my .02.

    1. I’d assert that your argument works for any fare system, not just a proportional one. Why charge a fare at all?

      If the answer is to recover some of the money spent on the system, then shouldn’t we use market forces to do this? Do Taxis charge a flat rate if you commute from Shorline downtown or from Belltown to downtown? It seems to me that distance is a good proxy for value.

      1. Hey Matt,

        Again, its a matter of linking the policy to the underlying objective. Certainly we want targeted density and a general tendency towards “localism”, but just by having a light rail station in a neighborhood we will encourage some measure of that, and the introduction of “urban village” zoning laws will greatly encourage it further. Distance pricing would seem to be a sort of third redundancy in this regard.

        Again, we have to identify our objectives, and then we can create the policy that will fulfill them. If I may, I think your objectives (both laudable) are 1) to encourage local patronage and 2) to prevent over-use (congestion) of the system that would stem from an over-subsidy. If those were our objectives, then distance pricing would make sense, though again, proper zoning accomplishes some degree of those objectives for you.

        I just don’t think those are our 2009 objectives; I think they may be our 2029 objectives. Our current objectives are 1) winning ridership and 2) keeping ridership. That’s it. And that means showing prospective customers that our service is affordable, reliable, convenient, and easy to use. And that would seem to be accomplished with a zone fare system, or (Sounder aside) a flat rate that lets me use Link, buses, & streetcars. Usage of the transit system could even earn you credits on car-shares and car rentals. That policy would accomplish our 2009 objectives.

        (Also, keep in mind that if you adopted a multi-modal zone fare, you are building off an existing and widely accepted usage model that has been used by Metro bus for years and years. With distance pricing, you are trying to introduce not just a new means of physically moving from one point to another, and not just a new payment method, but a new method of thinking about the costs of transportation. That’s a lot of “new” upfront, don’t you think?)

        Now, in 2029 or 202X, we might have a system that is largely built out, with high and consistent ridership, and where developers have taken advantage of urban village zoning to create office and housing capacity for a wide range of needs and socio-economic demographics. Terrific! Our original objectives were accomplished. If we feel that there is too much congestion due to a lack of proportional usage fees (in this case distance fares), or an underutilization of the urban village development pattern, well then we would adopt your proposed objectives, and the distance fares would naturally follow.

        Now, I’m not a transportation policy expert by any stretch of the imagination; I’m just thinking this out aloud along with you. If distance pricing was your idea, or that of someone else on the blog, well I’m only here to be constructive.

      2. Although you’re right about objective 1), I have no intention of limiting supply with a proportional toll. In fact, I’d claim the goal of a proportional toll is closer to your objectives 1) and 2). Having a round trip fare of $3.50 for short trips will discourage ridership within the city.

        If I were to add an objective, it would be to generate revenue. Further distances are worth more to riders than close distances, so they’ll pay more. In fact, if your objective 1) and 2) were the only objectives, then we should remove fares and simply support transit with taxes.

      3. Oh, I just saw your comment about the taxi.

        The taxi fare system is centered around the objective of discouraging congestion. The cabbie’s delight would be if every customer only had to be driven to the end of the block. Then taxi driver would collect his flat fee, without incurring any costs in gas, mileage, etc. That’s also why they usually let you “double-up” with a customer going the same direction.

        So again, their fare policy deals with different objectives.

  9. I’d like an across-the-board flat-rate system. $2/trip, any time of day. Payable only via ORCA, with no free-zone. All link stations should have turnstiles so that trains will be boarded quickly, with no free-riders.

    The principle arguments for a free-zone is to have an easy/free way for people to get around within downtown, and to speed up bus boarding. Unfortunately, it leads to the “pay as you leave” nightmare, where someone at the back of the bus needs to get through a huge crowd to actually get off the bus, walking past two perfectly good doors on the way. Instead, have a set of free buses to circulate people around downtown, and speed up boarding by only accepting ORCA.

    Distance-based fares are confusing, and discourage both tourists and occasional riders from taking transit, since they don’t know offhand how much they’ll be spending to get from A to B. It also adds the need to either have fare inspectors or a swipe-as-you-leave system. Fare inspectors are an unneeded expense, and swipe-as-you-leave adds confusion, and will cause occasional riders/tourists to get charged more than they should; it also means you have to wait in line at both ends of your trip.

    Peak/Non-peak fares are confusing, and makes it difficult to choose between a pass & a pre-paid card at the beginning of a month.

    $2/trip is good enough for New York City; why isn’t it good enough for Seattle?

    1. Now there’s an interesting idea. A free Downtown Seattle Circulator, sort of like Issaquah’s #200, Olympia’s Dash or the Tacoma Link. Maybe a bus that goes from Convention Place to the ID Station in a special wrap (like the 99) to let people know this route is free.

  10. How about $2 everywhere including tunnel, but $3 to the final airport stop? That way airport passengers show their $3 on the way off. No free ride downtown encourages longer hauls on light rail, shorter hops by bus. And if you have a short regular route, as I will from Mount Baker to the ID, I’ll be likely to buy a pass rather than fork over $2 a trip.

  11. In NYC the fare is about to be raised to $2.50 per trip. In fact, this year my monthly cost increased to around $91. However, the MTA system and Boston are the only major city transit systems I’ve ever encountered with a flat fare.

    That being said, I find the flat fare to be very user friendly and decreases the anxiety of transit newbies. In fact, I think it would be wise for Seattle to emulate the Boston system sans the Silverline/BRT nightmare.

  12. I’d like to point out that no matter how they handle variable fares, the fare from the airport to downtown looks to be VERY cheap. I’ve used a lot of different transit systems in different countries, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an airport to downtown fare be even close to $3. They could easily add a few dollar surcharge just for connecting to the airport and I don’t think people would complain… it’s still much cheaper than a taxi no matter how many people you have in your group.

  13. (More of an ORCA topic than fares) I was wondering what smart card technology ORCA is using? After searching around, I found that ERG installed Singapore’s EZ-Link and Hong Kong’s Octopus cards. The Singapore readers on buses look exactly like the ORCA readers. Both systems use Sony’s FeLiCa card technology so I would assume ORCA would be the same? Just asking because of the recent news about university students hacking transit smart cards in Boston and London for free rides.

    I remember my visit to Singapore during the EZ-Link roll out in 2002. Their bus system uses a distance-based system (called fare stages). They have you tap-in and tap-out on the bus and MRT. We only had the magnetic stored value cards so we got confused about the fare and didn’t pay. We managed to slip past the inspectors because of the crowded bus. We also took the brand new MRT extension (back in ’02) from Changi Airport to the CBD. It cost us only US$1.25 per person. Dirt cheap.

  14. How many person/hours and psychic energy did this discussion cost. Add that to the uncounted costs of collecting fares. Fares exist mainly to discourage use. If there were no fares the unit cost per rider would drop dramatically. Oh, but the oil and auto companies might lose profit. And massacres such as in Gaza might not be necessary to protect their influence in carbon-rich regions.

    1. And massacres such as in Gaza might not be necessary to protect their influence in carbon-rich regions.

      Can’t let that one pass. Think what you will about our complicity in what the Israelis are doing in Gaza, but if oil supply maximization is your sole objective pissing off the entire Arab world would not be our policy choice.

  15. Light rail fares should be the same as bus fares for the same trip. The fare systems in Seattle are confusing enough already. Light rail does the same thing as a bus for most passengers – get them from point A to point B. It should cost the same between the same locations. The public policy decisions should be the same.

  16. In Paris, they use a single fare for all travel within the city and on all light rail lines. Commuter rail also uses the one fare for in city, and then zone pricing outside two miles from Paris’ borders. The system is simple, and tickets can be purchased easily and used easily and quickly.

    Stockholm also does the same thing, one fare for a majority of city and suburbs, and then two more zones for places outside and the airport. These systems are useful for everybody, and it encourages people to give transit a shot who otherwise wouldn’t use the system.

    The complaints from people who use the system for short distances are understandable, however, the objective for the system needs to be promoting growth in use from those traditionally who use cars. Transit in America is fighting a public perception, and the more people who get hooked on it, the better it will fare in the ballot box and with our governor. Furthermore, the system needs to grow to become attractive. The more people who use it, will bring increased frequency of service and expanded routes which will attract more riders.

    If one compares the menial fare of $2, or $4 for a round-trip to the price of using a car, it is certainly still worth it. And density dwellers should consider themselves to be subsidizing suburbanites because the marginal difference in cost is so small that is well worth the boost in user simplicity.

    Finally, if we want to talk about marginal costs, and most of us are probably in accord with this one, we should be pushing for a gas tax, because the marginal cost of maintaining extra roads is rather high. All road transportation should be funded by a gas tax, and the sales tax should not be used to subsidize the wide range of driving habits in the state.

  17. Why is Sound Transit so afraid of using coins other than 25 cent pieces? It seems like the payment scale could be a lot fairer if they were willing to go in increments of 10 cents. We do have these coins for a reason.

Comments are closed.