Metro Transfer, by Oran

The Bellingham Herald reports that the Whatcom Transit Authority (WTA) is one vote away from abolishing transfers:

On Oct. 6, WTA held a hearing on the proposed changes to the fare policy. Staff recommended eliminating transfers, which WTA has used since 2005, because they’re often abused as people use them for a free return-trip ride. Staff also estimates the agency would get a roughly $100,000-a-year revenue boost after eliminating them, and it would save about $10,000 in printing costs. Transfers also encourage payment of cash fares, which WTA wants to discourage in favor of bus passes.

There are also administrative savings to postpone (and shrink) WTA’s second round of service cuts from 2013 to 2014.

In a system as complex as King County’s, abolishing transfers altogether is probably not possible. In anything, there is too much emphasis on one-seat rides rather than a functioning, interconnecting network.

However, there is asymmetry in the way that ORCA transfers compare to paper ones. Paper transfers tend to be valid for longer than policy states, whereas ORCA enforces the actual transfer time limit. Moreover, Link’s location-based fares offer no round-trip discount.

I’m in general in favor of fare increases, since they mean more revenue for transit. But what about “abuse” for round trips? Is this a feature or a bug of the transfer policy?

44 Replies to “Whatcom May Abolish Transfers”

  1. I do know of a few people who carry around bags full of transfers on Metro who use them instead of paying cash fares. That’s one failure I see with the paper transfer system.

    1. I have seen people attempt to fish out the “right” transfer from a stack of transfers. Metro uses two things to distinguish each day’s transfers, color and letter. Near as I can tell from these people, they aren’t using every combination.

  2. Definitley a feature, not a bug. I’ve always thought (well, since Metro eliminated the distinction of inbound vs. outbound travel which is a throwback to some 1970s vision of how travel within a metropolitan area works) of paying one’s fare as buying a license to ride the transit system for a period of time. If I can get back to my origin point within that time what’s wrong with that?

    Eliminating transfers will discourage transit use: If I need to pay twice (or four times on a long trip requiring an actual transfer of buses) driving looks a lot more attractive. I don’t think making driving more attractive is good transportation / transit policy.

    As for discouraging payment of fares in cash what part of “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private” do they not understand?

    1. Exactly. And transit agencies should not be punishing all riders because their operators don’t look at the transfers closely enough to make sure they’re valid.

  3. Unless there’s only one bus in the system then transfers are necessary. If my ORCA is empty I don’t go anywhere because I could call up Enterprise and rent a car for the day for less – seriously there was a day where my family wanted to go out for dinner and it would have cost us $32 in bus fare because the ride store was closed and our ORCAs were empty (Community Transit doesn’t give out transfers) . Enterprise would have picked me up, given me a car for the day and dropped me off for $28.

    If they abolish transfers they won’t make a dime – ridership will plummet and people will be pissed. The idea that a transfer is only supposed to get you one direction is ridiculous. Can you imagine someone in the Paris metro trying to get people to pay a second time because they missed their station and had to backtrack because they were now riding the same train the other direction?

    My transfer is to allow me to ride as long as I need until it has expired. If they start using ORCA to charge me for riding both directions I’ll not take the bus. It’s already equal in price to me driving.

    Another example of failed transfers. You can buy a ticket on Swift with a credit card that’s good for 2 hrs. You can use it on Swift but you can’t transfer to another CT or Everett Transit bus! You bought a ticket and it’s not good on ANY other bus so if you can’t ride it back the other way on that ticket and there’s only one Swift route then what good is it?

  4. WTA will eliminate all paper transfers beginning Jan 1 as a cost saving measure.
    I’m flabbergasted by this move. In order to save operating costs, WTA designed a spoke and hub route system, that requires a transfer in downtown Bellingham. Most buses ‘meet’ each 1/2 hour at the new TC.
    Now they want to charge those riders double for the privilege of being forced to transfer, unless they buy a monthly pass.
    The reason given was to cut down on transfer abuse, because people were using them for their return trip. Oh the horror of it.

  5. In addition to the fact that Metro transfers are often torn off in the wrong spot anyway, I find that drivers don’t really actually carefully scrutinize them, anyway. I’d like to see transfers you actually have to stick into the farebox, with a magnetic strip or something. That’s how it worked when I rode Alameda County Transit in Oakland. Also they charged an extra 25 cents for getting the transfer–$2.00 for a one-seat ride, $2.25 if you wanted the transfer ticket. Seems like a decent idea?

    1. We have that — it’s called ORCA. :) At this point, it’s hard to imagine that building a second, parallel system would be worth the cost.

      Charging more for a transfer seems like a great way to make one-seat rides even more desirable than they are now, which will continue to reduce network effects. Connections are what make a system great; we should be encouraging them by simplifying bus routes and making them more frequent, not discouraging them by making it more expensive to connect.

      1. I’m sure it wouldn’t really be worth the cost, it’s just that I don’t envision actually eliminating paper transfers, and I wish we had a system that was more accountable.

        I agree with you that we should encourage connections–but I think the idea for charging for a transfer is vaguely analogous to charging more for using more zones. Maybe that’s the logic?

        At the moment, if we eliminated paper transfers a two seat ride would be $4.00, not $2.25. So it’d better to charge a little for a transfer than to not allow transfers at all.

  6. WTA transfers didn’t have any magnetic strip fanciness, but they did (before this unspeakably dumb move) have a system where you deposited your transfer in a plastic box on the fare machine when you used it, so that you couldn’t save them or use them for more than one transfer on a trip.

    Have there been any studies done on how much not having transfers suppresses ridership? Because, well, unless they’ve got good numbers saying that this won’t chase off everyone with any other option but transit, it seems like they’re being unspeakably dumb. Like, my first thought upon reading this was “have any of the board members ever used transit in their lives?”

    1. But what’s wrong with using more than one transfer per trip? Before I moved, my commute was often 44-43-545. Yes, I could have just walked from the end of the 44 to Montlake, but it would have been really annoying, and I’m sure it would have turned some people away from using transit.

      1. Kaleci: Only during morning and afternoon peaks. It was pretty typical for me to reach the U-District after 10 and/or to leave Overlake after 7, in which case the 542 wouldn’t help me at all. And anyway, ST is currently proposing to cut reverse-peak 540 service entirely, which would put a lot of Kirkland-Seattle riders in the same boat.

        Morgan: The last through-routing in the morning leaves 46th and Phinney at about 9am, and the through-routing doesn’t resume until the evening.

    2. Maybe that’s the point: chase off everyone except those who have no alternative to transit and then cut service to “those people”.


      1. Just for clarity. I was not advocating “LOWER TAXES”. Merely highlighting what the politicians who inhabit the WTC board are probably thinking.

  7. Reposting my comment from the previous entry:

    If it were up to me, I’d offer an All-Day Pass, purchasable at the farebox.

    Do what Valley Metro (Phoenix) does –

    They charge extra when you buy the pass at the farebox (the idea being an incentive to buy at a TVM or retail to speed up bus boarding time)

    As for are transfers a “feature or bug”, I must say I’ve been guilty of using Metro and PT transfers for round trips before.

  8. My area’s bus agency, before they moved to All-Day Passes issued magnetic strip transfers which were valid for 2 hours after paid fare. The farebox would reject the transfer (with a nasty “BBEEEEEEEPPP!!!”) if you tried to do a round-trip

    1. Skagit Transit also does this. They’re such a small agency but they’re the only ones in the area (that I know of) that do that.

      You can get day passes, transfers, etc all on paper tickets with mag strips. The farebox determines if the ticket is valid or not. Metro should have been doing this ages ago.

  9. The public have been abusing the paper transfer system at METRO for years(Let’s not even get into the “non-transferable” clause printed on the back of the transfers). There is a reason that New York Transit System stations officers at the turnstiles of the subway: If they didn’t people would abuse the system and not pay. If you have boarded a bus and the driver has accepted an expired transfer that YOU offered up, then YOU are the reason that agencies are forced to look at paper transfers and deciding to get rid of them.

    Eliminating paper transfers will discourage transit abuses, and if your transfer is torn in the wrong place, why not simply ask for a proper transfer torn with the proper time?

    1. I’m a pretty religious fare-payer (although these days I’m U-Passing), and even I wouldn’t stop a bus driver who gave me a 3-hour transfer by accident.

      1. The “Pretty Religious” riders: The ones that pay on Sundays, Christmas, Easter? As with the other riders who abuse the system, are the reason that transit agencies want to do away with paper transfers.

      2. Shrug. I think you should still acknowledge that there are structural reasons the system doesn’t work that well–it’s not JUST that riders cut corners where they can (i.e. they act in their economic self-interest/the free rider problem, blah blah). It’s also that drivers don’t tear the transfers well and don’t check transfers very carefully. But it’s not all on the drivers, either–it’s kind of unreasonable to really stop every passenger and make sure their piece of paper is exactly the right length, too.

        People will always abuse the system (especially in ways like keeping a transfer even when it’s a little too long), but it’s also nice to look for ways to make that harder, without just expecting everyone to get an ORCA card (especially when there are no financial benefits to having one now that it costs money just for a card).

    2. The last time I looked at the back of a Metro transfer, it explicitly said it was transferable. So if they’re not transferable now it’s a policy change.

  10. Well, given that fares are such a small percentage of the actual cost of ridership, there could be a case to do away with fare collection and enforcement.

  11. “Moreover, Link’s location-based fares offer no round-trip discount.”

    That’s actually not true. I went to the airport to pickup my friend and returned in less than two hours. The return trip was counted as a transfer, completely on it’s own. It was a pleasant surprise.

    1. Barman is correct.

      Martin, the next time you take a Link trip that exceeds the face value of your monthly pass, try doing an additional pair of in/out tags. When you tag in again, it will read “valid transfer” and will deduct nothing. (On your final tag, it will read “cancelled trip” and will show you the current full value of your e-purse.)

      Also, LINK paper ticket buyers have the option of buying a “round trip” that amounts to an unlimited day pass (any day of the week). The system is currently of limited enough use that it’s unlikely anyone would need to use it multiple times throughout the day, but when U-Link is complete, the existence of an all-day paper ticket (even one without a Metro transfer) could amount to yet another disadvantage for ORCA payers.

  12. As JAT says, in our system and many others in places with softer demand, “paying one’s fare as buying a license to ride the transit system for a period of time.”

    So as long as transfer time limits are properly enforced, it is a feature.

    The problem is that, with paper transfers, it never is. Otherwise upstanding customers with 2 hour transfers will use it for 3 and will seemingly believe that they’re close enough to the margin of error to feel no guilt. Sketchier customers will use them for 4 or 5 hours. And it’s not uncommon to see drivers start to hand out all-night “owl” transfers as early as 7 PM. I have no idea why they think fratboys need an entire night of drinking on only one fare.

    And as Martin frequently and diligently notes, this amounts to a fare penalty for ORCA use, when system efficiency and reliability make a case for an ORCA fare incentive.

    Paper transfers must be eliminated. Now. And pay-as-you-leave abandoned so that legitimate transfer users (the proper system “feature”) don’t get double-dinged by a slow-running bus.

    1. I agree that pay-as-you-leave is incompatible with ORCA transfers for some riders. If they extended the ORCA transfer to, say, 2.5 hours, that would seem like a reasonable stopgap to me, but I’d much rather see PAYL disappear.

      1. Isn’t there an easier solution whereby, you tap in on your first bus into the RFA, then you tap again (have a reader at the back door)as you board the bus in the RFA, and finally you tap as you leave the bus.

        The ORCA system, combined with GPS and a clock (why, yes that IS redundant!) should be then able to figure out what you did by connecting the dots and charge you the right fare.

  13. As a regular rider on WTA, I think this is pretty disingenuous of WTA. As mentioned above, the system is specifically designed on a hub and spoke transfer model. If I’m not a student and don’t live near WWU, I have to transfer to get there. Same with Fairhaven. It is also designed so a transfer can be used once, you get on with a transfer, you deposit it in the box. If the system is being abused it is because drivers aren’t enforcing this rule.

    I don’t disagree with the move necessarily, but I think it would be more honest just to say that this is essentially a fare hike for a significant portion of riders. The discussion should be whether this is a better model or just charging everyone an extra dollar would be better. Seems silly that I would have to pay $4 to get from Alabama Hill to Fairhaven, and only $2 to get from either Mt. Vernon or Blaine to Bellingham.

    1. I’m quite sure that WTA has thought this through, recognizes the inequities forced upon the riders now required to transfer to a different bus in Bellingham, and are working diligently on a plan to run many more buses to offer one seat rides for nearly everyone = and are fully prepared to bare the cost of doing that.

  14. If they were serious, really actually serious, about doing this to prevent “abuse,” one thing they could do is make the downtown Bellingham station a fare-controlled area. That would allow for people to transfer between (most) buses for free, without requiring printing or issuing transfer slips. But doing that would itself cost a significant amount of money, and likely make the downtown station look a bit like a prison.

  15. One-direction transfers are common in other cities. The transfer is punched for which direction you’re going, and sometimes even which route you started on. Seattle has actually had one of the best (i.e., free-est) paper transfer systems in North America. Plus they don’t care if you give the transfer to somebody before it’s used up, whereas in Canada (Vancouver and I think Toronto) they have these threatening signs saying that sharing transfers is illegal.

    Of course, I’ve already switched to ORCA, in spite of ORCA’s 2-hour limit.

    1. That’s why I used the term “soft demand.” Cities where transit needs to be somewhat more incentivized (essentially those not on the East Coast or Chicago) are more inclined to use time-based transfer validity. Cities that can are more inclined to emphasize the unidirectionality of the transfer system.

  16. I agree that it makes sense to eliminate paper transfers. What doesn’t make sense is not having a reasonable replacement in place with a lower commitment than a monthly pass like a day-pass or ability to use ORCA e-purse funds.

  17. Are round trips “transfer abuse”? It depends on the rules of the system. In Seattle they’re not, in Bellingham they are. However, there’s a lot to be said for changing the rules to *allow* round trips. Minneapolis did that about 10 years ago. It’s been a great improvement. Transfers are electronically issued for a rigid 2.5 hours. The only drawback of electronic transfers is that for some reason people feel freer to give them away or even sell them, which *is* still against the rules. We have a bigger problem with transfer selling now than when they were tear-off paper.

    That said, I think abolishing transfers *can* be an OK model if WTA doesn’t want to legalize round trips. However, the fare should be lowered proportionally to the current amount of transfer usage. If the current fare is $1.00 and 15-60% of riders transfer, then the new fare should be 75c. If over 60% transfer, the new fare should be 50c.

  18. As a transit driver, I know that many people rely on transfers to help them save money. If transfers are done away with, the idea of public transportation becomes even more of a hassle and more expensive. In fact, transit systems would be doing their riders a disservice. Not only would it cost riders more, I believe that ridership will decline. Public transportation should not be an organization that is driven by profits, rather an organization that is driven by an essential service to its public. Public transportation needs to press for more federal grants, rather than getting it from their riders.

  19. The last time I looked at the back of a Metro transfer, it explicitly said it was transferable. So if they’re not transferable now it’s a policy change.

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