The We Won’t Pay people—the group that is urging people not to pay their fares when they ride Metro—have created a clever version of the Orca cards with the word “Nope” written on them. These were being distributed at the Occupy Westlake gathering over the last weekend. While some people might disagree, I have no problem with free transit anymore than I’d have a problem with free coffee or free pony rides. The problem with “free” is that it is an elusive concept. If we really want to reduce the price of transit, at the fare box or anywhere else, big changes are needed in the way we do land use and plan for growth. These solutions involve using the market to our advantage, something I doubt the We Won’t Pay movement has reached consensus on.

I’ve pointed out before that if we consider simple supply and demand, the problem with transit pricing is that the demand is diffuse which drives up costs to supply that demand. It’s the same reason that pizza delivery restaurants often have a service delivery area. I might want a pizza from that cool pizza place in Seward Park, but for them to drive it to me in Capitol Hill is cost prohibitive to them. The same is true of transit, when demand is spread all over the county then it’s going to get more and more expensive to operate the system.

But unlike a private pizza business, the community and political system has decided we do need to support the transit system even with all the costs. As part of the social contract we invest in things that we may not use or that wouldn’t make a profit. That’s why we use tax dollars to keep transit going. More after the jump.

It’s also the thing that causes pique for the The We Won’t Pay folks. They don’t like that we pay for transit more than once, and the fare box is the last straw. From their manifesto on back of their fake Orca card:

1st time: Everything we do at work creates the wealth that allows the local transit system to operate. Our bosses take most as profit.

2nd time: ALL of us pay state sales taxes and/or federal taxes that go toward local transit.

3rd time: Those of us with cars will pay a $20 car tab every year for Metro, maybe more.

4th time: BUS FARES that have increased 80% in 4 years.

There’s a lot to take issue with in these statements, and taken together they form no syllogism.  But let’s agree with the overall point for a minute on its face: we really are paying full price for transit, but that price is hidden from us and spread out. The price at the fare box is getting higher, but when added all up, taxes and fares, we’re all paying too much for transit.

I can agree with that point, but how is making it “free” going to help? The flawed logic comes home to roost when you consider that if we simply stopped charging for transit at the fare box—essentially creating a system wide “free ride zone”—then all those other taxes we pay would get more expensive to make up the difference. Sure, prices at the fare box have gone up, but abolishing them would mean all the other times we pay for transit would just get more expensive.

I would suggest to the We Won’t Pay folks that it is “free” that got us into this mess in the first place. The idea—as suggested on the We Won’t Pay website—that society and the economy should provide “Everything for Everyone” is what has driven government policy for the last 6 decades. Because there was such a demand for “free” highways and roads to get to our mortgaged single family houses backed by Uncle Sam, we got miles and miles of highway, which induced more and more people to drive. After all driving is “free,” right?

The perverse logic of transit funding is not that we’re paying more for it, but that we’re not paying the real price for other things that make less sense and are more resource intensive like roads and driving. Ironically, the more we sprawl and drive, the more expensive transit gets because demand for transit is more expensive to supply.

Building highways, sprawl, and keeping driving cheap ought to be the target of the We Won’t Pay crowd. Their slogan ought to be We Should Pay—for roads and driving. Such a policy would certainly generate revenue and internalize costs where we want them, making things we don’t want people to do more expensive. It’s also a good reason to squash Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1125 which would make it hard to do exactly what I’m talking about.

Lastly, the anti-corporate crowd has adopted a kind of know nothing approach to the free market. The truth is that we need more density and aggregation of demand to make different kinds of transit work. More demand close together makes for more efficient and cost effective transit. Maybe if we had enough aggregated demand for transit it might even become profitable, and the competition could make prices go down and efficiency go up.

But we’d have to build more housing which means loosening limits on zoning. That might lead to more developer profits too, and my guess is the Occupiers and Ride Free crowd wouldn’t like that. The solution to expensive transit is private investment in dense housing development, good land use policy to support density, and putting a higher price on driving. But that’s really complicated. Why not just create a witty slogan that fits on a piece of cardboard instead?

57 Replies to “We Should Pay: Free Ride Advocates Miss the Point”

  1. Objectively, it’s very easy to enable a city to have free, short-distance transportation — just build bike infrastructure that people feel safe using. The cost to society of letting people get around by bike on traffic-calmed streets or protected cycle tracks is a fraction of paying a unionized operator to run a $250K vehicle on fixed routes.

    I think I paid $50 in bus fare total for 9 months of living in Holland as a student. I have yet to pay bus fare in Portland. I could easily eliminate 80% of my non-work bus trips if the city’s infrastructure didn’t force me into a devil’s choice of driving, riding the bus, or risking my life to ride a bike on streets that have no material modifications to actually make them safe to ride on.

    That said, the notion of demanding an expensive, high-quality service while simultaneously refusing the obligation to pay for it strikes me as nonsensical.

    1. Just to be sure, I don’t mean to diss the value of bus service.

      But to point out that the desire for ‘near-free’ short-trip transportation in terms of societal cost is not naive or at all unrealistic — just the idea of expecting it to involve existing public transit.

      (running off to work)

    2. $250,000 buses!? They’re more like $750,000 with some going into the $1 million range.

      The problem won’t fix itself overnight. Transit and bike infrastructure has taken great leaps and bounds over the last 20 years, and it continues to do so. I think in 20 years we’ll all be astonished by how good Seattle’s alternative transport system will be.

      How have you not paid for Portland transit?

      1. Wow! I didn’t know buses were that expensive nowadays.

        I haven’t haven’t paid for Portland transit because I can ride a bike on streets where I feel safe and am surrounded by lots of families, women and kids, so I bike almost everywhere. In Seattle, I don’t feel safe riding a bike at all — even just 3 blocks from my home a kid got killed on his bike this summer — so I’m on the bus for any trip that’s longer than walking distance.

  2. Where does advertising revenue fit into the pie chart above? I would hope that Metro gets a decent chunk of money from that. If not, then there should be a focus on generating more advertising dollars.

    1. I don’t imagine their making very much in ad revenue for the few non-public service ads I see on buses. Maybe the faddish bus wraps are bringing in some.

    2. “Other Operating Revenue” is 3.19%.

      In other words, No, they aren’t making much, but we’d really miss losing it, given how tight the budget is. It does have the intangible benefit of showing the public-private partnership advocates that transit is doing that and highways are not.

    3. It’s tiny – and I think the investment by Metro to get more advertisers wouldn’t be cost effective.

    4. Bus advertizing is not a huge revenue generator because each bus may go to multiple locations in the course of a week. So, there is no way to target specific areas.

      But the city should look at revising its sign code to allow shelter advertizing. Some of that money could even be dedicated to speed and reliability improvements in the city.

      1. I agree, and I feel like a lot of the JCdecaux-type bus shelter advertising I’ve seen in European countries (Spain, Germany) is not that bad.

      2. The beauty of bus ads is that they *do* go all over the place. Trains, less so.

        But a word of warning to bus wrapper purchasers who have the windows painted/screened over: The riders who lose that window view are not likely to think kindly of such an advertiser.

        Indeed, I’ve seen windows screened over on the second level of double-talls, which defeats a lot of the attractiveness of riding such a bus. But then, the point is mostly moot since those buses are almost entirely commuters, and don’t serve any tourists.

  3. I have a better idea than free transit, free math classes for the We Won’t Pay group. We don’t pay for transit 4 times, we barely pay for it ONE time as shown by the amount of cuts going on in the Puget Sound area. I’d like to have free doughnuts at Top Pot (thankfully spread out to all taxpayers in the area even if they don’t eat doughnuts) and I’d like to have free cars to drive on my free roads.

    1. IIRC, I had heard one argument that the cost of fare collection and enforcement approached the amount of fares collected. If so, an economic case could be made that fare collection is not a value add activity…

      1. I’m pretty darned sure that fare collection is much less than 23% of operating costs, even with added boarding/alighting time factored in.

        I’m also pretty sure we’d end up spending more money on security if rides were totally free.

      2. The county’s policy is to keep fares between 25% and 33% of costs. I don’t know the exact thresholds but it’s about that. When costs rise enough that revenue nears the lower end of that bound, they raise the fare 25c which pushes it to the upper end, and then let it go for a few years until it reaches the lower end again. But the past three years have been one shock after another with high gas prices, then a recession, then sales tax not recovering, then high gas prices again, then sales tax still not recovering, so they’ve had to raise it repeatedly.

      3. The inevitable problem is when people start using the bus as a place to sit down rather than a way to get around, and other people trying to get some place on time get passed up repeatedly. Seats then have to start being rationed, and the transit agencies have no other way they’ve figured out to do it other than charge a modest user fee.

        Free buses = long lines to get on a bus you don’t know when you’ll be able to get on. Are universal free ride advocates ready to accept standing in long lines of random length to catch their favorite bus?

  4. Wow! You’ve sought out a spokesgroup for letting the poor ride free, Roger, and found the most inebriated outfit (metaphorically speaking here) to be your straw opponent. This loopy anarchist outfit has various different posters around town, with most of them filled with evidence that each poster maker didn’t bother to do any homework before defacing public properties.

    If we want a more sober analysis of reasons to give free rides to the poor, there are plenty of people we could approach to write a guest post, and have something fact-based to argue about.

    I’ve been looking around to see what other transit agencies around the country do. And then, I found this neat program at a little agency called Kitsap Transit. They provide a reduced fare on something called an ORCA card.

    It’s hardly unique, and not completely transferable to King County (both literally and figuratively), as some of the categories used there place a greater faith in human service agencies than what taxpayers are likely to swallow over here in King County. But the basic notion of allowing people who qualify for food stamps, for example, to get a reduced fare card, is hardly uncommon.

    One cool part is that the actual ORCA card is free. Here in King County, we’d have to keep a database of who is getting them, so they are encouraged to hold onto them and not just keep coming back for a bottomless supply of ORCA cards (and, of course, get around to incentivizing e-purse use, so people have a reason to get an ORCA in the first place and then hold onto it). If the databasing costs too much, then charge a nominal amount — say $1 — and raise that amount if too many qualifiers are coming back for endless replacements.

    One other important detail: In order to get the reduced fare (or Kitsap youth fare), it must be paid using loaded ORCA product. This is in contrast to the Reduced Regional Fare Permit, for which the various agencies have agreed to accept each others’ RRFPs without requiring loaded ORCA product, since some of the participating agencies aren’t part of the ORCA project. (This is a painful oops, since those non-ORCA agencies probably account for only 1% or less of all RRFP boardings.) It may not be a priority for the RRFP network, but I’d like to see residents of the non-ORCA counties get a sticker or the name of the county on their RRFP, and just exempt those individuals from a general requirement to use loaded ORCA product.

    We need something to balance out the institution of cash surcharges, elimination of the Ride Free Area, elimination of paper transfers, and elimination of free ticket vouchers. I think a low-income ORCA, based on a small set of easily-verifiable criteria that manage to cover 99% of the population that ought to qualify, and not too many beyond those who ought to qualify, would be just the thing to break the impasse between those who see transit as an entitlement for the poor (but are not worried about the quality, speed, or level of availability of the service), and those who don’t want to be inconvenienced in any way by poor people riding the bus or fear the creation of “roving homeless shelters”.

    In addition, there is a trivial tradeoff that should make ending the Ride Free Area palatable: Offer a few lines that are branded as free within downtown, extend the length of the area (e.g. from Safeco Field to Key Arena), and make the free area 24/7 for these buses. This would be a win for people trying to get to shelters after 7 pm, and virtually eliminate the “need” to replace the RFA with millions of ticket vouchers. But in the end, a food-stamps-based reduced fare ORCA may make these free buses obsolete. Or maybe not.

    The number one complaint from advocates for the poor about ORCA is that it is expensive. Let’s wipe out the cost for those who truly need to get it for free (using the database technology the county has already developed), and charge less but still charge so that it will be used only for transportation purposes.

    1. Brent, when your first sentence attacks, people don’t really read the rest. Note the lack of responses?

      1. I know a lot of the Occupiers aren’t anarchists, since I know a few of them as friends ;) I haven’t polled any subset of the Occupiers to see how many think public bus service should be a free entitlement, nor how many anarchists agree it should be a free entitlements.

        The idea is certainly planted in Ursula K. LeGuinn’s “The Dispossessed”, which tells of a planet run by two empires, one hypercapitalist and one communist, that fund armies from smaller countries to fight each other in internecessine warfare, and of a moon to which a large population of anarchists have been exiled and set up a utopian society where everyone gets along nonviolently, has a system of random work assignments that mostly manages not to split families up, and everyone shows up at committee meetings to argue things out.

        The novel tells of a bus in the anarchist capital city that runs a scheduled route, and shuts down at night (since the population is only about 100,000). That bus is something various committees have agree to put resources into, including assigning a driver and maintenance folks.

        I would find it a huge mistake to assume the Occupiers are all of like mind on any given issue, outside a general hatred of corporate capitalism.

  5. How about this: eliminate everything about current fare system that’s inconsistent, counterintuitive, and publicly aggravating to the point where it would put any donut shop out of business in a week? Or as an alternative, everything that slows down service itself while fares are being collected?

    Transit needs a column in the balance sheet for lost revenue every time a LINK train has to wait in the Tunnel while a 41 or a University coach collects fares at Westlake after 7. And bus driver won’t permit exit by rear door because it’s Downtown after the Free Zone closes. Would also be good to have an entry for lost goodwill- and passengers’ time, billed by the hour, for missing a connection over this.

    Free fares? I honestly think most people are willing to pay a reasonable fare. But in the name of plain, conservative accounting, let’s get the farebox out of the way of the buses and trains,

    Mark Dublin

    1. 1. Replace zone-based fares with type-base fares (local vs. express), in order to make zone-fumbling go away.
      2. Get the readers to properly handle all the specialty cards without pushing extra buttons. Why isn’t this happening?
      3. Hire more security personnel regardless of whether we go to universal PoP, as the passengers and operators deserve a *safe* ride. And let the security spend some time at the scariest bus stops, since surveys have shown that riders are more scared at bus stops then they are on the bus. I would have voted for more police *if* the money were to hire more police to patrol the densest areas (with an emphasis on protecting people rather than property), instead of building more prisons.

    2. several decades ago I actually was a bus driver for a “fareless” system.

      I admit its not a great example/analogy….. and rather unique situation: Aspen, CO — the bus system was “hired” by Ski Corp (which at that point owned 3 of the 4 ski mountains) to provide service between town and their facilities. with this additional revenue stream, the entire bus system was run without fares.

      anyway, 2 additional factors for the “Plus” (pro-fareless system) column:

      1.
      INCREASED SPEED AND EFFICIENCY
      at every stop, both doors open and people quickly stream off and on. No delay with everyone having to fight their way to the front door; no slow down at all for the fare box.

      2.
      DECREASED OPERATING COSTS
      maybe this isn’t alot in relation to the entire system’s operating budget, but you do away with maintaining + servicing fare boxes; enforcement; and all that extra money-handling accounting.

      ————

      so how would I suggest we pay for it?

      remove the state sales-tax exemption on fuel, and provide that back to the county where it was collected for transportation/transit. yep, I know its regressive, but it relates to transportation, and most people seem to think its already being charged…..

  6. I don’t quite understand the fear of having free (I prefer the term Prepaid) transit.
    Many would argue that getting more people to ride busses and trains is a good thing for society, causing less pollution and consuming less fossil fuels. I agree with that societal goal. Providing prepaid transit service is a sure fire way to increase ridership. But we will have to add a lot more buses, they shout! Oh, the horror of it.
    Fare collection is about as efficient as trying herd cats. Transit agencies have built entire department empires out
    Of the sweat to account of the last nickel in the till. At the same time operations supervisors will neuter a driver for repeated attempts to be the fare gatekeeper on their ship. So that gives us a highly con fussing and complicated system of fare types and rules for there application. Plus all the equipment to collect, count, record, and distribute this income stream that at best generates less than 25pct to the total cost. So, how much is spent in trying to collect the fares? Deduct that from the fare revenue and you would be surprised how little is left over to actually run the bus.
    If society really wants fewer cars on the roads, with a lone drive at the wheel, then it should be willing to completely prepay transit operation to achieve that goal.
    If not, then buy a ton more ticket machines, and hire an army of fare inspectors. Oh, we’ll need more cops and a much bigger justice and jail system if you really want to do this thing right.
    My apologies in advance. I’m using an iPad for the first time an haven’t found how to go back and edit.

    1. Many transit agencies have attemped to be entirely free. Most gave up after a short amount of time. Can we please not re-invent the flat tire?

      1. Examples please. I often hear people dis making transit free, but I have never (sorry Roger) give me what I consider a good explanation of why it won’t work. Please let me know when and where free transit has failed.

      2. Lookup vero beach,fl,,or chapel hill or island county right here in Washington. Or Wikipedia has a larger list worldwide under fareless transport.
        Austin tried it some years back, but gave up due to its success, also one of the smaller transit systems east of the Cascades. Too many transit users…BAD

      3. Consensus in the profession is that no fare systems may work in small, typically rural or isolated communities, but in just about any other case it just doesn’t work.

      4. @Adam, Do you know what that consensus is based on? What big cities have tried it? What problems did it cause?

      5. In my experience, everyone who advocates for free fares focuses entirely on the supply side, and completely ignores demand. That is, they present compelling proposals for how to raise enough money to run the buses we currently have, but they completely neglect the fact that free buses will easily attract an order of magnitude more ridership than paid buses do.

        Just think about how crowded the 70x buses are, or the 41, or the 48. Now imagine if the fare was free. There would be lines. You might have to get to your stop 30 minutes early so that, after two buses had gone by, you _might_ be able to cram onto the third.

        Whenever big cities try this, they inevitably abandon it because there’s too much demand, just like Mike pointed out (though bizarrely, he seems to think that’s an argument *for* free fares).

        Jarrett Walker has a great article on why fareless transit doesn’t work. It all boils down to the same thing. It works on islands and at ski resorts, where there’s already too much supply and too little demand. It doesn’t work in even a medium-sized city, or anywhere else where demand is high and supply can’t keep up.

        And before someone inevitably says “dur, just run more buses”: We’re about to levy a $20 car tab to avoid having to downsize Metro by 17%. With free transit, if you wanted supply to match demand, you would have to increase every major bus line in the city to at least 5-minute frequency, and much more in some cases. We’re talking 4x or 5x the current service hours, *minimum*. Figure out how to increase Metro’s budget by 500%, and then we’ll talk.

      1. I’m not so sure there’s a “consensus in the profession”.

        SKAT (Mt. Vernon) and LINK (Wenatchee) both were fare free prior to I-695.

        Austin is always held as the poster child of an experiment gone wrong, but look at other examples. Logan, UT has been fare free for 19 years. Chapel Hill went fare free in 2001 and still is. Corvallis just went fare free this year. It DOES work.

        There are certainly challenges – capacity being issue number 1 – but there is no question that the fare free systems are being utilized heavily – which is the whole purpose of transit.

        It’s hard to argue with a system averaging 33 pax/rev hour in a city that otherwise would be a social service type of system.

  7. Here is another argument that will be rejected like smallpox on this blog.
    A transit trip to Seatac used to cost metro about 4 bucks, take 30 minutes, and was on time over 90pct of the time.
    We have now replaced that with a trip that cost about $14 per rider(incl. Debt & Depr), takes 38 miniutes and is on time only 84pct.
    Both brought in revenue of a little over a buck a trip.
    So, taxes were covering 3 bucks on the bus and now 11 bucks on the train.
    Wouldn’t society have been better off giving four free rides to the airport, rather than sending all those extra tax dollars to corporate america? I would rather bus riders get the benefit rather than a bunch of bankers, lawyers, and consultants.

    1. You forgot about the 10-minute frequency, or the fact Link doesn’t get stuck in traffic, or the advantages of having only a single line to remember that can simultaneously run at express speeds and stop in several neighborhoods and major destinations along the way. There’s an advantage in being able to go to a station at any time, wait at most 10 minutes for a train (15 minutes after 10pm), and be able to go to any of several stations (stadium, UW, downtown, Columbia City, etc). And if you change your mind en route, you can just keep on going to a different station or turn around, rather than having to figure out where the bus to the other destination is and then go to that bus or wait 30-60 minutes for it.

      1. I guess it boils down to what you want your transit dollars spent on.
        Expensive rides for a few people, or cost effective rides for many more.
        If link was even close to the same cost, you have some good talking points, but at 3 or 4 times the cost, the advantages are pitifully lacking in substance.
        I’ve run the numbers for ulink based on ST 2012 SIP, and it gets better, but still way more than any buses.
        Roger balks at providing universal transit access, but seems fine with blowing billions on modes that forever hobble this region with obscene operating subsidies far in excess of a buck a ride on a bus.

    2. I’ve noticed a common trend among Central Link opponents, which is that they universally reject the notion that the Rainier Valley segment is useful, or sometimes, even forget that it exists.

      This is actually kind of amusing at times. The same people (or just about) will argue that Link should have been built along Marginal Way, and will then argue that Link is an expensive boondoggle that fails to accomplish its “goal” of getting people to the airport faster.

      Link is valuable because it serves as a north-south spine. If Link were an express train to the airport, it wouldn’t have been worth building. You can’t just ignore the fact that there are stops between ID and Sea-Tac.

    3. One factor that doesn’t exactly help Link’s efficiency is Metro’s decision to keep almost all of the old buses going south from downtown running parallel to Link all the way to (and, in many cases, through) downtown, rather than operating extremely frequent shuttle trips to the nearest Link station.

      The 42 is the most obvious example of duplication, but there are others too. For example, truncating the #39 at Columbia City station or truncating the #101 at Ranier Beach station would allow the existing service hours to provide a dramatic incrase in frequency. We could have had an express from Renton to Ranier beach, or a circulator from Othello station->Seward Park->Columbia City station, each providing a dedicated connection for every train. Instead, we have half-hourly routes that basically force you to bypass the train and ride the bus all the way to downtown.

      If we want to have a highly-frequent north-south trunk line, we need it to be theway to travel down that corridor, with buses feeding into it, rather than competing with it.

    4. Well, if you make up fake numbers, then yes, you can make it look that way.

      Have you included debt and depreciation on the buses? No, of COURSE you haven’t!

  8. If someone turns up in an actual bus with one of those, I really hope the driver has the sense to summon the transit police and have that person arrested. A group explicitly dedicated to fare evasion like that is stealing money right out of everyone else’s pockets.

    1. Any driver attempting to summon police to arrest or otherwise deal with someone carrying one of those passes woul be laughed off the air, and probably disciplined for engaging in a fare dispute.

    1. Damn anarchists! First they refuse to pay fares, then they fail to license images or even provide proper attribution! Where will it stop?

    1. Where did he “kick the Occupy crowd? He stated that the group “We Won’t Pay” was handing them out at Westlake. Occupy Seattle is not responsible for every person or group who comes to Westlake Center Plaza.

  9. Wouldn’t it make more sense to abandon farebox fees entirely? There wouldn’t be a need to collect fares, which would make driving and riding easier, and it would save money on roads, since it would get many people out of their cars. I don’t know what the numbers would look like, but wouldn’t it pay for itself in savings on road construction and maintenance alone?

    1. I posted a comment earlier on why this wouldn’t quite work — search for “supply side” on this page.

      The basic idea is that, if buses were free, then many more people would want to use them. And that would require a massive restructuring of the bus system, as well as a whole ton of extra money that we don’t have. For example, we’d have to buy hundreds of new buses, convert many lanes (or even whole streets) to transit-only, etc.

      You’re right that the money for running extra buses could come out of the road budget. But roads are paid for by a different level of government than transit service, so that would be a difficult swap to arrange.

  10. BTW, so far as I know, when there is enough usage, light rail is consistently cheaper, sometimes a literal fraction of the cost, of bus systems. In the end, operating costs trump the costs of building the roads.

  11. As of November 13, Metro is instructing drivers to call for MTP (transit police) if anyone boards using one of these “Nope” passes. This is highly unusual, as drivers are instructed only to “hit the 3 key” for infrequent offenders, document with a security incident report for repeat offenders – but never to summon transit police for simple fare evasion.

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