Like I said in a previous post, getting riders to switch to pre-paid fare media speeds up bus boarding. The discontinuation of the Ride Free Area next October makes fare payment more critical to transit operations than ever, of which its impacts will be felt throughout the network, including Link light rail.
A set of affordable 1/3/7-day passes could get more cash users switching to the ORCA card and reduce the number of cash transactions on the bus. It will also make transit easier to use for visitors and infrequent riders. This works best with a robust network of fare retail outlets and a lower cost ORCA card.
Read on for my conceptual proposal that works within the existing regional pass system without changing individual agencies’ fare structure. Note that I have not calculated the fare revenue or ridership impacts of my proposal.
One Pass for All for One Price?
Ideally for the rider, there would be just a pass they could buy for a single price that allows unlimited trips for a day. There are challenges to implementing a single price day pass good on all services in this region, due to the multiple fare structures in use by the many operators.
An alternative would be to have a “Regional” day pass good on all regular all-day bus and rail services (Link and streetcar) and a “Regional Plus” day pass that includes premium commuter services like Sounder and CT’s commuter routes. Another alternative would be to have a day pass good for all travel within one county and another one for multiple counties. Whatever the alternative, the idea is to simplify fare payment and speed up boarding, which makes transit easier to use and faster.
Cooperation among agencies to offer a day pass that ignores the minutia of fare structures would be a boon to riders but such a quantum leap appears to be too much for agencies to handle. That is why I propose extending the existing pass system as an incremental step towards that goal, much like how the original PugetPass and regional transfer agreement set up the framework that created the ORCA card. In fact, prior to the expiration of the regional transfer agreement on January 1, 2010, it was possible to buy a round-trip Link or Sounder ticket and use it as a de facto regional day pass! In a sense, we have regressed.
Regional Day Passes
Transit riders who have a monthly pass know how convenient it is to not worry about paying for each trip and expiring transfers. The pass allows for unlimited use within a calendar month and is priced at 36 times the fare value. Make more than 18 round trips and every trip after that is essentially free. The problem is the upfront cost required to purchase the pass, which can cost over a hundred dollars.
To entice cash users to buy passes, more options are needed. I propose a set of 1-day, 3-day, and 7-day regional passes. The passes would work like the regional monthly pass, which lets the rider choose the fare value based on the service they ride most often. Unlike the monthly pass, the day passes are rolling passes which are valid from the first time it is used until its time is up. A 1-day pass would be valid for 24 consecutive hours, 3-day pass for 72 hours, and 7-day pass for 168 hours.
The typical price of a day pass is between 2 to 3 times the fare value. I think pricing the 1-day regional pass at 3 times the fare value would be more acceptable to the agencies, due to the way revenue is apportioned between agencies under ORCA. Reducing the multiplier to 2 or 2.5 would save riders even more money at the expense of agency revenue. The day pass is intended to get occasional users using ORCA instead of cash and paper transfers.
A 7-day pass has the potential to increase overall pass use, as seen in Chicago. Quote from TCRP Report 94:
Studies also show that the 7-day pass, to which much of the pass use increase is attributed, has been successful in diverting many users of cash and tokens to pass use. It is estimated that as many as 60 percent of 7-day pass users were previously using cash or tokens. … In fact, since implementing the 7-day pass, CTA has found it to be extremely popular.
The 7-day pass would be the affordable option for regular transit riders whose limited budget cannot afford a monthly pass. It would be priced at 10 times the fare value, like Portland’s weekly pass. A cash user switching to the 7-day pass would save hundreds if not a thousand dollars annually.
The 3-day pass is aimed at tourists. It would be priced somewhere between the other two passes. For example, it would be priced at 7 times the fare value.
To make these short-term passes work, they must be easy to purchase. That is why more ORCA vendors are needed. It should be possible to load at least two passes on one card to reduce the number of trips to a fare vendor.
Selling day passes (paid from e-purse balance) on the bus would be convenient but may create delays. To simplify the process, there should be a “quick day pass” mode that sets the ORCA reader to sell a day pass for the current fare set. For example, a 1-zone rider purchasing a day pass on a Metro bus during peak hours would get a $2.50 day pass for $5. Day passes of a different fare value must be purchased off-board.
Best Fare Guarantee
This idea is borrowed from London’s daily price capping scheme used on its Oyster card. Like Oyster, you, the rider, will never pay more than the cost of an equivalent day pass and the system “will work out the cheapest combination of fares for all your journeys in one day”.
All ORCA e-purse users would receive the benefit of a day pass without needing to purchase one. They do not need to think about which pass to purchase either. This would be one way to replace the Ride Free Area’s function of facilitating intra-downtown travel.
The concept could be taken further to a weekly or monthly price cap, effectively giving people a weekly/monthly pass after they spend an equivalent amount of money in fares without needing to put down the cost of a pass beforehand.
The bad news is it appears that daily price capping or the “best fare” method has been patented by Cubic, the company that implemented the Oyster card in London. This may mean that implementing the same system may not be possible until the patent expires in 2022 or after licensing the patent or an alternative work around can be found.
Limited-use (disposable) ORCA card
I have heard that the disposable ORCA card is still in the works with no target date for implementation. Based on experience from other cities, such a card would be priced at 25¢ and would last 90 days. Its functionality would be limited i.e. single product type, no balance protection, etc. This comes out to $5 over 5 years, matching the cost of a plastic ORCA card with a 5 year life expectancy. This would be a good option for tourists and people who want to try the ORCA card or for some reason do not want to spend $5 up front for a card.
Do not forget to send ORCA your feedback if you think we need more pass options. Everyone at ORCA will see the feedback, not just individual agencies.