37% of ORCA sales from vending machines occurred at Westlake Station

On Monday, the ORCA Joint Board met for its monthly meeting to discuss the regional fare collection system’s technical, operational, and policy issues. There were a lot of things discussed which I have omitted for this report since I didn’t find them too interesting for the general public.

After a late start due to a special press conference on federal transit funding (which STB received very late notice of and no one made it there), the meeting started with one public comment, probably the first ever to the Joint Board. Deborah Seymour, a resident of Belltown, commented on the triple-fold increase in senior pass prices, the loss of the annual pass and resulting inconvenience of having to buy a new pass every month. King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond responded that the King County Council made the decision to increase fares and pass prices. Seymour had written to Councilmember Larry Phillips but didn’t receive a response. Desmond suggested she try the e-purse which may cost less than a pass depending on how often she rides and requires a single load for a year’s worth of rides.

Vix, the system vendor, reported that the migration of operations from Cubic in California is now complete. Cubic bought the US assets of ERG (now Vix) related to the Bay Area’s TransLink (now Clipper) Card project, some of which were shared with Seattle’s. All of ORCA’s operations are now in Seattle, fully under Vix’s control. This means better communication and support on the vendor’s part. For example, on-board card readers and driver display units (DDU) at the new Seattle-based workshop are now repaired in 2 days compared to 9 days from a year ago, on average.

On the ORCA Vision, key questions are how to fund additional work and how to move towards new technology. Desmond said Metro has hired the IBI Group to write a white paper to figure out “what would it take [for Metro] to go cashless?” The paper would answer what sort of policy, equipment, and direction they need to move towards a cashless system. Phase II of the work would be to write a business plan to place a dollar figure on potential changes for a budget request this summer. Work on the white paper is almost finished and is expected to be presented to the Joint Board in April.

The next Joint Board meeting is on March 12, 10:30 am at King Street Center 8th floor Conference Center.

Update on new work, ORCA statistics, and ORCA’s annual budget are below the jump.

New Work Update

On January 23, the Joint Board approved the new work for Maintenance Release 18. For background on MR18 see last month’s report. Some items previously reported to be on MR18 were taken off the list due to cost. The work approved are:

  1. Security Roles for Ad-hoc Reporting
  2. Youth Card Replacement
  3. Portable Customer Service Terminal (most costs are for development, the Portable CST itself costs $13,470 per unit which will be purchased by agencies)
  4. Institutional Reports (reduces Business Accounts dependency on Lead Agency to set up or run reports)

Total regional cost is $296,047 with $1,390,970 remaining for new work.

Fourth Quarter 2011 ORCA Statistics

ORCA staff produces a quarterly report for the Joint Board that gives an overview of the system’s key performance measures. The Program Management Report for Q4 2011 (scanned PDF) was discussed in the meeting. Also see the third quarter 2011 report (PDF). Below is a summary of figures I found interesting.

The business account website accounts for 40% of total sales, followed by the regular website (18%), Ticket Vending Machines (15%), customer service offices (12%), and retailers (6%). The share of sales at customer service offices dropped from last quarter as more people switch to ticket vending machines.

Out of 26 ticket vending machine locations, the top 5 in sales are Westlake, University Street, Bellevue TC, International District, and Pioneer Square stations. Westlake blows out the others with over $1.2 million or 37% of total TVM sales, followed by 11% at University Street, and 6% or less for each other location. The top 10 locations made 80% of total TVM sales.

There are currently 103 third-party retailer locations. The number one retailer in sales volume is Bartell Drugs’ 3rd & Union store with $354,103. This is Bartell Drugs’ sole location that revalues ORCA cards. It’s also the only third-party ORCA retail location downtown. It exceeds the sales volume at 43 QFC locations combined and is slightly less than the sales from TVMs at nearby University Street Station. The top 10 locations made 49% of total retailer sales. Retailers recieve a 2% commission for fare product sales. Note that “retailers” don’t sell new ORCA cards, they only add value to existing cards.

On to ORCA marketshare, which I define as the proportion of average weekday boardings paid with an ORCA card. For the region as a whole it’s 57.6%. By agency, Sound Transit leads the region at 79% (Express Bus 89%, Sounder 78%, Link 61%), followed by Community Transit at 74%, Everett Transit and Kitsap Transit at 56% of each, King County Metro at 55%, Pierce Transit 38%, and Washington State Ferries at 31%. The addition of UW students with their ORCA powered U-PASS helped increase boardings.

The expansion of retail outlets in the past year has helped increase ORCA card use. Martin Munguia, spokesman for Community Transit, told me in January that “among the population that has no Internet access and no credit cards the key to ORCA success will likely be even more ORCA outlet saturation, i.e., it’s easy to get and load money on a card” (link added by author).

Community Transit stopped giving paper transfers along with Sound Transit on January 1, 2010. Riders have adapted by converting to ORCA. “Change is always difficult”, Munguia said of the public reception to the loss of paper transfers. He notes that “The separation anxiety was relatively short-lived and we get only a couple comments every now and then about not having paper transfers, typically from people who are transferring from Metro or another agency.” The result is one of the highest ORCA use rates in the region.

The largest group of ORCA users are those who received their card from their employer or institution and have a Regional Bus & Train Passport, which allows unlimited rides. They account for 44% of total boardings. The share of Regional Passes, E-purse, and agency specific product are 29%, 22%, and 5%, respectively. Note that a single boarding may include multiple product types.

Just over a million cards are in circulation with roughly a third in active use. An active card has been tapped at least once in a month.

ORCA’s Budget

How much does it cost to operate the ORCA regional fare collection system? $4.8 million for 2011 according to a budget summary sheet. The largest cost item is services provided by Metro ($2.4 million) which includes operations management, the mail center, and the regional distribution and inventory center. Second largest is services from the vendor Vix ($1.7 million) which includes clearinghouse services and customer service among others. The rest are for services by Sound Transit and other agencies.

Non-fare revenue for 2011 totalled $171,309. I’m not sure what Card Fees ($147,105) means but if its supposed to mean revenue from selling $5 cards, that’s pretty low compared to the tens of thousands of new cards issued each month. The rest are interest earnings.

Who pays for the operating cost of ORCA? Costs are shared regionally based on ORCA ridership. For 2013, King County Metro will pay 64.28% of operating costs, Sound Transit 18.85%, Community Transit 6.75%, Pierce Transit 5.34%, and the rest approximately 1-2% each.

27 Replies to “ORCA February 2012 Report”

  1. I’m kind of shocked that ORCA usage on Link is so low (61%). Payment via TVM is painfully slow compared to tapping ORCA, and includes no transfers.

    Kind of interesting that KC Metro agrees to pay 64% of ORCA’s operating costs when it does so little to promote ORCA use, and has relatively low ORCA adoption rates. While it says 55% of Metro’s fares are paid by ORCA, if one were to assume that half of Metros ridership has a pass of some sort, that would mean that only 10% of cash riders use an ORCA.

    Of course the vast majority of the boarding / fare payment time savings comes from cash transactions moving to ORCA. Flashing a paper pass vs. tapping an ORCA with a pass are probably equal in time, in fact flashing a pass may be faster, though ORCA would reduces fraud. Nevertheless, the time savings on boarding would be achieved by shifting cash payers to ORCA, more so than pass payers.

    It’s amazing how little has been done to address ORCA’s shortcomings since it was launched. Metro’s paper transfers are still significantly more valuable than ORCA’s 2-hour transfer window if one uses only Metro buses. There’s no discount or benefit to move to ORCA from paying in cash if not transferring to/from a system that doesn’t use paper transfers (or no penalty for paying cash, however you want to look at it.) There’s no day pass on ORCA. They haven’t made it easy to purchase and reload ORCAs throughout the service area, nor installed any significant number of new TVMs.

    It still feels like only a partial commitment to ORCA with no one really owning product management responsibility and the mission to make it a success.

    1. The 61% rate of usage on Link is probably related to the fact that many of the riders are airport-to-downtown rides by business travelers and tourists. Why buy an ORCA card if you’re just using light rail to and from the airport?

      1. With Metro getting the profit when ORCA are aold, and ST not suffering inefficiencies when someone buys a train ticket, nobody has an incentive to push ORCA sales at train stations. It may even be to Metro’s benefit to reduce the incentives to hold onto an ORCA card, so they get another $5 each time a replacement is purchased (at least until you account for inefficiencies created by adding another cash fumbler in the mean time).

        Buying tickets should fall within the parameters of “cashless” operation, since it doesn’t involve cash fumbling at the front door.

        I don’t see converting train ticket purchasers to ORCA holders as a high priority.

  2. It would be interesting to see the data separating the two types of ORCA use — passholders vs. single fares via epurse.

    1. There’s actually 3 types. Pass-only, Pass + e-purse, and e-purse only.

      Pass + e-purse, with the pass being for the off-peak fare, is almost always the most cost-effective option for the rider.

  3. Now that data for both boardings by mode (bus, rail) are available for ORCA riders, and revenue by product type (passport, E-purse, etc) are also known monthly, why not use the data to look for trends? This can be done for Passport users, but none of the other categories. (Average fare paid by Passport users varied from $1.43 in Oct to $1.83 in Dec) That’s a pretty wild swing for commuters who do the same thing most every day. Why such a large variance from standard deviations? What’s the average fare for the other 56% of riders using ORCA?

      1. It’s where your employer buys bulk ORCA cards for employees at a set rate, good for anything, anywhere and a years worth of travel. Go to Metro’s website for more info.

    1. I suspect some of that swing in December comes from Christmas and related time off resulting in less commuting days for a lot of workers versus October, thus a higher per-use “fare” since the cost of the pass is static.

      1. Yes. These reports, if tied to type of service, could be very powerful in determining subsidy levels by boarding pass type. For instance, Commuter Rail has a very high costs per trip. As ORCA Passport users comprise half the total riders in the system, is CR being short changed revenue wise with so many ‘flat rate’ payors? Or, to what’s the relative fare paid by various users. Is everyone paying their ‘fair share of fare’?

  4. I appreciate that GM Desmond is studying the feasibility of having the system go “cashless”. I’m sure it is not worth the cost of putting a VM at every bus stop. But hey, costing it out can’t hurt.

    I do hope the study includes the costs of enabling the Central Business District to go “cashless”, and then expand the “cashless” zone.

    Placing the ten new ORCA VMs at major downtown bus stops would get the most bang for the buck, and bring downtown a lot closer to being able to go “cashless”. I’m not saying they should forget about putting ORCA VMs at transfer centers, etc. I’m just saying going “cashless” downtown is more urgent in terms of fending off large inefficiencies caused by cash fumbling.

    The data from the one downtown Bartells being far-and-away the largest retailer revaluing site backs my wish up, IMHO.

    1. I think the study is perhaps more precisely framed as “moving towards” a cashless system. I doubt we’ll be putting TVM’s on Vashon Island. Going cashless in the CBD is exactly the kind of thing I think they’re looking for.

  5. I love ORCA despite its flaws, because it’s so much easier than dealing with cash and paper transfers. It has increased my casual use of transit while getting around town. It also speeds up boarding for everyone.

    ORCA should be a great amenity for tourists and other visitors but it’s not well understood that it exists, why to get it, where to buy it or how to use it. There are too few places to purchase an ORCA card and the process is still too cumbersome and opaque. The web site is functional but not very friendly.

    Thankfully, ORCA cards have a lifetime that exceeds a year. Often when I visit a new city, I acquire the local transit card, only to leave with some balance on an account that then expires before I get back to that city. That’s an annoyance ORCA doesn’t have. Still, there should be some way to recycle the cards, especially at the airport.

    In the future, it would be great if there were a way to create and manage an ORCA-type account via a simple mobile phone app, so at least for those with a mobile phone, there’d be no need for a physical card to produce, mail, carry, use, lose, replace, etc. Doing this well may require near-field communications tech to be common, so it’s probably a few years out. This could be done in addition to – rather than instead of – the physical cards.

    1. I am sure this is completely wishful thinking, but it’s really silly that each and every city/region reinvents the wheel. Why shouldn’t a single card work in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, etc? These are all places that have an RFID card. The consultants get rich selling the same system to each city, with large engineering contracts that just serve to make all the system incompatible. The ePurse function could really be the same across systems with some kind of monthly settlement process. Wouldn’t that be nice?

      1. PS: I wish the Montlake community would demand a good Montlake Flyer station as part of the west side project. There are good stations being built in Evergreen Point and Yarrow Point. Montlake should have the same, and it’s such an important transfer point. The stop on the lid isn’t the same thing at all, it has traffic lights (e.g. at 24th) and no real transit priority corridor across the bridge.

      2. Many seemingly incompatible cards actually use the same technology. A sample of cities that use Mifare for their transit cards: Seattle, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, London, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Stockholm, etc. They can probably be programmed to recognize each other’s cards. I can see Seattle linking up with Vancouver or Portland, just like DC does with Baltimore, but Seattle and Miami or Boston???

        A card that works nationwide (and globally) already exists. It’s called a Mastercard/Visa debit/credit card with RFID. The technology has advanced enough to be used in transit applications and is already being rolled out systemwide in London beginning this year.

        Meanwhile, Japan’s contactless fare cards have been interoperable across the country for a few years now.

      3. Because there are multiple suppliers now. Standardization will happen when the medium is proven and secure. Right now some of the fare-card products are less secure and therefore more hackable than others.

        Seattle has ERG/Vix. Cubic has fought to capture most of the North American market, even though they have a lousy customer service solution. (Compare the Orca web site to the TAP one in L.A.)

        Boston went with S&B out of Europe and got sued by Cubic for daring to do so.

        It looks like we will move to paying with our cell phones, which is funny because many systems already allow this using a text message-based system now.

      4. Credit cards have high transaction fees. Some 50c of the fare would go to the credit card company.

    1. “The separation anxiety was relatively short-lived and we get only a couple comments every now and then about not having paper transfers, typically from people who are transferring from Metro or another agency.”

    2. With ORCA VMs readily available downtown, and 10 more on their way, if the county council is paying attention when they site the new VMs, paper transfers ought to no longer be distributed downtown, as of October 1, or sooner. Indeed, paying with cash at the front door ought to be banned in the CBD, but that takes more courage than I’ve ever seen the county council muster.

      As a start, I wish the DSTT would be declared a cashless boarding zone ASAP, with plenty of signage warning riders that they need to get an ORCA card and load value in order to board in the tunnel. This would only affect riders from 7 pm to 6 am, but would be a good start in gauging public reaction to a cashless zone.

      We’ll get there with eliminating paper transfers, but the most urgent step is cashless boarding in the CBD. That really, really, really has to happen on October 1. Board-at-the-front/leave-at-all-doors isn’t going to work downtown.

  6. Should “going cashless” really be the priority for expanding use and improving what is currently a sub-par ORCA service? How about we study the feasability of day/weekend/tourist passes first?

    1. Going cashless downtown is URGENT. I don’t see any other way to avoid downtown gridlock on October 1.

      (ORCA-only) day passes would have a positive impact, but a tiny one, and won’t solve the existing hiccups in the ORCA system.

    2. Brent is right. Metro’s experiments downtown showed that NOT going cashless before the RFA is eliminated results in bus-gridlock downtown. And Metro’s RFA study showed that downtown fare collection requires more service hours overall than pay-as-you-leave.

      If we don’t have a cashless system in place once U-Link takes over the tunnel, we’ll have no where for the tunnel buses to go, period.

  7. I’d like to know why it is that when you are owed a credit why the credit cannot just be added to your ORCA card account rather than have an agency such as KC Metro send you free ride slips? If I’ve only been overcharged 25 or 50¢ it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for an agency to give me $3 of credit plus 34¢ postage to fix what was their error.

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