In preparation for tomorrow’s Ride Free Area forum, I thought it would be a good time to discuss distance based fares.  One of the real problems I’ve had with ending the RFA is that King County Metro’s fare system is nearly flat. 

Flat fares are a bit like having a single price for ice cream, where someone buying a small cone pays as much as the next guy with his family-size banana split.  Of course this is a great deal for the hungry ice cream eater, but a terrible deal for the small cone customers and over time they just stop coming in.

Hopping back to the real world, let’s look at typical trip inside the current RFA.  Walking from 5th and Union to 3rd and Cherry, according to Google Maps, takes 11 minutes.  A bus trip, however, takes only 9 minutes.  Not a big difference, but if it’s cold outside it would be worth a little money and if you’re in a hurry every minute counts.  But how much is this trip worth to you?  My guess is that $4.50 round trip per person, is high for 4 minutes of time saved (that’s almost $70/hr!).  $5 a way could get you a taxi, which would be faster, involve less walking, and you could take friends for free.

Now compare that to a banana split trip on KC Metro.  Maybe a #15 from Blue Ridge.  That’s a 46 minute ride off-peak, shaving countless minutes off a walk or a large number of dollars off a taxi.  Yet the price is the same.  And that’s just within the city – go to a small additional fare for a 2-zone ride and you can go all the way across the county.

The market figured out a good solution to this problem a long time ago – charge a small enough amount for the small cones that people keep coming in for ice cream.  In the transit world, that’s distance-based fares.  Sound Transit’s Link light rail has done exactly this – charging based on distance*.  Link uses ORCA cards and requiring a tap-on and a tap-off.  If you forget to tap-off you’re charged the maximum fare.

Metro can and should copy Link’s strategy.  ORCA, combined with GPS, would allow this functionality.  All we’d really need are rear door ORCA readers – an upgrade that Metro failed to invest in last year because it wouldn’t work with their fare system (sigh).

An added benefit of this strategy is that it doesn’t just focus on downtown Seattle.  You would be able to get across any neighborhood at a reasonable price. 

* I still think they should go further – the minimum fare of $2 is likely not going to attract many short trip riders.  Make it $0.50 and more people will use it.

96 Replies to “Tap-on, Tap-off”

  1. Matt says “Flat fares are a bit like having a single price for ice cream, where someone buying a small cone pays as much as the next guy with his family-size banana split.”
    NO, we’re in the transit business, which is a government service, heavily subsidized by 90% of travelers that don’t even use it.
    Subsidize your Ice Cream cones, by that same amount, and then we’ll talk.
    Flat fares have appeal on many levels, not the least is fare simplicity, which should get more people out of their cars, and onto a bus or rail car.
    So let’s talk briefly about the Fare, 3/4 of which is prepaid by taxpayers. So we’re down to talking about the 1/4 portion. About half of that is in prepaid Business/Passport sales, which is even more subsidized and a flat fare at that.
    So now we’re talking about maybe 10% of the cost of the service covered by ORCA or cash. It’s like selling banana splits for either 22 or 23 cents – “What’s the big deal?”
    You tout distance as the key to deciding how to slice and dice this tiny fraction of the cost, yet fail to mention that most everything associated with the cost of the service is priced by TIME. Buses cost X per hour to operate. Drivers, mechanics and staff cost Y/hr. Buses or trains burn Z/hr to operate. Very few costs are tied to distance, except vehicle maintenance, which using an average speed is a time cost also.
    So let’s look at a trip from IDS to Stadium, taking all of 3 minutes and costing the rider somewhere between $2-4 dollars. That’s pretty pricey.
    Or what about the trip from Kent to Seattle in the peak – two zone taking about 45 minutes. How are those costs much different than a Seattle milk run on the 8 talking the same 45 minutes to go a fraction of the distance. It still costs Metro (the taxpayers) about the same hourly cost either way (discounting deadhead, for sake of argument)
    How is your distance model any better than my time model?
    And does any of this hair-spitting make a rats ass difference when the total cost of transit is considered, and how little the fare actually cover that cost.


    1. I would take the ice cream analogy in the opposite direction.

      The market figured out a good solution to this problem a long time ago – charge a small enough amount for the small cones that people keep coming in for ice cream.

      The market also figured out another solution: bulk pricing. 2.5 gallon ice cream tubs, six packs, pallets, flat rates, all you can eat. Private businesses do it because it works. You pay as much for a single scoop in a cafe as you do for a tub in a supermarket. It’s not ‘fair’ either but it works. Transit analogy: expensive single tickets and cheap unlimited monthly passes.

    2. Re: time-based fares. Yes, what’s expensive is transit hours. But it’s not a great idea to charge by time, as it’s something the user has little control over – a bus breaks down and they pay triple? The best proxy we have is distance, which approximates time. This also keeps the incentive for transit to make itself faster as a way to save money.

      Re: subsidy. I think you’ll find that short distance trips have a very high farebox recovery ratio. It’s the long distance ones that need a high subsidy.

      1. Even if they’re only covering the last 1/4 of the actual trip cost, there is something to be said for applying supply & demand to that portion. And the argument about the simplicity of a flat fare structure mainly applies to cash-based fares. The fare structure goes from what it is today (which is somewhat flat, but definitely has variability and nuance) to extremely simple: tap on, tap off. That becomes the only thing transit users have to understand.

      2. I like Matts fares, except maybe the tap off part, which requires another queue somewhere.
        I also agree with Matt, that longer commuter runs, with a deadhead, require higher hours to maintain a reasonable ridership. If Express Routes were re-purposed to reflect that mode, (rather than just any route that happens to skip a sop or two), then yes, a flat Express Route could have a flat fare, just higher than the systemwide base fare. I think commuters would understand that logic and accept it.
        But to say a local Seattle bus has a lower subsidy level, is more a function of density (lots of on/off), rather than the bus goes from A to B in less time. City routes are slow as molasses. Suburb buses are generally much faster. Why should someone stratling a zone line get penalized when their trip was completed much faster than say a #3 to Madrona, unloading two wheelchairs at our favorite hospital.
        Anyway, my point is the hair splitting over a few nickles difference, when the big money is coming from taxpayers who don’t ever ride the bus/train.

  2. I’m not a supporter of distance-based fares, as they can quickly become onerous, and an unbalanced imposition on the poor.

    LINK distance-based works at the moment, because the fares are equitable more-or-less with riding the bus a similar distance. When LINK is extended to Lynnwood and Redmond, however, the equity will go away unless the fares are capped.

    I despise that some postulate that mass transit, being a public service, should charge a fare competitive to automotive travel. Granted, transit fares in the US tend to be lower than most everywhere else in the developed world, while our equipment costs are an order of magnitude higher than anywhere else (They don’t routinely pay 500k US for a 40ft coach in Europe, for example). Also, our fuel is sold at a price that is lower than most of the developed world.

    The question of whether or not to charge a fare, and how much that fare should be, I am convinced is a dark art. The magic number for systems in Washington State seems to be 25% recovery. Metro is about the only system that achieves it on an average, the other systems are around the 15% range, which begs the question of why they charge a fare to begin with. The costs of collection are quite high.

    Take Mason Transit, for example. The presence of a farebox for inter-county trips is foolishness made manifest. All of their in-county service is free, including their paratransit service. Yet, they think it’s a good idea to charge a fare for trips the leave Mason County (and that only applies to fixed-route). The fare isn’t set to a level to pay for the cost of the trip (say 5.00) because that would be a significant detriment to ridership. Rather, its set to something the board thought would sound fair. It costs more to count the fares than it does to not have them in the first place. The inter-county fare, through my experience, is very loosely enforced.

    There really should be an editorial on prevailing notions towards public transit in various parts of the country, and how they relate to attitudes towards fares. There is definitely a disparity.

    1. And Vancouver BC recovers 50% with higher zone fares and more ridership than any system in the NW.

    2. Fares at *any* level are an “imposition on the poor”. Why not just make all fares 25 cents, so the poor can afford to ride wherever they like? Problem solved!

      1. I like that. I’d be happy with a massive fare reduction system-wide. The problem is our goofy funding mechanisms – KC Metro can’t raise more taxes, so they rase fares.

    3. The “poor” or “rich” are not one homologous block when it comes to transportation. There are rich people taking high cost peak-direction peak-period routes from downtown Seattel to the edge of the UGA and then there are rich people taking the 2 from Downtown Seattle just a few miles to Queen Anne. There are poor college students that live a 5 minute bus ride away from work just like there are minimum-wage people that take a bus long distances because they can’t afford a car.

      Simply lumping everyone together into a average “poor” or “rich” person hides these differences and makes a meaningful discussion impossible.

  3. Please, no. If someone has a monthly pass loaded on their ORCA card for commuting, then the short trips downtown or on weekends are essentially “FREE”.

    Also, think of the time penalty of making people tap 2x. And what about those people who board, pay 50 cents cash and then have to pay again when they leave because they traveled beyond the 50 cent boundary? Let’s simplify and reduce the confusion of the fare structure rather than making it more difficult.

    1. I shouldn’t have left cash fares from my post. Charge the maximum fare for cash. This should help in adopting ORCA cards, which will save time overall.

  4. As GuyOnBeaconHill says, cash fares are the problem here. You can’t have people paying exit fare to get off the bus. It’s unworkable.

    While distance-based fares have a certain intuitive logic, they introduce a lot of confusion into the system for little benefit.

    1. I strongly disagree that making short trips affordable has little benefit. Although this is a county system, so people think of long-distance commutes and moving more people back and forth from the suburbs, it’s also our main urban transit system. Which in my mind is much more important. Want a city that’s productive and efficient? Make it easy to get around. Charging a high rate will shift people to slower modes of transit, or worse – convince them to stay put.

    2. This could be a spur to get people to convert to ORCA.

      If we make it so only ORCA cards get the reduced, distance based fare, but make cash customers pay the full fare, there should be a stampede to ORCA.

  5. I like your model, Matt. Let cash papers pay the full boarding fee and Orca payers pay for distance. Should cross platforms too, for Metro to light rail, to street car, etc.

  6. I think more granular unlimited pass options would be simpler for the operator and customer. I wrote about this before. Have a 1-day (24h) pass, 3-day (72h) pass, and 7-day pass. Worry about the cost just once and use as much as you like, instead of guessing every trip. Like unlimited data plans on smartphones.

  7. So, how much does it cost to ride the bus?

    Where are you going?


    I don’t know. It’s based on distance.

    You mean, like a cab?

    Sorta, except cheaper and slower.

    Oh. Maybe I’ll just go catch a cab. Sorry to bother you.

    1. Flip response #2:

      So, to extend the analogy … You’re annoyed that the RFA is going away because you can’t get free ice cream cones downtown any more? Well, stand in the food lines at the right spots every half hour, and they’ll give you bags of free carrots, but probably unwashed and not organic.

  8. It could work, but honestly I don’t see much in it. The problem with our system is too many cash payers, not insufficient short-distance riders.

    This also risks adding more demand on some trips that are short as the crow flies but tough to walk, like from 3rd & James to Harborview; those routes are already at capacity in and beyond the peaks.

    1. Where you see “risks adding more demand”, I see *has potential to add mobility*. If we’re beyond capacity, we’ve found a great place to add more. We should want to add capacity for trips that people want to take.

      1. In general, making mobility cheaper is not the same as improving mobility.

        More practically and specifically, Metro doesn’t have either the cash to add any significant capacity up James St, nor the stones to restructure the Queen Anne-Madrona corridor to provide that capacity in a budget-neutral way.

      2. There’s a difference between wanting to do something and being able to do it.

        Let’s say you wanted to double capacity on the 3/4 to Harborview. How would you do it? Would you run buses every 3 minutes? There are already problems with trolley platooning.

        And more importantly, all bus service costs money. If doubling service to Harborview improved headways from 8 minutes to 4 minutes, that’s great, but what if that money could have been used to improve a whole bunch of other routes from 15 to 10? I would argue that the latter is a much more important mobility improvement.

      3. We should be moving bus hours from areas with less demand to areas with more demand. Riders moving a short distance are paying just as much subsidy as riders that move a long distance. What happens when we can’t increase capacity further? It’s a flawed question – we can always increase capacity. For this particular stretch, I’d do one of these:
        a) Give buses their own lanes on James. Add another route that just serves the high-demand area – maybe back and forth from near Denny over to 23rd and back.
        b) Gondola up Jefferson

      4. A contiguous bus lane is not a likely solution on James St for a variety of reasons. More importantly, bus lanes are not a solution to almost any capacity problems. They are a solution to many speed or reliability problems.

        My general point is that distance doesn’t adequately capture the full value of the service provided due to topography, for the same reason as defining the walkshed of a point as a circle of a certain radius is an oversimplification.

      5. “bus lanes are not a solution to almost any capacity problems. They are a solution to many speed or reliability problems.”

        I disagree completely. Increase speed and you increase capacity and frequency by the same amount. Win, win, win.

    2. Strategically, we must add capacity where buses are full. That’s the only way to get the optimal amount of transit use (i.e., to match demand). Of course we can’t do it right now if Metro has no extra money and funding sources are blocked by politics, but we have to recognize that not having that capacity is hindering Seattle from its potential.

      All major bus streets should have bus lanes; there’s no question about that. That would improve thoroughput and efficiency, but it does have a limit. Bus bunching and traffic lights would remain a problem. If additional capacity is needed beyond that, a grade-separated train is the only choice. (Obviously, a gondola is something like a train.)

  9. At the birth of Metro, they had a zone structure that rivaled New Jersey Transit. After about 2 years of this, Metro first capped the fare to equal to 2 zones, then concatenated the honeycomb into City of Seattle and King County.

    Such a zone structure could be reintroduced, at say 5 or 10 cents per zone. It wouldn’t even require GPS, only an electronic register, and one hell of a public education campaign.

    I’m afraid this would not work in practice, the ridership would plummet as choice riders determine the time and currency cost exceeds that of driving. Dwell times would become absurd as each and every passenger would have to report where they boarded as the driver operates the fare register to calculate their fare.

    The process would make rear doors redundant.

    1. The only way to make it work is to charge a large flat fare for cash customers and only do distance fares with ORCA. THen a rear-door reader could let people tap off while others board at the front.

  10. More serious response:

    In principle, I prefer the idea of distance-based fares to zone-based fares, especially when it costs me two zones to ride from northern South Park to Boulevard Park (less than 1 mile).

    The problems with double-tap are (1) They occur on-board, adding to the slowing down of buses; (2) Metro has already found them to not be a viable solution (which doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t), probably based on how much cleverness it will take to keep them from becoming a tool of fare evasion; (3) Metro has higher priorities for the money, such as buying more low-floor trolleys; (4) They don’t solve the most immediate problems of how to provide better, more efficient service, under the contraints of having to live with a pay-as-you-board system for the time being, in which nearly half of all boardings are with cash and change; and (5) There are those who will call distance-based rebates for using ORCA a hardship on the poor (at least until Metro figures out that it is the only agency in the country charging an outright $5 for a transit smart card it is supposed to be trying to get everyone to use), when cash fares are set to automatically be for the longest trip that could be taken on that bus (and hopefully in round dollar amounts, which means hopefully not variable and not down to the penny — Creator, have mercy!).

  11. I think that there’s a lot of cost here. Not only to metro installing readers on all of its busses, but also in time. If people have to tap at exit, then that will just slow down people getting off the bus. Sometimes it might be okay if more people are getting on than leaving, but that isn’t always the case.

    Clearly, a much better solution is to have off board Orca card readers at the most highly trafficked stops. I don’t know how the # of busses compares to the # of stops, but I assume that there are 100’s if not more busses, and that would cover a lot of stops. Then, if people use those stops, they can tap when they get off and get a discount for their distance.

    It’s true that your penalizing people that get off at stops that are less used, but I would say that’s almost a good thing. We want to encourage ridership on frequent routes, not on the milk runs. So people who use the milk runs end up paying more because there are no off board readers there.

    And besides, this has the other benefit of speeding up boarding, because when people get on they can just tap their card as well.

    1. There are on the order of a thousand buses and ten thousand stops. So, putting off-board readers at every stop would be cost-prohibitive.

      You have a point about using preferred stops. Now, can you memorize all 500 of them? Okay, we’ll just extend the GPS-controlled voice: “Next stop, Veterans’ Administration Hospital. Due to low use, this stop does not have an off-board ORCA reader.”

      1. You could do a better job than this though. You create 2 classes of routes. “Frequent” routes and “Local” routes. Frequent routes have wide stop spacing, 15 minute or less headways and universal off board payment. Local routes have >15 minute headways, and only have off board payment where there is a stop in common with a frequent route. Also, you should dissolve the rapid ride brand and just make them regular frequent routes, since they’re not BRT anyways.

        You’d also have to make it clear from numbering that Frequent routes are unique. You could do this by using letters for all frequent routes, or maybe renumber things so all routes < 100 are frequent, and the 100+ routes are Local routes.

  12. Here’s another philosophical conundrum with distance-based fares: Should a ride on the 66 from downtown to Northgate cost the same as a ride on the 41?

    While I’m at it, should a ride on Link from Bellevue to UW cost more or less than a ride on Link from Bellevue to downtown Seattle? Keep in mind how that will affect your answer to the first question.

    1. Well reasoned Sir. The vehicle should not be the determining factor here. That is chosen by the transit agency for reasons of economy and capacity. Likewise, the distance has less to do with the cost of operating a route, than the time it takes to service that route.
      We’re purchasing units of ‘Cost per Hour’ vehicles.

      1. To extend the conundrum: Should ST be charging more for a train trip from Bellevue to UW than the cost of taking an express bus from Bellevue to UW? Might the pricing structure end up keeping alive a service whose only purpose is to save its riders a few quarters?

        (This is assuming the average wait+travel time is a wash between the two modes for purposes of this thought experiment.)

      2. Except that there is a qualitative difference between types of vehicles and peoples preferences for them. Some people will go out of their way to ride Link because it’s a) cool b) hell of a lot more comfortable.

      3. But then, so what? Let people choose Link – it also has much higher capacity than buses, and is faster to load and unload.

      4. “Should ST be charging more for a train trip from Bellevue to UW than the cost of taking an express bus from Bellevue to UW?”

        Let’s look at downtown-Northgate which is more straightforward. We want everybody who’s going that way to take the train. Both due to its capacity and fast loading, and because of its lower operational cost, and the fact that a frequent train stopping at UW and Capitol Hill along the way is an important asset to the community. We don’t want people avoiding the train because it’s more expensive than buses.

        Bellevue-UW is more complex because the bus goes straight while the train makes a U shape. Is Link “adequate” for Bellevue-UW or Redmond-downtown? That’s a jugdment call, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides. We’ll have to see what the actual travel time is. My position is to give the commuters what they want (peak-hour express buses), in exchange for converting off-peak buses to feeders. The travel time may be longer but the wait will be shorter, and even if they don’t appreciate that now they will after the train has been running for five or ten years, and their children and new residents will definitely appreciate it.

        Then there’s Sounder. The issue revolves around what we want Sounder to be. Do we want it to be the primary means of travel between Seattle, Kent, Auburn, Puyallup, and Tacoma? In that case the fare should be limited. Or do we see it as a premium service? In that case the fare should be higher. But if you want cost-conscious people to take a bus rather than Sounder, there has got to be buses. The 150 is not adequate for Seattle-Kent, half-hourly is not adequate for Seattle-Tacoma, and hourly is not adequate for Auburn (thinking of a SeaTac-Kent-Auburn route).

      5. During the period when the Sounder is actually running, we should want everybody going between Seattle and Kent to take the Sounder, not the bus. Regardless of how much the Sounder costs to operate, it has a huge capacity, and the marginal cost of putting one more person in an otherwise-empty seat is almost zero.

        It is a travesty to waste money on bus routes like 158 and 159 that accomplish essentially no purpose except to save riders a few quarters thanks the details of our fare system. Since the capacity of a bus is negligible compared to the capacity of the Sounder train, we could kill the bus and still provide essentially the same peak passenger capacity between Seattle and Kent.

        Off-peak, however, it’s a different story. Since the Sounder isn’t running off-peak (and there isn’t the demand to justify the high cost of running the Sounder off-peak), Kent-Seattle trips have to be done with buses. And not the slow milk-run of the 150. And if we didn’t have buses duplicating the Sounder during the peak, we could easily redirect those service hours into buses that complement the Sounder during the off-peak.

      6. Kudos to Metro for eliminating the 162, and thanks to the riders who didn’t raise a stink.

        The difference between $3.50 and $3.00 peak fares to Kent is probably not the primary driver of 158 and 159 ridership, but it is still a backward incentive.

        The solution isn’t messing around with the fare structure, but simply turning these two routes into local feeders, or timing similar all-day east-west routes to the arrival times of Sounder during peak. Or better yet, create a route from Kent East Hill, that goes through downtown Renton but doesn’t force a transfer there, and continues onto Rainier Beach Station. Call it the 169. Make it a one-zone fare, and I bet riders will be jumping for joy.

  13. Transit’s chief competitor somehow has no trouble marshaling private revenue from all income brackets, and public subsidies beyond Karl Marx’s wildest imagining, to create a mode of transportation that continues to beat the crap out of transit anywhere people can afford cars.

    Thing I like best about Seattle Transit Blog is its attraction to people who can explain why paragraph above is true- and why transit finds it impossible to reverse the situation. Answer is the answer to how we need to collect fares.

    But for September: First requirement in any fare system is to get fare collection out of the way of the bus. And the train stuck in the Tunnel behind it while drivers and passengers discuss fare policy. Collection policy should start with premise that policy-related delays are the moral equivalent of fare evasion, and work from there.

    Mark Dublin

    1. On that note—since we tax payers already pay 100% of the cost of the roads, 100% of the capital cost of busses/trains, and something like 80% (or whatever) of the operating costs, why don’t we just pay the remaining 20% of the operating costs and eliminate the fare altogether? Relatively speaking it can’t be that much more money—and there are all kinds of great benefits for everyone and probably huge economic gains from cheap transportation.

      1. Because as we’ve seen with the free asphalt lunch we’ve given drivers, demand becomes heavily distorted when you completely remove the cost of something from its point of delivery.

      2. You also turn buses into roving homeless shelters and nobody wants to ride to work every day on a roving homeless shelter.

  14. I realize ORCA was the way to get a dozen agencies under one hat with the [splintered] political realities as they are. But in a better world with a maximum of only a handful of integrated agencies Proof of Payment is the solution. As a transit planner in Munich said: “Forget smart cards! Forget transfer slips!”. They have >100% operating cost recovery and 2% evasion. Get a zone-based system. Get the majority of riders to have a relatively cheap monthly (or one year) pass. The rest gets relatively expensive paper tickets from machines (inside and outside of the buses). Bus drivers do not sell or check tickets. That’s a job for ticket machines and roving ticket inspectors. Bus drivers concentrate on driving which means more service with less buses and drivers. Passengers do not calculate fares or manage their transit account on some smart card. They simply ride and don’t worry.

    Also, trying to solve problems of equity in fare policy is a foolhardy venture. “What is a fair system?” asks the same transit planner. That’s really impossible to discern but complicated fare policies make transit unattractive. It’s more productive to focus on simplicity and ridership.

    1. Good point. I don’t know offhand what the share of rides at Metro and ST are on passes, but I suspect it’s pretty high, and that’s a good thing. If passes are priced so that 80 percent of the riders have paid before they’ve boarded, the fare payment problem is already 80 percent solved.

      The problem with zone transitions (i.e., crossing the Seattle border for a short ride) could be solved with a Berlin-style zoning scheme. The service area is divided into concentric zones A, B and C, and passes are sold for 2 adjoining zones, or all 3 (A+B, B+C, or A, B and C).

    2. I’ve experienced these in Duesseldorf/Cologne. Yes, it works better. All buses act like RapidRide should be. One issue though is that Germans don’t move as much as Americans. They tend to live and work in the same city, and in the same city as their parents. It’s not just a practical constraint but a social constraint. There was not the 50-year suburban craze that pushed people to the periphery and scattered job sites willy-nilly, which has left many Americans dependent on cross-jurisdiction trips and longer trips. Imposing German norms on Americans isn’t going to happen, or at least it would take a generational change (20-50 years).

      Germany is divided into transit regions akin to our counties. In Duesseldorf you can get an A pass for the city, a B pass that includes a suburban ring, or a C pass covering the entire transit region (Duesseldorf/Essen/Dortmund/Wuppertal). The suburbs may have a suburb-only A pass; I’m not sure. So just get that and you’re done, except when travelling to another region. (Cologne is in the next region.) I assume you can get a C pass for each region if you frequently travel between them.

      Even though people do tend to live and work in the same city, there’s still a lot of travel between them. There’s a half-hourly 24-hour S-Bahn between them. So Germany makes transit sufficient for the demand, rather than cutting people off saying “You can’t expect to take transit from Duesseldorf to Essen or Duesseldorf to Cologne at 1am, you should drive or take a taxi.”

      1. “There’s a half-hourly 24-hour S-Bahn between them”

        Between Cologne, Duesseldorf, and Essen, that is. That’s 60 miles according to some website, or akin to Tacoma-Everett or San Francisco-San Jose.

  15. Distance based fares will continue to become more and more regressive as housing prices push the working class out to suburbia. I don’t know what the right answer is, but the right question is, “How do you attract the most riders without bankrupting the transit system?”

    1. You delete or restructure underperforming or redundant routes and use the money to boost speed, frequency and reliability on the high-performing trunk routes.

    2. Increasing cost with distance puts the incentive in the right direction – even more than we want people to use transit, we want people to live as close as possible to their jobs. We don’t want someone – even the poor – to look at Black Diamond as a commutable option to Seattle. That’s expensive in roads, air quality, utility infrastructure, wildlife, transit efficiency, water use, and society’s investment in this person-turned-commuter.

      I’m fine with giving the poor subsidies to help them on their feet. But giving everyone a transit subsidy that increases with distance puts the incentive in the wrong direction.

    3. A simpler pricing scheme will produce a surge of new riders and revenue. Drastically reducing the ticket-checking overhead will free up resources. I saw this on the ST/ORCA website:

      You can choose from many different monthly passes. Buy a pass that has the per-trip value of the trip you usually take. The pass is good for trips with fares up to the per-trip value of your pass. If the fare of any trip is more than your pass, you can pay the difference with your E-purse.

      What kind of idiocy is that? I just wanna buy a one month pass and be done with it. ORCA is the crutch that stands in for serious reorg.

      1. “I just wanna buy a one month pass and be done with it.”

        Then buy the highest value pass! Do you really think a pass that covers Sounder to Tacoma should cost the same as a pass that just covers local trips on Metro?

      2. Mobilitor is right. When you go to buy a monthly pass at the Orca website or a TVM, you’re presented with eighteen pass values to choose from, from $0.50 to $4.75 in $.25 increments. You’re given no context, and no guidance as to which pass is a sane or reasonable one.

        Can we please at least highlight the relevant options?

        $1.75 (Community Transit Local)
        $2.00 (Pierce Transit)
        $2.25 (Metro off-peak)
        $2.50 (Sound Transit 1-zone, Metro peak 1-zone)
        $3.00 (Metro peak 2-zone)
        $3.50 (Sound Transit multizone, Community Transit Commuter South/Everett)
        $4.50 (Community Transit Commuter North/East)

        The rail passengers with distance-based fares would still have to figure it out on their own, like today.

        We could also maybe remove some or all of the pass options that don’t correlate to any fare charged in the region?

      3. To be fair those 18 options are primitive precursors or standins for zones. If you look at the fare structure of London’s oyster card they have even more options because they have 9 zones and therefore more combinations. But in London you can figure out a suitable option by looking at a map. Also, notice the single cash fare of 4.30 pounds (= $6.77!), the daily price cap, and the daily/weekly/monthly/annual passes. It’s clear where the incentives are tilted to.

      4. “What kind of idiocy is that? I just wanna buy a one month pass and be done with it. ORCA is the crutch that stands in for serious reorg.”

        No, it works pretty well to navigate a multi-fare, multi-agency regime. ORCA passes are the same as their predecessor PugetPass. Before PugetPass, each agency sold agency-only passes, and your interagency transfer was a paper transfer valid for the base (local) fare on the next agency. That made calculating surcharges even less transparent and more confusing, because every agency had a different base fare and zone system. Sounder didn’t exist yet, and WSF had its own separate set of passes (including combined WSF/transit agency passes). The U-pass was an overlay over the whole thing.

        A systemwide flat fare flies in the face of including Sounder, WSG, the Monorail, water taxis, gondolas, and space elevators into ORCA. In Germany a single agency manages all transit, and they install rail according to mobility needs not fare-revenue impacts. We can’t do that while each agency is a separate budget and needs to break even. That’s why the Monorail is not included, and why WSF doesn’t accept transfers. In fact, I don’t know if any transit agency in Germany includes ferries in the uniform fare system.

        It certainly makes sense to list the popular zones next to the pass amounts. But dollar-amount passes will not go away until the fare regime becomes uniform.

  16. I sure wish they could come up with a solution like Island Transit, though with seven day a week service(which we don’t have, yet). I have become used to no fare boxes, and love it.

    Yeah, I know….

  17. How would you envision transfers working in a distance-based system? ORCA seems to charge you the maximum trip fare when you make a transfer, so if you do a $2.25 bus ride and transfer to a $2.75 train ride, you pay the $2.75.

    In a distance-based bus system, suppose you could take a direct bus for $2.00 or two buses that cost $1.00 each. What would you end up paying if you opt to take the route that includes a transfer? Would you be able to save a dollar if you’re willing to wait a little longer, or would it charge you for the net distance of your trip?

    I guess we already have a distance-based system in Link. I wonder how they handle it. Westlake to Airport costs $2.75 if you ride directly between the two stations. However, Westlake to Rainier Beach costs $2.25, and Rainier Beach to Airport also costs $2.25. Does anyone know what ORCA would charge you if you decided to tap off at Rainier Beach, then tap back on five minutes later when the next train arrives?

    1. I assume that you can avoid the distance surcharge by tapping off/on in the middle of your trip, but I’m not unscrupulous enough to try it. On the other hand, you’re already paying with your time because you have to get off the train and wait for the next train. Your last several taps will be visible to a fare inspector, so they’d be able to see “suspicious” patterns if they’re looking for them. On the other hand, how can they prove you didn’t stop en route to return a library book or go to the bathroom or pick up a candy bar, or that you changed your mind about your destination?

      1. Scruples or no, this is something that will have to be addressed when East Link comes online. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall the design for East link is for all of the East Link trains to go over I-90 and then north through downtown Seattle. If you want to travel from the Eastside to UW, just stay on the train and you’ll be charged an appropriate distance-based fare.

        If you want to travel to the airport, on the other hand, you would have to transfer in the International District to a southbound train. If they charge based on the longest leg of the trip, you may well see a trip from Bellevue to UW costing the same as or more than a trip from Bellevue to the airport even though the shortest driving distance from Bellevue to UW is about half the driving distance from Bellevue to the airport.

      2. Well, the big question, is do we give transfer credit between distance based systems?

        Currently, you can transfer a distance-based fare from Link into a zone-based fare on Metro/ST Express. You can pay a distance fare on Link to get you from Seatac to Downtown, and then use that transfer to get to Issaquah, fundamentally for-free.

        Do we preserve that ability by letting a East Link rider use their full-length fare as transfer credit for a full-length ride on Central Link? They will be able do it if they use ST Express for either leg, so unless ST Express goes tap-on-tap-off, they will have to allow the transfer to keep it price-competitive.

        But then you run into Eric’s theoretical issue: If you give transfer credit between distance-based fares, a direct one-seat ride suddenly becomes up to twice as expensive as a comparable two-seat ride with a transfer in the middle. This does not encourage efficient use of the system.

        If we require full-length

      3. Transfers go by amount paid, not by type of service. Without a pass, if you pay $2.50 on ST Express, that’s a $2.50 credit on Link and vice-versa. With a pass, the pass amount is deducted from all fares. If you have a $2.50 pass and pay a 25c surcharge on either Link or ST Express, that appears as a $2.75 credit on the next system. If you then pay another 25c surcharge before the first one expires, you now have $3.00 credit.

    2. “If you want to travel to the airport, on the other hand, you would have to transfer in the International District to a southbound train”

      But you don’t have to tap out when transferring, even if you step outside a fare paid zone. Which you’ll have to do to transfer from northbound to southbound. Of course, you could tap out and tap in at that time and save some moeny. Maybe that will give ST an incentive to make Intl Dist center platform.

      “If you want to travel from the Eastside to UW, just stay on the train and you’ll be charged an appropriate distance-based fare.”

      That brings up a different dilemma. You’re travelling further than you want to because the train’s route is U-shaped, but that’s not your fault. If the 271 and Link both had the same distance-based fare structure, the 271 would be half the price. That would discorage people from taking Link: it would both take longer and cost more. If the 271 were eliminated, you’d be forced to pay the train’s higher fare and have a longer travel time.

      Fortunately, Link’s rate structure is in 5-mile increments, so it usually doesn’t make a difference whether you go two or three stops further or not. From Westlake, my calculation is the 5-mile mark will be on one side or the other of Brooklyn, and the 10-mile mark will be, I don’t remember, somewhere in Shoreline.

      1. I swear, there are a bunch of ORCA managers looking down on all the transit riders, like they were watching mice run through a maze.
        Great fun from above, not so much in the maze.

  18. A transit system should try to run on a high farebox recovery as possible. Otherwise service is subject to the whims of tax revenue and political winds.
    A system that depends heavily on taxes will look more at coverage rather than routes that can carry more passengers.

    The transit system should not be seen as a form of social security. If a system is low cost and high subsidy, people see it as something for poor people and do not value it properly.

    Fares should be much higher, if you are worried about poor people then people on a certain income could buy heavily discounted transit passes or get 20 or 30 free tickets a month etc. Any number of options could be offered to help the poor get to their jobs. Then the costs of both parts of the current system could be made explicit. Any system that has public funds should have public good aims, but to much political oversight and you end up with routes you can’t change, no increased funds but deny the transit system they ability to raise their fares.

    A demand led service would be piling on service in areas of strong demand. If you have a strong core area of high frequency services then you can drive demand from outlying areas to access the core system.

    Anyway back to distance re flat fares. Thats just a hold over of old technology when people set up subway systems. Also cities were more compact back then so a flat fare did not really cover a long distance.

    A simple solution is to keep buses a flat fare and maybe charge a higher fee for long distance commuter buses. The Link can be distance based calculation. As the system expands more buses will terminate at a link station solving the problem of long distance routes.

    But on the other hand other cities in asia have bus services where you need to place your card on entering and leaving to calculate your bus fare.

    There is no compelling reason to have flat fares these days other than cultural habit.

  19. There are a lot of interrelated tradeoffs, but simplicity and convenience have to be the main goals. That means a flat fare or a few consistent levels, and getting monthly passes into as many people’s hands as possible. With a pass, people ride whenever transit is going their way without giving it a second thought. Without a pass, people agonize over whether it’s worth $2 to go a mile, or whether the cost of one trip is more or less than driving. Many times I’m with people and we end up driving their car because they don’t have ORCA cards, don’t have cash for the fare, and aren’t willing to spend $2-5 each for the trip. Or I end up paying for them if I insist on transit. But even transit riders are reluctant to get a pass if they’re not sure they’ll make $90 worth of rides in a month. I’m not sure what the solution is other than to lower the cost of passes. (San Francisco and New York seem to give you a lot more transit availability dollar-for-dollar.)

    Metro’s problem is that it’s a county organization but Seattle has grown so large. in SF and Chicago, the ubiquidous and cheap buses run only inside the city, and if you’re going to the burbs you transfer to another agency at the border, or take an express run by a suburban agency. These all provide a natural differentiation of fares. But Seattle is also unusual in that local trips across its northern and southern borders are not that much numerous than trips within its borders. Whereas SF and Chicago are so much denser and so large that they generate a lot more trips. So if you differentiate fares at the border it ends up hurting people in Shoreline and White Center unduly.

    The best thing is to just implement a flat fare as Metro has already done off-peak. Then zero in on the actual expensive routes: the peak-only unidirectional expresses. Those should have a premium fare because they’re not “regular bus service”. There should be “regular” all-day inexpensive expresses between all parts of the county: Seattle-Bellevue, Seattle-Renton, Seattle-Kent, Seattle-Burien, Seattle-Lynnwood, Seattle-Bothell, etc. That’s a baseline for efficient mobility. But express routes that go beyond that, to a P&R that’s not a major transfer point, or to a residential neighborhood or office park, should have a Sounder-like fare, and they should have a different color or numbering than regular routes.

    1. “But Seattle … local trips across its northern and southern borders are not that much numerous than trips within its borders”

      not that much less numerous

    2. Chicago Transit Authority serves most of the inner-ring suburbs that border the City, including Evanston, Oak Park, and many others.

      Fares are flat, the same whether you’re going 1 mile or 20.

  20. I’m surprised no one’s linked to this yet: The High Cost of Flat Fares.

    Ultimately what I would like to see is a move from our very downtown-centric system to a trunk-and-feeder system, where the trunks for crosstown travel have distance-based fares and local buses have a low flat fare.

  21. Isn’t the point of mass transit to move people out of low efficiency transport (cars)to higher efficiency transport (light rail)? Isn’t the best way to do that to incentivise people by how much they spend? so by charging more for longer trips don’t we move people back into cars, since there is inherently more flexibility? Aren’t the longer trips the most efficient ones if one uses transport? Isn’t it greener (think Seattle city goals) to move people to mass transit? Until we reach – let’s say randomly – 25% of the population moving about the greater King County (or the tricounty area), we have failed to properly incentivise people to use mass transit.

    1. I don’t quite see the legitimacy of charging more for distance. The burden on the system is the same if you go from Bellevue to SeaTac in one trip or with a stopover downtown, yet it costs more to go in one trip. The reason the train is running is because it’s good for society to have a train departing every 10 minutes, whether you ride it today or not. We should charge more for bypass services that jump the regular network, but to do that you need a good regular network. The reason people are clamoring for express buses from Seattle to Juanita and Seattle to Newport Hills is that the regular buses are so extremely infrequent and slow. Strengthen the 255, 234/235, and such around the county, and the need for bypass routes diminishes.

      1. Your distance issue is a fairly minor point. We can charge by straight line distance from start to end. I’m fine for charging more for expensive express services, but that’s a seperate issue completely.

    2. “Aren’t the longer trips the most efficient ones if one uses transport? Isn’t it greener (think Seattle city goals) to move people to mass transit?”

      No. Our freeways are at capacity. Any additional capacity we add – through roads, bus*, or rail* – will simply induce demand and allow people to live in cheap housing further away. Charge more for transit at long distances and people don’t drive more, they move closer. This is far, far better for the environment than a bus.

      * With park and rides or neighborhood service. I’m fine with inducing demand to major hubs with dense walkable environments.

      1. Matt – while I can see where you might think that but if we are still only
        approaching 4% of the population using mass transit…then saturation on highways is not true. people are still CHOOSING to use their cars which means raising prices for distance will make fewer people use transit. you are the advocate for supply/demand…

      2. Matt, close but you’re a bit off too. Combined bus/rail is 40.1% of daily trips to the CBD (M-F) between 6-9am).
        Transit does great (still not as good as cars/carpools) during the peak rush, but Doug’s point is still valid. Fewer than 10% of all trips in the region are by transit. We have a very, very, long way to go.
        Creating a simple fare matrix is paramount to going after that 90% – Not just relying on a Jam Factor of ‘unbearable’ to get ‘er done.

      3. “Any additional capacity we add – through roads, bus*, or rail* – will simply induce demand and allow people to live in cheap housing further away.”

        That might be true in some remote scenario, but the fact is that our transit capacity is far below what it should be, and that distorts what people do.

        “Charge more for transit at long distances and people don’t drive more, they move closer.”

        So why don’t we just eliminate all transit, and everybody will live within walking distance. That’s working so well in Centralia, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, etc, and it eliminates sprawl. (Not that those cities have no transit, but it’s the most minimal transit I can think of.

        (There’s a myth going around that the Bay Area is so sprawlistic because of BART. HA! The sprawl is just as bad in the South Bay and North Bay where BART doesn’t go.)

      4. “So why don’t we just eliminate all transit, and everybody will live within walking distance.” Not everybody, but a lot more. Of course, you couldn’t just end service quickly, you’d have to slowly reduce service while upzoning the city.

        Think about it another way – do you really think our freeways could survive twice the number of people commuting? How long would people live with that gridlock before looking for a home closer to their jobs? I’d give it a week.

        “in Centralia, Oklahoma City, Raleigh” None of these are geographically constrained or have roads at full capacity like us. Need another freeway lane in Centralia? Just build it. Need another freeway lane in Seattle? Well, you’re going to need another bridge, and you’ll need to bulldoze billions of dollars worth of real estate.

      5. Oh, and I haven’t lived in the South Bay, but I have lived in the North Bay – and I strongly believe BART built that sprawl. Everyone drives to BART’s park and rides.

      6. Which BART park n ride do people in Marin drive to? Richmond? Crossing a bridge and paying a toll?

      7. Cars and highways created sprawl, not transit. If cars and highways didn’t exist, the interurbans would have become more extensive, and each station would have a compact town around it. When 80% of people in a suburb don’t take transit ever, and 98% don’t take it for non-commute trips, you can’t say that transit causes or sustains sprawl. Otherwise it leads to the nonsensical conclusion that if you eliminate transit, the suburb would empty out. Only if you eliminate transit and cars would the suburb empty out.

      8. People from San Rafael do. I’m not sure about Marin. I guess they just take the bus.

        I was talking about the other side of the North Bay – many people I knew in Vallejo (and well beyond) would drive to El Centro.

      9. I almost completely agree with you Mike. Cars made sprawl. But because Seattle is such a strong job core, sprawl becomes self-limiting when our freeways are all built out and at capacity. At that point, adding transit adds capacity to these highways to the suburbs/exurbs. Want my support on long-distance transit? Then terminate it at dense, walkable cities – not at park-and-rides.

      10. That’s not what happens, Matt. The Lake Washington bridges have been at capacity since the 1980s. My dad’s programmer friend in Redmond in 1985, when asked to do some work in Seattle, said, “Tell them my rate is $20 a hour, or $40 if I have to cross the bridge.” That did not lead to the end of the Eastside’s growth, or to people moving to Seattle to be closer to jobs. Instead it led to jobs appearing on the Eastside so that people didn’t have to cross the bridge. The problem with that is (1) it’s hard to get around the Eastside by transit, and (2) it’s hard to get to the Eastside by transit: the buses get stuck on the bridges the same as the cars. East Link (or its 1972 predecessor) has no downsides, only upsides. Good transit mobility across the region is a good thing, not a bad thing.

  22. It seems to me that distance-based fares are completely unenforceable without fare inspectors and proof-of-payment. A simple tap-on-tap-off system makes it really easy to tap on the bus when you board, then tap off at the next stop, without actually getting off. Then, you ride the bus to the end of the line and NOT tap off, because you already tapped off earlier to get the cheaper fare.

    On Link, you can’t do this because:
    1) When you leave the train to tap off, the train will take off before you have a chance to get back on again
    2) If you’re still on the train after you tap off, you risk a $124 fine if a fare inspector catches you.

    On most bus routes, neither of these constraints would apply.

  23. This idea is a waste of time. It is impractical and counter productive. Who cares if someone doesn’t want to pay to take the bus from 5th/Union to 3rd/Cherry?

    We shouldn’t waste time worrying about short distance ridership when inefficiencies on longer distances is what really holds Metro back.

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