Last week, in response to Martin’s questions about tunnel operations, Metro staff slipped in this quiet bombshell:
Metro continues to take actions to expand ORCA use throughout the system and reduce cash payments. [This includes…] working with our regional transit partners to implement a regional ORCA day-pass demonstration beginning in April.
A multi-agency ORCA-based day-pass is probably the most requested fare product in the Puget Sound region, and for good reason. Today, interagency transfers are free with ORCA but (mostly) not with cash fare. An ORCA-based day-pass, if priced right, holds out the concurrent possibilities of improved comprehensibility for visitors, and good value for residents who plan to make several trips in a day. For people like me, who want buses to not suck, it’s another weapon in the war against time-consuming on-board cash payment, and easily-abused paper transfers.
The devil, however, is in the details, which Metro staff supplied to us last week.
As you saw, the ORCA agency partners are planning a six-month pilot/demo of a regional day pass later this year, hopefully beginning sometime this spring.
The day pass demonstration will target visitors using hotels and convention centers. But, because the regional day pass will be available at all our current sales outlets, anyone could load the product on their card. At the conclusion of the demo, the ORCA partners will assess how well the card was received and determine the future of the program depending on what we learn.
Q: What agencies will or could be included?
A: All ORCA agencies except WSF
Q: How much will it cost?
A: $9 sales price, $4 per trip value. Riders would use E-purse to supplement higher fares based on how much they plan to travel.
Q: What modes and fare zones will it cover?
A: Good for any trip up to the $4 per trip value.
Q: Is it a daily cap or a fare product you have to buy?
A: It is a pass product loaded on the card. Once tapped it is valid for that service day. Service days is 3 a.m. – 2:59 a.m.
Q: Will it be issued on a disposable ORCA or just added to the existing $5 ORCA?
A: Existing card. We do not have disposable card stock in the system
Discussion after the jump.
So, there are a couple of good things here, and I’ll start with those:
- The pass is mode-neutral and almost agency-neutral. Transit is about getting people places. The type of vehicle, and the agency logos on it, are important to passengers primarily as way-finding, not as a fundamental part of the service, as much as agencies might like to think otherwise. It’s great to see that in this case, most Puget Sound agencies are putting the passenger experience first, providing simplicity and comprehensibility rather than more arcane rules.
- Agencies have (or will have) hashed out revenue-sharing and technical issues. Getting severely-cash-constrained agencies to agree on revenue-sharing from a single fare is genuinely challenging negotiating problem, as carving up a passenger’s regional fare is inherently a zero-sum game. Getting an agreement in this case could set a political and bureaucratic precedent for future day passes with different fare caps and prices. More generally, we’ll have a public proof-of-concept, making it clear in the political discourse that this is technically doable.
Here are the problems I see:
- The day-fare cost is uncompetitive for most local riders, compared to using an existing ORCA card. Off-peak Metro fare is $2.25, peak is up to $3; the highest ST express fare is $3.50. Most other local bus services will be less than Metro. ORCA already provides a two-hour transfer window, and paper transfers are often cut much more generously. You have to ride a lot of transit trips, spaced out through the day, to add up to more than $9. Local riders will already be quite familiar with paying as they normally do, and if it doesn’t make financial sense, they won’t use day-passes, even if they were ubiquitously available. As they will require going out of the way, to a Metro sale partner, I suspect few locals will find them attractive.
- The card+fare cost is uncompetitive for weekend or convention visitors. $14 in a day, or $23 in a weekend, is significantly more than anyone is likely to spend on transit in the Seattle area just paying as they go. Visitors are perhaps less price sensitive and more hassle sensitive, but I suspect they’re also less likely to attempt all-day multi-hop trips around the city and region, which would be the only way to get close to $14. In groups, the numbers look even worse: for three people, $20 apiece would get you out and back to most outlying neighborhoods of interest to tourists in a cab, with far less hassle and time than Metro. People who intend to much spend time beyond the city, in the suburbs, are probably going to rent a car, because off-peak transit just isn’t much good outside of Seattle.
- There’s no disposable-ORCA option, which would be useful regardless of the price premium. If there were a $9, pre-loaded, disposable ORCA day-pass card available, plenty of people, myself included, would keep a stash of them around the house, for use by visitors and or in case I lost my own card. It would be worth the premium, above and beyond the pay-as-you-go price, to be able to give someone a card that worked on any land-based transit in the region, and whose loss did not mean the loss of a $5 permanent card. This would be a genuinely useful service I would pay for, which cannot be emulated today by other means.
- The $4 fare cap seems arbitrary. The most expensive regular bus service in the region is two-county ST Express at $3.50, while the Water Taxi is $3.50 (West Seattle) or $4.25 (Vashon) and Sounder runs on a scale up to $5.75 (Lakewood). If the purpose is to cover any possible fare in the region, $4 doesn’t work. The only people who would lose out on a reduction of the fare cap from $4 to $3.50 would be a minute number of Sounder South day-pass riders; and if a reduction in the fare cap allowed the pass to drop in price, it would make the pass far more attractive.
I hope this trial goes smoothly, and meets whatever bar for success the project leaders have in mind. I’m not convinced, though, that the price and features of this day-pass have been thought out particularly well, and I fear it may underwhelm when presented to the public.