A week ago, Publicola’s Darren Davis invited his readers to submit “impassioned, prosy comments” on the Seattle Department of Transportation’s fare change proposal for the one, soon to be two, streetcar lines the department manages. Intrigued, I decided to take Darren up on his idea, and drill into the details of SDOT’s proposal, to see if there were any devils worth writing about. It turned out there were.
SDOT’s fare proposal has four central components:
- Harmonizing the streetcar fare with Link Light Rail, by reducing the adult fare by a quarter, and raising the youth/senior fare by a quarter.
- Implementing the ORCA LIFT program, a regional reduced fare for low-income adults.
- Implementing a new, streetcar-only day pass, available from streetcar ticket machines.
- Ceasing the acceptance of the paper transfers issued on King County Metro buses. Transfer credit will be available only when using ORCA.
(Currently, streetcar-only day passes exist, but are sold only in advance, to bulk purchasers. The existing day pass is pretty obscure: I didn’t even know that fare media existed despite regularly using and writing about transit for the 4.5 years I’ve lived here. This is the first time Seattle will be selling streetcar day passes from ticket machines on the street, and for all practical purposes, this will be the first time the public will be exposed to them.)
Parts (1) and (2) of SDOT’s proposal, harmonizing single-ride fares, are grand ideas, and I support their implementation wholeheartedly. They achieve the stated purpose of the streetcar fare change, which is to enhance regional integration of transit, and give transit riders a more predictable, comprehensible experience.
More after the jump.
Parts (3) and (4) are problematic: they will work against the goals of integration. Transit riders in Seattle already contend with a fare system that’s Balkanized around unfortunate, rider-hostile divisions of mode or agency, and the Seattle proposal adds to the chaos. Regular riders can avoid most headaches with the purchase of an ORCA card, but until the region gets its act together and implements a day pass (one that, unlike Metro’s pilot project, has a competitive price structure), occasional riders are in purgatory.
A couple of obvious failure modes come to mind:
- Suburban riders who pay cash to ride Metro into town for events a will now have to pay again to ride the streetcar (or, more likely, get tired of dealing with this crap, and drive their cars).
- Tourists in Chinatown or near Westlake will be able to buy themselves a transit day pass, which, alas, will turn out to do them very little good, because it won’t be valid on the buses or the subway that they’d also need to use, in order to get beyond the tiny, disjoint slivers of Seattle served by streetcars.
Just as I recall the doomed, pre-2012 conversations of Metro drivers with blank-faced tourists, trying to explain that, yes, in our special corner of the world, you sometimes pay when you get off the bus, not when you get on it, so too I can foresee the bus drivers of 2015 trying to explain that, no, neither the Sound Transit pass, nor the Seattle Streetcar pass you have purchased can get you from Seattle Center to Broadway in time for your dinner reservation. I suspect that in future, as often happened in the past, bus drivers and riders alike will mutually give up in frustration, and King County won’t get paid — and I can’t say I shall blame either the drivers or the riders.
I should be clear that I am not a fan of the paper transfer slips issued on Metro, and I would very much like them to go away. Likewise, I am a huge fan of day passes (when priced right!), as the best way to structure fares for occasional riders. It is a source of great annoyance to me that King County has, in the transition from tissue paper to smart fareboxes, been lapped by nearby agencies, small (Bellingham), medium (Spokane), and large (Vancouver). I support efforts to move more customers to ORCA, and the idea of disposable ORCA cards. But in the most recent data I can find (Q3 2014), 37% of King County Metro riders still pay cash and use transfers, and those riders’ experience matters.
(I discussed this subject with Ethan Melone, head of Seattle’s streetcar program. He pointed out that in a recent survey of South Lake Union streetcar riders, only 2% used Metro transfers. I can believe that for the SLU line — SLU ridership is dominated by high-income commuters, virtually all of whom are given free ORCA cards through work — but that is most unlikely to be true for other lines, rather it seems likely to be closer to King County’s numbers.)
If there is a single, overarching premise to the Seattle streetcar project, it is that premium-quality transit is worth paying a (potentially great!) premium for. Fare payment is the doorway to the transit system, so if Seattle is to deliver on the promise of that premium experience, the rider must have a good experience at the door. And if there is a headline, repeatedly stated, to Mayor Murray’s transportation plans, and Executive Constantine’s agency integration plans, it is that all modes and agencies should integrate seamlessly.
SDOT’s proposal, as it relates to the day pass and bus transfers, operates against the goals of the city, county and region; and against the notion of a seamless, comprehensible, user-focused transit system. SDOT, or the Mayor’s office, should rework this proposal, with a goal of removing from, not adding to, the barriers between agencies and modes. That means, while our transit agencies work towards a regional or countywide day pass, that Seattle should continue to accept Metro transfers, and not add a streetcar-only day-pass to the salad of incompatible transit tickets in this city.