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KCM 6893 at ID/Chinatown Station A lot of digital ink gets spilled here and on other transit oriented sites about the “transfer penalty.” As most of you know, a transfer penalty is the time you spend waiting for your 2nd (or 3rd!) bus or train after exiting your first bus or train. So if you are going from your house in West Seattle to downtown, you hop on the 50, and then take the RapidRide C downtown. The time you spend getting off the 50, walking to the next stop (not far in this case) and waiting for the C to arrive and depart is your Transfer Penalty.  According to a 2013 Metro survey, half of all riders frequently take trips that involve a transfer and the average penalty in time is 14-15 minutes.

As Metro’s Park and Ride permanent large lots are almost all at 100% utilization, the only way to aggressively grow Metro’s ridership is to encourage more trips to be 100% transit, both in Seattle and in the suburbs.  How do you encourage people to do something they don’t do now? You pay them.

Enter the Transfer Bonus.

The idea is to give people who transfer a small ($0.25 or $0.50) reduction on the cost of the overall fare. It should be significant enough that people notice the difference but not enough that it encourages people to transfer for no other reason than to save some money. Metro could make it almost revenue neutral (or even revenue positive) by hiking regular fares by a similar amount. This would not apply to cash transactions, because — Metro shouldn’t still be doing paper transfers in the first place!

Charging more for direct trips may sound crazy, but in fact it happens everyday in the airline industry. In London, the Heathrow Express is faster and more direct but cost an arm and a leg more than just taking the less direct tube.

You could roll it out for a 1 year pilot, and accompany it with an ad campaign encouraging people to use transit for the whole trip (“Go All The Way with Metro!”). You could measure success based on overall ridership and by percentage of riders who use a transfer.

This would be superior to charging for parking in the Park & Ride lots in several ways. First, it has few implementation and ongoing costs. You would need to do a fare change and update a few signs, and you would need to create a procedure to stop people from using the off-board payment options in the tunnel and at RapidRapid ride stations (my guess it is a routine that runs monthly that debits peoples accounts for the $0.25 if they take more than a certain number of phantom trips that don’t involve a return trip at the same location). That compares to a lot of signs at the Park & Ride lots, and the ongoing customer service costs of answering peoples questions and dealing with problems and hiring people to patrol the lots and write tickets for violators.

Second, the “Transfer Bonus” would also be aimed to get Seattle residents who aren’t using the Park & Rides to use transit instead of driving. The accompanying ad campaign would show non-transit users that transfers aren’t so bad.

Third, a “Transfer Bonus” would be more popular than charging for parking. According to SoundTransit, last year’s pilot of charging for parking was not popular – it received hundreds of complaints about the pilot or paid parking in general.  A “Bonus” is positive, where paid parking is a negative.

What about you? Would you drive less if there was a small fare decrease for transfers?

21 Replies to “The Transfer Bonus”

  1. I hardly think airfare pricing is a good model to follow for urban mass transit fares. Air fare formulas are essentially a black box to customers; we only put up with it because airplanes are by far the fastest way to travel 500 or more miles.

    Many riders with really bad all-day transfer penalties have direct peak-hour downtown service, including everyone along the 50. The transfer penalty is hardest on people making midday trips to downtown, when P&R lots are full… and also to people going places other than downtown. For the non-downtown trips there’s typically free or cheap parking at the destination, and there’s typically never direct or fast transit for these trips. The car-related costs dominate either way. For the downtown trips, people will drive if they’re willing to deal with the stress of downtown driving and pay for downtown parking. For long trips to places with free or cheap parking, people will mostly drive unless they can’t, or unless transit is quite convenient, or unless they enjoy some other mode of travel more.

    At some point we’re just going to have to get over ourselves and do things that result in mere hundreds of complaints. Street parking will be metered or it will be full to the point of uselessness; HOV lanes will either be HOV3+ or congested; P&Rs will either require passes or fees or fill up earlier and earlier every morning.

    1. What Al said. Just charge for parking at the Park and Rides if they are full now. Problem solved. People always complain when you raise the cost of something (especially when it’s free and especially, especially parking). It’s a little incongruous that you would feel fine raising the price of a transit fare but not the price of parking. Worrying about losing transit riders because someone won’t pay a few bucks to pay for the parking spot that cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to build is a waste of time.

  2. I already use a version of this when commuting down from Snohomish County. When I board an express route in Marysville, I tell the driver I’m only going to Lynnwood and they set the fare at the local level. I then transfer at Lynnwood Transit Center to a different commuter route or an ST route and reap the $1 savings (the adult savings would be $1.25).

  3. I applaud your out of the box thinking. However, I still don’t understand. What exactly is the point?

    To get more people to use transit, even though it doesn’t work especially well for them? Why not just reduce the fairs, if you think that really is a factor?

    This is really well written though (I mean that sincerely). I especially like this tidbit:

    According to a 2013 Metro survey, half of all riders frequently take trips that involve a transfer and the average penalty in time is 14-15 minutes.

    Wow! I believe in the industry they call these folks “captive riders” (although Jarrett Walker hates the term). These are people who will ride transit no matter how bad it is. Giving them a break on the fare is probably a kind thing to do, but I don’t know if they deserve it anymore than the rest of the folks who put up with our system.

    1. If you’re transferring to a 15-minute route that just left, that’s the time you’d wait. Or if you’re transferring to the 131/132 that’s scheduled to come in 5 minutes but is usually late, that’s the time you wait. Or if you’re transferring to a 30-minute route, that’s the average wait time. This is why infrequent routes and 30-minute evenings are so bad and drive people away.

  4. I’m against this idea. I think we need a simpler fare structure, not a more complex structure. We already have 1 and 2 zone trips, peak and off peak, adult vs youth vs disabled vs senior vs lift, Metro vs Link vs all the other operators. We don’t need to add even more complexity when we should be massively trimming down the number of fares in the region.

    1. This may seem like an appealing idea, but consider: it costs the same to travel 15 blocks in Seattle as it does to travel from NE Seattle to Rainier Beach. The current system seems to give preference to people travelling long distances. Why should we use a “simpler” but less fair system? Please explain.

    2. No fare system is going to be completely fair. If we had a purely distance based fare system, that would hurt people living further from downtown. The NYC subway has a flat fare and that works pretty well whether you’re traveling from Times Square to Grand Central or to Rockaway Park. So why not go for a simpler system, which will save time (= money) with drivers not having to answer questions about complex fares and slowing down routes.

      I also don’t understand the reasoning behind this proposal. Is the transfer bonus meant to encourage drivers to switch to transit? Because it seems a better approach is to make transit more appealing – more services, better reliability, lower fares. Or is it to encourage current transit riders to use low-ridership buses because direct buses are too crowded? Are we trying to get people off the 41 and 76 because they’re crush-loaded and instead get them to take the 67–>Link? Because it seems the solution there is more peak-buses. Very crowded direct buses aren’t a bug. They’re a sign that there’s a huge market for that service and we need to grow the supply to serve the demand.

      1. One possibility for a much more fair fare system would be allowing ORCA cardholders to tap on and off of buses, giving them a more fine-grained fare based on distance, while charging cash-paying customers the same flat fares. This would require ORCA readers at all doors, however.

  5. First, you’re getting the notion of transfer penalty wrong. See new post of mine here.

    Second, the transfer bonus you propose is a terrible idea, for two reasons:

    1. Contra what you say, it’s difficult to enforce. Airlines do it by tracking whether you get on your connecting flight and threatening to cancel your frequent flier miles if you keep traveling just the first leg of your two-leg trip.

    2. It creates a two-tier transit system, in which richer and poorer riders are encouraged to take different routes. This means that the size of the network for each tier shrinks – poor people can’t rely on the one-seat rides even when they’re the best option for their trip, while the rich have to be discouraged from taking the cheaper trips. For example, if the agency decides to make the core grid cheaper than the one-seat rides, is it going to engage in stop consolidation on the grid to make the buses go faster?

  6. Link, because it is distance-based while nothing else is, creates a strange penalty, especially if you use it for a longer portion of your journey.

    For example, Link from Seatac to Montlake with a transfer to the 48 at Mt. Baker is $2.75. With a transfer to the 255 or 545 downtown it is $3.00. Riding to Husky Stadium it will be $3.25 or more.

    Link from Seatac to Bellevue with a double transfer at Mt. Baker and the I-90 freeway station is $2.75. With a transfer to the 550 at ID it is $3.00. Riding Link to Husky Stadium and transferring to the 271 it will be $3.25 or more.

    Not really sure any of this makes sense. Fares really out to be based on origin and destination, and not where you transfer or how long you stay on Link.

    If you ride Link from Seatac and transfer to a bus at SODO station you can save 25c on the ride downtown. Why is this good public policy? Distance on buses is free but on Link it costs???

    1. I agree. I like distance-based fares on Link, but for popular trips, they should be capped at the corresponding bus fare.

    2. Or another example. Westlake to ID in the tunnel. By bus it’s $2.75 peak. Link is $2.25.

      Which is why I think we need a more consistent set of fares between agencies before we start tinkering with transfer bonuses.

      Distance based fares only works on buses if you tap on and off. So either we have to install readers at all bus stops. Or have everyone exit through the front. Or install readers at all back doors.

  7. It’s an interesting concept; well written and well thought out. And it’s an angle that I haven’t heard before. But as other comments have reminded us, we need a simpler fare structure. That said, this really wouldn’t affect the fare you pay. It’s more like getting a rebate. To wit, instead of the accounting showing a reduction for a specific route you get the incentive in the form of bonus points on your ORCA account. That way it would even work for people who buy a pass. They could use their 20 bonus points toward the purchase of their next months pass.

    What I had thought of, and would fit in with this mode is bonus points for when your bus is late. Sort of like pizza, if your bus isn’t there in 5 minutes of it’s scheduled time the ride is free (well, rebated as bonus points to use later). I’m OK with the transfer penalty if I know what to expect. I’m a choice rider and I still put up with 10-15 minutes of transfer penalty everyday. But when I miss connections and that turns into 30 minutes on a trip that by car is reliably 34 minutes round trip to I get grumpy. OK, I’m always grumpy… except when I get bonus points!

  8. There’s a different kind of transfer bonus too. Jarrett Walker prefers the term “connection” rather than transfer, because transfers give you access to a wider area than just your home route. And when we look at how subways work in cities with several lines, that’s how passengers view them: a train-to-train transfer gives access to a wider area, and isn’t that great? High-quality bus lines can also participate in this, and hopefully RapidRide will.

    So why do people feel the opposite about regular Metro transfers, that it’s a burden and makes people think about driving? It’s because the buses only come every 15-30 minutes, the stop is windy/unsafe/benchless, and the other stop is a block or two away with one or two stoplights in between. The best thing we can do for this is improve the bus frequency and transfer stations.

    Having a discount for transfers is an interesting idea, and it would take time to figure out what the ramifications would be. Some transfers are voluntary (e.g., you can’t expect a one-seat ride from Queen Anne to Haller Lake), while others are involuntary (the 30 was split from the 71/72/73 so you have to transfer to get downtown, and none of the other northeast Seattle routes go downtown either). So the person on Queen Anne should arguably pay extra while the person in northeast Seattle should get a discount. But we can’t have a complicated fare structure like that. The biggest thing we can do is get Move Seattle implemented so that more routes are transfer-friendly, and start charging premimum fares for the longest-distance expresses like Community Transit does.

  9. Overall, I have to agree with the commenters that providing a “discount” for transfers adds needless complexity to an already-too-complicated fare system, and that we should instead be looking at ways to make transfers quicker and easier. This starts with running buses more frequently, but there other things that need to be looked at too. For instance, at night, when buses aren’t running as frequently, we need better coordinated schedules to reduce wait times, at least for the most popular trips that involve transfers. We also need local buses that connect with express buses to wait at their terminals if the corresponding express bus is late so that making that express->local connection on the outbound can be more reliable than a coin toss.

    Another thing that would help immensely is to have public restrooms at major transfer points so that people can use the time that they’re standing around waiting for a bus to relieve themselves – especially at isolated transfer points, such as Eastgate P&R, where there are no public businesses around with available restrooms. I’ve heard excuses about the difficulty of keeping such restrooms clean, but the truth is, if airports and train stations are able to maintain decent restrooms, there is no reason why transit centers can’t also.

    1. Transit center restrooms are definitely a good thing. I once rode Link all the way through the Rainier Valley desperately waiting for a toilet, until I finally found one in the Westlake mall. They’d be legitimately more difficult to keep clean, though, because an airport or train station is a single staffed building where a janitor can be making rounds. Transit centers are scattered all over the county and almost all unmanned. (The one exception is Overlake Transit Center… but you need a Microsoft badge to get into the staffed building there with restrooms.) Due to all this, I’d need to see figures before deciding whether they’re worth it.

      Also, if there’re public restrooms, I think there also needs to be real-time bus information so people know they won’t be missing their connections while relieving themselves.

  10. ooohhh… let’s nullify one of the best advances of rapidride (platform payment) by requiring a discount to happen on-vehicle… and RE: restrooms, go look at Tukwila Intl Blvd station’s bathroom sometime and see what happens when a transit station has a restroom.

  11. I’ll echo a lot of the other comments on here. You need to make transit more efficient, and that includes the transfer situation. I was one of those “captive” riders several years ago, and did what I could to avoid driving. Often it meant impossibly frustrating waits at the three freeway stations along 520 or up at Montlake. Nothing was ever “on-time”, as the cross-lake routes were exclusively “estimated time” on the timetable, and the 48s were often bunched in groups of two or sometimes three buses back-to-back on 30 or 40 minute headways instead of evenly-spaced 10 or 15 minute headways. My Green Lake to Kirkland commute was a pretty bad one, but really shouldn’t have been. I was commuting from a densely-populated area two blocks from a Park & Ride to a relatively dense collection of office parks with a Park & Ride. If you improve the rider experience, you can increase ridership. Leave these kinds of problems in place, and no amount of “rewards” will ever increase ridership.

  12. I like the general idea, but I think there’s a much simpler way to accomplish this: just charge higher fares for express buses (defined as part-time routes that overlap regular routes with fewer stops, and that are more expensive to operate on a per-passenger basis than the alternative would be). For example, the 316 and 355 would have higher fares than the regular 16 and 5.

    Tons of cities (e.g. Boston, NYC, DC) already do this. It’s a very efficient solution, since every route has a single fare, and the people who ride express buses are generally willing and able to pay higher fares anyway.

    As far as charging for park & rides goes, I see that as an entirely different problem. A higher bus fare doesn’t discourage people from using a park & ride lot as general parking; in fact, it does precisely the opposite. Consider the Northgate TC parking lots — how do you stop people from using them as overflow mall parking?

  13. I’m a big believer in free transfers. Without it, bus operators have a financial incentive to make service crappy, since every unnecessary transfer is another fare. With free transfers, agencies are encouraged to intertwine two different routes so some riders can just stay on the bus as it changes numbers (see the WTA in Bellingham which does this all over the place, but not as much since they eliminated free transfers)

    This is doable without paper transfers if the ORCA cards are smart enough.

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