Imagine you’re a woman, living with a husband and two kids, your elderly mother and disabled sister. Your husband works full-time and often overtime, perhaps as a security guard; he makes more than minimum wage but not a lot more. You would get a paying job too, but your time is taken up with caregiving. You have a car, which your husband needs to get to work. During his long shifts, the rest of you rely on public transit.

To give everyone in the family independence to travel freely by bus and train, you’d like to buy unlimited passes. But that would add up to $234 per month – assuming your family qualifies as low-income, making you eligible for the ORCA LIFT rate of $54. You can’t afford that expense on top of car payments, insurance and gas. So instead, you pay as you ride, and bus fare becomes one of those things you never seem to have enough money for. You plan your day to minimize the cost of travel, and your kids and mother and sister have to limit their trips, too.

ORCA LIFT has proved a resounding success. As of June 2016 over 31,000 people had enrolled; more than 3.7 million trips were taken in the first year of the program. But ORCA LIFT doesn’t help everyone who is feeling the squeeze of low incomes and rising living costs. Most very low-income and homeless people cannot consistently afford a $1.50 fare, and low-income youth, seniors and people with disabilities have seen their bus fares double or quadruple in the past six years.

The family described above may be imaginary, but their situation unfortunately is not. The freedom and mobility that our public transit system should afford remains unaffordable for tens of thousands of people in our communities, and the result is lost opportunities and diminished quality of life – not to mention tensions between riders and bus drivers and conflicts with fare enforcement and law enforcement when people ride without paying.

Fortunately, transit riders are rising to the challenge. Public school students, college students, workers, low-income and homeless people are organizing – and winning! But there is much work yet to do to realize the vision of universally affordable and accessible public transit.

On Tuesday, July 26, the Transit Riders Union is proud to host the 2016 Solidarity Summit on Affordable Transit. We invite everyone to come hear from people and organizations that are leading the way on affordable transit, participate in workshops, celebrate progress made and build momentum for new victories. The event will be held 12pm – 3pm in downtown Seattle, 215 Columbia St. RSVP not required but appreciated. You can register on TRU’s website,

25 Replies to “2016 Solidarity Summit on Affordable Transit, July 26”

  1. I think we should look at how Stockholm handles their Access Card. There’s 1-day, 3-day, 1-week and 1-month cards.

    The 1 month card works in every “zone” (there’s 3. Think of it like South King, East Side, Everett). No matter what area you’re in, you play a flat rate per month that works out to ~$90. No more “oh my longest trip I’m gonna take costs $3.75, so I need a different monthly access card” crap.

    It’s simpler for the consumer to buy into because you don’t have to figure out what the cost sans card is in order to find what tier card you need.

    Of course, there are low-income and disability discounts that can cut that in half, and iirc children up to 18 ride free.

    Seems like much less of a headache than what ORCA is doing now tbh.

    1. ORCA–and the transit systems here–already offer day and monthly passes. The author’s point, I’m pretty sure, is that the cost of monthly passes for multi-rider low-income households is still too high. (“To give everyone in the family independence to travel freely by bus and train, you’d like to buy unlimited passes. But that would add up to $234 per month – assuming your family qualifies as low-income, making you eligible for the ORCA LIFT rate of $54. You can’t afford that expense on top of car payments, insurance and gas.”)

      I’m unclear on what is being advocated for, however. That the cost for low-income riders should be lower? That’s possibly a laudable goal but at what point do we simply start talking about ending fares? Our current system seems to do two things: encourage “pay by story,” wherein a prospective rider gives the bus driver a sob story in lieu of $1-$3.25 (whatever the applicable fare might be) and the driver has no choice under the rules but to allow the person to board; and prohibiting that same thing from working on light rail (because fare enforcement exists there and will cite the paying-with-anything-but-money rider).

    2. Duesseldorf has a similar 3-zone system, with zone A being the city of Duesseldorf, zone B including the adjacent suburbs, and zone C including the entire transit region (Duesseldorf, Essen, Wuppertal, and the cities between them). ORCA passes are essentially similar but covering a fare level rather than a zone. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.

      But there are two other significant differences between Seattle’s fare system and Duesseldorf’s. The S-Bahn from Essen to Wuppertal is an hour’s distance through a population of 800K+500K+suburbs. (It continues to Cologne but that’s a different transit region). Sounder Lakewood-Seattle is 90 minutes, and a future Everett-Tacoma Link trip is two hours, through a population of 670K+200K+30K+suburbs. So Pugetopolis has longer trips and higher maximum fares. That makes a flat-rate fare more difficult, and you don’t want to rip off people making short trips. One option is to exclude Sounder, as San Francisco/Chicago/New York do with their commuter trains and suburban bus routes. But Metro’s 40-year precedent is unified local/express fares and transfers, and ST inherited that. It would be hard to convince them to do otherwise, or to tell Sounder riders that they have to pay a second fare for bus transfers. And Link would still be an issue with its line length: the distance-based fare takes care of equity between long-distance and short-distance trips. We can’t exclude Link or it would make a universal ORCA pass/transfer a joke.

      The other issue is that ORCA has only monthly passes: it’s geared squarely toward long-term regular riders, who can take the time to figure out their maximum fare. The one-week and two-week passes in Duesselforf and Russia are also geared to short-term stays and visitors, who can’t be expected to understand the entire fare structure immediately or predict what they’ll need. But ORCA doesn’t offer short-term passes anyway. There is an $8 day pass, but it’s little known and of dubious worth (since its price is driven up by the maximum fare of long-distance services).

      The primary issue is the pass cost. But given the expensive services the pass covers, a lower price would probably require an external subsidy. Maybe there needs to be a “family pass” rate for a group of up to five passes to a family.

  2. What’s the fix you’re proposing? Make an ORCA LIFT 4 Kids card that’s cheaper than ORCA LIFT? Makes sense to me.

    1. Reducing the youth fare and the LIFT fare to no more than the senior/disabilities fare would be a start. Ceasing to distance-test public school students for transit passes would be another good step. Stop nickle-and-diming the kids.

      1. How many projects will you postpone because of the reduction in farebox revenue? Seattle has one of the higher farebox recovery ratios in the country. That revenue could be used to operate service, provide stop amenities, etc. You can operate a cheap transit system or a good transit system. Agencies like Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix have low fares but generally have poor spatial coverage or reduced night and weekend service, or both.

        As for ORCA, it is clear that weekly and 30 day passes need to be implemented rather than the calendar month, but given that ORCA is based off first generation smart card technology, there is a real issue that the system may not be able to accommodate the new fare tables. The East San Francisco Bay Area transit agencies were forced to consolidate fares when Clipper was expanded to the exurbs of the Bay Area due to limitations in the system, and SMART commuter rail has been kneecapped in offering anything beyond an all access monthly pass. Even second generation systems, like LA County MTA TAP, require extensive programming (going on six months now) to do something as simple as offer interagency transfers.

      2. That’s the point though: the money should not come out of the transit budget, ti should be considered a social service and funded outside that. We need a robust transit system and one one affordable to the poor, not either/or.

  3. Ms. Wilson, your hypothetical is pretty strained. There is nothing preventing this family of six people from obtaining ORCA Lift cards for the five family members who don’t have access to the car and loading them with ePurses. They’ll then receive the low-income fare every time they board without having to “prove” their eligibility.

    Since none of them works, they won’t be taking trips every day, making the ePurse last longer. They emphatically don’t need “unlimited” passes.

    1. You don’t know how often they travel. Maybe the kids go to school or summer school, and one or two adults work at minimum-wage jobs. If they have unlimited passes and only use them a couple times a week, that’s automatically less expense for the agency. And money from a flat prepaid fee goes further than money at the farebox because it allows the agencies to predict expenses and plan for demand. And finally, there’s the “independence to travel freely”. The pass is a benefit not just for the trips you take but the trips available to you. It avoids the agony deciding whether each individual trip is worth the cost. I buy a monthly pass for those reasons, even in months where I’ll be gone for a couple weeks and e-purse would be cheaper.

      1. Mike, all of those things you said are certainly true. But the very loudly unspoken assumption is that this example family “deserves” some sort of unlimited access to the transit system because of their economic hardships.

        I certainly do support some sort of “guaranteed income” program. It is increasingly clear that there are not enough jobs which can be done by people only skilled enough to be a “security guard”. How such a program would function is not in scope for a transit blog but globalization and automation are rapidly giving us no choice in the matter.

        That said, it’s NOT the responsibility of the transit system to lower the standards of payment which keep the system minimally clean and quiet so that the folks who ride by choice and pay full freight continue to come. Humanity has clearly not evolved socially to the point that something provided for “free” is valued.

        So, Ms. Wilson’s stated goal of having “universally affordable” — that is “free”, because nothing else is “affordable” to all — is a short, direct road to smelly stained, buses nobody will want to ride.

  4. The solution here is not to further cut fares, reducing revenue that could pay for future projects. The solution here is force employers to pay a living wage. It’s something that, arguably, probably does not belong on the STB page, but I didn’t initiate that discussion, Katie Wilson did.

    The solution here is multi-faceted. We need a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation. The Federal minimum wage in 1968 was $1.60, that’s $12.88 adjusted for inflation. The $15 Now movement needs to happen on a national level, and, given the higher cost of living in a place like Seattle, Seattle really should be looking at a $20 minimum wage. It worked in 1968. Companies were profitable. Many would argue that 1968 was a much more economically prosperous time for America.

    We also need single payer health insurance that covers all health care costs. There is no reason why a disabled family member should need to live with family and rely on family for their financial well being. If they wish to do so because it is best for their emotional well-being, great. It shouldn’t be a means for economic survival though. It shouldn’t preclude the wife from having a job, either. What if the sister didn’t have family? Would she be homeless? How on Earth is that acceptable? She should be able to live a decent life, including having basic transportation, even if she doesn’t have family to rely on. The same could be said for the elderly. I have many extended family members (many aunts, uncle, and in-laws) who don’t have kids. So it has now become a requirement for children to take in their parents when they become elderly? Unfortunately, in this day and age, it has. People who have worked hard their entire lives deserve to have a decent retirement without burdening family members.

    So, root causes here? Not bus fare. Bus fare is a SYMPTOM of a much larger problem of economic inequality where money gets funneled to the upper crust of society. The rich keep getting richer. Those who have had a few tough breaks, like the family illustrated in this article, keep getting poorer.

    I encourage you to read your voter’s pamphlet thoroughly. There are some fantastic “outsider” progressive candidates who are running for office in the current primary at the local, state, and Federal level. If you want to see problems like the ones illustrated here be significantly reduced, vote for the candidates who get to the root cause of the problem.

    Disclaimer: I have absolutely nothing to gain by an increase in the minimum wage or improvement of welfare or medical benefits. I have a great job with awesome benefits, as does my spouse. BUT…. a lot of people don’t. This is just the right thing to do.

    1. +1. “Transit affordability” is an unfortunate and misleading term. Income inequality is a problem we can and should be seriously engaged in. So is comprehensive and efficient transit. Insisting on mixing the two risks progress on both.

    2. We need $15 now, and the rest of King County should be considering it. But beware of thinking that the minimum wage will solve everything. It doesn’t help if you can’t find a job or can’t get enough hours. And disabled people often can’t work.

      1. I was going to say, depending on the minimum wage is like depending on employer-based medical insurance. It means that people who can’t find work or can’t get enough hours don’t have it. What we really need is a basic minimum income for everybody.

  5. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the concept of capped passes. In a capped pass, your ORCA card would be deducted at the appropriate single ride rate until you reach a maximum per day, per week, and per month. I.e. $2 (or whatever amount) is deducted each time you board until you reach $8 per day, then no more money is deducted until the next day. Once $80 (or whatever amount) is deducted in a month, no more money is deducted until the next month. This concept allows poor people that ability to benefit from monthly pass savings, and I believe is an option in Houston.

    1. Several of us have recommended it, at least the daily maximum part. Some other agencies have it.

      I’m not so sure about the monthly part, since it’s a reward for pre-paying. Should people get sixty free trips a month after paying for 44 without pre-paying?

      1. From an income inequality standpoint, I don’t see a problem with that. The other option is to do a fare refund if the pass doesn’t work out, which might actually be technically simpler (sum up what would be the fares charged over the month, and if the monthly pass price isn’t reached, issue a refund – the issue would be fare abuse on POP systems caused by people who “forgot” to tap their card).

  6. In 2014 I spent a year living in Chapel Hill, NC, where the local bus system is completely free to ride. Nice buses, real time arrival info at some stops downtown, evening and weekend service, express routes, the works. No fare boxes. Just as with health care, single-payer transit is a matter of politics. While I don’t know if I’d advocate for a totally fare-free system in a big city, I do think we should more heavily subsidize rides for kids, the elderly, and those without jobs (for whatever reason), even up to letting those populations ride free. Thanks for posting this and I’m curious to hear what this group comes up with.

    1. I grew up in Chapel Hill, and I agree they’ve got a nice transit system even if it’s much too hub-and-spoke. (Though they’re vaguely planning to fix that in some ways, like extending the T down Weaver Dairy Rd to 15-501.)

      The reason they were able to go fare-free, though, is that some ludicrous percentage of their riders already had full passes funded through UNC-Chapel Hill. The cost of collecting the remaining fares just wasn’t worth it, so UNC and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro agreed to just divide up the transit system’s budget between them up front. There isn’t anything like that situation here in Seattle, so it’d require a lot more political will and funding.

      (Meanwhile, the much worse transit systems in the cities next to Chapel Hill – Durham and Raleigh – together with the regional transit authority, continue collecting fares as normal.)

    2. You can’t make transit fare free without also coming up with the money to increase service to a level that would handle the capacity of all the extra riders who would ride it if it’s free. Otherwise, you just have overcrowded buses, frequent pass-ups, and nobody gets anywhere. And this additional taxpayer money would have to come on top of the 25% of today’s transit revenue that is currently collected from fares.

      You would also have a lot more people using the bus as a roving homeless shelter.

      1. “…to increase service to a level that would handle the capacity of all the extra riders who would ride it if it’s free.”

        And is that such a bad thing? If we’re really serious about decreasing car trips (be it for congestion or environment or whatever else), wouldn’t we want to do that?

        Admittedly, the roving homeless shelters would be a problem. When Chapel Hill Transit first went fare-free, they added a note on the schedule, “Please do not ride multiple trips just to pass the time of day. If you ride one full round-trip, the driver may ask you to get off the vehicle.” I never heard anything about enforcement there, but things would be very different here in Seattle…

      2. I wonder what effect the elimination on the ride free area had on the number of people riding the bus from one end of downtown to the other end. Did people who rode the bus for free before start paying the fare, or did they decide it wasn’t worth it and just walked? Or, perhaps, nearly everybody in downtown already has a pass or transfer credit, so the bus is still free, anyway.

    3. Tallinn, Estonia, has free transit for residents. The city buys passes in bulk from the transit agency for residents who apply, while non-residents pay the regular fare. It’s certainly worth considering. The “more buses” you would need is just enough for people’s discretionary trips. Most people don’t want to ride around in circles all day every day even if it’s free.

      The “problems” that come up are due to American social issues that are larger than transit. Homeless people don’t have a place to live or spend the day, mentally-ill people don’t have services, the working poor are under stress due to the precariousness of their situation and that can make them tired and reactive, and we have a strong cultural strain of us-vs-them attitudes and racism that hinders the ability to solve the other problems. Until we solve these, maybe we can’t have free fares, but we can certainly have more equitable fares and a simpler payment system.

  7. Why not push for a monthly cap like the Portland area is going to do with their Hop Fastness that is going to roll out next year? Once you hit the equivalent of a daily or monthly pass for your fare type that’s it for the day or month. It will certainly help those who must take transit but can’t afford to pay for a monthly pass upfront.

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