Author’s Note: The underlined clarifications below are from Scott Gutierrez, Metro spokesperson.
Policies that nudge bus passengers away from paying cash while boarding the bus remain low-hanging fruit for system-wide service improvements via travel time reductions. King County measurements in 2012 measured it as 4.6 to 6.9 seconds per boarding, with another 1.5 seconds saved per boarding if passengers board at all doors without paying on the way in.
Various Metro reports over the years, including the recently-released Metro Connects, have looked forward to a day when cash is no longer accepted at the front of the bus while boarding (See page 37 of the report.). For Metro, cashlessness would bring savings in the elimination of farebox maintenance and replacement, substantial reduction in cash handling, and travel time reductions.
Even without a cash ban, most of the travel time and cost reduction should happen if Metro’s fare policies properly discourage cash payment into virtual nonexistence. That’s a good thing, since the marginal cost for converting cash payers to non-cash payers goes way up as non-cash boardings approaches 100%, per Metro’s 2013 Cashless Fare Collection Business Plan.
What makes the potential cash ban feel like a step toward a long walk home is where Metro is getting its model : Transport for London, which went cashless in 2014, with much angst. King County Metro and Transport for London are clearly not peer agencies. London is a sea of density, with abundant places to access fare media 24/7. King County Metro’s service area is largely suburban, with limited options for obtaining or revaluing ORCA cards if one isn’t near a train station.
The main difference for Metro between a cash ban and virtual cashlessness is the cost of farebox replacement. According to the 2013 report, Metro’s fareboxes will reach the end of their useful life in 2018. That doesn’t mean Metro has to procure new fareboxes by then, but maintenance problems will increase. Regardless, cashlessness can’t happen until smart-phone payment and private bankcard payment get rolled out as part of ORCA 2.0 in 2021. But if Metro decides for virtual cashlessness over a cash ban, expect farebox replacement to start happening well before 2021.
More off-board fare payment and more on-board security is coming, pending county council approval, and this should be welcome news for the vast majority of riders. But what policies to discourage cash can Metro deploy in the near term?
Metro is unlikely to seriously consider a cash surcharge so long as it believes it is moving toward a cash ban. But an increase in cash fares would have better effects on Metro’s costs than a general fare increase.
Slashing the ORCA fee hasn’t gotten enough attention. The $5 fee for getting an ORCA card is by far the highest fee for getting a bus smart card in the nation. The 2013 report mentions that the cost to Metro is $3. Agencies say that they don’t want users to treat the card as disposable, and that all the agencies in the ORCA pod have to agree to a price change. But I still have yet to get a straight answer as to why the fee has to be that high.
Operators will continue to push for the elimination of paper transfers, because they cause fare disputes and passenger incidents. Those who place absolute priority on accessibility over service and operator safety will continue to resist. Keeping paper transfers would obviously preclude a cash ban, but also is an obstacle to virtual cashlessness. One possible mitigation is free monthly passes on ORCA for those unable to pay any fare (similar to Valley Transit Authority’s UPLIFT program in Santa Clara County, CA). Another mitigation measure would be dropping the low-income LIFT and youth fares, which are currently 50 cents higher than senior and disability fares. Reducing or eliminating the ORCA fee would partially mitigate the increased costs for infrequent riders who have to transfer.
If cash payment drops to a fraction of its current rate, it will extend the remaining useful life of the fareboxes. These actions would help bridge the gap between the 2018 projected-end-of-useful-life for the fareboxes and the 2021 roll-out of ORCA 2.0 multi-media readers.