Photo by Oran

We’ve come a long way since the 38 fare zones of 1973, but our current fare systems are generally an overlapping mess. In the context of Sound Transit 2 and 3, potential bus restructures for One Center City, as well as its own Long Range Plan, Metro is looking at a potential overhaul of its fare structures, and through the end of March they are conducting a survey of riders’ fare priorities. This is a sort of meta survey; it doesn’t ask you to respond to any proposals, but instead will inform what they will propose in April. After that, another round of feedback begins. This project has a relatively short timeline, with Executive Constantine hoping to submit a proposal to the King County Council in June.

The background materials presented to the Advisory Committee convened for this project show that Metro is primarily focused on two goals: in the short term, potential elimination of zone and peak surcharges, and in the longer term, moving gingerly toward cashlessness and/or universal off-board payment. Please take the survey, and we’ll keep you updated with additional feedback opportunities as the project progresses. You may also email comments to Metro’s DeAnna Martin.

Fare policy is complicated. Two worthy goals, fairness and simplicity, directly contradict each other. In systems with large geographic areas such as King County, fairness would match fares proportionally with the cost of providing service, leading to high peak suburban bus fares and low fares for short urban trips. The resulting zones or distance-based fares would typically be difficult to understand or remember. BART and DC Metro are two prominent examples of this.

Simplicity, on the other hand, usually trades fairness for legibility, underpricing suburban trips and overpricing urban trips. Portland’s TriMet charges a flat $2.50 for all single trips, no matter whether you travel all 33 miles of the Blue Line or travel 1/4 mile in the Lloyd District. San Francisco’s Muni and Chicago’s CTA also generally operate this way.

Here in Central Puget Sound, we have generally taken an “all of the above” approach, creating an unfair system that is also very complex. We have one type of service that uses zones based on city limits (Metro buses during peak hours), one that bases zones on county lines (Sound Transit buses), two that operate on a distance-based system (Link and Sounder), and four types of service with flat fares (Metro buses during off-peak hours, King County Water Taxi, Washington State Ferries, Seattle Streetcar, and the cash-only Monorail).

This complexity is multiplied by the ad hoc growth in various fare media options. We have proof-of-payment policies for Link, Sounder, and RapidRide, but pay-as-you-board for everyone else. Metro alone issues and accepts paper transfers. Day passes are available on ORCA, but only for services that cost up to $3.50 (sorry, Sounder or Vashon Water Taxi riders). You can buy a full Link or Sounder day pass on your mobile phone, or you can only buy a single Metro ticket on your phone, but you will not be able to transfer between agencies.

These overlapping structures, each rational on their own, create absurdities for travelers just looking to get where they’re going. Consider a few examples:

  • RapidRide E is unique in crossing a fare zone boundary and accepting proof-of-payment, requiring those traveling between Seattle and Shoreline to pay onboard and actively request the driver to charge them more for a northbound trip. Those traveling southbound within Shoreline have to ask the driver to charge them less, since the RapidRide fare is pre-set to 2 zones during peak hours.
  • A trip from Lakewood to Everett on Sound Transit costs just $3.75, or roughly $.05/mile. If I ride Route 49 from my apartment at Broadway/Roy to get a beer in Pike/Pine at 5pm, I pay $2.75, or $2.29 per mile. The urban trip would cost me 45 times more.
  • If you travel to downtown from Federal Way or SR 520, for example, during peak hours Sound Transit buses are $.50 cheaper than Metro’s, but off-peak Metro buses are $.25 cheaper than Sound Transit. So if you’re standing at Montlake or Evergreen Point, the cost conscious should look for a white bus during rush hour and a green bus at all other times.
  • A trip from White Center to Westwood Village (half a mile!) costs $3.25 during peak hours, but Renton to Black Diamond at noon (20 miles) costs just $2.50.
  • For trips within the urban core, Link Light Rail is $.25 cheaper than Metro’s lowest fare. If you pay with ORCA E-purse and are traveling anywhere between Westlake and International District, you should avoid buses entirely in the tunnel and wait for the train instead.

Fare policies have real impacts to an agency’s bottom line. Metro estimates that moving from 65% ORCA use to 95% could save the agency $9-17 million per year. Our unique series of discounts – ORCA Lift and human services tickets on top of the federally required discounts for seniors and those with disabilities – cost the agency $27 million per year. The nation’s highest card fee ($5) surely presents a psychological hurdle to infrequent riders.

The current system will become increasingly untenable as Link expands, providing additional urgency to these conversations. As just one example, compare Federal Way and Lynnwood. For future trips from Federal Way to Westlake, under the current structure Link would be $3.50, slower and more expensive than current Sound Transit express. Conversely, a trip from Lynnwood to Westlake on Link would be just $3.00, $.75 cheaper than today’s buses and also considerably faster.

As the nature of winners and losers changes and more people transfer between agencies, fare alignment will become more and more imperative. We can choose simplicity or fairness, but we shouldn’t settle for neither. What would you like to see?

88 Replies to “Time for a Fare Overhaul? Metro Seeking Comment This Spring”

  1. FYI – running into issues with the CAPTCHAs, so might want to wait a bit for jumping on the survey.

  2. I’d love to see some form of distance-based fare. It’s the only rational substitute for zones that keeps short trips from being as expensive as long trips. Options:

    1. Tap-on, tap-off, with an orca reader at all doors. Charged by distance traveled as a bird flies (pre-calculated based on stops). It’s true that this makes fares less legible, but people seem to be ok with this while riding an Uber or taxi.

    2. Fares based on route costs. A long-distance one-way (returns empty) route with low ridership should fundamentally be expensive. A short-distance route that picks up and drops off a lot of people at each stop should fundamentally be cheap. I wouldn’t price each route separately, but I would break them into three or four price groups. I’m not sure the best way to solve short-distance trips inside the city on long-distance routes – either just let it be unfair (hop on the $4 bus, or wait 15 minutes for the $2 local bus?) or keep zones.

    1. Number 1 would be a pretty good idea. Number 2 is terrible.
      Your passengers understand miles traveled. People can do a quick estimate of the fair in their head using information that they already have. Ferries could be an exception to the rule.
      On the other hand your passengers have no idea what it costs to run a service. Many passengers on express buses don’t even know whether it runs a return trip or not.

      Of course, your option1 is demonstrating to me that this fare structure venture may fail before it even starts. For a per-mile system to work, every single agency has to be on board. Without CT, Pierce, Sound and Everett on board, this fare simplification venture is doomed to fail. A successful reform would involve every agencies using the exact same fare system.

      1. But Sound Transit implemented the distance based fare on one service (Link) without implementing it on another (buses). Surely a whole agency can implement it without the other agencies.

      2. The only thing the other agencies need to know is the amount you paid for the trip you took, for calculating transfer value. So Matt’s idea 1 shouldn’t rely on every agency doing the exact same thing.

      3. “Sound Transit implemented the distance based fare on one service (Link) without implementing it on another (buses).”

        Link readers are at fixed locations and people tap on/off to prove their distance. Bus readers are moving, people don’t tap out, every second at the farebox delays passengers and increases costs, and the readers apparently aren’t GPS-aware (and would it be fare to charge as the crow flies when roads and bus routes don’t run like crows?) Going to all off-board payment would require tens of thousands of ORCA readers even at little-used bus stops.

      4. IIRC GPS integration to the readers was going to happen along with the rear-door ORCA that king county dropped. Then you have location of on and location of off, which gets you distance.

        The reason for crow-fly distance is because a rider shouldn’t be punished for an agency’s inefficient winding routes.

    2. One thing I’d say about fares based on route cost is that some trips are expensive to serve because of choices the agency made about routes, or because of capital investments the agency made for other reasons. It’s one thing to effectively hold riders responsible for route costs under the “old Seattle” system, mostly consisting of local-stop service between downtown and every corner of the city, maybe with a few routes radiating from UW and a few peak-hour expresses. It’s another in the network we’re building, where particular corridors have been prioritized for direct-to-downtown service, with investments consolidated in these, and other corridors truncated. Central Link, U Link, Madison BRT, and the C Line have involved a lot of these trade-offs; the restructure that created the 358 was a precursor to these.

      I believe these sorts of trade-offs are generally necessary and good even though some common trips will inevitably be made less convenient, and that some of them in particular have been very well done. But they are trade-offs made intentionally with predictable results. It’s not fair to compare the popularity or efficiency of routes designed for different purposes, with different levels of capital investment covered by everyone at the outset, and then hold riders responsible for the differences.

    3. The difference between flat-rate agencies like SF and Chicago and us is that they are city-based agencies, so they’re operating in a smaller area, with no long deadheads or low-density areas or peak expresses (except a few like SF’s Geary Express). Some of them go a little bit into the suburbs but not much. If you’re going to the suburbs you switch to a different agency with a different fare structure, or take a suburban bus that goes downtown, such as PACE, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, BART, etc.

      So the solution to Matt’s dilemma is to differentiate the agencies more like that. Eliminate Metro’s zone surcharge, and restructure it more into short-distance feeders rather than long routes. Have Sound Transit take over the long expensive routes, and it can charge ST’s fare structure. Metro has already done this partway by splitting the 150 (downtown-Auburn), 174 (downtown-Federal Way), etc. We could resolve oddities like the 255, 271, the remaining 150, and the Federal Way peak expresses being Metro rather than ST. However, it may not be feasible to shift them to ST immediately, because that would increase ST’s expenses in a way not anticipated in ST1/2/3, so there’s no money to operate them. So Metro may have to continue running the routes for longer than ideal. In that case Metro should move to premium fares on long-distance express routes. Not the 41 or 150 which are basic service, and maybe not the 101 because there’s no substitute, but certainly for the Federal Way, Auburn, Issaquah, and Kent expresses. Everything else is basic service and would have the flat rate, and we’d accept the inequality of a 10-block trip on the 2 costing the same as end-to-end on the E or A, because it would still be ideally within the reasonable range for both riders.

      However, it may not be feasible to immediately shift the 150, 101, and peak expresses.

      1. @Mike,

        Yep, premium surcharges is what I suggested in one of the free-form text fields as well. To be honest, though, I would rather see cash fares and paper transfers go away before tackling fare complexity, but I am very likely biased since I have had a U-PASS since moving out here 11 years ago.

      2. I like this Mike. In-Seattle fare vs. regional fare. Which is really a zone system, but with better branding.

    4. I wrote that at the very least each bus should have an ORCA at the back door and the one at the front stationed such that ORCA users and cash fumblers form their own lines.

    5. Matt, I’m with you a hundred percent on the card readers at every vehicle door in the system. Like San Francisco has been doing for several years. But miles-different philosophy about cost differentials per route.

      In an economy whose chief feature will be constant change- especially in residence, job location, and education. In my tutoring days, there were times I’d have daily changes of both hours and clients. Leaving me thinking my own mode works best for real life real time.

      My Metro operator’s pass was annual. Which might be good to bring back. My last 20 years, monthly .Also think lowest fare unit should be the Day Pass. Transit’s evil brother the car industry took care of this question a long time ago. My own call on toll roads is that people will correctly figure out that it’s cheaper to pay taxes. Like they did before. Same with health care and education.

      We could also take a leaf from Metro’s water quality division. Wouldn’t doubt there was a time when meter readers unlocked the coin boxes on everybody’s home toilet. And read giant brass pressure gauges Wonder if recent events off Magnolia didn’t really result from a clandestine experiment to start charging flush-fees by distance contents travel.

      More genteel to say that the more expensive the club, the less “proper” it is to charge members by exercise machine, tennis balls per whack and distance, and ping pong volleys per bounce. So easiest to make a transit pass a key-card (just not same grandeur somehow) to the region. And all the routes and rides in contains. Gong or trumpet. Your choice. Or alternatively, lighting, thunder, wolf howling, funeral music.


    6. People tappjng off aboard the bus will just slow the trip for everyone. Terrible idea.

  3. I think we can get very close to equitable with only moderate complexity.
    1) proof of payment for all transit
    2) only orca. This could be made easier by having more orca machines and by charging less for the card. I think $3 more reasonable
    3) require tap off to not pay maximum possible fare. This would necessitate readers at every door, or off board readers at every stop
    4) all discount fare is exactly half the regular fare
    5) fare would be a function of time of day, mode, and distance, irrespective of agency. Maybe the agencies could appoint a council to set and update the function

    1. Incidentally, the flat rate favors fit people who can just walk the shorter distance. People with mobility issues pay a larger portion of the unfairly large short distance fares.

      Another benefit of doing completely distance based is it removes the issue of transfers entirely. There is none. Just how far you went on each vehicle at what time of day

      1. If we went to a no transfer, mileage only based fare, you should still get transfer credit for the base $2.25 fee. Only the additional per mile rate should be tacked on. So when I ride Link from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill I get charge $2.75, the same as today ($2.25 base + $0.50 for milage). Then when I transfer to the 8 bus for a one mile trip to SLU, I get charged an additional 5 cents for the extra mile, NOT $2.50, which the one mile bus trip on its own would cost.

    2. Why create barriers to entry for transit use? If ORCA is the only way to pay for a ride, the price should be $0.

      The price should probably be $0 regardless. Make it easier for people to do the thing you’d prefer, and they’ll be more likely to go along with it.

      1. The cards are not free to provide, so charging a small fee encourages people to keep using the same card rather than just grabbing a new one every time the old one runs out. Incidentally, this will also help with card litter. I don’t know what the appropriate price is. $3 just seemed like a reasonable price to me, but maybe $2 would be better. I don’t think it would be a significant barrier to using transit. But maybe we could instead do what NY metro does, give extra credit for refills. So you need to keep using the same card to get the discount. With a slightly higher fare, the same amount of money is taken, but people are pleased with themselves for “saving” money when they refill rather than feeling cheated when they get a new card.

      2. Mars,

        I like the WMATA system where you pay $10 for a SmarTrip card, but get $8 (IIRC) of fare loaded on to it, making the actual card cost $2. Replacement cards also cost $2 so you have an incentive not to throw it away.

      3. Actually, WMATA, allows you to go $2 into negative balance on the subways, when you tap on the way out during peak. Otherwise, they might have made the SmarTrip card free.

      1. Exactly! And won’t it cause lots of questions from riders when they can’t get a straight answer as to how much their ride will cost?

  4. I’d like to see the monthly pass (the puget pass) made less obscure. I think it’s too complicated for most people to figure out which pass to get. It assumes a pretty detailed knowledge of the fare system just to pick the right pass.

    I think it would make more sense to have just two monthly passes. A local pass for $100 a month, where local buses are covered but you pay extra for intercity buses. A commuter pass for $150 a month, where intercity buses and light rail trips are also covered.

    Getting more people on the monthly pass would drive ridership higher by making taking the bus the default option for more people. As it is, if I’m going somewhere I kind of do a mental calculation comparing transit to uber to driving and paying for parking.

    Back when my workplace provided a monthly pass, I didn’t even think about it. I just took the bus unless it was way too slow.

    1. When I took the survey I suggested an automatic daily or monthly cap for people paying with E-purse. Takes the guesswork out of whether or not to buy a pass.

      1. HOP, Portland’s new pass has a daily cap of the amount of a daily pass. On Tri-Met, that’s double the base fare.

        It also has a monthly cap of twenty day caps. That’s a generous discount for their best customers.

      2. It’s also helpful for folks who may not be able to afford the upfront cost of a monthly pass and instead pay per ride but ultimately end up paying more than the cost of a monthly pass.

  5. Several questions.

    1) What per mile fare would be required to be revenue neutral for Metro?
    2) Are problems with overcrowding so severe that we need to nudge commuters out of the peak and into the shoulder with price signals?
    3) A significant fraction of Metro’s costs are time based rather than mileage based, does it make sense to charge based on how long you spend on the bus rather than how far you travel?
    4) Conversely, Peak hour expresses are disproportionately expensive to operate because they are unable to amortize their deadheads across multiple runs. Does it make sense to treat them differently.
    5) How high can Lynnwood to Seattle fares go before there’s a mass exodus?

    1. 3) doesn’t make sense. When I’m sitting in a crushloaded 271 on Juanita way waiting 40 minutes to get on 520, I don’t want to be additionally thinking about an $8.00 charge.

  6. The $5 barrier to an ORCA card certainly put me off for several trips I made to Seattle. I instead just paid every time I boarded a bus, and I avoided using Link, just opting for the buses and always being annoyed by having to do so. I wasn’t about to pay a different fare or buy the damn card when I would only be in town every year or so. When I finally took a vacation in Seattle, I decided it was a good enough reason to budget for one. I’ve used it every time since, and I do like the convenience it allows, though a day pass for the system is quite pricey.

    I’ve lived in Minneapolis and Portland, so I’ll make my comparisons there.

    Minneapolis has four tiers divided thusly: off-peak and peak, and local (which included limited stop buses and light rail trains) or express buses that ran on the freeways. Peak demand is charged more for everyone because of demand. A quirk of the arrangement is that peak local fare is the same of off-peak express fare, so you really only need to remember three fares. You can also buy transit passes based on what and when you ride. I always got the second most expensive so that I could ride the locals at any time and have the option of express buses off-peak (which I did use, as the frequent express line between the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul was extremely useful). This gave me a lot of flexibility in riding, and if I needed to use a rush-hour express bus, I could just pay the difference at the farebox with a cash or coins and have my full-fare transfer for 2.5 hours.

    Portland is even easier now. While the city used to have zones, it was finally eliminated for a flat, if high, fare of $2.50. I have generally come around to regard it as a net positive. You can go *anywhere* on any bus or train for whatever distance you like for the same flat fare. That creates enormous simplicity and ease. Yes, it overprices short trips (disproportionately used by richer residents), but that does help to offset the subsidy to longer trips (disproportionately used by poorer residents), so I think it works out. The only thing you can’t use the fare for is the aerial tram — unless you have a monthly pass, in which case, hop on! Personally, I wouldn’t go back, even if $2.50 is a bit steep for what I use. I get so much for it that it’s hard to be ungrateful.

    Now Seattle is far larger than Portland, so I can see why up there, such a flat fare may not be feasible. As amazing as Seattle’s transit system is (I think it is, anyway), it does have some serious problems when it comes to intuitive use. It lacks clear way-finding (Portland beats the pants off of Seattle in this, as they assume everyone is a tourists, therefore information is abundant and crystal clear), there are multiple agencies, and the many fare structures can be daunting to untangle. The craziest bit for me has always been the fact that Link’s fare structure was different than buses even though it’s really a local line that’s mostly in the city of Seattle! The monorail being a cash-only thing was also a source of frustration, especially since nowadays most people don’t even carry cash anymore. There were times that I would have found the monorail useful but instead took the bus for simplicity.

    It seems to me, with my limited experience, that Metro buses, Link, the streetcar, and the monorail should all be on one flat fare. I would also include the Rapid Ride buses in this, I think. These are all the mostly likely routes to be used; they run all day, a lot of them quite frequently, and mostly serve Seattle proper (I know Rapid Ride has a larger geographic spread, including suburban runs, I’m just talking generally). I won’t comment on the rest as I don’t have experience with them.

    That’s my two cents, and it’s cool to be the first person to comment (at least I was when I began this).

    1. Now Seattle is far larger than Portland, so I can see why up there, such a flat fare may not be feasible.

      Geographically, it’s not.

      1. Are you sure Seattle is smaller than Portland? Just because the Max blue line spans the entire length of Portland’s greater metropolitan area doesn’t mean it would span Seattle’s. If you started it at Dupont station and stretched it toward Seattle it wouldn’t make it. In fact it would stop at Des Moines. It wouldn’t even connect to Link. If you started the Max Blue line at Everett station and sent it south it would just barely make it to Seattle. Which is about a third the way through the ST’s region.

    2. ” As amazing as Seattle’s transit system is (I think it is, anyway), it does have some serious problems when it comes to intuitive use. ”

      This! I’m a transit nerd that has used metro daily for 21 years. Even I sometimes get confused at fare structures, and bad wayfinding. It must be challenging for a tourist. They could at least put a sign that says “Train to Seattle” instead of “Link Light Rail” at the airport. How does a tourist know what “Link Light Rail” is or that it even goes to Seattle. Does ST/Metro have customer experience staff?

      1. Along the same lines, the process of buying an ORCA at one of the vending machines is awfully obtuse, if you don’t already know all the terminology and understand how the payment model is supposed to work.

      2. I’ve used transit in many cities around the world and I come back here, shake my head and wonder why anyone would go through the trouble to figure it out.

        I think there should be one rule in transit – make it as simple and consistent as possible. Once you get that done work on everything else.

  7. Vancouver, BC tried Option 1 when they rolled out their fare cards, and let me say it was a total disaster. Just created too much gridlock at the doors on the ways in and out of the bus. I don’t see how it would be any different here. In addition to Vancouver’s problem, the fares would be more opaque too, like getting into a taxi and not sure how much your fare is going to cost. Besides, many commutes involve a zig zag of sorts because the transit system isn’t taking people to where they need to go.

    I do favor charging commuter routes more, specifically the ones who have huge deadheading. Those are super pricey and they’ve been getting a sweet deal, free parking and cheap transit into seattle for how many years now?

  8. How about just eliminating zone fares and charge more for express buses?

    Local is slower and cheaper, express comes at a premium.

    Seems fair to me at least.

    Its also a lot less complicated than explaining zones.

    1. Local isn’t necessarily cheaper, though. Take two buses that go downtown to Northgate–the 40 and the 41 (which isn’t technically an express by Metro’s standards, but is definitely “express” service). You do NOT want to encourage people to take the 40 rather than the 41 to get to Northgate, because it is much more expensive (it takes over an hour). On the other hand, the 41 is quick and cheap, and for the same reason it is quick and cheap for Metro, it provides a better passenger experience. So you could probably get higher fares for the 41, since it’s such a time savings, but you run the risk of turning people away and towards service that it costs more to run (like the 40).

      On the other hand, there is a service that is both more expensive to run and a better passenger experience: Peak direction expresses. Those have much more deadheading, so they’re expensive. It would behoove Metro to either encourage people away from those services, or make them pay up.

      1. Agreed. base it on actual operating costs. I think all in city services should be local for this purpose. those routes serving destinations outside of seattle should potentially take the hit. like the 102 that goes by my house but if that route is intertwined with the 101 and 150 for operational purposes that should keep the costs down but it is a classic example of a surcharge capable route. frequent all day routes should not be surcharged.

  9. With the popularity of paying with phones, I would suggest moving to a system where someone buys a daily pass before they leave home or while waiting for a transit vehicle, with options on how to get a “boarding pass” (phone text or printed paper) for the day. I realize that daily passes can be passed around but overall the system would be very powerful. It’s easier now to pay for a cup of coffee at Starbucks than it is to pay a transit fare because of the hassle of using a separate Orca card.

    To make this work, a system based on scanners would be needed. Still, getting to transit fares scanned on a phone or piece of paper would seem to be a long-term strategy.

    A scanned system could even include a distance-based system option tied to a GPS. A pass purchase could have an unlimited mileage option or a cheaper total daily miles option with gps. Subsidies, rebates and gift cards would be easier to manage. Scanners at public meetings could even provide an automated rebate system for traveling to them. Fare machines and fare boxes could even print receipts that could be scanned so no one would have to read them visually.


    Just two regular adult fares. Local and regional. Let’s call them $3 and $5. Each route charges a single fare. Local fare for most routes. Regional fare for routes that 1) contemplate basically all riders traveling a long distance, and 2) have a local alternative for essentially all of the route. No, it doesn’t account perfectly for the relative costs of some routes. But it’s simple, easy to understand, doesn’t force anyone into paying a regional fare, doesn’t require tap-on tap-off or any farebox shenanigans, and generally reflects the fact that peak-hour peak-direction express service is expensive to run.


    This one is harder. Zones inevitably mean you have someone paying $5 to go two stops. Distance-based fares get illegible very quickly. My view is that the best solution is just two fares, with the distinction based on distance. They can even be $3 and $5 to match the buses! All trips shorter than a certain threshold (which I imagine would be ~10 miles) would cost the local fare, and all longer trips the regional fare. Count multiple trips in the same direction within a single transfer period as one trip, so that people can’t just hop off and back on to avoid the regional fare. Again, this isn’t totally “fair,” and doesn’t accurately reflect the cost of every trip, but it’s simple and at least gestures toward recognition of the fact that having very long rail lines is operationally expensive.

    1. What about transfers? Anything that requires passengers to pay significantly more than they would have had they been fortunate enough to have a one seat ride is going to make rationalizing restructures even more difficult than they already are.

      1. Local-local and regional-local transfers within the transfer period (which really should be 3 hours rather than 2) are free, local-regional transfers require payment of the $2 difference. Of course free transfers should require ORCA.

        One other thing I forgot to mention: make all low-income, senior, youth, and disability fares exactly half the regular fare.

      2. I’m assuming regional-regional transfers are free too. Right?

        What about round trip journeys? Under the current rules, if you have a short enough errand in the middle you can do the whole thing for a single fare. That seems wrong to me, although perhaps not wrong enough to be worth fixing — at least as long as you don’t base the fare on endpoint to endpoint distance travelled [Think Federal Way P&R bay 1 to Federal Way P&R bay 2 via downtown Seattle]. .

        I like the idea of a simplified reduced fare, 1/2 makes sense to me. Would like to see most of them gated by a non-transferrable personal ORCA [I agree that to make that acceptable, the ORCA card itself must be free.] I do wish that the lost revenue associated with these fares was more transparent (I realize that they probably induce demand, and that in some cases reduce demand elsewhere, so I understand that this figure has to be interpreted carefully; but opacity isn’t the right solution to that problem).

      3. Yes, regional-regional transfers within the transfer window would be free.

        I don’t see free round trips within the transfer window as a problem. I think it’s fine to say that payment of a fare gives the payer effectively a 2- (or, better yet, 3-) hour pass to some or all of the system (depending on fare paid).

      4. I actually think allowing free round trips is a good thing – it encourages people to take transit for a quick errand or appointment.

        It also allows for someone to get off the bus, run a quick errand, and then hope on another bus going the same direction – it’s technically two trips, but the person is still consuming the same amount of total transit.

  11. Fares should be calculated based upon distance traveled and be per-mile charging enough to 100% fund operation, labor, maintenance, expansion, and depreciation. Need to go only a short distance (the urban scenario)? You pay a small fee relative to others. Need to go further (the suburban scenario)? You pay a larger fee relative to others. No exceptions or handouts.

    1. I’ll be in favor of that the second that you propose making vehicle drivers pay all “operation, labor, maintenance, expansion, and depreciation” on all highways, city streets, and parking lots, and the public-health costs of driving, without any help from the general fund.

      1. Absolutely agree. The interstates should have on/off ramp toll detectors to calculate per mile tolls and should be set to cover 100% maintenance, operations, etc.

      2. The net effect of that would be to make transportation of any sort ruinously expensive. Any trip, by transit or driving, would cost $20 or more. People wouldn’t leave their houses except in emergencies. We subsidize transportation of all sorts because that’s not the way to a healthy economy or culture.

      3. The only mode of transportation that is economically viable without subsidies is walking on unpaved shoulders and dirt trails.

    2. Requiring transit to pay 100% of its operating costs would mean shutting down the transit system and having no transit. The maximum people will pay is based not on the operating cost but on what they think the service is worth, and they’re aggevated that inflation keeps pushing the fare higher when their paycheck doesn’t rise (because the business owners have been taking all the windfalls of increased productivity since 1980). People will not tolerate paying $10 fares for local trips any more than they’ll tolerate paying $10 for a dozen eggs. That’s why all the private transit companies in the early 1900s failed — they can’t charge a fare people can afford and make a profit.

      But if you step back, the city and all its citizens have a public interest in ensuring that everybody can get around at a reasonable price, without requiring all of them to have cars and drive. An all-driving situation just doesn’t scale beyond 50,000 people. Not to mention the people who can’t drive or can’t afford to. So cities have to have transit so that people can get to work, shopping, medical appointments, cultural activities, family meetings, and four tourists. All this helps the city’s economy and tax base (people working and shopping and tourists spending money), and public health (people getting medical care and exercise and the psychological benefits of family and cultural activities). So the city must provide transit at a fare that riders consider reasonable and affordable, even if it has to subsidize it. That’s why all cities subsidize transit.

      If you eliminate transit in New York City or London, commerce would grind to a halt, as in 9/11 and New York’s occasional power outages when people were walking across the bridges filling them completely and a 15-minute trip took over an hour. In Pugetopolis even though the majority drive, if you shut down all the trains and buses it would have a major impact on the city centers’ commerce and everyone else.

      1. If you stripped away public subsidies for all forms of transportation, transit would still run – it would be at a much higher price point, but so would public rounds.

    3. Transit plays an important role in connecting communities within a city and connecting people to services. In cities like NYC, the operating subsidy for transit is one of the largest forms of governmental support for the poor. That is very intentional public policy, and I don’t think the region is interested is turning away from it.

    4. What you’re proposing is unrealistic and out of sync to the realities of public transportation. Farebox recovery only does so much to help keep buses and other forms of public transport running.

      1. I think most people would be willing to pay noticeably more for buses than we do now. I know I would. They are a steal right now.

        Also some metro lines do operate at a profit, so it doesn’t seem impossible that fares could be raised to mark that true for several more lines. Obviously most lines won’t make money, but as density increases that may change.

      2. The only transit agency in the world that runs a profit is Hong Kong, and that is because the agency owns a bunch of land around the stations that they lease to commercial and residential tenants.

      3. The individual lines that run a profit are only able to do so because they are part of a larger subsidized system.

      4. EricHerde there are plenty of privately-run transit lines in the world. Most of them must be operating at a profit or they wouldn’t exist.

  12. Metro had 38 fare zones??!?

    So how did fare payment work in 1973? Was one expected to have researched how many fare zones his trip crossed upon boarding the bus? Or was the driver responsible for telling the passenger how much the fare is for their trip? Or did they pay when they got off, after counting how many zone boundaries they crossed?

    1. Perhaps you had to get off the bus and re-board every time the bus crossed a zone boundary :-)

    2. “Or did they pay when they got off, after counting how many zone boundaries they crossed?”

      I think it was 30 zones, not 38. The ship canal was one zone boundary, for instance. If I’m recalling aright, your transfer was punched to show the zone in which you boarded and whether you paid a one-zone or multiple-zone fare.

      I would hope that the next-gen Orca card would be tap-less, automatically registering when/where boarding and deboarding, or entering and leaving stations, without the rider having to do anything. That would allow simplified payment of distance-based fares, starting with a base fare.

    3. Singapore has a Byzantine distance-based fare system for their bus system; I never really thought about it as I wasn’t price-conscious to that level, but it had something to do with km traveled and came up with weird fares to the cent (cash fares are rounded to the nearest 5 cents, and are 60-70 cents higher than paying by card). The transit authority actually has a fare calculator you can use. As in most of the world with smart cards, you tap on/off at any door.

      1. Distance-based bus fares are much more common in Asia.

        The Singapore system integrated the bus and rail fares by distance with the first two miles included in the base fare. And the fares are quite affordable considering local wages and costs. For monthly passes there’s just one pass for unlimited rides.

        With ORCA, why do Link fares have to be rounded to the nearest quarter? Those cents add up.

  13. I think simple is better, and might be able to account for the fairness argument.

    If there was 1 fare for all Metro buses regardless of route, time, or distance, that would be much easier for people to understand. The occasional cash riders wouldn’t have to fumble around for an extra quarter. People wouldn’t have to argue with drivers about whether the cutoff time for peak fare is when the bus leaves the terminal, or when the bus reaches a stop, or when it arrives at its destination. And people wouldn’t have to tell the driver to adjust the fare, if they even know to do it (e.g. 372 riders from UW only traveling to Lake City but getting charged the 2-zone fare). All that would speed up boarding, saving Metro lots of money, which presumably they could use to either improve service or lower fares (or at the least delay raising fares).

    Zones can also lead to weird outcomes. Someone who wants to go from Lake City to Lake Forest Park Monday at 5pm via the 372 is technically paying a 2-zone fare, despite only travelling 2 miles.

  14. Why not skip fares altogether and aim for free public transit?

    1. Consolidate the regional agencies under Sound Transit.
    2. Make service free during off-peak hours with a cashless flat fare during peak hours. Those with an ORCA LIFT always get free fare.
    3. Make ORCA cards free to all, but seek to integrate consumer technology as much as possible (app-based payment, NFC integration on smartphones, etc.).
    4. To recoup operating costs and improve reliability, charge peak congestion fees and raise the commercial parking tax in metro areas under ST’s jurisdiction.
    5. To address “problem riders”, implement a thorough free housing plan for the homeless.

    Of course this would all take a ton of political will that doesn’t exist right now, but a pretty ideal system.

  15. In my role as amateur historian, here’s a look at how it go this way. My Metro experience only goes back to 1980, so I can’t comment on Seattle Transit or the suburban agencies in the 70s, except my impression that suburban service barely existed. Greyhound ran between Seattle and Renton once upon a time.

    In the early 80s Metro had two fare zones at the Seattle boundary. Fares were 40c and 60c. The network was half coverage, half peak-express to downtown. Many neighborhoods had only peak-express; the nearest all-day stop was a mile or two away. All-day routes were half-hourly in Seattle, hourly in the suburbs. Only a few routes were more frequent; e.g., the 7 (10 minutes in Rainier), the 2 (20 minutes midday), and the overlaps (3/4, 71/72/73/74, 26/28. 15/18). So hardly anything was more than coverage level. The Ride Free Area downtown was in effect, originally intended to entice shoppers downtown during the urban decline years, and to provide circulation within downtown.

    The peak surcharge started in the 80s or early 90s. It was based on the premise that peak service was more expensive on all routes, because even all-day routes had their frequency doubled.

    This was in contrast to larger cities with a flat-rate city agency, like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. They covered a smaller, denser area with full-time frequent service at a flat rate. Going to the suburbs meant using a different agency with a different fare structure. My impression was that most large cities had separate city/suburban agencies, while county-based agencies were move of a small-city and western thing. One exception was Los Angeles, which has a county-based agency. The city/suburban agency split made it easy to charge premium fares on suburban express routes.

    Metro’s mandate was clearly to offer peak-expresses to downtown as a basic service. The attempt at a premium fare was the two-zone system, which effectively hit long-distance commuters, but it also perversely affected those living just outside the boundary who went from N 155th Street to N 130th Street, or S 120th Street to Barton Street. It also penalized people riding the slow 131 from Burien to downtown, who paid as much as as the Auburn peak-expresses or Auburn milk run. This unjust system lasted for decades.

    In the 1990s ST Express was created, and offered new all-day expresses between counties, to Issaquah and Redmond, and the direct 522 that didn’t detour to Northgate and was half-hourly instead of hourly. ST originally had a 3- or 4-zone system I think, that did not coincide with Metro’s zones. Later it simplified this to the 2-level one-county or multi-county system. That’s easiest for people to remember, but it gives a great deal to people in Federal Way and Woodinville, and a crappy deal to people in Mountlake Terrace. ST raises its fares independently of Metro, so they leapfrog each other. Sometimes the 550 is cheaper than the 271 peak hours; other times they’re the same.

    Metro dropped the off-peak 2-zone fare around… the mid 2000s? That was about the time it split some more very long routes like the 174 and went to a more trunk-and-feeder system, so the remaining off-peak 2-zone routes are either short (like the 348), or city-suburban routes (like the 5 and 120) that are still just medium-sized.

    My recommendation is as I said above: move away from Metro zone surcharges and peak surcharges to route surcharges on long-distance express routes. Not short ones like the 41 or 76, or the 150 which has no alternative, but very long ones like like the Kent and Federal Way expresses.

    There is a problem with this, however. Routes like the 15X may be more about capacity management than a premium service. I.e., without the 15X the D would be completely overwhelmed. So it’s a variation of the A/B stop pattern, where at times of overwhelming demand one train makes some stops and another train makes the other stops, so that everybody can get to their destination faster, and sort-distance passengers don’t crowd out long-distance passengers or vice-versa. In that case, we want people to ride the 15X so they don’t overwhelm the D, and charging a premium express fare may be counterproductive. More controversally, it may be the same situation with the 74, 76, and 216 and 218. I thought the peak-expresses were pretty empty until I rode the 218 once to the Issaquah Highlands and saw that it was choc-full. I assume the 216 and 219 are too. So if these people were to take the 554, ST would need twice as many buses. In that case, don’t we want people to take the 218 if they’re going to those stops so they’re not overcrowding the 554? Is the 218 really a premium service, or simply a kind of A/B stop pattern to manage the crowds?

    1. Do you know if the two zone fare structure is a legacy of the merger between Seattle transit and the suburban agencies or a later addition?

      1. I understand Metro was created in 1979, so a year before I started to use it. So the two-zone system must have been an intrinsic part of Metro’s creation.

        What happened to me was my parents always drove everywhere, and in 1979 I chose to attend a small junior high school across town in Bellevue that didn’t have a school bus to my house. At first I was afraid to take Metro because I’d never taken a public bus, and my parents drove me, but after several months I got off early one day and took Metro home, and then I started taking Metro everywhere ever since. I assumed the bus routes had been in place for years, but if Metro Transit was really created in 1979, then it was just before I started using it.

      2. Metro Transit began operations in 1973 after voters in the prior year approved giving Metro the authority to take over the city-owned Seattle Transit System and private suburban Metropolitan Transit Corporation to create a county-wide system. Seattle Transit had multiple zones in the city and Metro simply extended that system to the entire county. You can see a map of the 30 zones on Metro’s first system map. The two-zone system was created in 1977.

      3. I once heard this citizen proposal at a public meeting that relates to your experience Mike: give free passes to 14 or 15 year old kids for several months to a year to train them to like to ride a bus. Once familiar with the concept, they would be more likely to be transit riders and advocates for life. Your story is a good example!

  16. “The resulting zones or distance-based fares would typically be difficult to understand or remember.”

    Distance based fares are the way to go with tap-on and tap-off (preferably at the stop). They seem incredibly easy to understand (unlike zones, maybe). Sure they may be difficult the remember…but does anyone care? All people have to know is that the overall fare structure is reasonable (clear and not too expensive), they don’t have to know how much each trip costs. For those that really do care (low income folks) ORCA can provide low-income cards that charge the same low price for all trips (which I believe is what is currently done).

    ALSO, why in the world doesn’t the phone app have the exact same functionality as an ORCA card!?!?!?! Totally crazy…

  17. One problem with imposing distance based fares on an existing system is Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act. Utah Transit Authority had a pilot running on their bus system but, as confirmed when I talked to the project manager at Transportation Camp in January, they abandoned it due to the Title VI implications. There was no way to prove that low income people or minority people in the suburbs who had to ride in the city were disporoportionately impacted than white or higher income people closer in. While Attorney General Sessions would not likely enforce Title VI, you could have a public interest group like the LA Bus Riders Union sue and freeze this unless a full and comprehensive Title VI evaluation was done. It’s much easier for a general fare increase, or even for zone elimination, than it is for adding zones or categories.

  18. Why not get rid of zone fares, but charge for transfers?

    Instead of going cash-less, why not just go coin-less? That would eliminate the hold-up of fishing for quarters. The base cash fare could be $2, and then $1 when boarding with a valid transfer. Seniors, youths, disabled, and low-income riders would pay a $1 base fare and get free transfers.

    When using an Orca card, why not cap monthly expenditures? That way, everyone gets a monthly pass, not just those who can afford to pay for it upfront. London’s Owl system caps daily fares.

    I’m not against express bus riders paying the same fare as regular riders – those are riders you *want* on the bus, in that they represent the higher CO2 reduction..

    1. Charging for transfers is a bad idea, as it unfairly penalizes people who are traveling a short distance, but have to transfer because no one route goes all the way. With a gridded system, this would affect every trip that goes northeast or southwest, rather than due north or due west.

      Charging for transfers also encourages people to demand a network that provides one-seat rides from everywhere to everywhere, which, in turn, translate into a network with a spaghetti of infrequent routes, rather than a few frequent routes.

      1. I don’t think the fare transfer rules contribute significantly to the one-seat-ride lobby. That lobby already exists, and is quite adamant.

  19. First step ought to be eliminating paper transfers. For cash payers on rapid ride drivers would hand out proof of payment slips that are valid only on that specific bus!!

    1. Amen. The main thing that paper transfers do is allow for organized theft through fare evasion. When people don’t pay (and there’s no threat of a penalty for not doing so), they have no incentive to be respectful to the service. The cleanliness and civility on Link trains vs. Metro buses clearly illustrates this point. My daily comparison of U-Link vs. the 8 or 48 has been eye-opening in these regards.

      For me, it’s not the fare amount that’s important, it’s that a legitimate ride can be efficiently paid for and effectively enforced.

  20. Pingback: A Fair Fare

Comments are closed.