“3rd Ave Gridlock” photo by Zach Heistand / flickr

King County Metro is considering a modernization of its fare system, and has gone expeditiously through a lot of public process to get to two final proposals. The results of the second of two non-scientific surveys are available online. Out of 935 responses, 609 strongly liked the $2.75 flat fare proposal, while 147 somewhat liked it. For the competing proposal for a flat $3 peak fare and $2.50 off-peak fare, 136 respondents strongly liked it, 116 somewhat liked it, 148 chose “neutral”, 234 somewhat disliked it, and 296 strongly disliked it. It looks strongly likely that a proposal to have a flat $2.75 regular adult fare, for all trips at all times of day, will be headed to the county council shortly. The boldness of this proposal far exceeded any expectations I had for Metro’s operationally-conservative culture.

The responses to the essay question from this non-scientific survey, asking “What other ideas do you have for ways to make ORCA and transit more accessible and affordable?” offer a glimpse into what activist-minded riders (at least the 259 who offered responses) are clamoring for, in addition to eliminating fare disputes over complexity. Respondents took the opportunity to write about automobile parking availability, seating rules, stop location rules, service patterns, and other topics not directly related to fares. Of those who wrote about fares beyond calling for stuff already tallied in the survey, stuff that already exists (most notably an inter-agency day pass costing $8, or $4 for all reduced-fare categories, loaded onto your ORCA card) or commenting on the two current proposals:

  • 20 called for ORCA cards to be less expensive or free.
  • 16 called for more places and hours to get and load an ORCA card, including more retailers and all transit centers and park & rides.
  • 11 called for the cash fare to be higher than the ORCA fare.
  • 9 called for eliminating paper transfers.
  • 9 called for the cash fare to be in even dollars.
  • 9 called for all transit agencies to accept ORCA and transfers, including the monorail and Washington State Ferries. The Seattle Center decided not to go forward with the proposed monorail fare increase, after an outpouring of opposition to raising the fare without integrating into the regional transit network’s fare system.
  • 9 called for lowering monthly pass prices.
  • 8 called for lower fares in general.
  • 6 called for making transit free.
  • 5 called for funds added to ORCA cards online to be available much more quickly.
  • 5 called for distance-based fares, using tap-off.
  • 5 called for stricter fare enforcement, on all routes.
  • 4 called for bringing back the Ride Free Area.
  • 4 called for weekly passes.
  • 4 called for all-door boarding, with ORCA readers at all doors.
  • 3 called for cross-agency fare alignment, including Link.
  • 3 called for cash transfers between buses and light rail.
  • 3 called for free ORCA monthly passes for the homeless.
  • 3 called for making ORCA available on smart phones via apps (as is planned for ORCA 2.0).
  • 3 called for raising the age for youth fare qualification.

14 more suggestions were offered twice. 50 were offered just once. Some called for multiple items, so I counted each part of their response as separate requests. A lot of the answers weren’t answering the question of how to make buses more accessible and affordable, but rather what changes respondents wanted to see at Metro.

As I’ve said before, the $2.75 flat-fare proposal does good stuff, but doesn’t do much for the most urgent problem facing Metro as we approach September 2018 and the roll-out of One Center City constructionlock. To get more transit passengers into and out of downtown will require buses to each spend less time in downtown, which is to say, they’ll have to move faster.

Kicking cars off of 3rd Ave is essential to the continuation of downtown mobility, but so is minimizing dwell time at bus stops. To get there, we have to come to grips with the problem that change fumbling costs time. We have to disincentive cash payment as widely as possible while not making transit less accessible.

I’d like to propose several actions that, taken individually, may be unacceptable to various stakeholders, but taken together, should lift all boats, so to speak.

First, the sticks:

  1. Eliminate paper transfers. Use them only for proof-of-payment on buses that have roving fare enforcement (who will presumably balk at the use of papers that are older than the rider, in contrast to operators who are trained not to question such fraud).
  2. Raise the regular cash fare to a flat $3.

Now, the carrots:

  1. Roll out that pilot project for free monthly passes for no-income riders that Metro is contemplating.
  2. Double the allotment of human service tickets, so the loss of paper transfers hopefully harms nobody relying on them.
  3. Reduce the youth/LIFT fare to a flat $1.
  4. If the ORCA pod won’t eliminate the insipid ORCA card fees, have the county buy out these fees for all cards distributed through Metro customer service and other offices giving out cards by hand.

There will still be some pain for riders transitioning to ORCA payment, visitors, and newcomers, but at least it should be one-time pain. For the majority of riders already using ORCA, our rides should become less painfully-slowed-down from change fumbling.

Reducing the youth and LIFT fare is the most direct, universally-impactful, non-gimmicky, non-rule-adding, non-lottery approach to making transit more affordable for families. Indeed, this is essentially a rollback of the council’s blithe decision in 2011 to target the most politically powerless group (youth) with a 50-cent fare increase while everyone else’s stayed the same. Before that, the youth fare matched the Regional Reduced Fare Permit fare (for seniors 65+ and riders with disabilities), at 75 cents. With the recession over, and Metro reaching 31% gross fare recovery, technically in violation of the county’s goal of 25-30% fare recovery, this is a great opportunity to undo that sin that raised the annual cost to families for transit by $216 per year for each child 6-18 riding on a daily basis.

Setting the cash fares at $1 for all reduced categories and $3 for regular fares should result in virtual coinlessness. I’d be delighted for Metro to spend a chunk of its fare recovery that is exceeding the county’s goal on making all of this happen in time for September 2018’s constructionlock.

34 Replies to “Virtual Coinlessness & Affordability for Families”

  1. Having paid cash for transit outside the US, I believe it’s not coins that are the problem. Good coinage is faster than bills — faster to grab and handle, faster to identify by sight and touch, faster to feed into a machine. The problem we have in the US is that we have to combine coins and bills because coins are only available in such small denominations. You have to fumble around with your bills, then fish around in your pocket for coins.

    Unfortunately transit agencies can’t fix this. Bill-only payment is better than combining bills and coins, but US cash is so impractical that substantial speed improvements only come by eliminating it.

    1. When I go to Britain or Canada I usually pay in bills and get change in coins because that holds up the line less than than me digging out coins for the last pound or dollar. That works fine in the US but in Britain and Canada I end up with $10 in coins which are a heavy mass so I have to unload them somewhere. So I end up having to ask retailers for reverse change (bills for 5 or 10 pounds). Maybe it’s easier for Europeans who can whip out and select the coins more quickly, but for me it was difficult.

      When I was last abroad the highest-denomination British coin was worth $3.50. It was the opposite in Russia where the lowest bill was worth 10 cents, everybody paid and received bills, and I didn’t even know coins still existed until one supermarket insisted on charging produce at the exact fractional weight and gave me kopec coins (1 kopec was worth 1/3 of a cent). Everyone else sold a kilo or half kilo and rounded the price to a bill worth 40 cents. For machines that are normally paid by coin (telephones), they took subway tokens or special tokens instead, or phone cards.

      This allowed me to see the difference between a more coin-based economy than the US, vs an all-bill economy. A coin-based economy is more efficient because the coins last longer, but on the flip side it’s probably more convenient to pay with bills and they fit in your wallet easier.

  2. “It looks strongly likely that a proposal to have a flat $2.75 regular adult fare, for all trips at all times of day, will be headed to the county council shortly.”

    I would hope that decision is being made based on more than the results of this non-scientific survey polling < 0.5% of Metro riders…

  3. What happens when an agency that used to have 30+ fare zones decides to kill zone-based fares while refusing to consider touching the 25% farebox recovery, the highest in the region except for Link (which has distance-based fares)?

    Answer: You get $2.75 fare for even a 1 mile bus trip. Except for those who get a $99 monthly pass, you can forget about people taking the bus for short urban (or suburban) trips. Seriously though, what about this?

    $2 orca, $3 cash. Yes, you heard me, $2. How crazy is it to charge a price that people will actually pay? A price that might actually get people out of their cars? I would have been happy to give up my 179 (Seattle express from my old neighborhood) for that.

    Especially given that in the original survey, keeping the same farebox recovery standard was the 2nd least preferred priority.

  4. $3.00 regional single ride, $5.00, regional all-day pass, all agencies. Which should be basic basic fare regionwide. Monthly regional pass, whatever’s fair. Always been best for me, so will settle on the high side. Bring back yearly.

    Have every convenience store, espresso cafe, hotel, and gas station in the region sell them. Also every Cascades bistro car- like California Amtrak does. And Sea-Tac Airport. And get with airlines to include regional day-pass with every ticket to Seattle.

    And with one phone call to Fare Inspection this morning, give the word that all inspectors need to verify is that my monthly pass is valid and paid-up. With max penalty for out-of-sequence “tap” being friendly though unnecessary reminder.

    Because this will reduce global warming and the increasing number of mudslides between Olympia and Portland. By saving the trees required for the paper day-passes I always buy now at first LINK boarding. Call it Theft-by-Theft-Prosecution insurance.

    But as a former little boy, I still try my best to diligently always tap because I like LINK, electronic fare systems, and beeps. Notice how many three year olds demand to stand on tip-toe and tap cards on reader-screens they can’t even see. Good guarantee of lifelong fare compliance, and also lifetime pro-transit votes starting in fifteen years.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Metro’s default product should be a day pass. A single-trip fare, if it’s offered at all, is for people who insist they’re sure they won’t need a return trip or second trip that day.

      However, that would leave a substantial revenue hole for long Sounder and Link trips.

      1. Very good point, MIke, except for people with a weekly or monthly pass.

        However long distance commuters should be paying a lot more than inner city riders who go short distances. We already have too many subsidies for suburban sprawl.

      2. Why should people walking one direction and riding the bus the other have to pay for the round trip. The result would be a bus ride back that costs as much, if not more than Uber. The insistence on buying a daypass for a single trip was part of the reason for Pronto’s unpopularity.

      3. The flip side of that is when you get a single-trip ticket and then you end up using the bus again later because your return plans didn’t work out, the person you wanted to meet wasn’t there, or you change your mind about later plans.

        The main issue is what is the character of the transit system we want. Is it to be “all you can eat” for people who use transit an arbitrary amount and are encouraged to use it whenever it’s useful. Or is it to be for occasional single trips, usually once a day or less, in a way that makes people hesitate before making another trip and try to predict whether they’ll want to later. The former is where dependable ridership is. The latter depends on the arbitrary whims of occasional riders and assumes another form of transportation is primary for them (usually a car). If the day pass rate is at a level that’s acceptable for occasional single-trip days, then there’s no need for a single-trip fare. As for people that do a lot of one-trip-a-day’s, I think there aren’t that many of them and we shouldn’t cater to them. Especially if the day pass value can be shared with other agencies so it’s a question of all transit trips rather than those on one agency.

  5. I am surprised that more people didn’t request eliminating cash and paper transfers all together.

    Many transit agencies have already done it and it sure seems like the way of the future.

    Yes, you would need to get more places to get cards but you could also eliminate a lot of cost in money handling equipment on a lot of buses. Not to mention all of the operational delays in handling cash.

    1. It’s the result of the survey questions. When something is not asked explicitly, most people don’t know it’s a possibility, or forget to mention it, or can’t find an effective way to communicate it in the form. Most people were probably in the first category (“don’t know it’s a possibility”), but the other two also led to a reduction in number.

  6. Well, the people have spoken and they clearly think I’m wrong, so at least this time when Metro makes the wrong choice they’re making it for the right reasons. Sigh. It remains outrageous that the cost of a basic metro ride has more than doubled relative to inflation in just 19 years. The product has improved, but not enough to justify that.

    Add to that we’re taking away an incentive to make non-time sensitive trips when we have spare capacity…I get the arguments here for it, but I’m not convinced.

    1. Metro’s expenses are more complex than just inflation. The era of frequent increases from maybe 2004 to 2008 were because of rising fuel costs. Gas went from $3 to over $4 in 2008 alone. After the crash, sales tax-revenue plummeted, which meant Metro couldn’t reduce the fare even though oil prices went down because it needed every penny to keep the buses on the road, and still had to slash planning and administrative staff and cut routes. Now the problem is that the rising population needs more bus service, and fares only pay for 30% of the additional service so the rest has to come from elsewhere. So the answer is, yes fares are higher than most of the country, but the only solution is another funding source that could replace some of the fare revenue, and the state does not want to allow any kind of tax that could provide that.

      By the way, we should also get away from funding Metro mostly by sales tax. Sales tax revenue goes boom-and-bust with the economy. Other taxes such as property or income are more stable and would allow more consistent service. But again, the state is not willing to allow those alternatives for the present.

  7. One downside of implementing a $1 fare is that it becomes next to impossible to raise it to $2, ever. Coins may be annoying, but they allow for incremental increases instead of “huge” fare hikes. Politically, nobody wants to be the person who doubles the youth fare.

    I’m not particularly concerned with the 31% farebox recovery exceeding the 30% guideline. It will evaporate with even a small increase in fuel, wage, health care, or pension expenses.

    1. The county is apparently not concerned with it either since it hasn’t moved to raise fares. But if the gap widens or goes on for long, it will. Unless the county council changes its mind about the policy in the meantime.

  8. Probably one of the weirdest things I’ve seen on this site is that Metro’s ridership success has put in “violation” of its farebox recovery goal by collecting more revenue than “guidelines” suggest. We should all cheer the increase in farebox recovery, as every $1 collected from the farebox is $1 less that is needed to be collected from government revenue sources that can change at the whim of shoppers (sales tax revenue) or Republican legislatures. In contrast, was reading that Calgary, AB was concerned because lower ridership had lowered their farebox recovery ratio to 48% from a goal of 50-55%.

    1. SDOT’s top up for Metro Service is funded by property tax, no?

      High farebox recovery will only make sense if substitutes for transit are also appropriately priced – I.e. congestion pricing downtown, no free street parking in suburban Seattle neighborhoods, tolls on all freeways, etc.

    2. Not enough to make a difference. 1% is so small it’s a rounding error. Actions by the state to change the tax ceiling, by the county to change the fare (in 25c increments nowadays), and voter initiatives have a larger impact. You’d have to get the farebox recovery to 50% or 70% before it would be substantially immune to the whims of taxes and the economy. And that would be much harder to achieve than overlooking the 1% gap: it would require raising fares from $2.75 to $4.50 or $6.40. At that point people would say it’s an outrageous rip-off and refuse to ride, and working-class commuters would have to walk.

      But even if raising the fare recovery is desirable to gain independence from taxes, it fails in transit’s other missions. The county’s interest is in maximizing ridership to avoid the negative externalities of driving, and to ensure that people of all income can get around to wherever they go. Full mobility is what leads to the biggest economy, tax revenue, public health, cultural life, etc. So fares or underfunding should never be a barrier to mobility. Raising fares to decrease tax dependence is one such hinderance. It may be a good idea sometimes as part of a total reform package, but in isolation it appears to mainly cause hinderances.

      Canada has more compact communities and a greater cultural willingness to use transit, even in Calgary. I’ve read that Calgary’s light rail is like typical American ones (Portland, Dallas) but has three times the ridership. (Link is unique, it’s more like a subway, or what’s called light metro.)

      Metro’s other 70% of revenue comes from sales tax, not property tax. This is bad for two reasons. One, sales-tax revenue goes boom-and-bust with the economy, making it hard to keep service level consistent over time. It creates sudden recessions that require cutbacks and deferring capital purchases, and sudden recoveries that require rehires and retraining and cause a temporary shortage of buses and drivers. Two, sales tax is the most regressive tax, because poor people spend more of their paycheck on necessities.

    3. Canada has more compact communities

      With respect to Calgary compared to Seattle, this simply isn’t true. Calgary is very suburban, predominantly single family housing. 50% less dense than Seattle.

      1. Calgary’s entire urbanized area is a compact 15×20 mile rectangle, roughly the city of Seattle plus the Eastside. Outside it is mostly prairies. Employment is very centralized in its downtown and parking is priced. This is partially why Calgary has high transit ridership (333k on light rail alone) despite being mostly suburban in form.

        Meanwhile Seattle’s urbanized area is 60 miles from Everett to Tacoma plus exurban sprawl along I-5 further south and north. There are multiple employment centers.

      2. Calgary’s urban area is around 5500 ppsm. Seattle’s urban area is around 2800 ppsm.

        Comparing region to region, Calgary is much, much denser than Seattle.

  9. I’m not sure I understand why my suggestion is not being considered: Make all of the Puget Sound’s transit completely FREE and then make up the difference through congestion tolling of private automobile drivers.

    I fully recognize that this would hurt the Seattle Times comment section’s feelings, but it would be very effective and may even generate additional revenue!

    One way to avoid paying the congestion toll would be by taking the free bus, so that’s an option that maybe people should start to consider.

    People who choose, selfishly and greedily, to drive alone in Seattle deserve to subsidize those who are making responsible, sustainable transportation decisions. The transit fare should be $0 and I would be fine with congestion tolling reaching upwards of $25,000 per day for people who choose to drive into downtown Seattle.

  10. Using flash passes for monthly passes instead of cards that need to be swiped would speed up boarding as well. Toronto uses flash passes. I believe Vancouver does as well. But KCM seems to have no interest in that.

    1. We had them in the past (functionally) but inter-agency bookkeeping blah blah blah.

  11. I’m glad the zone system will disappear, but I’m sad to see the peak surcharge (or off-peak discount) go away. One of the primary reasons for Metro’s above-average labor costs is their dependency on more expensive part-time labor for added peak-hour service. Riders should be encouraged to use the less expensive off-peak service, to help reduce our dependency on part-time drivers.

    But at least we’ll have fare parity with ST Express all day long.

  12. What the outreach didn’t do was compare them to the existing fares very well. The $2.75 flat fare is the same as the current one-zone fare, so for everyone who has a one-zone pass like myself, nothing wlll change. Only those who travel solely off-peak or travel off-peak without a pass will see an increase. While I’d like to give a discount to those going to off-peak minimum-wave jobs, this can be dealt with by expanding the low-income alternatives. This is a historic opportunity to simplify the fare to the maximum extent, and we should take it now because it will put us in a better position long-term when other fare negotiations come up. Otherwise we’ll have done an incomplete job and it will be harder to argue for simplifications later.

    As for peak hours incurring the most expenses, that was Metro’s original reason for adding the peak surcharge in the 1980s. But it was always kind of bogus, and Metro should have put surcharges on the longest-distance peak expresses instead. Encourage people to shift to off-peak hours is good but it can only have a minor effect because most people have to work a day shift. Businesses have to be open when their customers expect them and when their business partners are open. Everywhere in the world including countries with comprehensive transit systems have peak hours similar to ours. If New York and London can’t get out of the habit of most people working the same hours, we’re not going to solve it here. People already time-shift a few hours if they can, to avoid the traffic and crowded buses or if they’re tech workers or flexible non-workers. Day-shift workers keep the economy running and pay most of the taxes that support everyone, so the least we can do is put in some extra service hours to keep transit from being overcrowded.

  13. Vancouver has now moved to a monthly pass loaded on a card similar to the ORCA card. The problem with flash passes is that it encourages fare evasion, and is on the driver to enforce. Tapping a card on a device that registers a happy or sad sound lets everyone know that you are using a valid or invalid fare.

    I don’t think fare free is appropriate for Seattle, but I was thinking about it the other day when I read San Jose (CA) VTA’s farebox recovery had dropped all the way down to 10% (!). My other thought about farebox recovery is that a higher farebox recovery could attenuate some of the anti-transit politicians that are always griping about transit funding.

  14. Fate enforcement on Rapid Ride is lacking and I see homeless people, drug addicts and others waiting for Rapid Ride buses specifically to ride without paying a fare or tapping an Orca card. One only has to be at 3rd and Bell for a few minutes to see fare evaders hopping the rapid rides with no fare enforcement ever seen. Metro must be losing thousands of dollars daily from evading riders at that stop alone.

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