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:
- 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).
- Raise the regular cash fare to a flat $3.
Now, the carrots:
- Roll out that pilot project for free monthly passes for no-income riders that Metro is contemplating.
- Double the allotment of human service tickets, so the loss of paper transfers hopefully harms nobody relying on them.
- Reduce the youth/LIFT fare to a flat $1.
- 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.