Transportation is the second-largest monthly expenditure for many households. And for some, the cost of a bus or train ticket can limit access to parts of the city within walking distance.
A pilot program conducted by Capitol Hill Housing, an affordable housing developer, subsidized fares for a group of residents and showed that a small investment can open up the city to many.
The Affordable Housing Transit Pass Pilot Program had a minimal impact on car trips, which dropped just slightly from 10 to 8 percent. Rather, “the increase in transit commuting was mainly a result of a switch from walking, which fell from 35 percent to 18 percent of participants,” concluded a report evaluating the program.
“It’s easy to predict that giving transit passes will change people’s behavior,” said Alex Brennan, a senior planner with Capitol Hill Housing and one of the authors of the report. “But the report highlights just how many low-income folks don’t take trips they need to take because they don’t have the money.”
One participant told Capitol Hill Housing the program improved their quality of life.
“I’m able to take advantage of specials in grocery stores that are beyond walking distance. I’m able to get extensive reduced-fee dental care at the University of Washington School of Dentistry without worrying about transportation costs. I’ve explored new areas of Seattle that were previously out of reach because of because of transportation costs.”
Many residents living in affordable housing units don’t receive the perk of a subsidized transit pass through their job or school. A survey conducted by Capitol Hill Housing found that 68 percent of residents with transit passes living in market-rate housing received them through an employer or school, which paid part or all the cost of the pass. Meanwhile, only 21 percent of those living in affordable housing benefit from a subsidized transit pass program.
“Although the survey sample was not randomized, this finding suggested that low-income affordable housing residents were paying more for transit than their wealthier neighbors in market rate housing,” concluded Capitol Hill Housing’s report.
Many of those neighbors receive ORCA passes from their employer pass through the ORCA Business Passport. Costs vary depending on the business’ location but is often less than the standard monthly pass, ranging locally between $99 and $117 a month. According to Metro, the full monthly retail value of a passport is over $200.
A downtown employer can purchase monthly transit passes for an annual cost of $818.86 per employee, or roughly $68 a month, about two-thirds the cost of a standard monthly pass. Businesses in South Lake Union are charged even less through the program, paying an estimated $59 a month for each employee pass.
That’s a very similar price to the $54 a month eligible low-income riders pay through the ORCA LIFT discount program. With only 56 percent of households in Capitol Hill Housing buildings qualifying for the ORCA LIFT program, according to Capitol Hill Housing, almost half are still paying the standard fare.
“Something to understand: passes provided by employers and educational institutions are based on usage, and the costs are spread across many users, which can make the cost appear smaller when it is compared to another group, or when compared to someone who buys their pass individually,” wrote Jeff Switzer, a spokesperson for Metro in an email.
To reach more residents, in recent years Metro expanded the passport program by adding a Multifamily Passport, similar to the Business Passport but with property owners providing passes to renters. Cost in the first year is based on the existing transit in the neighborhood where the building is located; in subsequent years, the price is determined by a number of transit residents in the program used in the previous year.
Affordable-housing providers lack the flexibility to raise rents to offset the cost of additional amenities, preventing their participation in this program. To bridge that gap, last April Capitol Hill Housing launched the Affordable Housing Transit Pass Pilot Program.
In partnership with the Seattle Department of Transportation, which subsidized the transit passes, the pilot program included three buildings in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. A little more than half of the eligible 122 households participated in the program, which allowed residents to purchase monthly passes for as little as $10, depending on the location of the apartment building. The cost in the second year was raised to $20 for all participants. SDOT covered the cost that would have been incurred by the property owners, which added up to $32,000 for the first year of the pilot program.
Capitol Hill Housing found the pilot program, which ended in June, increased transit usage by 53 percent among participants, with a majority spending less money on transit.
Capitol Hill Housing is currently working with Seattle and King County to continue and enlarge the program. Metro said the transit agency is always looking at ways to help affordable property owners make transit pass programs sustainable.
The report estimated it would cost $3.5 million to expand the program to include all affordable housing buildings in Seattle and over $8.4 million for a countywide expansion.