Link Light Rail Train heading to the SODO Station Credit: Lizz Giordano

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.

20 Replies to “Subsidizing Transit Increases Access, Decreases Walking Trips”

  1. This seems like a very cost effective program. Even the minor decrease in car usage (10 to 8 percent) makes this worth it. But as noted, the great improvement is in mobility. To think that someone went from not going to the dentist, to having quality dental care is huge. That means they will have fewer medical problems overall (poor dental health is linked to a host of other long term medical problems) and is just one example of why this is a great program that should be expanded.

    1. Why does / should someone have to ride a bus to a dentist? If people really want a community amongst the high rises, then everything should truly be available without the need for transit. If Seattle doesn’t continue to sell its soul, neighborhoods should be just that, neighborhoods; medical, groceries, barber, retail, pharmacy, etc all within walking distance. That’s what makes a community, which Seattle is losing faster than ever.

      To me, the biggest result of the test was the reduction of foot traffic, and they consider the results a success because of that.

      I think the priority is wrong. People have good intentions on getting better transit, but if it’s at the expense of walking, it’s not progress.

      Priorities should be:
      1) Walkability. Work on getting people able to walk to where they need to go. This should the highest priority and one that would drastically improve health too. We don’t walk near enough, compared to other countries and it’s evident in oir overall health. Instead of figuring out how to get a person from Point A to Point B, people should be figuring out how to move Point B next to Point A, or vica versa. Upzoning doesn’t necessarily and often times doesn’t solve this problem.

      2) Public transit. If walking is absolutely not going to work, then work to have a robust network of transport that allows effecient movement of people to where they actually need to go. For a person that works at a major employer in the Puget Sound and lives on two major bus routes, it shouldn’t take me over 90 minutes and three transfers on the bus and 15 minutes by car. Most people tend to place transit at the top of the priority list, and that’s a big mistake.

      3) Improve mobility of cars. While this is the lowest priority, it’s still extremely important. There are many places, including the top two priorities that will never allow for people to get where they need to go and by when. Even in Europe where they actually have decent transit, cars still play a big role in mobility.

      Just my two cents.

      1. GK,

        At the risk of being obvious, neither SDOT nor CHH have any influence over where dentists choose to locate.
        Its fine to outline your personal priorities, but not relevant to transit.
        The “sell its soul” phrasing is not useful if you want people to listen.

        This pilot program provided people access to health care they didn’t previously have.

        This phrase makes it sound as though the pilot program is over, and participants no longer have orca passes. If so, pretty disappointing.
        “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.”

      2. Gk – also consider that low income folks may walk epic distances to get to needed services when no other options are available/affordablity. A faster trip (on transit) can mean both literal and economic mobility. My heart goes out to folks living on the edge in our society when I think of the demands on their time; to get where they need to go, get in line when they get there, fill out a form, wait their turn, etc. Anything to make their day more efficient, especially if it is as cost-effective as this seems to be, is bound to pay off.

      3. If I understood the article correctly, the problem is not absence of dentists nearby, but that obtaining “extensive reduced-fee dental care” requires a journey which is outside reasonable walking distance (especially for someone holding down multiple low-pay jobs in order to make ends meet, which is not uncommon among low-income folks).

      4. Remember that having a dentist or doctor around the corner is not the same as having a well stocked supermarket around the corner. It does not necessarily translate to being able to actually see that particular dentist/doctor. One of my dental plan options through work has a total of FOUR (!) in network locations in all of Seattle–and I’m not in a low income job. A universal single payer system would quite possibly help in this respect, but that’s another topic for another day (and another blog).

      5. Psf,

        Thanks for the response.

        You are right, SDOT, doesn’t have any direct influence, but transit / people movement is bigger than SDOT / Sound Transit. They are a cog in the wheel. There are other agencies (public and private) / government bodies that can help influence such things. All must work together. They can’t work in a vacuum.

        I’m interested in understanding your view on why my three priorities aren’t relavent to transit. If you are correct, one could argue that half of this blog isn’t relevant to transit.

        There are many people who do believe Seattle has sold its soul. That shouldn’t be a surprise to any. And if people don’t listen because of a comment they may not agree with, that, ina small part, explains what people mean about selling its soul and why we have so many issues (transit and otherwise), people not willing to listen to opposing ideas. Call me old fashioned, but opposing views are what drive real change, real improvements, best solutions, and real progress.

      6. It seems that most responses to my comment are thinking of the here and now, which does have its place. If we only look at the here and now, we’re not going to change things to where they actually work. Ex: someone mentioned about lack of free medical services nearby. That’s the here and now. Looking at the future, what would it take to have free medical co-located or within walking distance? Building a transit system based on the here and now without a vision of a better future state is going solve nothing.

        Again, my two cents.

      7. There’s not going to be a dentist every mile. That’s the kind of occasional trip that transit is for. In contrast, people go to the grocery store every few days, they go to a gym about that, they may go to a library once a week, they get their hair cut once a month (or once a week if they’re in the military), they walk their dog at the dog park every day, so those are the kinds of things that are most important to have within walking distance.

      8. @Gk Why does / should someone have to ride a bus to a dentist?

        Did you read the article? Here, let me help you. From the article:

        “… I’m able to get extensive reduced-fee dental care at the University of Washington School of Dentistry without worrying about transportation costs.”

        Got that? Extensive … reduced-fee .. dental care .. at the UW. What may not be obvious is that such service is not available in every neighborhood. I walk to my dentist, but he charges what most dentists charge (because I don’t live close to the UW). If you want to get high quality, reduced-fee dental care, you have to go to (you guessed it) the UW.

        Now, if you want to start a movement that puts dentists in every neighborhood, along with discounts for everyone who needs it, sign me up. I’ll put my name on that petition, and fight alongside you. But for now, the alternative is for someone in her shoes to schlep her way over to the UW, and that means taking a bus. Before this program, that was a burden — with this program it isn’t.

        But that misses the entire point of my comment! Let me repeat it:

        … is just one example of why this is a great program

        Get it? Just one example. There are plenty of other examples. In fact she mentioned one, right in this very article!

        … I’m able to take advantage of specials in grocery stores that are beyond walking distance. …

        She is able to save money on food, because of this program. Of course those two examples aren’t the only benefit that comes from mobility. She can get to her job, even if her job isn’t in her neighborhood. She can get to a school, or a job training program. She can get to a clinic, or self help class. She can save money not only on food, but on clothing, and other household items. She can visit friends and relatives. Again, this is a very small amount of money,

        It’s not that complicated. For some people the cost of transit is high enough to be a burden. This burden leads to less mobility, both literally and financially. This program addresses that, in a way that appears to be extremely cost effective.

      9. London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Cologne are much more walkable and mixed-use than most places in the US are. The stereotypical old lady in Brooklyn Heights says, “Why would I want to go to Man-HATT-an? I’ve got everything I need here in Brooklyn Heights.” Yet still, all these cities have mass transit systems. People take mass transit to go to the dentist. They take mass transit to go to work five days a week. Ideally they’d work in the same neighborhood they live in, and then they wouldn’t have to commute. But if none of these cities have been able to achieve that, then we’re not going to.

      10. “People have good intentions on getting better transit, but if it’s at the expense of walking, it’s not progress.”

        I get it if it is at the expense of walking a couple of blocks.

        But If it is at the expense of walking (and walking back!) miles, transit is the very definition of progress.

      11. baselle,

        I think you may be the closest to agreeing with anything I’ve said, so thank you for listening! :) These are things that should be completely non-controversial on a transportation blog. It’s interesting that the biggest controversy is about people being able to walk to where they need to go.

        No, my comments weren’t talking about walking miles, but short distances.

      12. Mike Orr,

        I agree with your comment. I don’t think I contradict any of it in my original comment. I think we are saying the same thing. I’m just maybe not as elegant in my words.

  2. GK, this just isn’t the way we live anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. It’s because even people perfectly content with their own neighborhood have needs, and wants, to do something elsewhere. Reason transit, and cities, were invented in the first place.

    I hope you’re not suggesting that right to visit other neighborhoods is a luxury the stressed budgets just can’t afford for he poor. Also, I doubt any dentist would like the idea of patients being limited to his own neighbors. Same for the rest of the Dental Association, both as providers and being patients themselves.


    1. Mark, I agree to a point. As I’ve lived in a number of other places in the world, many still do live this way and it’s a wonderful thing, including places with EXCELLENT transportation systems. So I agree to an extent that people don’t live this way anymore, specifically Americans who were born and raised on the automobile. Habits are hard to change, that’s true for anything.

      Who said dentists would have to be limited to patients from their neighborhood? The only thing I’ve said is that a dentist could be available. If someone has the means to travel across the city to a dentist in some other area, that’s up to them. But for those without means, that means there would be an option in their neighborhood.

  3. GK, what do you mean by the “Soul” of a city? Am I right it’s what its people consider the necessities of their lives?Eviction from a home of many years, at few weeks’ notice, is as much like a Sale than robbery at gunpoint is an exchange of gifts.

    So fortunately, while cities don’t have souls, their people have spirit. Which can face temporary setbacks and end up with a city, and a life, better than the one they lost. Stick around awhile. One great promise of the transit system ST used to call “Regional” is that you’ll be able to live in a city large enough that souls have a lot of room to regroup and fight back. If so inclined,

    Last word important, though it can take decades to see and appreciate. Tempting to grieve over favorite shops and restaurants closing down, moving, or going out of business. Replaced with different spirit. But especially for long-time family business, founder’s descendants want another career.

    Cafes or machine-shops, quality called “Soul” come from a lifetime of their founders’ brutal work. Machine tools leave scars. Though if you’re lucky, some other things still attached. First generation restaurants usually fail. But success means work-hours, family stress, and constant uncertainty that a college education makes it possible to escape.

    Often literally thrown out of your dad’s shop with common phrase of farewell: “I didn’t work all my life workin’ my posterior off so any kid of mine would have to” (you pick!) “Go buy meat at three am to be sure nobody’s meal died of natural causes!” or “Keyboard less characters per minute ’cause less digits to hit the keys!”

    So remember: Don’t get your head turned by the uniforms and glory. Just Say No To Full-time Transit Driving!

    Mark Dublin

  4. People living in affordable housing usually live Paycheck to Paycheck. After rent gets paid is often the leanest period when little is left even for food. Having a transit pass free’s up the individual from having to decide between eating top ramen or being able to take a bus to work rather than walking the 2 miles up hill.

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