After a long listening process, Metro settled on a flat $2.75 adult fare for all regular bus trips. Riders asked for a simpler system, and they got one. On Saturday Brent lamented the missed opportunity to accelerate ORCA adoption with a slightly more complicated fare system. But that’s only one example of how the fare restructuring process was a giant missed opportunity to change Metro for the better.
It turns out Henry Ford may never have said that asking his customers would have resulted in a faster horse, but there’s some truth in that cliché. In isolation, a simpler fare system is better. But a more complicated system could have achieved goals valuable to the region, not obviously connected to the fare schedule in a survey. The only goal this process achieved was to reduce direct reasons for customers to complain — an important goal at any public agency, but so much less ambitious than many other things.
It doesn’t appear that Metro had much else in its framework for thinking about how fares are structured. When discussing fares people often end up appealing to fairness, which doesn’t get you very far. I’d propose the following approach.
The most fundamental decision is whether the reform will be revenue-negative, revenue-neutral, or revenue-positive. Cutting fares increases demand while decreasing supply, as Metro can’t put as many buses on the road. Raising fares does the reverse. It might be especially desirable to raise fares when the system will have service cuts otherwise, or if the agency wants to show that riders are “paying their own way” before asking for a tax increase.*
In this case, King County appears to have decided to make things roughly revenue neutral. Raising fares might have made the restructure appear to be a money grab. Cutting fares, likely possible due to the ever-improving tax picture, might have sweetened the pot.
Within the bounds of a specific amount of revenue, there is scope to achieve many different goals. “Fairness” is not one of them, as a “fair” framework is both ill-defined and doesn’t actually achieve any metrics that a transit system should care about. Here are some metrics that operators should care about.
One objective might be to change behavior. Brent’s argument for a cash penalty is a good example. Another target might be to shift people to lower-cost service, or to change their travel to less congested periods.
As a public agency, Metro should (and is) considerate of rider’s ability to pay. ORCA Lift is a very direct method, but the economic profile probably changes at different times of day and between different source-destination pairs. Moreover, many passes are either not paid for by residents at all**, or the Federal Government covers some of any increase via the tax code. In fact, one stated reason for reducing two-zone fares in today’s plan is the “suburbanization of poverty.” It’s a blunt instrument.
Finally, even in a revenue-neutral plan a fare structure can maximize ridership. It does so by making sure that the fare matches the value proposition that transit provides. When the bus is able to bypass traffic jams, and/or is taking people to a place where parking is expensive and difficult, riders are willing to pay more. Conversely, off-peak trips to places with giant parking lots are going to have to be pretty cheap to entice many riders.
A Missed Opportunity
On top of all this, the stated goal of simplification is of ever-decreasing importance as ORCA disseminates. While there will always be people paying with cash and/or pinching quarters, more and more riders are free from obsessing over the fare structure because information technology assesses the right fare for them. But that is the overarching goal of this reform, because we asked riders how to make their horse faster.
* I am extremely skeptical that any voters concerned about riders “paying their own way” actually change their vote after a fare increase.
** Yes, theory suggests that this comes out of the wage bill. However, I sincerely doubt Amazon is taking $9/month out of everyone’s paycheck when fares go up a quarter.