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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.

Revenue Impact

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.

Differing Objectives

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.

60 Replies to “What is Fare Policy Trying to Accomplish?”

  1. You say “suburbanization of poverty” in “quotes” like it isn’t real. Anybody who classifies as working poor who is smart with money recognizes the value of cutting housing cost in half by moving out of the city. I didn’t drive up housing prices and rent in Seattle. I actually moved when we recognized that making ends meet would be rather uncomfortable in Seattle, but we could have a safety cushion in the suburbs. Please go back and look at housing costs, rental and purchase prices, for Seattle and for a number of surrounding suburbs located different distances from the city, and take a look at what you could pay for at a full time minimum wage job, or for a median entry level job that requires a degree. Let me know where you would end up living. Keep in mind that public housing has a long wait list, so, where do you live in the short term while you wait for your number to come up if you do happen to qualify for a subsidy. Suburbanization of poverty is a very real thing, thanks, in large part, to cities like Seattle attracting numerous employers with high paying jobs but not increasing density to accommodate the growth in work force. Either you reject the next Russell or Weyerhaeuser that comes along promising tons of jobs without a plan for added housing, or you face increasing lack of affordability and suburbanization of the poor.

    1. To give Martin the benefit of the doubt here, we could attribute the quotes to the fact that the phrase is a relatively new and novel way to describe the phenomenon, not that he’s questioning the phenomenon itself.

      The crux of his argument is in the next phrase “blunt instrument”. By going to a flat fare, Metro is affording the suburban poor some relief on the backs of higher fares for the urban working poor, who even if they have the inclination to move to the handful of far-flung King County suburbs with significantly cheaper housing, may not have the means.

    2. Suburbanization of poverty is certainly happening, but let’s not pretend that’s all the people on the peak-express buses. Some poor people are getting lower-cost housing and access to jobs they wouldn’t have otherwise. But some middle-class and rich people are buying a large house and yard because that’s what they want, and getting off scot-free with the flat fare transit. As a county we’ve decided to accept this situation, but it’s still worth acknowledging. Another complicating factor is that the suburbs are a patchwork of smart house lots and low-cost apartments — and large apartments and small houses for families with children — amd the express buses only run to some locations and times, so it’s complicated to determine who all benefits from them and who all is missing out because there’s no express bus in their area/time/direction.

    3. “By going to a flat fare, Metro is affording the suburban poor some relief on the backs of higher fares for the urban working poor”

      By defaulting to a land-use policy of low-cost suburban housing in non-walkable areas a long way from jobs and basic shopping needs (instead of building housing closer in or making those suburban areas more walkable), we’re doing a whammy on the poor and lower middle class, and transit fares and service-per-expense-dollar is a small part of it.

      1. There’s also the unstated and incorrect assumption that Metro’s sole mission is to get people to commute to a single job from their homes, as opposed to being an actual transportation system that can be an alternative to owning a car. People actually need to use Metro to shop, to visit friends, to move between job sites, to pick up children at daycare, etc.

      2. Fully agreed: “By defaulting to a land-use policy of low-cost suburban housing in non-walkable areas a long way from jobs and basic shopping needs (instead of building housing closer in or making those suburban areas more walkable)”

        For every job that gets created in Seattle (or Bellevue, Redmond, Everett, Tacoma, Renton, etc), there needs to be a housing unit, or percentage thereof, created. We can’t just keep saying, yay, look at us, we have all of these great jobs, while not simultaneously providing housing. Watching Russell and Weyerhaeuser both move to downtown Seattle was a big blow to housing affordability. Those are good-paying jobs that just got exported out of the south Sound into Seattle. Guaranteed, a certain percentage of those relocated employees promptly bought homes in Seattle to minimize their commute, increasing demand, and, in turn, the price of housing. New employees are more likely to do the same. Meanwhile, the housing with the longest commutes to the new job center for these two employers went down or stayed stagnant, relative to the rest of the region, forcing the secretaries, technicians, janitors, receptionists, and other lower-paid employees into a much longer commute than they had prior to the relocation. I know that corporations really don’t care about their lowest level employees, but this is cause and effect, and it shows that, not only do they not care about their lower-paid employees, but they also don’t care about the communities that they work and do business in, either.

        The solution is two-part: grow the jobs where the affordable housing is (and require walkability in neighborhoods). Provide new housing where the jobs are. I admit, subsidizing long-distance bus service is a band aid.

      3. Engineer,

        The solution is two-part: grow the jobs where the affordable housing is (and require walkability in neighborhoods). Provide new housing where the jobs are. I admit, subsidizing long-distance bus service is a band aid.

        I’m sorry, but that’s exactly the thinking that produced Redmond On A Hill and Weyerhaeuser In The Boondocks. Microsoft is stuck with its campus. It’s far too big to abandon and nowhere else is there room to stick that many people.

        The flaw in the theory is that when these suburban office parks are created in the sticks there’s lots of land right around them to build some of the housing they need. But inevitably, when they fill up with buildings, the land around is not sufficient. And that’s because it’s cheap when the facility is new and so everybody gets a half acre lot.

        So the other housing for the workers there has to be somewhere else.

        BUT, you can’t serve a dozen such suburban office parks with commuting transit successfully; you end up with a dozen spiderwebs. The New York/San Francisco model of office employment is much more successful.

    4. Maybe he put suburbanization of poverty in quotes because it is a trend more than a current reality. Even in a city like Seattle, experiencing quick price increases and displacement, there is still a correlation between poverty and density. Go to Seattle on this site from the University of Virginia and select Seattle. The compare the poverty by distance from city center and density by distance from city center graphs. It becomes clear that even though poverty is becoming more suburban, it is still more concentrated in urban areas.

      1. Fascinating. From a poverty standpoint, things really haven’t changed much. The highest poverty rate remains close to the center of the city (the only place it is above 15%). Then poverty goes down as you head out, but then rises again as you go 25 to 30 miles away. Guess what is 25 miles away from downtown Seattle, as the crow flies? The Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, which is arguably the “city center” of Tacoma. Then the poverty rate goes down as you go farther out.

        The only thing that has changed is that things aren’t as extreme. Poverty rates have dropped in the central city, but actually increased in the 5 to 25 mile range. The change as you go out is remarkably flat. It is really hard to look at these numbers and conclude that poverty has moved to the suburbs, when most of the suburbs lie in the region that still has the lowest poverty rate.

        I think if you look at poverty in the region, it is based more on direction than distance from the city. To the south (Rainier Valley) you still have lots of poverty. Continue south and you see more poverty in places like Tukwila, Renton and Kent. But in the other directions, that just isn’t the case. Bellevue remains a wealthy suburb, as does Kirkland, Redmond, Sammamish and Issaquah. Oh, I’m sure there are a few people struggling, but overall, most people are well off. Heading north, Shoreline is probably as wealthy as it has ever been, while Edmonds and Lynnwood remain about the same. Things have shifted a bit, to be sure, but to say that suddenly we are like Paris (with suburban slums) is a huge stretch.

        If we want to adopt a system that is more just, based on regional need, then we would be better off giving the central city and everything south of it a discount. But instead we are going to charge as much for a ride on the 7 (which remains one of the most cost effective routes, and full of people in need) as a trip from Medina.

      2. American metros have a favored quarter where the rich people live, according to Christopher Leinberger. Ideally it’s in the opposite direction from downtown compared to the traditional industrial/minority area, but when natural barriers hinder four-direction growth it may appear on another side. Seattle’s industrial area is south and continues to the suburbs. The favored quarter is east. The favored quarter typically contains the two main radial freeways (I-90 and 520. I-5 doesn’t fit this model and is apparently an anomaly) and a cross freeway (405). The business owners live inside the triangle described by these freeways, and their businesses are further out so that they can reverse-commute and avoid traffic. (Bill Gates to Microsoft .) Where the rich people live is both the cause and effect of the freeways being there, because they have the clout to get the freeways sited in their quarter.

        So the question is not “Does poverty rise the further you go from downtown in every direction?” because this is not Europe or Latin America, but “Does poverty rise in the industrial quarter?”, and the answer is yes. The northern quarter toward Lynnwood is in between, not too rich but not too poor.

      3. A corollary is that is, in the late 20th century pattern this theory was describing, business owners choose the company’s location to be convenient for their commute, but for their employees it was inconvenient and expensive because an office in the fringes is the least likely place to have transit to it. But business owners didn’t tend to think about that.

      4. Excellent comment, Mike. I would say that one of the strengths of Seattle is that the wealthy people used to be very spread out. A lot of that is the trade-off between geography and convenience. If you want a beautiful home with a great view (in say, Magnolia) then you can have it, but it will take a while to get anywhere. Places like Wallingford are very convenient, but you won’t have that view.

        As the region has grown, Medina has become the new center of wealth. From a regional perspective, it is convenient (sitting between the two freeways). There are views, as well as water access (great if you happen to own a yacht).

        Meanwhile, areas that used to be poor because of redlining are no longer as poor. Because the Central Area is not fundamentally a bad place to be. Far from it. It is convenient, and quite charming (with old buildings). Very expensive apartments on Capitol Hill used to be really cheap, but no more.

        As you say, the south end suffers in part because that is where the industry is. Things also cycle in a particular direction. As the Central Area become more expensive, people moved to Rainier Valley. As Rainier Valley has become more expensive, they’ve moved to Renton. They could leap frog, and move to Shoreline, or Edmonds, but that is a long ways away, and people tend to keep connections with their former friends in the neighborhood.

  2. The benefit of a simple fare structure is not just that it reduces calls to Metro’s complaints line but that it’s a basic aspect of transit usability! A good transit system has a simple map with a few well-chosen routes rather than a load of spaghetti, frequent service so you can actually use it, and a simple and non-arbitrary fare structure. That especially matters to visitors, first-time riders, and occasional riders, who are trying to find their way around and don’t need unnecessary complications.

    I also don’t fully buy the idea that moving to cashless changes the picture much. It solves one problem: fishing for exact change and putting it in the box. But people still want to know intuitively how much their trip costs so they can budget and evaluate whether this trip is worth the fare. The idea that simple prices don’t matter in an age of e-purse is still a theory, and needs research to verify, otherwise we may end up with a bad system based on a false theory. I don’t see other cities getting significantly more complex fare structures when they switch to mostly fare cards.

    The two-zone border at the Seattle city limits was the height of arbitrariness: it made no sense to single out Burien–to-West Seattle riders as those bad costly riders like Auburn-Seattle express riders. The peak surcharge is more justifiable because it’s ostensibly to pay for the additional resources required by a higher volume of passengers. There’s also the factor of multiple agencies and converging on more-common fares.

    More on flat fares’ cost to the agency in a separate comment.

    1. Barcelona and London are so complex no one uses their routes at all I guess.

      You’re also singling out my wife going from Wallingford to Fremont for $2.75 while allowing the Auburn-Seattle route for the same price.

      Only it costs Metro a lot more money to do the longer route. Yeah, some examples were arbitrary, but this is actually just as arbitrary. It’s just a matter of where you start your analysis. You’re not going to achieve justice and simplicity and an appropriate level of farebox recovery with one system or another. You have to make policy choices. Don’t fool yourself that this isn’t one. It’s just a different one from the prior one.

      1. Well said. The short bus routes that crisscross the city that many people need to take for a variety of reasons frequently get lost in this discussion of fare policy. Thank you for addressing it. I for one support a distance/zone system where longer trips cost more. As a suburbanite myself I understand the “suburbanization of poverty” issue but this policy change is still misguided imho.

    2. Which again, is why the Boston model is so much better. It is pretty darn simple, really. You have three different bus types, each with its own fare. Almost all buses are “Local”. About 9% are “Inner Express”. About 1% are “Outer Express”.

      So a Burien-West Seattle run would be a local (of course). So would almost all the buses. But an express from Burien to downtown Seattle would be an “Inner Express” (so far as I know, this bus doesn’t exist). An express from Federal Way would be an “Outer Express”.

      1. Thanks William. I appreciate the correction. I figured there had to be an express, but I couldn’t find it.

        As it turns out, this is a great example. These would all be “Inner Express” buses, while the 120 would be local.

      2. These Burien Expresses are a very good use of First Avenue. It’s not crowded at all in the AM peak; there are few tourists at the Pike Place Market and never any games. Metro is using an otherwise unusable facility at the one time of day that it reliably works.

        Congratulations Metro.

    3. “Barcelona and London are so complex no one uses their routes at all I guess.”

      Fair point; I’m comparing King County’s Link+buses to London’s tube network because that’s what I consider London’s “transit network”: I’ve never looked at the bus routes and can’t say how bad they are, I only use them night owl when the tube isn’t running and even then I stick to tube shadow routes so I don’t get lost. And I’ve never been to Barcelona. But I have ridden Chicago’s buses quite a bit and I’d say their routes and frequency are pretty ideal although their speed gets a D.

      As for commuter rail, I avoid it in London, Moscow, St Petersburg, etc, because it’s harder to understand than the Metro and has more complex fares and potentially longer waits. One my Russian host said, “Take the elektrichka across town; it’s fasfer.” And I said, “No! The elektrichkas are intimidating for a foreigner to figure out.” I only used the elektrichkas to go to suburbs where the metro didn’t run, and where it was straightforward because there was only one line. (I still had to ask people, “Is this the right train for X? Is this Moscow station coming up?” Again, afraid of getting lost, or stuck far from where I want to be.)

      1. Buses in London have a single fare for all rides. (GBP 1.50) There are no transfers, no cash payments. On Oyster PAYG there’s a daily cap of GBP 4.50 if you only use buses. Buses are a busy and important part of the transit equation in London. They are a cheaper option for the extremely price sensitive, but for many shortish journeys they are also the time optimal choice (especially once you consider the access penalty associated with the Tube lines). My experience is that most Londoners really only know their local buses (or others they use habitually) well; otherwise, they use a journey planner, or just navigate to the general vicinity and navigate from there. Once you learn how to read them, spider maps, where available, work really well for that last step.

        Commuter rail pricing used to be a complete nightmare. Then Travelcards worked well, but PAYG was a non-option, and single fares didn’t the follow the standard zonal system. Slowly over a period of a decade or so, the fare system became more uniform, and PAYG became more widely available. There are a few special situations where buying a daily Travelcard still makes sense, but these fall into the realm of advanced edge case fare minimization. [Most of my recent journeys to London are short, and don’t involve lots of travel every day, so I don’t really know the tradeoffs introduced by weekly capping v. period Travelcards].

        Frequency of the suburban network is still not really show up and travel, but it’s generally better than it used to be: there used to be lots of half hourly service, now 20 minutes is the general baseline, and 15 minutes or better fairly common. Legibility is somewhat improved: frankly, its difficult for me to judge here, since I internalized much of the system long ago. There’s not much you can do about the risk of getting to the end of the line, and not knowing where to head next, but I’m not convinced that the situation is much worse than at Morden or Cockfosters.

    4. If simplification of the fare structure is the goal, I am surprised that Metro will not make the youth and senior fare the same, as is done in most transit systems worldwide. This summer has been great for youth with ORCA cards–only 50 cents per ride (including transfers) if they use the card. Very family friendly and encourages families to use public transit. Unfortunately this special summer fare promotion will go away in a few weeks, it will revert to $1.50 per ride. Metro would make many new friends if the youth ORCA fare could at least be $1, like the senior fare, instead of the $1.50 it was before the summer promotion.

  3. Trying to do a zoned fare system with pay-on-entry was foolish to begin with. It made slightly more sense back when fares were collected at the opposite end of the route from downtown, but as soon as we went to all pay-on-entry, it became completely unenforceable and the operators stopped trying. Everyone currently pays the default rate for the route. As I said in my response to the Metro survey, I have never once been charged the correct fare on an outbound 120.

    The proper solution is to switch to a tap-on/tap-off system like Link, with either a flat cash fare, or universal off-board cash payment. I am disappointed that Metro chose to take the path of least resistance.

  4. I would have included that speeding fare boarding time is also a major objective of fare policy. While it may not be specifically a topic of zoned fares, the confusion of fare amounts does delay some riders.

    Of course, collection methods like an ORCA e-purse make boarding much faster — and that benefit deserves a discount rather than a cash penalty of having to buy a card!

  5. Metro’s unique cost/equity problem with a flat fare is that it runs an extremely wide variety of services. Other cities with flat bus/train fares like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco have a city-only transit agency and density all the way to the edges. Metro has peak expresses to Federal Way. In other cities these routes would be handled by a different agency with different fares. So let’s just focus on that cost/equity problem rather than making up other problems a flat fare might have. But Metro has already addressed that problem: it has proposed a flat fare, and that implies its accountants have said it can afford it. I wish the long-distance peak expresses were hoisted into a category of special fares, but it’s not worth making a big deal about. Most of those routes are in a holding pattern until Link arrives or all-day regional expresses (Metro) arrive where Link won’t reach.

    As for the high base fare and low-income fare, that has a long and more complex history. In the 80s fares were amazingly cheap by today’s standards, 40 cents one zone and 60 cents two zones. By around the 90s they had risen to $1.25. The acceleration of fare increase after fare increase occurred in the 90s and 00s in conjunction with gas-price rises and tax-slashing initiatives. There was a spike in gas prices sometime in the 90s and again in the mid 2000s, and Metro raised its fares then. After the 2008 crash things changed, with gas prices going down but sales-tax revenue going down even faster, and an awakening for more comprehensive and frequent bus service. That plus costs for medical insurance and the lack of a stable state-funded floor for the budget regardless of the economy is what’s leading to the recent and upcoming increases.

    The push for a low-income fare started a few years ago based on the belief that the mid 2 dollars was the practical ceiling for average fares or they’d become intolerable: there would be widespread public opposition and boycotting and civil disobedience and “No” votes unless there was a low-income fare to shield the poor from rising market-rate fares. That led to ORCA LIFT. there may be alternatives to ORCA LIFT and a rapidly-rising standard fare that we should explore, but that goes far beyond merely the issue of a flat fare, and shouldn’t hold it up or be an obstruction. Again, a flat or simpler fare is valuable for its own sake, in terms of improving basic transit usability and quality, even if it has problems with long-distance expenses or ultra-short-distance fairness.

    1. KCM published a report back in August 2014 called the “Report on Transit Fares” (see link below). It would have been prudent to take another look at this data and get an update for 2017 prior to moving forward with the “simplified fares” proposal. It does appear that KCM fare increases have outpaced inflation over the last decade.

      1. So have unit costs, mostly driven by faster than inflation labor cost increases, driven significantly by health care inflation. Given Metro’s difficulties attracting adequate numbers of drivers, it’s hard to argue that this growth should have been smaller.

  6. To quote Brent, on his excellent article a couple days ago:

    Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (Greater Boston) got it right: Its cash bus fares are $2 local, $5 inner express, and $7 outer express, while Charlie Card fares are $1.70 local, $4 inner express, and $5.25 outer express. It also doesn’t have paper transfers and doesn’t charge for getting a Charlie Card.

    They have three different types of buses. “Local”, “Inner Express” and “Outer Express”. They then simply designate a particular bus as being one of those three types. Sounds pretty simple. They have about 200 bus routes, and 17 are designated “Inner Express”. Only 3 are designated “Outer Express”. I see no reason why we can’t do the same sort of thing. So only about 10% of the bus routes charge extra.

    Of course there will be disputes over whether a bus is “local” or not. But that is a judgement call, like all transit judgement calls. But unlike the zone system, you are way less likely to have a bus used for local purposes be treated like an express. You also are unlikely to have disputes, which were common with the zone system (I’ve been charged extra before, just because the driver forget to flip the switch on the 373). Instead you simply look at the bus, and if the bus is going a long way (e. g. from Boston to Salem) then you know you will have to pay extra (or wait for a bus that isn’t going that far).

    1. I generally agree with this, and I wish that all our transit agencies (at least those serving Downtown Seattle) could agree on a definition of “express” that would allow each agency to charge the same fare for the same type of service.

      As it pertains to Metro, I think that such a proposal could still make sense, but it might be difficult to offset the revenue loss associated with the peak fare surcharge exclusively through higher express fares, and Metro’s fare process indicated only revenue-neutral options were considered. Another thing to consider is that METRO CONNECTS calls for much of the current “express” type of service to change in the future, with much of it truncated, making the revenue stream less viable in the long-term.

    2. That “long-distance express” category is what I’ve advocated for years and it’s what Metro should have done instead of the 2-zone system. The reason we got a 2-zone system is that Metro was much more peak-express oriented then: 3/4 of the routes in the suburbs were peak expresses to downtown and many areas had only a peak-express route and only a few areas had an all-day route, so peak express was more of “what Metro is”.

      The “Inner Express” category I’ve never heard of but it’s an idea. However, 2 1/2 times the regular fare is excessive for routes like the 41 and 15X and possibly the 301, so it would have to be something more modest.

      1. I have a feeling none of those routes would qualify for “Inner Express”. There are still fairly close to the city and run all day. As a result, they are nothing like a long term express. Keep in mind, if you follow the Boston model, you only have a dozen or so “Inner Express” routes, and two or three “Outer Express”. My guess is we don’t have any “Outer Express” bus routes run by Metro — ST has taken over those. Even finding obvious “Inner Express” routes is not easy. I honestly don’t know the suburban express routes (other than those run by ST) but the 157 and 158 are good examples. They run from Kent to downtown and only during rush hour.

      2. The 41 would definitely be an “Inner Express”. You apparently didn’t live in Seattle when the “41 Blue Streak” was the talk of the town and in transit circles throughout the country.

        Metro ordered the halcyon “700’s” to run it and then after a year or so expanded the service into three other routes that used the 42nd Street ramp to I-5, 5, 7, and 8 Blue Streak. The 7 quickly got broken into the 71, 72, and 73 and “Blue Streak” was dropped after about ten years in favor of “Express”.

        But it was the first instance of a local circulator bus which makes pickups in middle distance reasonably dense suburbs and then jumps on the freeway for a fast run to the city center.

        The 77 and those 12X expresses mentioned above from Burien would also qualify.

      3. But they wouldn’t have a premium fare, is RossB’s point. Or at least they wouldn’t have a fare 2 1/2 times higher than the regular fare.

        In the 80s when I hung out in the U-District as a high schooler and then went to the U, there were 72X and 73X that went in the express lanes peak direction only. There was a 73E that ran midday and reverse-peak on Eastlake. I don’t remember a 71X but there was probably one. Then there was a 70 that ran midday and went up to 45th and got on the regular I-5 to downtown. Amidst all those were the 71, 72, and 73 locals that ran all day and evening on Eastlake, the 71 half-hourly and the 73 and 73 hourly. And the 74, which ran half-hourly on Eastlake-Fairview to 55th and Sand Point. I don’t know if there was something like the 76 and its counterparts north of 65th; I first heard about them in the 1990 DSTT reorg.

      4. Mike,

        But they should. Certainly the 41 should. Before the HSS re-organization, there were three “local” buses from Northgate to downtown Seattle. One went via Roosevelt/12th, having various numbers, the 16 via NSCC and Wallingford and the 40 via Ballard. The 41 was the very definition of an “Inner Express” and should have had a premium fare.

      5. It’s too short to have a premium fare. We need to get away from this idea that everybody who goes to Ballard or Fremont or the U-District or Northgate should have to crawl through all the neighborhoods on between stopping every five blocks. These areas are populous enough and dense enough to support a limited-stop route like Link or Swift or, failing that, little expresses like the 73X and 41 without treating it like a special luxury. The other way is called “gridlock” and hinders the city functioning, and those inner neighborhoods get so overcrowded people can’t get on the bus.

      6. @ Mike — seems that you and I are of approximately the same vintage and more or less area. There was a 71X, which IIRC was pretty much what the 76 is today. North of 65th in NE Seattle, aside from the routes you mentioned, the 25 ran all the way up 35th NE to 145th; it alternated on its meandering route downtown with one route using Fuhrman/Boyer (not used by transit any longer). On Sand Point Way, north of the naval station (55th), the route was originally numbered the 8 I think (not sure if that was an extension of the old Ravenna 8 or what) and then was re-numbered as the 41, which ran north, then east on 125th, then south on 5th to Northgate and onward. Mom used to drive to the old transit center north of where Target is now to ride the Blue Streak downtown. My favorite route back then was the 357, which ran Wednesdays only, morning/afternoon, to and from Skykomish with enough time between runs out there to walk to the river with a book and lunch. It terminated at Northgate and was apparently used by the residents of that little corner of King County as a shopping bus. I’m pretty sure that would have qualified as an “Outer Express!”

      7. To begin with, in Boston they charge a huge amount more for “Inner Express” buses. They only have a handful of buses like that. We could adopt a different model (have a lot more “express” buses and charge only a quarter or two more) but then we would likely have a ton of buses in that category. If the 41 is a candidate, then so to is the D, the E and half the buses from West Seattle. We would then probably be better off simply charging more for every bus, but have “discount” buses, like the 3, 4, 7 and 8.

        But assuming we followed the same model as Boston, and only charged more for 10% of our routes, the 41 wouldn’t be one of those expensive buses, but a bus like the 123 might. The 41 is not like the 123 for several reasons:

        1) The 41 runs all day, while the 123 is a peak only bus, operating in peak direction only. Jarrett Walker just ran an interesting article about the cost of peak only service:

        2) The 41 picks up and drops off plenty of passengers before it gets downtown (between Lake City and Northgate). The 123 may as well, but I doubt as many *for the hours in which it runs*. That is one of the key elements here. Peak only buses often have very good ridership per bus, but that is because they only run during peak. When a peak only bus has forty people on board, a bus like the 41 has fifty, even though the 41 averages thirty. [Those numbers are not actual numbers, just numbers to describe my point.]

        3) The 41 doesn’t spend that much time on the freeway. At least, not in the morning. It spends about 10 minutes of a 40 minute run on the freeway. In contrast, when the 123 leaves Burien, it spends about a half hour in express mode (not picking up passengers) then another ten minutes or so going through downtown. Whatever riders it picks up for downtown travel could easily be served by other buses (we really don’t need another bus providing service from one end of downtown to the other).

        4) Ridership on the 41 is high, which is likely due to the factors above. You just can’t get really high numbers (on any transit system) with peak only service. You need lots of people getting on and off the bus for short and long trips, all day long. The 41 (like the E) does that.

        Again, it is a judgement call. I don’t want to pick on the 123, or 158, or any bus I would call an “Inner Express” because I don’t know much about it. I can only say they look like good candidates for this sort of treatment.

        Maybe we don’t have a system that lends itself to these levels. Maybe we should just charge a bit more for a lot of buses. What I do know, though, is that there are a lot of buses that are both very popular, and very expensive to run.

        Personal anecdote: I used to ride a bus that went from Pinehurst to Lake City, to the UW and then on to downtown Bellevue. It was peak only, and was reasonably full, but not stuffed. I used to call it my personal bus, because it was extremely convenient for me. I would walk a few blocks, then be able to get within a couple blocks of work. Eventually, it got cancelled, for obvious reasons (i. e. it wasn’t stuffed, and took a while to get there). But maybe if they charged more, it would have stuck around. I am reasonably confident that just about everyone would have paid extra for that bus. After it was cancelled, i started carpooling or driving solo to work. Charging more for buses that are very inefficient is a reasonable thing to do and my guess is there are a fair number of buses out there like that.

        One other note: Mike’s point above about some buses providing both local service (in areas like Burien and Kent) along with express commuter service is a good one. Unless we provide the local service independently of the express (which Boston does, from what I can tell) it isn’t very fair to charge folks in Kent and Burien more for something billed as an “express” but is the only bus serving the local area (Kent or Burien). Unless, of course, it turns out that the bus loses lots of money on both ends. To go back to my “personal bus” example, I think that was the case. Very few people took that bus to the UW and very few got on at the UW. Most took it from the greater Lake City area, and just rode it all the way to Bellevue (a fairly time consuming trip). Charging more for a bus like that — as opposed to simply killing it, because it is such a money loser — makes a lot more sense to me.

  7. It’s a decent system, but not a perfect one, for a reason that you’ve just pointed out.

    Instead you simply look at the bus, and if the bus is going a long way (e. g. from Boston to Salem) then you know you will have to pay extra (or wait for a bus that isn’t going that far).

    In the situation where a medium-distance trip is served by two routes – one local, one limited-stop express – you are charging riders more to take use the bus that costs less to operate. This shifts cost-sensitive riders onto service that is both slower and more expensive for the transit agency, the exact kind of choice that should not be incentivized. This situation is encountered in a number of cities who use similar fare strategies.

    1. In these borderline cases the cost may be more ambiguous than it appears. What’s a local equivalent of Boston to Salem: would Seattle to Renton be comparable? Or more like Seattle to Lynnwood? For something like Renton or Kent or Lake City, you’d have to look at the context of the route: the population sizes along the way, travel between the endpoints and to intermediate stops (if the express makes a couple intermediate stops), and whether a local route is direct and frequent enough to be a viable alternative. Some express routes with intermediate stops don’t have any viable local alternative. If Metro were to adopt premium express fares, it would have to look for those gaps in local service and provide a viable local alternatives. It hasn’t mattered heretofore because express and local fares are the same.

      1. >> If Metro were to adopt premium express fares, it would have to look for those gaps in local service and provide a viable local alternatives.

        Not necessarily, it would just charge more for service that costs more to operate. As it is, Metro is about to raise the fare for service that is cheaper to operate (one zone, off peak).

      2. You’re talking about Metro’s cost. I’m talking about fairness to the user. The 102 starts in Fairwood and goes to SRP&R (residential service most of the way), then makes like the 101. If you’re going from Farwood to downtown Renton, Renton Boeing, or Burien, what other choice do you have? (I didn’t look it up.) The 157-ish routes cover various places east of Lake Meridian, then Kent Station (residential service all the way in between), then KDM P&R, the downtown. If you’re going from these parts of eastern Kent to downtown Kent, East Hill, or anywhere in South King County you have to take these routes because there are no local routes in those areas. This is what I mean by gaps. We shouldn’t penalize people for using local subsets of peak express routes when there is no “regular” akternative. It was Metro’s choice to serve those corridors with the tail of a peak-express route. People shouldn’t be punished because Metro decided to put “A local route here, an express route there.” These short trips within south King County wouldn’t cost Metro much to provide if there were a local route there.

    2. Just to back up a bit, there will be haggling over whether a bus route is “express” or “local”. As part of that haggling, Metro should discuss ridership per mile, or at the very least, ridership per hour. The latter corresponds to fare recovery. A bus that has lots of people getting on every hour is cost effective. The opposite is not.

      As to your example, let’s call them an “express” and “local” (even though they start and end at the same place). Here is the funny thing about your example: It is quite possible that the local is actually more efficient from a fare recovery standpoint, even though it is slower. When a bus is on the freeway, it isn’t picking up passengers. Now it may be that the “local” isn’t picking up many people either. It may be that just about everyone boards in the suburbs, and gets off downtown. But if not, then the local is actually a more cost effective service. But that is why ridership data should be considered when designating a bus as an “express” or not. If it turns out that the “express” is actually more cost effective than the “local”, then maybe we shouldn’t charge more for it. The old 71/72/73 come to mind. They were all called “express” and used the freeway. But they all spent only a few minutes on the freeway (and dropped off plenty of people before the freeway) and thus were great from a fare recovery standpoint (probably better than the 70). But there are plenty of buses in our system that are really a premium service, as they are expensive to run. If a bus spends a huge amount of time on the freeway, and only runs during rush hour, chances are it is poor for a farebox recovery standpoint. Charging more for a bus like that is reasonable.

      But getting back to your example, the possibility exists that a rider will take a local which is a better value in the aggregate, but not when they take it. That is the heart of your example, and a reasonable one. I guess I don’t see that as a problem. I remember back in the day being able to take local buses from Seattle to Everett (a three seat ride). Very few people did that — they just took Greyhound. Put it this way — if offering a slow, but cheaper alternative kills ridership (and it is expensive to run), then maybe it isn’t a great express candidate. For example, if I lived in an apartment next to the Burien Transit Center, I would really love to have an express into downtown Seattle. I would pay extra for that. But if I’m the only one — if most of the people there would rather save a few cents and take the slow bus — then maybe Metro shouldn’t offer it.

      The other possibility is that the only long routes you run are the express. From what I can tell, that is the case with Boston. But they also run plenty of local routes. So if you are trying to get around Salem or Lynn, there are plenty of buses to do that. If you want to get from Salem to Lynn, again, there are plenty of buses. All of those are designated “Local”, and no one bothers to get on the bus headed to Boston for a short trip. Or if they do, they simply pay extra.

      Of course it helps that the surrounding suburban cities of Boston are a lot more densely populated than our surrounding suburbs. Places like Salem and Lynn have more density than West Seattle, but have very low density gaps in between them. With West Seattle/Burien being fairly low (but not really low) density most of the way, it does make sense to run a long distance “local”. But that is in part because there are probably lots of people getting on and off along the way, making it very much a “local” despite the fact that it goes through multiple zones. In other words, fare recovery is probably very high, despite the relatively slow speeds (compared to an express).

      So that is a very long way of saying “I wouldn’t worry about it”. Boston doesn’t, and I really don’t see anything wrong with their system. Yes, there may be particular routes that should be designated “Local” instead of “Inner Express”, but I think it is much worse to lump all bus routes together (e. g. treating the 157 like the 7).

      1. “there are probably lots of people getting on and off along the way”

        There are people getting on and off the 120 all along the way, similar to the 124, 48, 5, and E. One person a couple weeks ago described the 120 as “every run standing room only”.

        Interesting thing about the E: I’ve tried multiple times to find the point where a large number of people get on or off. Usually you’d find it at the terminus or a major transfer point. But except for the mass getting off at 46th peak hours (treating it like an express), there isn’t any major point. It’s just onesies and twosies all the way, so that between 73rd and Shoreline there’s a lot of aggregate turnover. And now that the 26 and 28 are all-day expresses and the 62 is full-time frequent, there may not be as many people crowding onto the E and getting off at 46th.

      2. The 120 certainly is something approximating standing room only every run, and it does have a lot of churn in the middle – RapidRide H can’t come fast enough.

        But if you board on Ambaum, and take note of everyone seated near you when the bus makes its zig-zag into White Center at 107th, you’ll see that nearly all of them are still on the bus when it reaches 3rd & Seneca. When I was a regular 48 rider, I never saw that level of long-haul ridership, even though the stop-level data is similar.

        The churn on the 120 comes from a completely separate ridership group using it as a local shuttle between White Center, Westwood, and the Delridge corridor (And to a lesser extent between BTC and the Ambaum corridor)

        Without physically riding the route and looking at when people sit down/get up, you’d never know it. You’d have to go mining ORCA tap data for NB/SB stop pairs (something I don’t think Metro is even doing, even though that’s the biggest treasure trove of network efficiency data we have).

        But to bring it back to the matter at hand…
        If there was an “express” route that followed the 120’s routing from BTC to Roxbury, and then took the 113’s routing from Roxbury to Downtown, even if it were just a couple trips an hour, even if it were peak-only, I suspect it would be a smash success (and relieve a good amount of the 120’s overcrowding on Delridge). However, if you charged extra for that route because it was now an “express”, people would keep on riding the 120.

      3. Many of the peak freeway expresses spend a significant portion of their service hours providing local service through downtown Seattle. To the extent they don’t, the problem is often that the freeway is clogged with SOVs, and HOV lanes are ineffective or non-existent.

        With only a tiny number of exceptions, many of them significantly outperform all but a handful of all day suburban buses. [This is more an indictment of the low productivity of suburban routes than anything, but it makes a mockery of attempts to justify singling out peak expresses because of their expense].

      4. Just to back up a bit, there will be haggling over whether a bus route is “express” or “local”. As part of that haggling, Metro should discuss ridership per mile, or at the very least, ridership per hour. The latter corresponds to fare recovery. A bus that has lots of people getting on every hour is cost effective. The opposite is not.

        These are the most reasonable metrics to make the determination. However, when the intermediate stops of an express overlap with the routing of a local, you risk sending the express into a death spiral:
        * route has less churn per mile
        * route gets moved to a higher fare tier
        * medium-haul ridership switches to local buses
        * intermediate stops drop in use
        * GOTO 10

        I think the only way to deal equitably with fares in an overlapping situation like this is distance-based via tap-on/tap-off.

      5. One of the problems with having fact based discussions about topics like this one is just how badly out of date Metro’s numbers are: the most recent review is almost a year old, and is largely based on data that was collected between 32 and 20 months ago.

        In the most recent report, the 120 doesn’t show up as needing more investment to relieve overcrowding, and at ~45 trips per platform hour, that seems reasonable.

      6. [This is more an indictment of the low productivity of suburban routes than anything, but it makes a mockery of attempts to justify singling out peak expresses because of their expense]

        I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now, but as best as I can recall a peak only service hour costs ~30% more than an all-day service hour. Part of that is due to the deadheading, but part of it is due to the expense of part-time labor. Last time I examined the issue, Metro was providing part-time workers with 50% of full-time benefits, regardless of the number of hours they actually work. This means for a part time driver working only one or two shifts a week, (which is pretty common as part-timing is a second job for many) Metro may be paying out more in benefits than in wages.

        While low-productivity suburban & rural routes are worthy of mockery, there are very real reasons to single out peak-only routes for their cost.

      7. What Lack Theorof said. (in his last comment).

        Just to review here:

        1) A bus like the 120 has lots of riders all day long.

        2) People are constantly getting on and off.

        3) Running a bus in the middle of the day is cheaper not only because there is less traffic, but also because operating it is cheaper.

        This basically means that fare recovery is likely to be very high. Much of the day, much of the time is spent waiting for someone to pay. Ask any business, and they will say that is a good problem to have.

        In contrast, the 123 is an express that serves part of the same area (Burien). It operates only at rush hour.

        1) Despite being an express, it is still has to deal with traffic. It also deadheads, and paying the driver is more expensive.

        2) There are very few people who take a short ride on the bus. Almost all are riding from Burien to Seattle. This means that very little of the time spent on the bus is spent waiting for payment.

        Therefore, the 120 is a very efficient bus from a fare collection standpoint, while the 123 is not. Thus it would make sense to charge more for the 123 than the 120.

        Would that kill the 123? I doubt it. Even though the 123 is not moving that quickly, it is still moving much faster than the 120 *when it operates*. If you think the freeway is slow, try the surface streets. It is a premium service, and folks will pay a premium fare for it.

      8. The dead heading issue is addressed by using platform hours rather than service hours.

        The point that not all platform hours cost the same is well taken. Presumably, this is driven almost entirely by differences in labor costs. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that peak extras on the all day routes also suffer from this problem. I’d also be interested to see whether night hours had different labor costs from daytime hours. Sundays? To what extent will there be changes with the new labor contract?

        I think though that we may be talking about different things.

        When I think express, my first thought are the Eastside (especially I-90) expresses. With the demise of the 215, these tend to cluster in the 30+ boarding per platform hour range, the better ones in the low 40s. That would put them in the top 1/4 of suburban buses, and at least keeps them out of the bottom quarter of urban buses. It probably also means that they hit the 30% cost recovery mark, at least with the current fare structure.

        You may be talking about are the south end expresses, which mostly have boarding per platform hour numbers in the teens. That’s the sort of numbers that got the 202 (quite rightly) killed. They certainly aren’t the worst suburban buses (that number on the 201 is really mind-blowing), but it’s still pretty bad. They also seem to spend a lot more of their time on the Freeway than do the Eastside buses.

        I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of a premium fare to sit in I-5 traffic for South End peak express buses, and I’d certainly want to see a Title VI analysis before I really made up my mind.

    3. It’s not more expensive because there are lots of on-and-off riders on the local route. Otherwise there would be no need for the express route. The “local” route would be quick enough to attract riders. In fact, since most such “long distance expresses” are pure peak direction patronage, it is they which cost more to operate. They only get fares one way.

  8. In response to: “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.”

    If retail giants such as Amazon have proven anything, it’s that being customer-centric is a key to success. A key? Definitely. THE key? Maybe.

  9. If this fare policy were to make sense, it’d be $3 cash and $2.75 ORCA. Also refilling ORCA would be a lot easier.

    Can you tell I like the idea of sending a clear message that it co$ts money to use cash. Because as Sound Transit Boardmember Dave Somers famously said last year, “Time is money and money is time”. It’s one thing to be ca$h only in the exurbs but when you have dozens of souls lined up to take the bus, that extra time of feeding cash adds up to schedule unreliability real quick.

    1. That is true, time is money. But how you save time can be debated. Paying cash should take no more than 3 seconds, and is often faster when I pay cash. The problem is that people aren’t prepared or able to plan more than 5 minites ahead. Money should be in hand, ready to put into the collector as you board. Not in your pocket, not scrunched in your hand, etc. Planning ahead also means up and waiting by the door when your stop arrives. A far greater time saver would be to eliminate people getting off the bus in the front. That is a huge time waster. People should be able to offboard anf onboard at the same time. That is where the time can be saved, and thus, money saved also.

      Or better yet, why not have machines on the bus, tram to allow for purchasing a ticket onboard, away from the driver. Go to many places in the world and it’s a common sight and makes so much more sense, and you wouldn’t be scourging those who don’t have an Orca card.

      Techology doesn’t necessarily make things more efficient.

  10. Trying to control people’s habits or behavior through a transit fare system is for a time when transit itself has a fraction of the everyday influence as automobiles do now. Meantime, purpose of any fares system is to help fund a transit system what will, on a good day, provide people with same fraction in first sentence.

    Same for simplicity versus complexity. Best working metric is whether the average passenger can comprehend each choice with a single glance at the explanation. Just as a good test of a system’s fitness to carry passengers should depend on being able to create this system.

    But most important for any fare system is each segment’s ability to work with each other. A system of separate uncoordinated parts….well just look at it! And at its waste of enough operating time to eliminate fares period. And same in a whole garden shed full of spades for the transit system itself.

    From its earliest beginnings, what became Sound Transit has had “Regional” unsaid but understood since its conception. Simple reason. In the modern world, the region is increasingly the basic geographical unit of an economy. Seattle prospered because it gave separate close by villages like Ballard a better life than it had by itself.

    Starting with the ability to solve problems exactly like schools and housing than the cosiest village could ever manage. The transportation problems that gridlock Seattle, Bellevue, and Lynnwood two rush hours a day, five days a week, are going to be solved when they’re working parts of the Central Puget Sound Region.

    And like difference between healthy growth and cancer, served by a well-coordinated single public transit system. However many parts the system needs to make it work best. But guiding principle before Sound Transit became its name: We were promised a “Seamless, Integrated Fare System.” Charge of fare evasion for missed card-tap on exact same segment? That’s not a seam, but an infected scar.

    Mark Dublin

  11. “About one-third of Metro customers would see a fare increase. The Transit Riders Union (TRU) has advocated for lower fares in the past, and General Secretary Katie Wilson did express some concerns with the idea.”

    “Update: King County Metro Transit projects the flat fare proposal would have a net impact of a $2.3 million revenue increase in the year 2020, Public Affairs Director Scott Gutierrez said.”

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