Distance-based fares have a lot of fans among transit nerds, for a number of reasons, from practical – raising more revenue when the train lines become really long – to the patently absurd, such as that they will incentivize people to live closer to their jobs or incentivize Sound Transit not to build really long lines. The latter has already been disproven.
Distance-based fares have had some practical impacts we didn’t see coming in 2009.
- Queues at ticket vending machines are often slow due to the complexity of buying tickets and day passes.
- You can only buy a full-length ticket or day pass at the terminal stations, or on the mobile ticketing app.
- Riders get nabbed by fare enforcement for mis-tapping or riding outside the areas permitted by the printed ticket or pass.
- Riders using ORCA can’t get a “permit to travel” without having some combination of a high enough pass value and enough e-purse to cover the longest Link trip one could take from the station where they are tapping on. (Doing otherwise would have other unfortunate side effects, such as warning and fining riders who rode too far after being shown “permit to travel”, or needing to add a dollar to the cost of getting an ORCA card. As the train lines grow longer, the cost of an ORCA card would have to increase.)
- Those trying to evade paying any fare have a simple algorithm to do so: Sit in the articulated section at the center of the car. Fare enforcement officers start at each end and work to the middle. The likelihood that at least one officer checking fares will stop to lecture someone about mis-tapping, messing up on their paper ticket/pass, or trying to use a Metro paper transfer is quite good, allowing the real fare evader to sneak away from the other officer.
- Thanks to ST making the senior/disabilities fare a flat fare in June 2011, and federal law, that fare will always be no more than half the fare for the shortest regular-fare trip, creating an ever-widening gap between typical regular fares and the senior/disabilities fare.
Seniors 65+, riders with disabilities, youth under 19, and holders of ORCA LIFT (low-income) cards are blessed with not having to deal with the complexity of distance-based fares on Link, and get to buy full-length tickets and day passes from stations in the middle of the line. To further simplify the distance-based fares, ST made the fares to and from each of the downtown stations the same, moving away from the strict distance formula.
When East Link opens, a further conundrum will arise: having tickets and day passes good only on one line. Presumably, reduced-fare tickets and day passes will cover the full length of both lines, but that has not been decided yet.
Moving to a flat fare of $2.75, at least for the time being, would bring some new slickness to Link operations:
- The fare would be part of a One Center City Fare of $2.75 with Metro buses, ST Express intra-county buses, the Seattle Center Monorail, and possibly the Seattle Streetcars. (The streetcar fares are officially set to match Link’s, which in practice makes the regular fare $2.25, but that could change.)
- Those wanting to get a regular-fare monthly pass to cover riding Link would simply need the $99 pass.
- Regular-fare tickets and day passes could cover the whole length of the line, regardless of where they are purchased.
- The queues at ticket vending machines could get shorter and faster, including for those paying reduced fare and caught in the same queue with the full-fare payers trying to figure out how to get the best value out of the distance-based fare mousetrap.
- Sound Transit could get rid of “tap off”, as it would no longer be needed to properly calculate the fare. This would eliminate a chunk of warnings to frequent riders who miscounted taps. (If someone accidentally tapped a second time, they would get the distinct cancellation beep.)
- Fare enforcement officers would be freed up to just warn and fine actual fare evaders.
Getting rid of “tap off” would cause Sound Transit to give up some valuable data. But Sound Transit has been uninterested in changing the “tap off” sound to be distinct from the “tap on” sound. If they can’t make that simple fix, then getting rid of “tap off” altogether is the next best fix for Sound Transit to help itself do a better job of collecting the correct fare, and to stop harassment of very frequent riders who have made a best-faith effort to pay their fare, including those who have pre-paid with a sufficient pass or have a valid transfer covering sufficient value.
At the same time, Sound Transit is forgoing a chunk of fare revenue by having distance-based fares at this stage of Link Light Rail development.
Station boarding/alighting data from the 2018 Draft Service Implementation Plan (See page 79.) shows most trips are getting charged less than $2.75. For simplicity, let’s assume travel patterns for reduced-fare riders aren’t dramatically different from those of full-fare riders.
56% of southbound weekday riders are alighting by Mt. Baker Station or boarding at Tukwila International Boulevard Station or SeaTac Airport Station, and therefore paying no more than $2.50. Similarly, 56% of northbound weekday riders are boarding at Mt. Baker Station or later, or alighting at SeaTac Airport Station or Tukwila International Boulevard Station, and therefore paying no more than $2.50. The total number of passengers paying $2.50 or less is much larger, since there are plenty of $2.25 and $2.50 trips in the middle of the line, but the precise number can’t be teased out just from this data.
To pay more than $2.75, you have to travel between Rainier Beach Station and Tukwila International Boulevard Station, which only 28% of riders are doing. A chunk of those rides are paying less than $3.00 of course, but the data doesn’t provide a clear path to that number.
Since a clear majority of regular fares are $2.50 or less, the average applicable regular fare will be less than $2.75. The real fare charged has to account for shared revenue among multiple rides due to transfers and passes, but the math remains the same, in that Sound Transit would get more for each of those rides on average by charging a flat $2.75 fare.
Sound Transit is leaving fare revenue on the table, while inconveniencing lots of riders just trying to pay their fare.