2010 Metro Bus Fares

While King County Metro may be the #1 transit agency in North America, it’s also one of the most expensive to ride. While it’s great that the agency is on surer financial footing than a decade ago, and it’s great that ridership is booming, perhaps it’s time to consider a fare cut.  Such a move could encourage ridership even further and reduce the burden on lower-income riders who can’t (or don’t want to) take advantage of ORCA LIFT.

As recently as 2007, a peak 1-zone trip cost $1.50. Today that same trip will set you back nearly double — $2.75 — more than $1.75 for a bus in LA or $2.25 in Chicago.   Today’s fare is at the top end of expensive American cities – in league with New York an San Francisco.  In some ways even that comparison undersells Metro’s premium: in New York you can get a subway ride for the same amount, and SF Muni offers a $0.25 discount with a farecard.

Today’s Metro fares are above historical averages.  As you can see in the chart below, fares hovered around $1.50 (adjusted for inflation), jumped to $2.00 in the early 90s, then shot up in 2007 and have hovered north of $2.50 ever since.

Metro fares 1977-2017, adjusted for inflation

The post-2007 jump was, of course, followed the Great Recession.  As we documented, Metro made a decision to increase fares instead of cutting service.  Today, however, revenues are back up. The city of Seattle is pumping money into the bus system, tax revenues are increasing, and the agency can’t find enough drivers or base capacity for all the buses it wants to put on the road. Since 2009, Metro has exceeded its 25% farebox recovery target. At the same time, many workers are seeing all their wage gains wiped out by inflation.

Last year’s fare reform raised prices for urban commuters while decreasing them by 50 cents for suburbanites.  One reason cited was the “suburbanization of poverty” — people are being priced out of the city and into the second zone, only to face a higher bus fare (on top of a longer commute).  But Zone 1 has its share of low-income riders as well.  For their sake, and to encourage more people to ride transit, the agency ought to consider a fare cut.  Or, at the very least, let a few more years of inflation eat away at the current fare so that it falls back in line with its historical average.

I won’t pretend to have done the analysis on how exactly this would affect Metro’s budget, and there’s much more to fare policy than just finance (see Martin’s thoughts here and here).  But it’s quite apparent that fares are (a) quite high relative to other American cities and (b) higher than Metro’s own historical norm.  Lowering the fare in this era of fiscal abundance would bring it closer in line with the historical average.  It would make life in the region a bit more affordable for those with lower incomes, and maybe convince some folks on the margins to ditch their cars.

As Puget Sound residents become acclimated to the new reality of late-July “smoke season,” and other unfortunate aspects of climate change, making it easier to ride transit seems like the least we can do.

2010 Metro Bus Fares by Oran from the STB Flickr Pool

51 Replies to “Time for a Fare Cut?”

  1. As Puget Sound residents become acclimated to the new reality of late-July “smoke season,” and other unfortunate aspects of climate change, making it easier to ride transit seems like the least we can do.

    Metro’s decisions, like moving to an all electric fleet are directly responsible for increasing the cost of providing transit. You noted there’s much more to fare policy than just finance but in the final analysis you either have to increase fares or increase government subsidies to cover the cost. There’s plenty of other “nice to have” things Metro (and ST) provide. The obvious question is, are you proposing “cuts” or siphoning off more tax dollars? And the idea that you can loose more on each boarding and make it up in volume doesn’t fly.

    1. Where is the cost then? “Since 2009, Metro has exceeded its 25% farebox recovery target.” The first question is, why was Metro exceeding its target during a recession and service cuts? I can understand having a cushion for volatility, but if it was above the ceiling for years.

      Second issue, lowering the fare would lead to service cuts. Does Metro have enough service now? If it cuts as much as Prop 1, we’d lose 15-minute evenings on the 5, 10, 40, and 41.

    2. Bernie, might want to check the balance sheet back in the 1970’s when wire modernization destroyed best GMC diesel fleet in the world when it fell apart under passenger loads on the Counterbalance and James Street.

      So if you won’t pay for “Nice”- get an ice-axe and rest of your climbing gear.

      Mark Dublin

  2. Disagree. We’re entering an era where there are significant, non-car alternatives to riding metro. Heavily subsidized bus fares crowd out alternative modes, like bike share. While Seattle has regulated bike share very poorly, we’ll hopefully get that fixed over time and other cities in Metro’s service area will do better in the mean time.

    1. This is an odd argument to make right after the City Council just effectively taxed $1 bike share out of existence.

      But more accurately, it’s wrong because bikeshare and metro are symbiotic as much as they’re competitive.

      1. Seattle’s bike share policies are totally bizarre. It’s just the latest example of the council’s reality disconnect which ultimately reflects on the judgement (sanity) of the voters. First they hire Scott Kubly and friends to bilk the City. Then they double down (based on “sunk costs”) and throw more money at Pronto when it’s obviously a failure. Next they kill a market based solution with companies competing for business. Oddly, the last man standing is Lime Bike. And who has Lime Bike hired? That’s right, he’s baaack

      2. 1. Pronto failed because of several bad design decisions.
        2. Had a dockless bikeshare been wildly successful anywhere else when the city voted to save Pronto?
        3. Ofo was going to pull out anyway.
        4. The city’s fees are high but it’s unclear that they’re unreasonable or are killing bikeshare. You just said Lime is remaining.
        5. Did the city know Kubly was going to get the Lime job? Did Kubly now? Does it matter if a third-party company hires somebody? Maybe Kubly has realized his real niche is with bikeshare companies.

      3. I think the biggest concern is that with an annual fee of $50/bike, that the pedal bikes which rent for $1/half hour won’t be profitable anymore, leaving behind the e-bikes, which generate more revenue, and can still make money, even with the city fees.

        At least at the moment, Lime-E is priced at point where it’s great for occasional trips (and a big bargain, compared to Lyft and Uber), but still too expensive for everyday commuting, especially when bus fares are often subsidized by employers, while bikeshare is not. That’s not to say it isn’t useful. Lime bikes – especially the electric asset versions have significantly cut into the number Lyft/Uber/Car2Go trips I’ve made, compared to the pre-bikeshare era. I recall back in the Proto days, that I would sometimes have to take a carshare/rideshare from Fremont to the U-district on a Sunday afternoon if I didn’t have 25 minutes to wait for the #32 bus. Now, driving such trips seems silly, when I can just hop on a LimeBike, ride the Burke-Gilman, and get where I’m going almost as fast as a car anyway, and without a wait. It is mind-bogging how the Pronto designers managed to somehow exclude areas like Fremont, which is now one of Lime’s top trip generators.

      4. It’s funny how people are lamenting a couple for-profit companies exiting the city once the city decided to stop subsidizing their bottom line with taxpayer money and forcing them to actually put some effort into regulating their bikes. It just showed that they were leeches and good riddance to them.

        If bike share can’t survive without fees and taxes, then maybe it should be non-profit or public (no, Pronto is not the same).

      1. Are you saying we shouldn’t ride bikes because a bus is a more efficient use of street space?

      2. We shouldn’t worry about “Heavily subsidized bus fares crowd[ing] out alternative modes”, not should we promote those modes at the expense of buses. Logan’s comment has a whiff of Uber “transit is obsolete”.

      3. Those “alternatives” will overwhelmingly be Uber and Lyft, massively increasing congestion. Try again.

    2. With bikeshare prices as low as they have been, including very affordable long-term membership rates, and time limits on rentals too short for those who want to take bikes on long commutes, I don’t understand the crowding-out argument at all.

      Basically, the City decided to tell the bikeshares to go away with the huge up-front fee. And so, two of the three providers have. Watch rental costs go up now.

      If the City really wanted to deal with the sidewalk furniture issue, it could have instituted bike parking minimina in new construction, as a start. It could have worked with ST to provide designated bikeshare storage spaces at light rail stations, so station approaches, at least, could be clear of unexpected sidewalk furniture. Instead, the City told the bikeshares to go away. And the Council acquiesced, just a couple weeks after ordering SDOT to get on with it on the Basic Bike Network.

      1. “it could have instituted bike parking minimina in new construction, as a start”

        I think Seattle actually did. But, it doesn’t do anything to help bikeshare parking because you can’t lock up a bikeshare in a building’s private bike cage, the way you would a personal bike. In order for bikeshare to work, the parking has to be on the street.

        “It could have worked with ST to provide designated bikeshare storage spaces at light rail stations”

        The new permitting process included an estimated $400,000 for new designated bike parking. I would presume light rail station entrances would naturally be a high priority, since they’re places where lots of bikeshare bikes tend to end up. But, even in the current system, Lime’s staff are out there at, at least the UW station very frequently redistributing bikes and, while they’re there, they straighten out the bikes that were already parked, so a bike that’s blocking the station entrance doesn’t stay that way very long.

        “Instead, the City told the bikeshares to go away.” That’s not what they did. They increased the fees, but set up a formal process to allow the system to continue operating. The fees wouldn’t have been set nearly as high as they have been if at least one company (Lime) wasn’t willing to pay it. Since Lime had the vast majority of bikes to begin with, the loss of Spin and Ofo doesn’t really mean much, in the scheme of things. Lime also seems to have been most responsive to complaints. I’ve reported bikes parked in bad places, like Ravenna Park trails multiple times, and they’ve been gone within a couple days. By contrast, after reporting a Spin bike parked on the UW campus with half its spokes cut off, the bike just sat there in its completely unrideable condition for several weeks. Ofo has a bike with broken brakes, broken basket, broken pretty much everything in Ravenna Park underneath the 15th Ave. bridge, and it’s sat there that way for months.

        Speaking of which, who do we complain to if we run into Spin or Ofo bikes lying around months after the companies have left, and they have no Seattle-based staff anymore? Especially those in hard-to-get-to places like Discovery Park trails? Will the city (or parks department) impound them? Have Spin and Ofo set aside money when they moved in to pay for the costs of cleanup after they move out?

    3. Favor, Bernie. Can transit just hold off cutting the subsidies ’til every inch of car-carrying pavement in Washington State- or at least the Sound Transit service area- goes Good-To-Go? Also, percentage of cost paid by fares isn’t 100%. Is it?

      So could be that by making it possible for more people to ride, and more often, we’ll come out money ahead by whatever we lose on cash. And…”Your honor, my client says that he will gladly pay the money he is being billed for if his creditor will only…SHOW HIM THE PROOF!?”


  3. It would be interesting to see what percentage of full fare payers are getting a pass subsidized by someone other than the taxpayers (who subsidize almost 75% of the cost). Business Passport has been a boon for Transit, and continues to grow. More and more apartments are subsidizing passes, but that is still a tiny share of ridership.

    If we drop full fares, we give up a lot of employer revenue.

    In the short run, I’d be happy to get the youth and low-income fares down to $1, both to make transit more accessible for families and for others who can least afford it, but also to possibly increase service as a result of dwell-time savings and lower cash handling costs. I’m glad ST Board Member Rob Johnson is pushing ST to study price/ridership points on youth fares.

    I would be very averse to depending almost entirely on sales tax to fund transit, when the agencies have managed to get large employers to help fund a significant chunk of transit’s operating costs.

    1. “More and more apartments are subsidizing passes”

      They are? Where do I apply? Is it only $2000+ apartments that are doing it?

      1. Non-profits. I suspect you earn too much to be able to move in. Only a handful of apartments are participating so far, and I think the taxpayers are covering 100% of the cost.

    2. Brent – the passport point is a good one, but I worry about a health-care-like donut hole continuing to open up in our provision of transit service. I’d prefer to keep more people in the same boat, so to speak.

    3. Seems to me my idea is a long line of “wins” followed by dashes. Everybody gets a monthly ORCA (card being free) on sliding scale for income, age, and whether or not buyer is a student. Any employer help because it’s blackening their balance sheet- won’t whack it away with a hockey stick.

      Give it a year, and give the State Lottery Commission a bus wrapped over every inch including the tires and the engine compartment if it’ll handle the program. Wait a minute…..won’t that lead to so many dice games in the aisles we’re going to have to play “Stagger Lee” on the PA all the time?


      Which should make for easy communication with Transit Police…just hold up the mike and crank the volume. Only problem is that while in 1958, average officer knew what a forty-four was, by the time they get their smart-phones out to calculate caliber into millimeters, medical examiner will just have pull our audiovisual footage for the DA.

      Other boost to our budget, we can get a cut of the “take.”


    4. I’m with Frank. Getting the “large” employers to pay is not the best tax. It is a lot like a head tax. They aren’t paying the cost based on how much the company makes, but how many they employ. The sales tax is not progressive, but it is hard to see a funding mechanism that is basically a employee head tax being much better.

  4. In principle, I generally worry about fare cuts defunding system expansion efforts. But that’s me.

  5. Easy one on fair fares. Monthly ORCA cards income and age adjusted. Whose possession is proof of payment. “Taps” a please-and-thank you courtesy. Lose money? Like defense lawyer says to bogus collection demands, “Show Me the Proof!”

    Mark Dublin

  6. Obviously, this is a complex topic with many nuances. We just changed the fares. I think it’s an interesting but not urgent topic.

    My own preference is for incentivizing electronic payment. Orca e-purses should give a purchaser a slight discount if a high value is put on the card, for example (what BART does). Fast payment speeds up boarding and thus bus speeds and reliability. If the total time savings can be significant, that ultimately makes it cheaper to operate a route!

    1. I tend to agree. Just make the fares $3 cash, $2.50 Orca (which would be a slight cut, since most people have Orca cards), and call it good. The cash fare is effectively $3 anyway, since only the most die-hard penny pinchers are going to carry enough quarters around to insert three of them into the farebox every time they get on a bus.

      That and bring back the family fare on Sundays, so families traveling short distances don’t get tempted to call in an Uber simply because it is cheaper than the combined fares to ride the bus.

      1. Yeah, that is a very reasonable fare system. Still a bit too high for my taste, but at least better than what we have now.

    2. On pure math comparison.

      160 per hour ops cost for bus
      5 seconds savings on average for card vs cash under max assumption.
      Roughly 22 cents. So a quarter.

  7. A person making minimum wage in 1978 would have to work 1/2 hour to afford Metro bus fare. A person making minimum wage today would only have to work around 12 minutes to afford the fare. Seems like things are improving. The fare has only increased from $1.25 to $2.75 in the last 30 years. Property taxes have doubled in the last 3 years. People want real relief, not a symbolic gesture.

    1. The chart is *inflation adjusted*. The fare was definitely *not* $1.25 in 1978. It was 85 cents in 1989! The $1.25 in 1978 was in today’s dollars, not 1978’s! I wasn’t in Seattle and don’t know how much bus fare was in 1978 there, but according to an online inflation calculator, 33 cents in 1978 = $1.25 now, so I’m guessing it was probably 35 cents.

    2. The minimum wage almost doubled in Seattle a couple years ago. Outside Seattle it didn’t. Which minimum wage do you mean? Also, the minimum wage and average people’s incomes stopped keeping up with inflation in the early 70s.So you;d expect the time to be longer rather than shorter.

      1. It actually *is* longer *now*. The minimum wage was $2.65/hr. in the late 1970s. A 40 cent fare was thus 9 minutes then vs. 12 minutes today. The half hour figure for 1978 was based on the erroneous idea that the fare was $1.25 back then.

        This is an easy mistake to make so please don’t feel I’m calling anyone “stupid”. That is not my intent.

      2. Yeah, a very easy mistake to make. I think it would be interesting to see a chart showing minimum wage versus bus fare in absolute numbers.

  8. Should they encourage more people to ride when they don’t have enough drivers and therefore not enough buses on the road for them?

    1. There is also a limit on buses available, due largely to the opening of an eighth Metro base being nowhere in site. In the meantime, more drivers could be added, driving off-peak, using the available fleet.

      The crowding problem is a peak-hour problem (and is inevitably overplayed by riders not happy they can’t always get to sit on routes that aren’t actually the most crush-loaded). There really isn’t much more that can be done in the short run beside giving buses more clear right-of-way and signal priority, reducing dwell time (through faster fare payment, all-door boarding, and passive restraint systems), and routing restructures that take more advantage of light rail capacity.

      On the routing issue, we are at the mercy of WSDOT to provide a bus lane on the westbound SR 520 Montlake exit. Fix that, and a base of support among riders may suddenly emerge to make the SR 520 bus restructure to connect at UW Station happen.

      There is no political cure for route 106’s waste north/west of Mt Baker Station. It could be completely empty all day, and certain institutions would continue to insist on the routing. Watch its ridership drop further after most of the I-90 buses get routed onto Rainier next month. I expect 550 riders will hate the Brougham re-route, and ask to join the Rainier re-route as well.

      With the Sounder service improvements, I’m at a loss why we still have routes 158 and 159 running express between Kent and Seattle at the same time as Sounder, unless it is just for riders who can’t afford the Sounder fare, which would surprise me given the likelihood most of those riders have downtown jobs. If a $1.50 youth/LIFT fare on Sounder can get rid of that expensive duplication, and make Sounder more affordable for families, so be it. It’s not like Sounder is out of room for more people to stand on non-Super-Bowl parade days.

      One other way to add more peak service is to contract it out to other entities with their own bases. In other words, DART. However, many of those routes have such poor frequency and limited span of service that they are only useful for employees lucky enough to have a set schedule that meshes with the time those routes operate. I love route 630, but rarely get to ride it.

      At any rate, paint is cheap, and the lowest-hanging fruit for squeezing out more peak service availability.

      1. I am one of those people that chooses to ride the 158/159 instead of taking the Sounder. Not always but often. And that’s with living 2 blocks from Kent Station. One, by the time Sounder gets to Kent (either the first or second train) all the seats are taken and it’s left for standing room. Sure, I could walk car to car to find a seat but I might as well stand. Two, as I work on the north end of downtown, taking the 158/159 saves me a transfer at King Street. Altogether, it’s only about 10 minutes longer to take the bus, gets me closer to my destination, and I get to sit the whole time. Plus those buses have about a 10-15 minute headway in the morning while the Sounder can be 30-45 minutes if I just miss one.

  9. There’s another way to save passengers time and aggravation, which could be worth same or more than cash: make service work better, and easier to use. To me, every vehicle gotten out of transit’s way counts as a fare reduction.

    Another big one: Return 24-7-365 transit information. Meaning somebody to talk with, who can be named “Siri” if it’s either on her birth certificate or a stage name. Job training, intensive enough to know whether they themselves will feel safe at any given transfer point. And above all, good at dealing with out of town passengers who don’t know what questions to ask. Name me a program able to handle that.

    Right now, if I had to chose between lowering fares and raising transit usability, I’d do the second one first, and base first one on its results. Lowest fare in the world won’t compensate for the damage- including monetary- that a lame system can inflict.


  10. I’ll agree with Nora that the driver shortage needs to be solved.

    If, however, there is extra money to be spent, how about making a joint Metro and Link ticket available? And be willing to simply come up with a revenue sharing formula?

  11. I’ve ridden 20+ routes around Seattle, including the E line during “social services appointment” hours, and can assure you that it’s not for lack of ORCA card funds or quarters that the poor are not riding. Many are — by wheedling the driver to let them on for a couple of stops or more, getting on RapidRide non-front doors without having paid, going up and down the aisle asking for donations, etc.

    I listen. Many cancel their appointments when they don’t feel like getting up and about, then reschedule. Many are late because they did not consider bus schedules. Then if/as they could not complete their appointments, they schedule new ones, and the cycle continues. Anyone who rides into downtown from elsewhere in Seattle sees the clusters in demand based on most desirable appointment days/times. There is also significant traffic from downtown to good sleeping spots that are well-known.

    If you dropped or stabilized fares, these practices would not diminish in the slightest. Sorry not to sound urbanist today, but there are a lot of people in Seattle who believe they should pay nothing for anything. And I say this having lived in other states where I also took inner city buses in and out of downtown. Here, there is much more of a culture around social services, if only because there are more of them.

    As for those low-income riders I don’t see, reality suggests that their price sensitivity is low as well. Riding transit is a logistical challenge at the margins for many reasons: strollers when there’s no room for them, multiple kids, getting to the bus using problematic intersections, rough roads without sidewalks, curb cuts, etc. especially when they use canes, walkers or wheelchairs; waiting in weather with colds, without Eddie Bauer jackets, etc. Oh, and did I mention attacks at bus stops? I’ve witnessed more than one.

    These challenges largely transcend price. That is why low-income area infrastructure like groceries, health care, education that is walkable/wheelable, is so important. That is why integrating transit planning with other planning is critical. The brute force of HALA/Urban Villages (sic) is no substitute.

    And yeah, without more bus drivers, if all of the foregoing is wrong, where are you going to put these additional riders?

    1. The purpose of lowering fares is not to help those who aren’t paying but to help those who are paying. It’s also to bring Metro’s fares back to being more in line with the rest of the country.because they’re excessively high.

    2. Anecdotal sightings of people you don’t like on buses doesn’t mean all people you don’t like are riding for free. Figuring out the impact of fare changes requires data collection.

      I get it that even if the buses were free, there would still be some that panhandle for bus money. But we’re talking about all riders of limited means.

      I’m not sure what the brute force of mostly white suburban (sic) neighborhood associations in Seattle has to do with riders’ behavior. But if more dwelling units were allowed through the majority of residential land in Seattle, you might see less of a concentration of people you don’t like on the E Line.

  12. How about keeping express routes the same amount, but lowering other fares (like Rapidride, etc)?

  13. I’m of the notion that if you cut fares, those lost revenues have to be made up somewhere else. Just as with federal tax cuts, you can’t “grow” your way out, although in this case we don’t have a national debt we can run up. Thus, services, e.g. Trailhead Direct or Community Connections, or transit service hours or something else or a combination of items would need to fund/offset a fare cut.

    The purpose of the fare cut would be for…so that riders can buy another latte? Another pack of smokes? A new cell phone? I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been asked for money for bus fare from folks who carry this troika of items that are more worthy of their discretionary income.

    ORCA Lift was supposed to address the issue of income, as the “senior” fare places an arbitrary number on “income” when many of those 65+ are still working and are not low income. Then there are the issues of what the fare is at these other agencies. What is the transfer window? Is there a transfer window?

    Metro has exceeded its 25% farebox recovery because they use a generous definition in the numerator: theirs not only includes fares, but also advertising revenues. Not all transit agencies do this.

    A fare cut wouldn’t be at the top of my list due to ORCA Lift program, but it should certainly be part of a look at all aspects of fare policy. Of higher importance: making getting ORCA cards cheaper/free and easier to get and load and making off-board payment far more prevalent while getting rid of the expensive paper transfers. Speaking of ORCA, the transit agencies have to share ORCA revenues on trips that involve one or more buses or agencies. If it’s an adult e-Purse trip involving two Metro routes, the $2.75 is split between them. If one of the two buses is a Sound Transit bus staying in-county, Sound Transit gets half; if it’s a multi-county trip, Metro gets 42%. With Link expanding over the next decades, the number of multi-agency trips will rise, in some cases a large hit on transit agency finances.

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