Photo by Oran

Kamaria Hightower, on Mayor Durkan’s blog:

At the Mayor’s direction, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will partner with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and King County Metro to provide unlimited ORCA cards to 1,500 low-income Seattle residents. This partnership will leverage Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) investments to create more affordable transportation choices for our communities.


The mayor’s program is yet another expansion for the ORCA Opportunity program. The initial pilot, focused on high school students, was augmented by STBD dollars last summer when Council amended the levy to allow for additional programming. 

Joel Sisolak at Capitol Hill Housing, who wrote an op-edfor STB last summer about his own agency’s pilot program,  is “thrilled” for the SHA residents who would benefit. “We know that when low income people have access, they use transit a lotfor commuting, keeping appointments and strengthening their social networks,” he told me via email. 

CHH’s pilot targeted households making up to 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), while SDOT’s new program cuts off at 30% AMI – the residents with the greatest need.  Metro’s current ORCA LIFT program, by contrast, tops out at 200% of the federal poverty level.

Sisolak also pointed me to a Metro-produced report, which I hadn’t seen before, that examined various free and reduced-fare options and the impact they would have. The report notes that Metro took in $160M in fare revenue last year, for a recovery ratio of 27%. 

According to the report, Metro’s evaluation criteria for fare programs fall broadly into four categories :

  • Budget impact – reducing fares costs service hours.  For example, $10M in lost revenue equals 120,00 hours, “equivalent to two RapidRide lines operating at minimum service levels.”
  • Equity – Metro is interested in policies that promote racial/social/economic/geographic equity, and looks skeptically at programs that, for example, serve Seattle at the expense of King County as a whole.
  • Sustainability – pilot projects are great, but programs should strive to have a stable funding source.
  • Targeting: Metro wants subsidy program that are focused on the greatest need.  Free ORCA cards for all high-schoolers, for example, would benefit a lot of high school kids who could afford to pay.  (Though some would counter that “universal” programs enjoy greater political resiliency than means-tested ones.)

Seattle, of course, can use the TBD to make an end-around Metro’s budget and equity concerns.  With this latest ORCA Opportunity push, it seems clear there’s great interest between the Mayor and Council in continuing to make transit more affordable for Seattle residents.  The city can more or less buy as many ORCA cards as it needs without negatively impacting Metro’s finances.  One wonders if a County-wide TBD passes in 2020, the city may re-focus its TBD funding more exclusively on these kinds of social equity programs. 

From Metro’s perspective, this isn’t a great solution since it prioritizes low-income residents in Seattle over other cities. On the other hand if the county’s electorate has less appetite for these sorts of programs, there’s no reason for Seattle to not pursue them alone.

Today, over half of fare revenue is paid for by employers in the form of ORCA.  Some significant portion are paid for by tourists. It occurs to me that, in a few years, we could be in a world where a large majority of transit fares in Seattle are paid for indirectly – by some combination of employers, tourists, and income-targeted subsidies.

24 Replies to “The Incremental Approach to Free Transit”

  1. I’m happy with this approach but I dont think you can assume an incremental advance to free transit. Significantly subsidized, yes.

  2. Having fares is important. Not only does it enable more service (Imagine Link operations at a 40 percent reduction, for example), but it provides a way to incentivize transit use (like by “rewarding” teens with transit passes or Mariners fans with a free ride home). It also enables performance data to demonstrate where service is more productive.

    Technology is moving to more seamless methods of charging users — from tolls and parking to ride hailing to shared bicycles. The intent is to make payment easier but to still collect it. This is a logical approach to fares, and Orca is frankly game-changing for transit use!

    I realize that some users don’t easily have the means to pay fares —and even are barely surviving. Back-end programs are however available, as the article highlights.

    I also understand the nostalgia of the ride free zone. It was great to shuttle around Downtown for free! Still, it could be excruciating to go six blocks because the system was so slowed by very short trip riders.

    Finally, as an urban taxpayer, I’d resent subsidizing free transit service to less utilized, less dense areas. Buses in lower density areas will never average the riders per mile of urban areas; if service is then reduced to being too infrequent, no one will want to use it. The free-ride concept ultimately results in high density urban taxpayers subsidizing low density suburban taxpayers for transit service.

    Rather than look to free rides on any vehicle, I’d suggest we look at free short-trip circulators in targeted areas. Getting up and down some of Seattle’s hills requires pretty amazing physical strength. The circulators could serve both very short trips, as well as serve the last mile of a longer paid fare trip. These targeted services could also be funded by localized resources. The hop-on/ hop-off vehicles could be configured to accommodate very short trips much more easily and effectively.

    Given the gradual migration to encouraging transfers to faster transit services that stop less often and the technology advances in driverless low-speed transit shuttles, I could even see an entire network of faster transit vehicles for long-distance, high-frequency routes fed by free shuttle services.

    1. Excellent points all around.

      I’d also add that even in countries like Denmark and France there are meaningful fares for transit even though both countries have heavy income taxes.

      It’s almost like fares are a useful way to pay for transit service…

    2. Short-distance circulator routes rarely work. Downtown Bellevue tried it (“Bel-Hop”). Metro tried it in Ballard-Fremont-Phinney. The problem is it serves only trip pairs within the route and not pairs with one end in the route and the other outside it, so there’s not enough ridership. Especially if the circulator is less frequent than parallel routes. People take the parallel route instead, or don’t use transit for it, or forego the trip. The short 3/4s work — the midday “To Downtown Only” and “To First Hill” (really 23rd) runs — because they’re completely parallel with the regular routes and go far enough to be meaningful. But the First Hill Streetcar doesn’t get trips from 8th & Jackson to to 23rd & Jackson or from north Beacon Hill to First Hill or Mercer Street because it doesn’t go straight far enough on one end or both ends.

      There is a free weekday circulator in a loop between Pioneer Square, Boren Avenue, and Virginia Street. That was a mitigation for the loss of the Ride Free Area so that low-income people could get to social services. There’s also the free waterfront shuttle, which has been more popular than expected. So those could be the start of something more.But these aren’t exactly the same as regular circulators. The downtown loop is funded for a specialized coverage need, and I assume not many middle-class people use it because of the assumption that smelly/annoying people are on it. The waterfront shuttle is temporary for waterfront construction, because Alaskan Way is on-and-off too torn up for regular bus routes.

  3. Speaking of density and fares, I wouldn’t mind seeing a $1.00 (50c for RRFP/LIFT) Metro fare for ORCA card holders just passing through downtown. Since they’re going to install readers at curbside, a “tap on – tap off” system should allow this without any extra hassle.

  4. I like this but have a concern. Right now, the TBD is funded. It will expire and there is no guarantee of a replacement. This becomes a permanent expenses for the city– who’s budget does it come out of? SDOT already has a huge backlog. I can’t imagine a scenario where ORCA Opportunity is rescinded. So this could be creating a budget hole for the future.

    1. Did Durkan say it’s permanent? The school pass program is funded from the TBD so it will expire when the TBD does in 2021 (or 2020?), and the city will have to come up with an alternate proposal for whatever service hours and passes it wants to supplement after that. (The countywide transit measure may take care of the service hours but not the subsidized passes.)

  5. As long as tourists and business travelers aren’t forced off of transit (top three being unsafe riding conditions, loss of service frequency and price) – I think an incremental move to fare-free/prepaid transit might be the way to go. I just ask the fare revenue be replaced along the way.

  6. Why do we focus on getting transit agencies to pay for subsidies? I’m fine with the concept of means adjusted fares, but I would argue that the financial obligation should come from social service agencies rather than transit. I don’t support the idea of turning a technocratic, objectively driven function (like transit) into a social service agency because it blurs the lines of what it’s main focus should be: efficient movement of bodies. No one would expect WSDOT to get less advantaged people onto their roads and ferries in order to address social justice needs…they are agnostic to who is using the infrastructure, and focus only on securing funding for re-bar, concrete and vessels, whether through tolls or taxes. Transit should do transit, and social service agencies should have their own lane. In Europe (at least Sweden) it was my impression that fares don’t change based on means (the printed fares), and the agencies don’t differentiate much when seeing bodies to move (rich or poor), but, there are ways to get subsidized options from parallel agencies if needed. This helps the voting public to see the bus/train/ferry as a piece of crucial infrastructure rather than a “poor” person thing.

    1. Good points. I do worry about voters seeing transit as only for “poor” people and the disabled (e.g. me), which has helped lead to historic levels of underinvestment in at least Puget Sound transit. We right now have a Republican State Senator – I won’t say who beyond that so don’t ask – who said in a transit board meeting paratransit should be fare free and fixed route is a luxury. Yup, actually got said.

      Folks, we are a long, long way out from true Mobility As A Service/MAAS. Frankly I expect MLA Bowinn Ma and the TransLink Team to whoop our supposed environmentalist a**es at the rate we’re going. By the time we get around to building out ST3 and 50% of transit buses as electric in the Puget Sound, I expect TransLink to have automated electric vehicles serving many more SkyTrain lines and very few – mostly supercars like Lamborghinis and Porsches – personal vehicles on the roads.

      We are in an era of Great Transit Power competition. But our enemy is NOT TransLink, no TransLink is our friendly rival. Our enemy, our opposition is the single occupancy vehicle lobby. Which right now is trying to CUT ST3 and the miserly meager amount of money in WSDOT mobility grants…

      /Fumigation

    2. I agree! Let’s not make transit more of a social service than a transportation service provider!

      One could even argue that we should pick up all the homeless people using out-of-service buses at 8 pm each night, let them sleep in those buses in the storage lot and put them back out on the street at 5 am the exit morning. We don’t do that for a reason.

      Balancing social needs is complex. Still, we should keep transit focused on its primary objective of transporting as many people as possible effectively and conveniently and not severely limit transit’s ability to meet that objective.

  7. There are tradeoffs with a fare-free transit network that need to be weighed, but it’s not an intrinsically bad idea. We don’t charge user fees for libraries, parks, or police or fire services. The UK doesn’t charge user fees for medical care. Ridership increases do not overwhelm the system: medium-sized cities that have switched to fare-free transit have had only a 5-10% ridership increase. (Small college towns and rural areas often find that the cost of fare collection swallows most of the revenue gain.) On the other hand, it has been argued that the lack of an income tax in petro-states means the public has less leverage in the government and less commitment to it.

    The main issue is that high inequality in a society and a large percentage of financially insecure people distorts society in negative ways and creates perverse incentives. If everyone could easily afford the fare there would be no issue, but in a society where even people making $125K can’t be assured of secure housing, a job until they retire, healthcare and long-term care if they get a major illness, and adequate income in old age, the impact of fares and other user fees is more negative. The ultimate solution is to decrease inequality and poverty. Free and low-income fares are a mitigation measure in the meantime. And free fares may make sense as a strategic long-term policy.

    The issue of cities subsidizing low-density suburbs exist because low-density suburbs exist. The issue is a lot larger than Metro. City-dwellers subsidize their roads, utility hookups, and high energy use. Now that Metro has a flat fare, riders of the 2, 10, and 11 are subsidizing long-distance peak expresses to downtown. The only way to escape this subsidy is to charge tiered fares on long-distance expresses like Community Transit does. Even that doesn’t eliminate the subsidies completely. And Metro’s two-zone fares weren’t like that: it charged two zones across the city boundary even for trips like N 155th Street to N 135th Street or Delridge to White Center (where most of the stores are).

    Metro Connects offers a more balanced vision of countywide transit, and while it’s not perfect it’s probably better than trying to charge suburbanites and suburban commuters higher fares. It eliminates extraordinary peak expresses from lucky residential neighborhoods to downtown; the only “wasteful” expresses either connect the larger cities, or connect the outer-ring cities to each other where local routes are impractical (Highways 18 and 169 can’t have many local stops anyway), or create emerging downtown-adjacent corridors to SLU, Broadway, and Jackson Street.

    1. I would rather have the funding for transit subsidization come from whatever KC equivalent is to Health and Human services, than from the transit agencies themselves. It should be like WSDOT, where there is extreme ambivalence to the point of who is using the system, so long as you pay (the tax or toll)…especially in regards to ferries and to some degree Amtrak Cascades. Maybe it’s just my paranoia, but I think it’s really dangerous (from a public opinion and funding standpoint) to muddle “icky” things like welfare and crucial infrastructure. It just makes it way too easy for the Ayn Rand fanboys.

    2. I would also rather see paratransit funding coming from non-transit sources rather than cutting into Metro’s limited number of service hours. The cost of an Access van trip is $40, compared to around $8 for a regular bus trip. There’s a reason Metro encourages Access members to use half-price taxi vouchers when they can rather than an Access van.

  8. I want to see all people of limited means have fair access to transit. I also want to see fare collection taken completely off the bus (it’s already off the trains). Think how many trips you could add and how much faster they would be if you didn’t have to collect money, manage the money, and wait for people to feed it in. So I’d be happier making sure anyone who wants one has an orca card and then you’ve also opened the channel to add value for anyone who needs help with that.

  9. I certainly don’t care if the DeFacto price to ride transit is zero…but I think there should always be a process which involves swiping a card or something equivalent. Generally, I just believe any sort of gesture that you are required to do that formally enters and exits you from the system guarantees a higher level of personal conduct. The people who ride with subsidies and tap their ORCA card do not, and will not, cause problems anymore than full fare riders. It’s the ones who blow past the operator, enter the back door, or generally just suck that cause 99% of the problems. The chronic problem makers will never take the time and effort to get, and maintain, something like an ORCA card…even if it was free.

      1. It would have to be something WAY more formal than that for it to address the problem riders. Definitely requires some level of immersion into the bureaucracy, whether free or not, as to create a process-to-ride that actually registers one’s presence in the system. At the very least, in order to keep a functional ORCA card, you should have to apply in person and login to verify need every month as paid dues. Utopia is the only place that can argue for zero “fare” barriers and provide middle class security expectations.

      2. Other industrialized countries don’t have a fraction of the behavior problems the US has. A doorway can’t keep out problem riders, but neither can an ORCA reader. And some problem riders do pay the fair and tap correctly. You’re assuming that non-payers and smelly/belligerent people are the same people, but while there’s a significant overlap we can’t assume most of them are without counting them. It’s like the homeless issue: we see the ones who are panhandlers and sleep on high-street sidewalks, but we don’t see the ones who don’t, who are the majority.

  10. Healthcare is more efficient when it’s free and universal and so is transit. These are just added layers of bureaucracy and barriers that decrease efficiency and discourage rusage.

    A small gas tax could easily make up the lost farebox revenue. The added ridership would ease gridlock and lower travel times on the roads and could make driving even with the added gas tax cheaper than it currently is.

  11. What about a pilot of free fares on the weekends? Easy to understand, crowding isn’t an issue, can see how ridership changes. It also would benefit lower income people and families more, arguably.

    Or – distinguish between “crosstown” routes that are primarily E-W, act as feeders or neighborhood circulators, and are free vs “downtown” routes that run N-S and have fares. This eliminates issues re transfers.

    1. There have been at least two de facto pilots on New Year’s Eve. There could be more of them.

      Metro used to have “family day” on Sundays, where an adult could pay one fare and bring their under-18 kids for free. Maybe it still does. That’s a similar concept.

  12. I did a whole podcast on free transit at https://www.criticaltransit.com/freetransit. So many good reasons. Just as with Medicare For All or Social Security, you need to make it universal so that those with political power can support it. At Transit Matters we argued that a low-income discount creates a two-tier system, which means less opposition to fare increases as long as the discounted fare is held steady; meanwhile the “regular” fare will keep rising and service quality continues to decline (in the Boston context at least), so middle-class people flee to Uber. Then your only riders are the poor who have no political voice.

    Also don’t forget the massive cost of having the bus wait at stops for as much as 30% of its travel time while people line up to pay. They never include that in the cost of fare collection, but if they did, all the fareboxes would be covered next week. In my view as a planner, the only reason we even have transit fares is because it used to be privately funded and there were no other revenue sources. But if transit is now an essential public service (which I’d say it obviously is), then you can’t justify charging for it any more than charging for the library or fire dept. If you were starting Metro today it would obviously be fare-free. I hope one day we can have a real conversation about free transit and how to get there.

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