Earlier this month the Transit Riders Union (TRU) launched a new campaign called ORCA for All.
You could categorize a lot of the campaigns TRU has run over the years under the theme “ORCA for All.” From the push for a low-income reduced fare that became the ORCA LIFT program, to expanding and improving the Human Services Bus Ticket program, to supporting Rainier Beach High School students fighting for free transit passes, to pressuring the University of Washington — our city’s second-largest employer — to step up and fully subsidize transit for all UW employees, expanding access to public transit has been one of our core issues for years.
This fall we’re continuing ongoing advocacy for a transit pass program to serve the lowest-income riders — people who can’t afford ORCA LIFT — and also to reform the way our transit agencies respond to fare evasion. But the centerpiece of ORCA for All is something new: We want more employers, especially larger employers that can more easily absorb the costs, to subsidize transit passes for their workers.
A lot of employers already do this, and Seattle and King County have several programs that assist and encourage employers to provide transit benefits. King County Metro’s Business Passport program allows employers to purchase unlimited passes directly from Metro at a per-pass cost far below retail price. Seattle’s state-mandated Commute Trip Reduction law nudges some employers to take steps to reduce drive-alone commuting to large worksites, including conducting a regular survey of their employees. Seattle’s new Commuter Benefits Ordinance, which passed last fall and goes into effect in January 2020, will require most employers to offer workers the opportunity to make a monthly pre-tax payroll deduction for transit or vanpool expenses.
These programs are great and have demonstrated success, thanks in large part to a partnership with the DSA-affiliated non-profit Commute Seattle. But they’re not enough. With Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions still rising, the Seattle Squeeze still squeezing, and over half of Seattle commuters still driving alone to work, policy makers should be asking themselves what they can do to accelerate the shift towards public transit.
The research says that employers’ choices matter. The two big ones are subsidizing transit and charging for parking. For example, a report based on the Atlanta Regional Household Travel Survey concluded: “We find that employees who were provided free or subsidized transit pass had 156% higher odds to commute on transit, but employees who were provided free or subsidized parking had 71% lower odds to commute on transit, all else equal, compared to their counterparts.”
Although many employers do subsidize transit passes for their workers, many others don’t. There are striking inequities in the way transit benefits are distributed. The Puget Sound Regional Council’s Household Travel Survey found that higher-paid workers are more likely to receive transit benefits than lower-paid workers. TRU conducted a commute survey earlier this year; our 700 respondents were self-selecting and probably not demographically representative, but still we think the results are interesting. Of respondents with six-figure incomes, over 85 percent reported receiving some transportation benefits from their employer; of respondents with income under $50,000, only around 50 percent reported transportation benefits. We also found that lower-wage workers were far more likely to report having been disciplined for being late to work due to traffic or a late bus or train.
The upshot? Lower-wage workers — who are also more likely to have long commutes, struggle with housing costs, lack access to wealth, and be women and people of color — are the least likely to get an employer-subsidized transit pass. Also keep in mind that people in this demographic are often just over 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is the eligibility threshold for the ORCA LIFT low income fare program. Some of these workers ride transit because they can’t afford a car or parking costs, but many also drive, or cobble together a variety of transportation options that change day to day: drive, transit, bike and car share, Uber or Lyft.
There are several reasons for the inequity in who gets transit benefits and who doesn’t, but city policy is at least part of the picture, because Seattle’s existing programs leave some major gaps. Most strikingly, the Commute Trip Reduction program targets large worksites that generate peak hour commutes, which are most likely to be corporate headquarters and white-collar office buildings. This leaves shift workers — hotel workers, grocery workers, security workers, retail clerks, Starbucks baristas — high and dry. Even though these workers’ commutes also contribute to climate change and congestion, their employers are not being effectively touched by existing policies. Starbucks is actually a telling example, since the company provides fully-subsidized transit passes to employees at their corporate headquarters in SODO, but not to their hundreds of coffeeshop workers around the city.
We want the city to remedy this problem by requiring that all large employers subsidize transit for all their employees. The details of the policy are still being figured out, but we think a tiered approach could work well. Maybe the very largest employers should be required to fully subsidize transit passes, while a second tier of large employers are required to subsidize by 50 percent. Over the next few months we’ll be engaging with stakeholders to craft some policy options, which we expect the city council to start discussing in December after the city budget process is concluded.
We also want the city, county, and state to figure out ways to better assist and encourage medium and smaller employers to provide transit subsidies for their employees, without creating undue financial burdens. Already Metro has seen promising results from the Small Business Incentive Program, a new state-funded pilot that offers small business or non-profit employers with fewer than 100 employees a 50 percent match to purchase transit passes. We’d like to see this turned into a permanent program with reliable state funding.
At the same time, we want Seattle and King County to make sure they’re doing their part for their own workforce, too. Of course, the city and county already provide fully-subsidized transit passes for all direct employees. However, thousands more workers are employed through city and county contracts, including construction workers on public works projects and employees of human service providers. Many of these workers do not receive any transit subsidy. For example, even the Fare Enforcement and Transit Security Officers, who are employed by Metro and Sound Transit through contracts with the private firm Securitas, don’t receive transit benefits! We think the city, county, and public agencies like Sound Transit have an obligation to figure out how to make sure that workers employed through contracts are getting transit benefits, too. This fall, we’re asking that they commit to this goal and establish a process and timeline for achieving it.
We know that employer-provided transit passes aren’t a silver bullet that will solve all our region’s transportation challenges: also essential are much greater investments in transit infrastructure and service, and in particular, more frequent night-time and off-peak service so that public transit becomes a viable transportation option for more shift workers; a more extensive regional transit network so that Seattle workers who live in other parts of King County or beyond are not consigned to car commutes; and much more affordable housing, and housing density in general, near transit, so that people can live close to their jobs. But we believe that mandating employer-subsidized transit passes will be a huge step forward. It will get ORCA passes into the hands of thousands of Seattle commuters, and accelerate the urgently-needed shift to a sustainable and equitable transportation system.
Here are a few things you can do to help the campaign:
- Sign our petition at orca4all.org.
- Check out our comparison of employer transit benefits, and if your employer isn’t listed, fill out the form to tell us what transit benefits your employer offers.
- Submit a comment in support of this effort to firstname.lastname@example.org, a special city email address set up for feedback on this issue. (Even better, also include Mayor Durkan and the nine city councilmembers on your email! It’s important that they hear from people directly, too.)
Katie Wilson is General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union