Author’s Note: SEPTA’s 50-cent electronic fare discount has been added since the original post, thanks to an observant commenter.
King County Metro is at the mercy of cities for giving right-of-way and signal priority to buses, at the mercy of the State (and Tim Eyman) for being allowed to ask for local tax revenue, at the mercy of a more generous federal government for subsidization, and at the mercy of thousands of daily riders to choose to put the speed of buses over their personal convenience when they choose which way to pay their fare.
A very direct way to reduce bus dwell time would be for King County Metro to finally incentivize non-cash payment on all trips, with a lower electronic (ORCA and smartphone) fare than the cash fare.
Thirteen other urban US bus agencies have figured this out:
- The Capital District Transportation Authority (Albany) charges $1.50 per ride when paying with cash. When paying with the Navigator Card, the first three rides of the day are $1.30 each, and then the riding the rest of the day is free.
- The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (Boston) charges $1.70 to ride the bus when paying with the Charlie Card. Cash fare is $2.00.
- The Chicago Transit Authority charges $2.25 on regular buses when paying with the Ventra Card or app. Cash fare is $2.50.
- Denver‘s Regional Transportation District charges $2.80 on the bus when paying with the MyRide Card or app. Cash fare is $3.00.
- While LA Metro doesn’t have an electronic fare discount for its regular routes, LA DOT (serving downtown Los Angeles) has one for its DASH routes. DASH cash fare is 50 cents, while DASH fare when paying with the Transit Access Pass smart card is 35 cents. TAP is accepted by most agencies throughout Greater LA. Also, Big Blue Bus (Santa Monica) charges $1.25 with cash and $1.10 on TAP.
- The Transit Authority of River City (Louisville) just rolled out its MyTARC card this year, along with a 25-cent fare discount for using the card instead of paying with cash. The card is charged $1.50 when boarding the bus. Cash fare is $1.75.
- The Milwaukee County Transit System charges $2.00 to board when paying with the M•Card or app. Cash fare is $2.25.
- The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Philadelphia) charges $2.50 as the single-ride cash fare, and $2 using the SEPTA Key card, thereby providing a 50-cent discount. Note to SEPTA: Put the difference on the same page, so riders can notice the incentive.
- The Port Authority of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) charges $2.50 when boarding with the ConnectCard and $2.75 with cash.
- San Francisco‘s Municipal Transportation Agency offers a 50-cent discount for paying with the Clipper Card. Regular cash fare is $3.00. Clipper fare is $2.50. That goes for both bus and Muni rail. Several other agencies in the Clipper system also have electronic payment discounts, most notably the Alameda – Contra Costa Transit District (Oakland), with a $2.50 cash fare and $2.25 Clipper fare.
- Tucson‘s Sun Tran charges $1.60 to board with the SunGO Card. Cash fare is $1.75.
There is one transit service that gives an ORCA fare discount: the King County Water Taxis (which are now part of King County Metro). The West Seattle Water Taxi charges $5.75 with cash, $5.00 with ORCA, and $3.75 with youth ORCA. The Vashon Water Taxi charges $6.75 with cash, $5.75 with ORCA, and $4.50 with youth ORCA.
Another deeper usage of an electronic discount is the new Highway 99 Tunnel tolls. The discount for using the Good to Go! Pass instead of paying by mail is $2. The regular toll ranges from $3.00 to $4.25 depending on time of day. The toll using Good-to-Go! ranges from just $1.00 to $2.25.
An electronic payment discount is a simple but effective best practice the County could implement to speed up buses and reduce Metro’s carbon footprint a little more. Some of these service-hour savings may be necessary in the Post-I-976 days.
In particular, an electronic payment discount could enable 3rd Ave to move more buses during afternoon rush hour, not just by speeding up the rate of boarding at the front door, but also by enabling more passengers to enter at the rear doors.
If the chosen implementation is to raise the cash fare to $3 (since reducing any fares is unlikely after I-976), that would also mean a lot less change fumbling even among those still choosing to pay with cash.
For those who argue that a higher cash fare than electronic fare somehow hurts poor riders, consider that (1) low-income riders already qualify for a significant per-ride discount, via the ORCA LIFT card; (2) many of those paying with cash can easily afford to get and use the ORCA card but choose to pay with cash because it is simply more convenient to them and comes with no financial penalty, while the time penalty is externalized to the rest of the riders; (3) slower and less bus service hurts every rider who is trying to get somewhere on time, including the working poor; and (4) riders without permanent housing suffer the most from unnecessary diesel exhaust, especially downtown.
Dealing with the impacts of Initiative 976 will be very painful for Metro and for bus riders. Compared to other options for dealing with the sudden sinkhole in Metro’s budget, a $3 cash fare would likely be the least painful tool in the toolbox for preserving service. Once an electronic payment discount is implemented, most riders will find the effect to be liberating.