Fare paid proposal diagram at Pioneer Square (Sound Transit)

As we all know, we are facing a dual crisis: a global pandemic, intertwined with the start of an economic depression. As restaurants, bars and stores are forced to close to curb the progression of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands in Washington State are losing their jobs. According to official statistics, nearly 630,000 Washingtonians filed for unemployment in the four weeks between the 15th of March and 11th of April; twenty-six times as many as the same time last year.

The damage won’t stop there, of course: as the confinement goes on, more businesses will close their doors, more people will find themselves without a source of revenue, consumption will decrease, yet more businesses will shutter, and so on. A full-scale economic crisis is at hand.

The Democratic Socialists of America have proposed many ideas to alleviate the impact of this crisis on the working people, including Medicare 4 All (which would protect our collective health), a moratorium on evictions and utility shut-offs, and a Green New Deal. The latter – on top of creating millions of jobs at a time where they’re sorely needed – would help prevent or at least mitigate a climate disaster whose magnitude would dwarf our current situation.

In this context, transportation policy would seem to be low priority: after all, nobody is supposed to be traveling, let alone traveling in groups. If anything, it’s even tempting to conclude that every bus and streetcar is a potential hotbed of infection, whereas the private, individual car is a biologically secure way to move around. Is the car-first American urban policy of the past 50 years being vindicated?

Well, no. As discussed above, the overarching issue of carbon-fueled climate change and its devastating impacts remains. And while some of us temporarily enjoy the shelter of our automotive bunkers, all of us urban dwellers have had the opportunity to preview the clean air and quiet skies of a world with fewer cars and airplanes.

But more to the point: this, too, shall pass. Talk of reopening society is in the news every day, and when it does happen, two contradictory things will occur: people’s savings and disposable income will be at record lows after months of crisis, and there will be renewed demand for transportation, as millions return to work or look for jobs, and start on trips and errands they had deferred during the quarantine. Most of the jobs will be in the cities, as they always are, while persistently high rental prices in downtown Seattle will keep workers living away from the workplaces. Thousands of people with reduced means to afford and maintain a car will need to find a way to commute and go to the dentist. What’s the solution? Free public transit.

Seattle Transit Blog has already discussed this topic. The advantages of free transit are manifold: it reduces the inequality of housing by ensuring that workers don’t have to spend a large portion of their wages to purchase, fuel and maintain a car – the total yearly cost of owning a car could be anywhere from $4,000 for a small, used sedan, all the way to $10,000 for a new pickup truck. Public transit also reduces congestion on the road, which improves air quality (particularly important as many will want to spend time outside after months of isolation), and makes the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

We don’t have to imagine it: free public transit is already a reality in King County since the 21st of March, and will continue to apply for the foreseeable future to protect drivers and passengers from close contact. This has helped the most vulnerable among us get around during this period. But this does not include the necessary reforms to the budget of public transit agencies that will allow them to fund their operations without relying on fare, as they do, for example, in Olympia and Kansas City.

As a result of revenue losses related to COVID, we’re headed for reduced service and need to pursue new funding sources that are a departure from the reliance on regressive sales taxes. While fares are far from being the primary source of funding for King County Metro, representing only 15% of their revenue, a serious free transit plan will also involve new sources of revenues to compensate for their disappearance . One example would be a City of Seattle tax on its largest companies. This is what Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union advocated in late March, along with a City non-residential parking tax. She also indicates that ultimately State legislators must greatly expand the taxing authority for Transportation Benefit Districts like Seattle, King County and Sound Transit. A payroll tax or an employee hours tax are examples of more progressive options. And eliminating fare would also potentially eliminate costs, such as for ticket control, card readers, the production and distribution of ORCA cards, and associated bookkeeping operations.

Continuing Fare-Free Transit in King County beyond the COVID emergency would be a tremendous contribution to economic recovery: a way to grease the gears of our society by helping people who took the brunt of the crisis move around, a boon to our air quality, and a way to put a public good back into the hands of the people. And by reducing the reliance on fossil-fuel intensive automobiles in a non-punitive manner, the continuation of Fare-Free Transit starts us on the road to fighting climate change via a just transition to the decarbonized economy of the future.


Timothy is a volunteer for the Green New Deal Committee of the Seattle chapter of the Democractic Socialists of America (DSA). We’re a political organization dedicated to trying to achieve a more just and democratic society. If you’re interested in free public transit and other topics related to environmental justice, feel free to contact us at greennewdeal@seattledsa.org.

92 Replies to “Society will reopen one day. When that happens, we need free public transit”

  1. Once we no longer have to worry about the physical act of fare collection spreading the virus, I am more concerned about public transit being funded than it being free. For any given amount of additional taxes the city or county may be willing to impose, there will always be more money for service with fares than without them.

    I would not be looking to Kansas City or Olympia as a model for Seattle. The reason why they were able to go fare free is that their ridership is much less than Seattle – so little, in fact, that the actual amount of additional service that fare revenue could fund would be negligible, so they decided not to bother. The level of bus service in Kansas City or Olympia is also very poor compared to Seattle. Service in these cities is also very poor – hardly anything over there runs more often than every half-hour during the day, or every hour on Sunday.

    1. asdf2, be careful about “Poor” in connection with Olympia’s Intercity Transit. Our passenger-handling could teach King County Metro enough lessons it’s be worth giving them a training contract.

      But exactly like my political enemies treat poverty in general, disrespecting IT is blaming the victim. Service-wise, Intercity has never recovered from Tim Eyman’s 1990’s Act One, let alone this season’s episode.

      IT would also be first to note how individual this budget- not social- decision was. For us, fare collection cost more money than it delivered. And for millionth time, not “Free”. Just financed otherwise. And no universal application intended.

      Opening for David Lawson here on what it felt like from the driver’s seat Westlake at Rush Hour to “feel” operating time bleed like a cut artery as fares got discussed and disputed right there by your farebox.

      But for payment choice, I’ve mentioned from lifetime experience how sensory good fare collection can be. Same motion-set as for flagging down an approaching ride, an ORCA card feels right just to own.

      Kid-You-Not let’s do this: Get with Seattle Public Schools to organize an event where five year olds get choices as to how THEY’d like to do the transaction. Taps, beeps, and stuffed Tapmunks, bet ORCA card would win paws-down.

      Though being as it’s 2020, I’ve got to face the chance that, like poor John Henry and the steam-drill, I’d get licked by the SmartPhone.

      Mark Dublin

    2. In other words it’s so easy to seek rent from the users of the transit system that it seems irresponsible for good capitalists to leave that money on the table.

  2. Like “socialism”, a large, futile, angry amount of time can get wasted arguing about the meaning of the word “Free”in connection to transit. Better example here is “Freeway.”

    Which originated in the Defense budget. Considering the condition of each, and that of our country- right now so should Education and Public Health.

    Point at issue is should everybody who wants to ride transit have to, individually, pay money every time we board? Few houses have coin slots on the toilets, and even fewer driveway-exits.

    One thing I’ll always fight is the use of fares to determine who doesn’t get to ride. That’s what transit police are for, as protection from people who are violating the rights of their fellow passengers.

    With the coming sweeping changes in our economy, role I see for transit is not only giving people a ride to work, but also hiring them- including ourselves- to build and operate the system.

    Which will call for every single job skill in the world. And definitely resources from Defense and Education. Schools have long had “Auto Shop.” Like Sweden, call ’em “Streetcars” and you’ll cover light rail.

    Private cars certainly do have their place in the fight for freedom. But natural limit on their numbers isn’t shortage of either oil or air. As witness our every “Free”way, what they’ve got in common is how few cars can “move”. Pave it all and we’ll still be out of out of “room.”


    Mark Dublin

    1. Free-fare is not a “yes-no” issue. Sorry, but it’s not.

      There are fundamental economic-political questions that I think needs to be asked of free-fare advocates:

      – How far should a rider go for free? Just around downtown? Less than 2 miles? Less than 4 miles? Citywide? Countywide? Regionwide? Statewide? Anywhere on the West Coast? The more universal the free fare area, the more the longer-distance riders are the higher beneficiaries of public dollars and the less reward is given for living in a more dense neighborhood and making short trips on transit.

      – How fast should a rider go for free? Is there value to funding premium services like long distance express buses with nice seats, for example? A free transit system has no way to incentivize faster services (often to and from low-density wealthy areas with loads of public parking at stations and less productive boardings per hour ) and that effectively suggests that a slow local route is “good enough”. If anything, the evolution of Uber and Lyft again demonstrates the fundamental economics of the value of shorter travel time as people pay more for faster trips.

      – Should there be a time-of-day fare policy? Having peak fares but free rides off-peak has the effect of reducing peak overcrowding (and assigning more vehicles just to serve peak demand) and improving productivity at other times, for example.

      – To address the distance and time inequities and limits, how should transit route structures change? However any free-fare system is set up, it will require setting up a operating structure to implement the distance and speed parameters put in place for any free-fare situation in a large and far-flung metro area like ours. I’m reminded of the free-fare zone that went away in Downtown Seattle several years ago — and the real-world hassles that system created.

      These are fundamental questions that this author ignores — as do many other free-fare advocates. Even in more progressive and more “green” urban Europe, there are fare structures designed to encourage use of some services and discourage use of others. Just look at Copenhagen and greater Zealand transit fare structures on their multiple systems, for example. Or Amsterdam and Holland. Or Stockholm and its metro area.

      1. Agree with all of your questions, but why do we want to reward people for living in dense, close-in neighborhoods. With the suburbanization of poverty and great access to jobs generally driving higher property values, this strikes me as a regressive policy.

        A few decades ago, when the middle class was fleeing to the city fringe, this may have been good policy. But today, when suburban sprawl is driven much more by ‘drive until you qualify,’ a flat fare (which would include a free fare) is a more progressive fare structure.

        Long distance transit can skew wealthier because commuter oriented transit will skew wealthier, and most long distance service is oriented towards commuters. So sometimes distance based fares is a way to charge higher prices for commuters vs other trips, though you address the commuter ‘subsidy’ with your point about quality of service. Do you charge the same for a seat on a Sounder train vs. standing on a bus, etc.

      2. AJ, the author of the article argues that free transit is helpful to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Encouraging denser neighborhoods better reduces auto dependence and greenhouse gas emissions regardless if that trip is on free transit or by bicycling or walking. Sure there are implications for low-income, low-density residents, but that’s a different objective than reducing greenhouse gas emissions is.

      3. I agree with your points. One of the interesting things is that the same argument applies to flat fares. Should a rider with a luxury trip (fast, frequent, long distance, super comfortable, yet not crowded) pay the same as a crowded bus, where people coming and going at every stop?

        That is why eliminating fares makes sense when two criteria are met:

        1) Fares raise a very small amount of money.
        2) Service is similar across the board.

        I don’t think you can say that for our region. While Metro raises a relatively small amount, Sound Transit doesn’t. Sound Transit also has what I would consider luxury routes. Taking the bus from Tacoma to the UW is very expensive, and Sound Transit charges more for it.

      4. Why do we want to reward people for living in dense, close-in neighborhoods? With the suburbanization of poverty and great access to jobs generally driving higher property values, this strikes me as a regressive policy.

        But there are still poor people in the city. We want to encourage people to live in the city, even if they live in a smaller place, or have to stretch to live there. The last thing you want it self fulfilling prophesy, where every aspect of suburban living is cheaper (including transportation). A transportation subsidy, if you will, to live in the city will encourage more middle class housing there, even if folks end up spending a higher percentage of their income on housing.

      5. Your counter-arguments all revolve around the idea that permission to move around the city ought to be restricted by one’s economic class and/or ability to pay.

    2. Mark, I didn’t mean to nest this under your post. It’s not a direct response to your interesting comment.

      1. Al S, let’s look at these sessions as digital equivalent of combined ST and KCM Public Comment.

        When was the last time anybody apologized to Peter von Reichbauer for making him attend on the phone, or to Alex Tsimerman for making him use the Hitler salute when in fact it was Mussolini who got the trains running on time?

        Question next commenter needs to address when they’re name’s called: Would Frank or Martin look better sitting on the sidelines in a King County Sheriff’s Deputy’s uniform?

        Any software give us a readout on allotted time remaining, a little red light when time’s up, and our laptops shut down when public order demands?

        Mark Dublin

  3. I am not a fan. Broad based public support for free non-means-tested services is generally negligible. It will always be an easy target for cuts. Last I checked, that was 300 million dollars in fare income that will need to be made up. Love to hear how scraping that out of the local NIMBYs and Scrooges won’t cause enormous political shouting and some electoral changes.

    Beyond that, there will be legal hurdles: why bother having that fight over free fares….

    There are other ways to support the less well off that will not be as politically toxic. Some examples: Orca Lift style programs, family-based programs (pay a single bulk rate regardless of # of kids), etc.

    It is a unpleasant truth that a lot of the free riders are, how is it said: non-destination? – The bus is being used as a moving homeless shelter. That doesn’t help ridership by destination riders. I’ll spare the unpleasant realities involved in that one. *Publicly run* homeless shelters need to be built to address that problem. We need to end the plague of non-profit orgs and directly solve this.

    In other words, I don’t see the support for free fares, making it normal will induce service cuts and ignite opposition, the problem can be solved elsewhere, and the regular ridership will not appreciate the new homeless shelter location.

    sounds like a good footgun in a program that’s one of the nation’s best (as horrifying as that may sound).

    1. Broad based public support for free non-means-tested services is generally negligible.

      I don’t see that at all. Public schools are extremely popular, as are the police and fire department. Parks are popular as well. Health and human services are largely forgotten, but funding for their (free non-means-tested services) is bound to be extremely popular after the pandemic.

      On the other hand, toll roads tend to be unpopular around here.

      The bus is being used as a moving homeless shelter.

      That is neither here nor there. Fares aren’t enforced, which means that someone who is desperate enough to use a bus as a shelter, won’t pay it. At worse a cop is called, and they are ushered off, but it isn’t clear if that is better. I would rather deal with a homeless guy than see the bus delayed. Anyway, if they are causing a disturbance, or smell really bad, the bus driver can kick him off. Back in the day, I remember a regular, fare paying rider being kicked off because he smelled terrible. He had been sliming fish, and smelled like it. I felt sorry for the guy, but understood why he was kicked off. My point is I don’t think fares have anything to do with it.

      1. Public schools are popular because middle class parents send their kids there. Public parks are popular because middle class people visit them. Public fire departments are popular because they protect middle class people when their house is on fire. Structure any of these services to serve only the poor, and watch middle class support for them at the ballot box evaporate.

      2. Parks aren’t free. Many charge to park. A major use is sports and teams pay huge fees to use the fields. Special events like Cirque du Soleil pay big rents and the parks up the parking fee. And what you call free is in large part peoples choice to pay for a “seasons pass” via park levies.

        Health and human services is needs based.

        Public Schools are listed as a State constitutional requirement; transit, not so much. Police & Fire has much of it’s funding based on levies; which I think is wrong and should be Job #1 in the general fund.

        People complain mightily about HOT lanes but based on revenue are turning out to be pretty popular.

        There’s been a lot of talk about how ride quality is so important (train tram vs bus). Ride experience is what really matters and you get what you pay for. Fare free is a death spiral in that respect.

      3. your arguments about popularity don’t get off the ground.

        public schools are under constant funding attack. there’s a whole McCleary decision and its ramification.

        police are complaining about underfunding. I raise my eyebrow, but OK, we do seem to have issues getting officers.

        parks have to regularly beg for funding.

        but maybe fire departments are relatively happy?

        look, Americans don’t like to “give free stuff” to the “undeserving”. we can either attempt to build policies that ignore that reality, or we can build policies around that reality. i’m into reality based politics. doing culture change is hard, that can be tackled elsewhere. but for a transit policy, we should assume that the middle and upper classes won’t stand for free transit.

        most people will get really shirty if they have to sit near a guy who is ranting insanely, divorced from reality. you want to get metro funded? get that guy off the bus and into a mental health ward and not let him out until he has reliable meds, a job, and a place to sleep.

        you want to serve primarily the poor and mentally ill? that is a straight line to clean and decent people seeing metro as a charity outfit.

        a good transit system is when the millionaires *choose* the transit line over their Tesla.

      4. “get that guy off the bus and into a mental health ward and not let him out until he has reliable meds, a job, and a place to sleep.”

        How does that work, or even make sense? You can’t go out to=for interviews when you’re in a mental health ward. You can’t dress up to look nice for a remote interview. There is no available 30%AMI housing available, and even then the wait list of 30% AMI housing is already literally tens of thousands people long (Approximately 25,000 people applied to KCHA’s lottery this year for 2,000 spots in line. It takes 2-5 years after getting in line to actually get a home.).

        You can’t get a job or a stable place to sleep if you are in a mental health wars. Demanding the impossible isn’t reality based politics.

      5. Parks aren’t free.

        Oh come on. I can park at Discovery park for free. I can certainly walk in there for free. The fact that they are largely free hasn’t hurt the city when it comes to passing levies.

        A major use is sports and teams pay huge fees to use the fields.

        Right. The Mariners aren’t free. Neither are the Seahawks. But that hasn’t helped them pass levies. Not at all. It is extremely difficult to pass a levy giving, say, the Mariners an upgrade on their stadium, even though the fans pay money to see the games. That is exactly the model you are suggesting is essential, and it fails, miserably.

        It is free to walk the sidewalks. It is free to ride a bike on the street. Yet when the city wants to pass a levy with money for streets, sidewalks and transit, I never heard anyone say “more money for transit, since that is the only service that people are willing to pay for”. Because it is a ridiculous argument. Transit is a service, just like those other services.

        Losing 15% would be a big hit, but it wouldn’t change the politics of transit funding one bit. Some would think it is worth the money, some wouldn’t. Just like schools, the police, the fire department, sidewalks or any other service the city, county and state pays for.

    2. Last I checked, that was 300 million dollars in fare income that will need to be made up.

      $165 million and $38 million respectively for KCM and ST in 2018. What’s not captured is the money needed to collect, process and deposit that money, which is a non-zero amount, plus the inefficiencies of needing to deal with multiple fare levels among other things.

      There’s probably a bunch of external unrealized savings like reductions in traffic and emissions that would more than make up for the budget shortfall, you just need to convince people that those costs are very real.

      Love to hear how scraping that out of the local NIMBYs and Scrooges won’t cause enormous political shouting and some electoral changes.

      Change the law so that roads need to be funded similar to transit. If transit requires fare box for part of the revenue stream, then roadways should require tolls for part of the revenue stream.

      But silly me, asking SOV users to pay for their share is just confirming The War on Carz™ is real!

      1. “$165 million and $38 million respectively for KCM and ST in 2018.”

        I think you got your numbers wrong for ST. Firstly, I think you’re looking at 2017 and not 2018. Secondly, I believe you’re only including Link fare revenue. In 2018, ST collected $96M in fare revenues broken down as follows:
        Link $41.6M
        STX $37.7M
        Sounder $16.7M

        In 2019, ST collected $97.1M in passenger fare revenue.

      2. my bad, it’s been a while since I eyeballed the funding numbers. it’s Rather Large in any case.

        the problem with external unrealized savings is that it’s…. external. I deal with that BS at work. very hard to make decision makers understand this, and they aren’t even voters.

        A good analysis will help here. But it also has to include an analysis of what, specifically, has to change in the laws, and do a reckoning of if there are enough likely votes in the requisite electoral bodies to change the laws. Anti-transit is a popular bipartisan party platform in WA.

        I’m more than happy to have a war on cars and car culture, but we need to go into battle and take on engagements that we can reasonably win. One of the principles that we’ve seen is “better transit produces better support”.

        Free Fares just means we have a nasty little fight for funding just to maintain existing quality of service.

    3. Agree. This is a solution looking for a problem. Transit budgets are being devastated. Why cut a reliable source of funding?

  4. We’ve discussed this perhaps a dozen times over the last decade, and the Coronavirus hasn’t changed the balance of the argument. Transit fares are a way to get employers to help pay for a system which benefits them significantly and to which they do not otherwise contribute. The business and fuel taxes of the state are not available to transit agencies.

    They also help, though not perfectly, keep those “non-destination” riders off the system during crowded periods. It would be better to raise fares to pay for “conductors” during crowded times to ensure that they are excluded than to make it easier for them to ride unchallenged by eliminating fares.

    Low-income fare support with modestly higher fares for “corporate” riders is a better plan for making the system better for low-income households.

    1. Employer passes are a side issue. The government could charge an equivalent tax and they’d pay the same. Employers don’t have a responsibility to pay for the community’s transportation circulation. It’s people who are traveling, and the public expenses they incur are usually calculated based on where they live, not on their employer. The employer’s responsibility is to locate in a transit-accessible area and to support general transit improvements.

    2. We should absolutely have employers pay into the system, but it isn’t necessary to do it through fares that everyone has to pay. Public transit could be funded with a payroll tax or even a head tax on large corporations. This would be more efficient than fares, saving dwell time at stops, capital costs of fare enforcement, social costs of fare enforcement (to riders, drivers, and officers), and bookkeeping for means-tested programs.

      As for non-destination riders, we also need to fund permanently affordable housing, but that’s a separate issue.

      1. It could be funded by a different tax structure in a different state. But we live in a state which severely restricts general tax structures for services that a much higher proportion of voters, spread more widely throughout the state, support.

        The voters of the state just repealed one of the most important taxes supporting transit capital investments by a significant margin. Do you think that the legislators from the parts of the state which so voted will allow Kinng County to free-lance some new taxation method? Only in some alternative universe.

  5. Also, somewhat related, I think we need to be very careful about how transit is framed in order to continue to get the support of the voting public. In particular, you get much more service and much better service if transit is viewed as a service for the public at large, rather than merely one more service for the poor.

    A transit system that is built exclusively around the poor will aim to serve the needs of the poor for as little money as possible, freeing up the savings for other “help the poor” programs, such as subsidized housing. This has several effects on bus service. It would also tend to mean less frequent service overall because someone extremely poor would probably rather pay $50/month less for subsidized housing than have their bus run every 15 minutes vs. every 30 minutes. Only when frequent service is necessary to provide the capacity to avoid people being left behind (after pleading with middle class people to not ride the bus) does frequent service get justified. And expensive capital projects, such as Link, almost never get justified, for the same reason – all money is fungible, and from a strict “help the poor” standpoint, there is always something else, non-transit-related, that the money can go to, instead.

    A transit service focused on helping the poor would also have dramatically different routing than what we see today. Gone or nearly gone would be commuter express routes to shuttle people from middle-class suburbs to downtown office buildings. Even local service would be eliminated or severely cut back in middle/upper-middle-class neighborhoods. You would see more routes oriented specifically around the needs of the homeless (e.g. around-the-block detours to serve the front door of a food bank or homeless shelter).

    And, of course, it’s a matter of time before such a system loses the support of the middle-class voting public and gets cut further, and further and further, until there’s almost nothing left.

    Yes, in the short term, while everybody is asked to stay home for non-essential trips, a reframing of transit around serving poor essential workers is unavoidable. But, in the long term, for transit to be useful, and funded at a reasonable level, it has to be oriented around a goal of getting as many riders as possible, whatever income level those riders may have.

    1. @asdf2 – this is precisely what happens in certain other parts of the country. When I lived in Greenville, SC – a pleasant enough place – I attended a few public meetings on how best to improve their transit system. Their system – like most in smaller cities – is seen almost solely as a way to help the poor and elderly (those in group homes, that is) get around. Routes literally are so circuitous as to wind in and out of group homes, public housing facilities, and malls without much regard to actually going anywhere else directly (the routes all do eventually end up at the transit center downtown, where they have timed connections to other routes that do the same thing). These routes do not, nor will they ever, serve anyone outside of the small socio-economic group they currently do. As such there is nearly no public support for it because nobody who has any sort of choice would ever ride it – not because the buses aren’t clean and nice – they are – but because they are useless as a form of transportation for 95% of the county’s population.

      The transit planners were very well-meaning, clearly had some personal experience in places where transit was intended for anybody to use it, and asked me multiple questions about how transit worked in the Seattle area. That said, they were clear about the fact that they had very little non-Federal money, were unlikely to get any more, and so were aware that nothing was ever likely to change. It was a Catch-22 – without choice riders they were never going to be able to get public support to make the system useful to more people, and without a useful system they were never going to get those choice riders. The system has to have at least a perceived value to the general public; without that the general public will not support it.

  6. pn, what makes anybody’s personal “destination” any business of either transit’s or yours? Doubt you’d stand for Department of Licensing demanding that info in return for your car-tabs.

    Will tell my State and Federal “Electeds”, though, that you consider it your duty as a citizen to get the load of your freeway space off the backs of us taxpayers, and let them generate the private profits their new owners will justly demand.

    Since Intercity Transit to ST574 to Sea-Tac Link is my usual Seattle transit ride- by either ST594 or car, because Spokane Street 100% blocks I-90, common little “exercise”:

    That sixty year old gentleman across the aisle, with a briefcase that’d cost more than my car and suit outpricing gold armor….

    Should I get up in the aisle and loudly demand to know if Purdue Pharma’s shareholders know he’s headed for University Street Station- the Concert hall, not the Stadium-for a dash to Victoria Clipper with all their opioid dividends in his pocket?

    Let alone what somebody really, really rich can catch while imposing non-consensual intercourse as palace bedroom guest of the average non-democratic world leader.

    What We The People do about homelessness is for our top once percent to start paying the taxes their store-bought politicians are dumping on everybody else. And make sure that the average American has a choice of jobs that’ll let them afford, not rent or borrow, a lifelong HOME.

    And for freedom, travel, and job-creation, why don’t we think of the buses and trains we need as National Defense Highway Act Part Two? Really is a shame we can’t trade the wars we’ve got for a pro-Freedom one like Roosevelt had.


    Scroll down and look at all those sailors.

    Mark Dublin

  7. Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. There isn’t always a deeper psychological meaning to things. But, sometimes there is. AOC spoke of DSA’ers needing to go forth and gradually layer socialist ideas to Americans, first starting out small, until the public is ready for large-scale structural changes.

    1. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, beaten to the punch and down-for-the-count in the 1690’s.

      Define “Socialism” as public money and benefits being gifted to people as a reward for their presence on Earth regardless of value they create, and our country’s first industry, chattel slavery abetted by all our armed forces, beat Eugene Debs all hollow.

      Apologies to the occasional kid who presents our land with missile machined from a muffler on a vise in his Dad’s garage. Wouldn’t mind so much if they’d just ask me once or twice about whether the IRS should use my money for tanks or lasers. But give ’em a break, Mark, they’ve got poor people to stomp for Evasion!

      Incidentally, no accident “Chattel” sounds so much like cows. For its own sins, under threat of Hell the Bible demands that slaves be treated as human beings. Gotta be proud we’ve always had States who won’t brook that kind of interference in their planters’ affairs.

      Mark Dublin

    2. Latin ‘caput’ (head) -> ‘capitale’ (capital [financial]) -> Norman ‘catel’ -> English ‘cattle’ (personal property, later cows). It replaced Anglo-Saxon ‘feoh’ (personal property, cows, related to ‘feudal’ and ‘fee’). Later French replaced ‘ca-‘ with ‘cha-‘, the apparent origin of ‘chattle’ (personal property).

      The American colonies started with an indentured servant system, where poor immigrants paid for their passage by working for a number of years. Involuntary immigrants (convicts, slaves) were under the same system. Then the colonies imported chattel slavery from Barbados, where slaves were treated as permanent personal property, and thus called chattel.

  8. Just as an aside, I am willing to bet if the middle Orca reader in the article’s sketch is actually installed, there will be thousands of injuries each year resulting from people walking into that thing!

  9. Alon Levy discussed the idea quite a while ago: https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/07/18/free-public-transportation. I tend to agree. For large agencies, it doesn’t make sense. But for smaller ones, it is quite reasonable.

    As mentioned in that article, eliminating fares speeds up the buses. It takes about three seconds *per rider* to pay the fare. That adds up. But proof of payment can eliminate that as well. This has the advantage of essentially adding free security guards to the system. There is a cost to enabling proof of payment. You would add additional ORCA readers on the bus (towards the middle) as well as a cash/credit card ticketing system. You also want the same system at various bus stops to accomplish the same thing.

    For larger agencies that are dependent on fares, this is the approach I would take. For smaller agencies, I would just have free fares. It is hard to say where we sit. Metro is a large, sprawling, complex system. We are seventh in the country in ridership, without about 400,000 riders a day. There are some routes and some areas where POP makes sense, which is why they have slowly been growing. But in others, it would be overkill. At 15%, the farebox revenue is not huge, but still significant.

    If Metro had free fares, most likely the other (smaller) county systems would as well.

    Then you have Link. Fare recovery rates for Link are much higher, and bound to go up with Northgate Link and East Link (then likely go down with most of the ST3 projects). It would be weird to have Link charge money, but Metro be free.

    I think I would rather see Metro either be completely POP, or evolve into a more aggressive hybrid (where POP was more common than not). Snohomish and Pierce County could adopt free transit or just continue on the same path. Link would still be POP, since it will increasingly be dependent on those funds.

    But I would also like to see the numbers. How expensive would it be to make all of Metro POP (or even most of it)? How does that compare with the loss of revenue it is was just free?

    1. Agree. I thought it was bad policy when Island Transit started charging fares. But for the large agencies, collecting fares does much more than just raise revenue, and so a free-fare system will need to have a new solution for each of these objectives.

      Your point about ‘free security’ illustrates this well. A free fare system doesn’t mean we get rid of FEOs. It just means those FEOs are mostly replaced with another uniformed security presence. This is distinct from “too many” or “too aggressive” FEOs, which would just be replaced by policy debates on “too many” or “too aggressive” security.

      Anchoring on POP is smart. The author’s arguments support less friction in payments and lower fare prices. That’s doesn’t mean the right conclusion is no friction and no fares.

      1. Fare enforcement as an excuse for more police? Careful, Slopes like this slide-out and crash! Fortunately- age thing for sure- public transportation long ago had the position we really need to bring back right now.

        For the absolutely correct “tone” of the work, nobody messed with the Conductor. Who projected Order just by being there. In addition to personifying fare collection, information, and deportment, all in one really-sharp uniform.

        By the ledger-sheet, could make the case that the unloading of these tasks onto the driver cost us decades of wasted operating revenue.

        And not least important: With the right person in the uniform, starting Age 5, ridership votes Pro-Conductor lifelong. Definitely gives young women a viable alternative to a forcible Citizen’s Arrest for Evasion.

        Have been told, incidentally, by sources I trust that at least under Khrushev, average Russian fare enforcer was a woman of seventy.

        Mandatory piece of equipment, though: A heavy miniature clock on a metal chain carried, well, just, more CREDIBILITY than anything digital.

        And BORRRRRORT! just “says it” better than: “The Doors Are Now Closing, The Doors Are Now Closing.”

        Mark Dublin

      2. AJ, earlier on, you raised a really striking point about demographics. Indicating how much has changed in our own country since my own college years.

        From ages long past well into the present, pattern in Europe has been that your social status goes swiftly down the farther you live from City Center.

        In French, fightin’ word to be accused of living in. Gothenburg Sweden has a major high-rise low-income immigrant neighborhood, Mediterranean and Muslim, I believe, excellently served by streetcar.

        For me the change started happening Winter 2014, year after I got off the streetcar at that Gothenburg car-stop. Wish Ballard had become the banlieu instead of the walled city it’s been part of ever since.

        With our digital banking system, city walls to keep out the poor, meaning work other than investment banking, can be digital instead actual money for a building material.

        Will miss my tapmunk and my ORCA card. Unless Thurston joins up, due to Touch-screen phones, going to need mobility impaired Disabled Senior program to read a schedule, let alone lawfully get on Link.

        Long as I leave his watch alone, though, know Conductor will let me ride.

        Mark Dublin

      3. No Mark, not as an excuse but as a dual role. FEOs provide a security presence, in addition to fare enforcement. So if there were free fares, there would still be a for security at some level.

        But yes, Seattle will look more like European cities, where the working poor is more likely to be outside, not inside, the city proper

      4. AJ, I think we’re both pretty much “on page” about uniformed people in the aisle.

        Not sure the impressive conductors of my younger days would’ve been up to climbing over aisle- content and seats the way their young successors have to do. No bicycles on trains in those days, outside the baggage car.

        In Gothenburg- Lord wish Family Protective Services could arrange for us to adopting each other for City-Siblings- fare inspectors told me they’d made at least one uniform-modification to make themselves less intimidating.

        Maybe a little self-conscious about their blanket multi-gender uniform conscription. Where most recruits really spend their time in the civil service, not the trenches.

        Recall one fatigue shirt with a really cute message. Patch with a flower saying, “If You Have Any Questions, Please Ask Me!” At this point, I think Ken Cummins’ people might find this a long overdue relief.

        If Star Trek is still on the air, is their uniform still anywhere close?


    2. Yeah, there are certainly a few routes in King County, like the Snoqualmie Valley Shuttle, where collecting fares is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Island Transit is a poster child for where free fares makes since. Skagit Transit should probably also consider free fares for the same reason. But, put free fares on popular routes like the E-line, you do lose real money that funds real service.

      1. The Valley Shuttle’s fare is a donation. The driver probably just puts it in a box. The funding comes from the Snoqualmie Tribe and the senior center that operates it. The suggested fare is $1. When I tried it it was officially free if transferring to/from Metro (although I paid anyway to support the service). Now it just says $1 donation across the board.

        Island Transit had free fares until it got into a management meltdown because the treasurer didn’t tell the board that assets were low after a state grant wasn’t renewed, and so it didn’t reduce service in time to avert a catastrophic shortage, if I remember right. The state Republicans insisted that rural transit grants are meant to be one-off supplements and not a replacement for annual operations revenue, and the condition of another grant was that it had to start charging fares. Because the people who were complaining didn’t like the appearance of freebees paid by out-of-county taxpayers. The concept of whether it makes sense to charge a fare when the network is so small that the cost of fare collection is as much as the fare generates was ignored.

  10. “…State legislators must greatly expand the taxing authority for Transportation Benefit Districts like Seattle, King County and Sound Transit.”

    Sound Transit is not a TBD. Its authority is under different RCWs under a totally different title (Title 36 versus Title 81).

  11. I’m not often moved to comment on this blog but this article really went off the deep end. Making transit free simply subsidizes the middle class and wealthier riders who can easily afford to pay. Low income people can’t afford it? That’s why we have low income subsidies like Orca lift. Transit has an enormous budget problem right now and while fares cover only a fraction of operating costs, it’s better than zero.

    1. Don’t worry anon- I’m sure (though unstated in the article) the author would also advocate for a tax increase to pay for it that the middle class and wealthy would pay. Free transit means fare free transit – it still costs money.

    2. It’s the same as the dream of “free college” … it’s not based in reality.

      At least the author didn’t type “Tax Amazon!”… but maybe that’s Part 2.

      The state is looking at a multi billion dollar shortfall… good luck with “free transit.” We’ll be lucky to avoid service cuts.

      1. Free college is a good example. There’s a difference between “let’s make good quality education affordable for all to prepare young people for productive, vibrant lives” and “Everyone should be able to spend 4 years attending frat parties and college football games without needing to pay tuition!” Focus on the intended outcome – here, better access to mobility for all – rather than just making an existing public service free.

      2. “College” doesn’t mean just universities with frat houses. And even if it did, with millions of more students going to universities, the frat houses would have to expand several times to fit them all. It’s not clear they would do that. Where would a frat house find an unused 1920s mansion in the U-District? Would they buy a mansion on Capitol Hill and have students commute to school? Well, Montlake has mansions. If any of the owners are willing to sell, and if the neigborhood is willing to have frat rats changing the character of the neighborhood.

      3. One advantage of a Montlake frat house is it would be a short walk to Husky Stadium.

    3. Free or low-cost college is a reality in many countries. They can’t understand why we wouldn’t want everybody to be well educated, or why we’d make student loans a burden on people for years. It’s not that the richest country in the world can’t afford it, it’s that we haven’t tried it. Or rather, we had something like that in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when college was a few hundred dollars a quarter and dorms were two thousand dollars a year so students could pay for a large part of it with a part-time minimum-wage job.

      We can’t get from here to there in the US until policymakers are willing to, and we’ve dug such a big hole by states cutting funding to universities and making people get five-figure loans, that it will take a long time to get out of. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way, and in better-run countries it isn’t.

    4. Making transit free simply subsidizes the middle class and wealthier riders who can easily afford to pay.

      Right, that explains why the Democratic Socialists want it. You are ignoring the fact that plenty of poor people don’t bother with the paperwork involved to get the discount. They simply pay full fare, typically with cash.

      About forty years ago, they made the same argument you are making about state colleges. At the time, state colleges were either free, or very affordable (I was able to pay full tuition for a year by working the summer at a minimum wage job). But people thought that was unfair — a subsidy of the middle class and rich, at the hands of the poor. More financial aid was the answer. But of course, financial aid gets complicated, and was commonly abused. A kid has divorced parents, and puts down the one with the least amount of money. Or the opposite. A student has to come up with full tuition because of an estranged, or even abusive parent.

      But the big problem, of course, was lack of funding. Eventually only the very poor could afford college — even state college. So students — chasing the dream of a better life — got themselves into debt. Debt so big that many suggested we simply absolve them of all responsibility — essentially making college free for everyone retroactively, as long as they didn’t pay off their loans.

      My point being, that the logic behind that approach made the system worse. A lot worse. In contrast, systems that involve everyone tend to benefit everyone. Social Security works because everyone pays into it and everyone gets money out — even rich people. It is one of the most popular government programs for that very reason. Could you imagine if it only applied to the poor? It would be like food stamps — cut time and time again, with little notice.

      I’m not saying Seattle should go this route. There is always a dividing point. If you get half your money from fare revenue, then it would be crazy to get rid of it. But since Metro gets 15%, it really is a small amount and while some are focused on the negatives (Oh My God — more homeless) they are also ignoring the positives (much faster buses). If not for Sound Transit, I would say it would make sense, really. You save a lot of money dealing with fares (as well as verifying that someone deserves the discount) while making the buses run faster (and thus more often).

      But Sound Transit gets 40% of its operating budget from fares, and that is likely to go way up as they get to Northgate. That is too much of a hit, and well beyond the line I would draw. We should push Metro towards POP, and the same is true of all Sound Transit buses (Link is already POP). But otherwise I would just leave it as is.

  12. The Fat Lady has sung. Public transit has now been demonstrated to be a menace to public health. Cars have not.

    RIP STB.

    1. Any chance, kevin22, like with the NRA and guns, Congress won’t let anybody even count the casualties?

      Mark Dublin

    2. Was public transit to blame, or was it just general mobility to blame? Even without public transit, you would still have people flying, driving, walking, and biking.

      1. Driving a car instead of riding the subway may protect you from COVID during the travel itself, but it does nothing to protect you at the destination. Even if people drive everywhere, once they get out of the car, into the grocery store, mall, or wherever else they’re going, they are still spreading the virus. How they got there is irrelevant.

        I also also observed anecdotally that, even out in the exurbs, the grocery stores are no less crowded than in the middle of the city. A grocery store needs a certain number of customers per hour to be able to function. A less dense surrounding area means people have to drive further to get to the store but, once there, the number of customers per hour is the same. Otherwise, the store would go out of business.

    3. If you look at county statistics for both San Francisco County and the county for Manhattan, their number of cases per capita is lower than several of their suburban Metro counties. As two counties with the highest transit use and density in America, any blame on transit as a concept can be pretty easily disproven statistically.

      1. Absolutely, and it seems like the people in the cities are the ones who are taking it far more seriously than the people in suburbs and rural areas. Hand washing, mask-wearing, and physical distancing (where possible) is likely to be what protects us, not a knee-jerk rejection of public transit.

  13. We need comprehensive frequent transit more than we need free fares. Metro Connects is the minimum we should enact, then we can talk about a phase-out of fares. If we just eliminate fares now, service will never increase, and it would likely decrease to 1980s or Pierce Transit levels, which is unacceptable. Ever since the majority could afford cars, transit has been competing with driving. If you force people to wait 30-60 minutes for a bus and walk a mile at one or both ends and not travel evenings or Sundays, they will drive instead. This is exactly what happens in Snohomish and Pierce Counties and in the least-served parts of King — even in parts of Seattle. Fortunately our evening/Sunday service is better than that, but we could lose that too.

    That is not how other industrialized countries operate! They treat transit connectivity as a basic essential feature of civilization, like fire departments and libraries. Most charge a fare. And they have more comprehensive social programs so that people aren’t desperately poor and living paycheck to paycheck with no money for bus fare. The government’s goal is that transit is available end-to-end for a high percent of everybody’s trips, without waiting thirty minutes in an urban area or 2-4 hours in a rural area. That’s the way to incentivize people to use transit instead of driving.

    We’re gradually improving the reduced-fare options for low-income riders. Some of them aren’t even in effect yet, so it’s too early to say they’ve failed.

    I agree with the ideal goal of fare-free transit someday, but it’s more important that there be convenient transit so that it’s possible to use it.

    The solution to “non-destination” riders is to give them housing. Refusing to have free fares so that homeless people don’t fill buses is like a band-aid, except it’s a toxic band-aid because it corrodes society: the poor get angrier, and the middle/upper classes fend for themselves and treat the poor as unworthy.

    1. Mike, I think Martin and Frank and the rest of the team have been pretty generous up to now about [topic]ality.

      But the state of mind that’s definitely virus related-gut-leval uncertainty, fear, and pessimism- is the last condition we need to face up to, and face down, the politics we’re looking at this afternoon.

      Call it Lockdown, Shelter-in-Place, Quarantine, Stay-Home-Stay-Safe or whatever, at the time we need it most desperately, there’s no way we can take the stance action always demands:

      “Hands On!”

      One thing we can do: See to it that as many of the Class of 2020, whether able to study at school or wherever actual Learning dictates, live to make it onto the voting rolls and into office.

      Know any of them, let them know they’re welcome on transit, passenger seat or driver’s, and text them the address of this Blog.

      Mark Dublin

    2. Well said Mike Orr. We can’t revert to the type of transit we had in the Seattle region when I moved here in the late 80s. As a NY transplant, that was a total shock to me and made my vow to continue to live car-free incredibly challenging to say the least. I can’t tell you how many times I stood waiting at a bus stop 20-30 minutes in the dark, often in the rain, just trying to get across town to get back home (Garfield HS area in the CD). We simply can’t go back to those days.

    3. Well said. We can’t really expect to address housing policy using transit policy. There are two distinct underlying issues that need to be addressed.

    4. Agreed. Especially in the time up until we have a vaccine (and hopefully we do, someday), we should look at every minute a bus is stuck in transit as a minute when its riders could potentially catch SARS-CoV-2, and a crowded, infrequent bus as more dangerous than a sparse, frequent bus. Fares can help cover that cost.

    5. Agreed. I have done outreach on this topic and have found that most actual low-income transit riders would rather have better service than a free system. There is almost no one I know of who would choose a free system over a better system. We have so much work to do on making our system frequent and reliable, and we need to be adding more service and using new funding for that. I understand the appeal of this concept, but have not seen any convincing evidence that making fares free is equitable. The VAST majority of fare revenue is paid by businesses and medium or high-income people, who would then receive most of the savings. We can continue to work towards the goal that everyone has access to transit, and that fares aren’t a barrier to use, while also advancing goals of growing and investing in the system.

  14. Actually, it’s pretty obvious that the car focused development approach is NOT helping America, compared with the rest of the developed world. The fact is that the vast majority of virus transmissions in America have involved people driving to locations where they are exposed. Virus transmission via mass transit is a rounding error for most of America! It’s less about the mode of transportation, more what happens when you get there.

    Of course, NYC itself is the epicenter, and yet, it is actually *very* car oriented compared with major cities (and even many medium sized cities) in the rest of the developed world. Also we can’t forget that they are pouring in to the bars while other states like here in WA were beginning to hunker down! Then we have the outbreaks in what are very car oriented urban areas: Seattle, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles, ect. Gallop, NM, pop. 21k, literally shutting down highway access due to rampant spreading of the virus. And far too many cases in rural America to conclude that even midwestern rural density is enough of a deterrent (although interior Alaska density might well do the trick!). We really need to call out everybody who makes the claim that cars and sprawl development will save us from virus outbreaks and pandemics. This certainly hasn’t been the case thus far. The next decade of transit investment in America may well depend on people like us making this case.

    1. Brandon, we get it. You hate cars. But, this was a post on whether public transit should be free or not.

    2. I just glanced at county statistics for New York State, and Manhattan isn’t as bad as other Metro counties there. Westchester County has about 20 percent more cases but only 2/3 of the population of Manhattan, for example.

      1. “…for referencing a NYT article, which I know, none of you have read.”

        I grew up in NYC and have been reading the NYT for over 50 years, so just knock off this sort of nonsense. If this sort of discourse strokes your ego, I know someone in the WH you could match wits with instead. I hear he has a Twitter account.

      2. So how exactly Is our airline industry considered “public transit” as Kevin22 mentions above? It seems to be fully privately-owned to me.

        Can’t the blame be pointed at the profit-driven airline companies raking in profits and tax benefits to buy back stock than to pay extra rent for larger waiting areas (for distancing) at gates and provide less crowded planes?

      3. It’s fulfills a similar function because it’s large shared planes, and anybody can use it if they pay the fare, and the fare is much less than hiring your own Zipplane or having an Uber pilot fly you somewhere. There is no government funded Metro-like service because ordinary people don’t need to fly every day or fly to the grocery store. Unless they’re the Jetsons.

      4. Sam, you are missing the point. The disease spread to different regions via the airplane. It spread within each region via cars. For example, Connecticut is one of the hardest hit areas in the country. Do you think people were flying to Connecticut from New York?

    3. “it’s pretty obvious that the car focused development approach is NOT helping America, compared with the rest of the developed world”

      Yet the power centers and most of the public in the US deny it. It won’t change until the people in power change their minds, or as Mark Dublin says, until we can get enough transit-oriented 18 year olds into power to change the policies.

  15. I think most transit systems will go free fare sooner not later. Sound Transit/King County may be last to do it but it’s already in motion in many places throughout the country.

    Temporary fare policies during COVID will accelerate this as the benefits of free fare become abundantly clear (transit speed and reliability, multi-door boarding, ease of use, equity).

    Also I wouldn’t underestimate impact of agencies looking in the mirror at the true cost of fare technology. These providers are proprietary systems that don’t play nice with others and present huge limitations on how a system can function. As COVID as shown it’s all about flexibility in terms of system operations.

    There are many ways to generate revenue and provide safety and security on a transit system beyond charging a fare…

    1. For everyone who wants free fares, I ask the most fundamental question:
      How far should a middle-class rider (no low-income rebate) be able to go for free?

      That’s a core question no matter what agency is doing it. If an advocate can’t answer this question, they’re not being reasonable.

      1. It’s a reasonable question, but I don’t think it’s that much of a gotcha. I am not an advocate of free transit, but a simple answer (for us here) would be “wherever ORCA/PugetPass would normally cover”. So in practice I think that means the 6 or so agencies that ORCA covers. Just like you would need to pay $4 or $6 to go from say Marysville to Tacoma, you would now go for free by scanning your ORCA.

        Reasonable people may certainly disagree on this, though, and I am in fact curious what others think as well.

      2. That seems like circular logic. If there are no fares, then there is no Orca to determine this either.

      3. The distance is not the issue. People should be able to take a chain of local routes from Olympia to Arlington if they want to. What matters is whether they have access to expensive express services, and whether their demand is causing more long-distance express runs that have high operating costs. First you need to define what’s a reasonable baseline for service. Link from Westlake to U-District or Lynnwood is clearly reasonable, and part of the base need of a metropolis our size. ST Express from Seattle to Issaquah may be reasonable to give Issaquah access to the region. So those might be free. But if somebody wants to take Sounder from Olympia to downtown and Link to Everett, should all that be free? But we can’t determine your distance if there’s no tapin/tapount, we can only tell your presence on a line while you’re there. So maybe we should say Sounder is not free. But is that fair to Kent and Auburn that have Sounder instead of Link?

        Then we can look at what people actually do. Practically zero people travel from Tacoma to Everett, much less Olympia to Everett. The longest “typical” trip is Lakewood to UW or Lakewood to Redmond. But even that number is tiny compared to the number of people who go from Northgate to downtown or Lynnwood to UW or Roosevelt to Bellevue. So do we need to worry about a tiny number of outlying trips? Only if they’re numerous enough to cause more trains or express buses to run. Otherwise they’re just filling empty seats.

      4. @Al S: sorry, I was not clear. I was assuming that there would still be an ORCA, but the cost would be free, other than perhaps an initial one-time fee in getting the card. This would give you a number of nice things, like ability to track aggregate usage with less concern about privacy since presumably the cost would be low enough that everyone could pay it in cash, etc. But in any case, the point stands – I would make coverage free wherever ORCA requires payment now (or PugetPass did before). I don’t think it’s circular. It can work without ORCA.

      5. Mike makes good points. One, you achieve nearly all the policy outcome by having a monthly Orca pass at a very low price point (say, $10/month) rather than “free,” and just give free passes to the most poor.

        Two, making everything free treats all service the same. I agree distance is irrelevant – if someone wants to travel from Lakewood to Arlington string together a series of local trips, I see zero value is treating those 3 or 4 local trips different than another person taking 3 or 4 local trips over the exact same time window but following a non-linear path (i.e. to a destination and then returning). But do you price express service the same as local service? Do you treat modes differently? That strikes me as bad policy – in Chicago, poorer residents will take a CTA bus rather than a Metra trail despite the Metra train being far faster & more comfortable, just to save a few bucks. But if you make everything free, you end up subsidizing the (generally) wealthier commuter more than the local rider. Is that subsidy bad if it increases community’s access to jobs, increases the housing stock available within a reasonable commute of our major job centers, and drives a significant mode shift in commuters? I don’t know, but it all should be considered beyond simply stating a service is a public good and therefore should be free.

      6. How far should a middle-class rider (no low-income rebate) be able to go for free?

        Everywhere the system goes. It would be like a flat fare system (e. g. Metro) where it costs the same to go everywhere, even though obviously some are getting a huge subsidy, and others aren’t.

      7. “It would be like a flat fare system”

        This highlights the issues. City networks like New York’s MTA, Chicago’s CTA, and San Francisco’s MUNI have extensive flat-fare service, but only within the largest city and short extensions. Commuter rail and suburban routes are run by different agencies with a different fare structure, often distance-based. Pugetopolis’ problem is that Metro is countywide and Sound Transit is metropolis-wide. This covers a wide variety of densities and long distances. At the same time they’re all on the same PugetPass — an advantage we want to keep. This pits $2.00 local trips against $5.75 Sounder trips. Sound Transit’s reason for avoiding a flat fare or day pass is it doesn’t want to lose money from long-distance Sounder riders.

        Metro finally gave up and made the entire county a flat fare, halfway between the former one-zone and two-zone fares. This subsidizes long-distance express riders, but we’re tolerating living with it for simplicity. And many of those expresses will go away in four years when ST2 Link opens (ostensibly). Sound Transit has a wider range of distances and modes so it’s harder for them, and some of us might object to Seattle-Lakewood Sounder being $3. All this comes down to the fact that these are countywide/regionwide agencies instead of city agencies. But there are advantages to that too.

    2. @Thomas.

      There are decidedly NOT many ways to generate revenue on a transit system… if there were agencies would be using them to fund a higher quality system that could attract more than 10% of all trips. I would love to know what other legal, politically viable options there are right now?

      I can tell you that temporary fare-free operation are having the opposite effect you imagine. I think you would see a massive reaction from driver unions to ongoing free-fares.

      Fare collection costs make up a small fraction of the revenue.

  16. I look forward to the day when this philosophical debate becomes relevant again. That day will be many months or years from now.

    The economy will re-open, little by little, and ridership will be slow to return as people realize social distancing is really hard to do on transit (or in cabs/ridesharing, or in narrow bike lanes, or on narrow sidewalks). The buses I’ve watched in my neighborhood still have riders, just a lot fewer, but enough that finding that seat where one can maintain a 6-foot circumference is difficult. And then someone else gets on board, sits near you, and the circumference is shrunk.

    There is no vaccine in sight. There is no cure in sight. Mutations are likely happening, and happening more often as a larger and larger chunk of homo sapiens is infected. The mutations that do survive likely give their descendants a longer incubation time before symptoms arise and greater ease of transmission. Increased mortality rate, at least, will work against a strain’s survival. A vaccine or cure might work for an older strain, but not against newer strains.

    Until the virus is under control, bus operators get to have their six feet of protection, with limited exceptions. So, collecting fares is not feasible, at least on buses. And then, it might not even be profitable for awhile until the public feels safe returning to mass transit. Metro should think about adopting *net* fare revenue as a policy marker before we get there, and should plan on not having any fare revenue for at least a year and a half.

    We learned how volatile it is to depend on a small menu of revenue sources when the inevitable recession hits. Metro diversified a little by leaning some into car tabs, but not very deep. But sales tax was still the major source, and that is going to prove to be a mistake as we have a long way to go in the COVID-19 depression.

    If you want fares to be free when the virus is gone, work now to get property tax and income tax funding for transit. And don’t just find enough revenue to replace fares. Find enough revenue to handle the level of ridership growth other agencies have experienced when they’ve suddenly turn off the farebox for non-pandemic reasons. I’d take those other revenue sources, if they are sufficient to handle the ridership growth, over the carbon footprint, inefficiency, and regressiveness of fare collection any day of the week.

    1. As companies reopen and people are called back to work, if they don’t have cars they’ll have to take transit. The number of retail establishments is surely more than the one or two unused spaces per bus run. And offices have a similar number of people, even if only half or a quarter of the employees come in each day. During the lockdown “essential trips only” and open businesses+customers were the same. During the partial opening they won’t be. So does the state define “essential” as those who are recalled to work in the four waves, or will “essential” be irrelevant, or should people who are recalled to work and don’t have a car and can’t bike to work quit their jobs and join the ranks of poor/homeless?

      1. I have no idea if the “essential trips only” signage will remain. The availability of drivers will control the ability to add back service. But the social distancing guidance will be with us for a long time, so the seating limit should also remain. I would presume adding back peak service to meet returning ridership demand would be the first priority in service restoration. Link would hopefully be first in line for deploying available operators.

        Restoring express service could possible be done in a way that takes advantage of Link station connections *if* there is sufficient space on the trains. The trains, btw, could restore fares sooner rather than later, since operators aren’t involved, and indeed, it might make the ride safer for both the operator and the passengers.

        Bike lane installation is being sped up, but biking arterials would work much better in the Age of Social Distancing. It appears bike shops are already open.

        I love the progress being made on the Safe Streets, but they are needed even more in the densest part of the City, especially downtown. Maybe buses can co-exist with bikes and pedestrians on some safe streets, or maybe some bus routes might have to move.

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