Amidst discussions about the design and compromises of the Link Light Rail system, one aspect that gets relatively little attention is how exactly fares are calculated based on the distance traveled. While important, it is also never an urgent priority and can always be changed down the road (unlike things like the route and station access which are, almost literally, set in stone).
Currently, with the exception of youth/ORCA LIFT fares ($1.50) and senior/disabled fares ($1.00), the cost of a trip on Link is based on a linear formula: $2.25 plus 5¢ per mile, rounded to the nearest 25¢. So a 5 mile trip on Link will cost $2.50, a 10 mile trip $2.75, etc. This formula has been unchanged since Link began service, with the exception of a 25-cent fare increase in 2015 accompanying the introduction of ORCA LIFT fares. Over Link’s history thus far, this formula has generally suited the variety of trips generally taken on Link. Short trips within the city are affordable and on par with bus fares (though recently bus fare increases have outpaced Link). Longer trips have a higher fare better matching a premium service, maxing out at a reasonable $3.25 (coincidentally, the same as ST Express).
However, as light rail expands, the fare for the longest trips will continue to increase at the same 5¢ per mile unless the formula is changed. Federal Way to any DSTT station will cost $3.50, and to UW will cost $3.75. Tacoma to downtown Seattle will cost $4, and $4.25 to UW. From Everett, trips downtown will cost $3.75 to $4. As expected, trips to SeaTac airport will be cheap from the south (maxing out at $3.25 from Tacoma), higher from the east (at $3.75 from downtown Redmond), and pricey from the north ($4.50 from Everett). This will create conditions that may be seen as problematic:
- As Link replaces ST Express routes, the new fare for the same trip will often be higher
- For many of these trips, the higher fare will come along with slower service most of the day
- Much higher fares in the suburbs more heavily impact riders who were priced out of Seattle, or never could afford to live in Seattle in the first place
- High fares will make it all the more difficult to attract car commuters, a task which will undoubtedly be more difficult if public transit FUD persists for years after COVID-19
There are a lot of trade-offs when it comes to deciding how to set fares. While there are arguments in both directions for every consideration that affect fares, it seems like that punishing riders who have a cheaper ride on ST Express today with a higher fare is not something we want to be doing when we open much higher capacity service in these areas. Another factor in determining the “fairness” of Link fares is routing inefficiencies. For most people from the farther suburbs, the deviation to the Rainier Valley from the south or to Paine Field from the north are nothing more than annoyances on the way to where they’re actually going. Since these inefficiencies are largely un-correctable, these riders will already have to pay for these inefficiencies with added travel time for eternity. But paying an additional 5¢ per mile of added distance that they don’t want to (or, if driving is an option, even have to) travel is punishing riders twice, something that seems supremely unwise high-capacity public transportation.
One way to change the fare formula is to increase the fare logarithmically with distance rather than linearly. Put differently, this means that if (for sake of illustration) a 4-mile trip costs 25¢ more than a 2-mile trip, then an 8-mile trip would cost 50¢ more than a 2-mile trip (and not 75¢ more). A 16 mile trip would cost 75¢ more than a 2-mile trip, 50% more than a 4 mile trip, and 25¢ more than an 8-mile trip (when under a linear scale, it would have cost $1.75, $1.50, and $1 more, respectively). Doubling the distance would not double the fare, it would just add 25¢. This means that the fare will still go up based on distance, but it would make longer trips more affordable and a better value per mile than shorter trips. This would work particularly well for Link because Link works much better for shorter urban trips (especially in conjunction with a frequent bus network) than it does for long trips that run parallel to freeways and compete with cars and express buses. A logarithmic fare would reflect this difference by making the fare increase more slowly the more the travel time advantage diminishes.
For a more realistic example, let’s consider the following fare: $2.25 for the first 5 miles, plus 50¢ for each time the distance multiples by 5. Here is what the fares would look like to common destinations when compared to the current formula, with logarithmic fares having a gray background:
|Redmond Tech Center||$3.25||$3.00||$3.00||$3.75|
A fare system like this would set Link up for the future, and let future riders know that Link Light Rail is being expanded with their economic needs in consideration, and not as an afterthought. And in an environment where Metro will be reducing service hours as Link opens and people will be more reluctant than ever to leave their cars behind, easing the fare burden of longer-distance trips may help ensure that Link is well-utilized as it continues to grow.